Why Video and Film Have Lost Their Value (and What That Means for Innovation)

by Richard Harrington | CEO of ThinkTAP Learn

Thanks for listening to my thoughts

I had a painful realization the other day. In many ways the skill I’ve spent more than 25 years practicing has lost almost all value. Video content, whether that be movies, television, online education, or even home movies have lost almost all value. If your goal is to create content for sale, particularly to an end consumer, things look pretty bleak.

What’s the Problem?

Through the years, video and film have evolved from highly specialized mediums that required extensive training and equipment into an ubiquitous communications form. In my own career I’ve seen the ability to “live broadcast” continue to get easier. What used to take a satellite truck and a multi person crew can now be done with a smartphone and Facebook.

That’s not all bad. I believe in social justice and that video is a communications tool that can shine a light on important causes. Video is often the most emotionally impactful medium that allows us to convey complex human emotions.

One of my favorite videos I worked on for the American Red Cross.

But it's also cat videos, a myriad of worthless YouTube content, and endless rounds of reality television. But hey, the invention of fire has had some ups and downs too.

The problem is this… through several actions and attitudes by both professionals and consumers alike, the video and film industries have found themselves on a full elevator hanging by a few threads. A crash is imminent and I think its important to look at what can be done about it,

Things are about to snap...

What Makes Me So Smart?

I don’t want to bore you with a long resume. The short version is that I’ve had many jobs in the video industry. I’ve worked with many top television stations, produced educational materials, and run my own company for almost two decades. I’ve produced thousand of podcasts, designed conferences for the National Association of Broadcasters and even helped design a bunch of the tools used by video professionals.

I like to explore and teach about the fusion of video and photography

The short version is that I’ve lived this and worked with people through the entire ecosystem. I can tell you that there is a whole lot of cancer in the patient, and it's not looking very good. Just like the design and desktop publishing industry, just like photography, the art and craft of making moving images is perceived as close to worthless.

Everyone's a “filmmaker”

Isn’t Accessibility a Good Thing?

Nothing makes me happier than seeing a storyteller able to get their message across. Whether it's a passionate documentary filmmaker shining the light on important issues or even just a blockbuster movie, both have value. Video and film can entertain and enlighten… that;s why they are so attractive as people flock to become creators.

I’m all for the next generation too. I’ve spent half my professional career putting out free and educational content to help aspiring professionals. Whether that was a passionate student using Apple iMovie or a top Hollywood pro working in After Effects or Premiere Pro, I’ve been there. I don’t miss the days of video editing systems costing $150,000. This made it hard for most to tell their story,

What’s happened though is that tools have become so accessible as has distribution? Anyone can create a video and publish it. Between a smartphone, social networks, and YouTube I can have any rant out there in about as much time as it takes me to think about it,

Here in lies the problem.

Volume Over Quality

Across the board, we’ve achieved a state of media overload. You choose your cable TV plan based on how many channels you get. Movie theaters hedge their bets by showing many different films on smaller screens. A YouTube viewing session allows you to go further and further down a rabbit hole.

People make viewing decisions based on quantity. Fire up Netflix and you can watch a never-ending sea of content. The creators of which often see pennies for their work where it used to be dollars. That’s not any one companies fault. With so many choices, content must be a blockbuster in order to be considered successful. This means that the vast majority of effort goes unnoticed and is a financial loss.

Here’s an example of volume and quality tipping out of balance. I produce a lot of educational content for a great company called lynda.com. They’ve been responsible for helping a whole lot of people get better at their jobs and enjoy their hobbies. In the past, people needed to buy individual classes or subscribed to watch entire courses. The site is amazing and responsible for a whole lot of people staying relevant and employable. These days though its becoming a paid search engine.

The company has started to actively market the service as an alternative to YouTube. I get that it's convenient (and better) to search a site that hires true professionals and has high standards. Unfortunately most people simply use search and watch a video or two. Gone is the organized structure of learning with a beginning middle and end. People skip the hands-on practice and instead search for just what they think they need. I realize that the company is simply responding to what people want (as opposed to what they need).

The problem with this approach is two-fold. If humanity had to rely on learning only what it thinks it doesn’t know, that’s a lot of lost learning. This means that rather than truly learning from a master, people just get a few tidbits. Plus it also leads to a lot of duplication of information so that search results look better.

Eating at a buffet is rarely a way to experience true genius.

This is not unique to lynda,com, its just indicative of how consumer demand is having a negative impact. People don’t consume complete works, rather they graze. They search out technical skills as the sustenance they feel they need... all the while missing out on the artistic and business skills that they really lack.

It would be like walking down a busy street and stepping into 10 different restaurants. The modern consumer skips lines and goes right to the kitchen and just grabs what they think looks good. Access and convenience drive the choices. No one stops to sit down to a great meal or appreciate the skill of the chef. Instead they spend more efforts on their search to find everything they want, all the while missing out on experiences and opportunities.

Now, With a Prize Inside

People do not buy videos anymore. With little effort, they can find the content for free or near-free. Sometimes that means an illegal download, but often it's the all you can eat and ad-supported services.

Here’s something that perplexes me. Plastic is worth a lot more than human thought. Case in point, Scooby Doo. While not the pinnacle of artistic expression or enlightened thought, the character holds a special place in my heart. If I want to share this with my children consider this.

A Scooby-Doo Lego Set is $29-$79

Scooby-Doo Video Game $15-$39

Two Scooby-Doo movies on DVD $4 (new)

This isn’t a unique phenomenon, Just visit your local retailer and walk through the toy aisle and cereal aisle. You’ll spot toy after toy who’s price far exceeds the cost of seeing or even owning the film or movie. Just count the number of cereal boxes with tie-ins to latest films or tv shows. Clearly these characters and stories have value, but we use them to sell plastic and sugary cereals, not to fund the creation of content.

All About the Ad

The viewing public has become desensitized to constant advertising. Whether its product placement, spin off products, or ads disguised as viral videos… people spend an awful lot of time being sold to. I get it… I understand that money has more influence on how the world spins than gravity.

Gone are the days when Sesame Street could provide ad free content that educated my generation. Now the creators have turned to toy licensing deals and even making Cookie Monster a pitch man for the latest iPhone. I remember how mad the Henson family was when Muppets first started being used by Disney to advertise pizza and many other products.

These days, the ABCs have been remapped to Always Be Closing If you're not selling you’re not monetizing. .According to the Pew Internet Life Project, three-fourths of all folks say that ads are a reasonable price to pay for content. What we've seen is that most content can only survive by taking on ads. Unfortunately, only “advertiser-friendly” content gets support. The ability to educate and inspire is virtually impossible.

Closed Systems

Earlier I pointed out how video games hold value still. If you want to play the latest Star Wars game, you can easily shell out $300 for the Disney Infinity characters and game modules. Browse through the aisles and you’ll see tons of new release games for $49-$69. Even the ancient content based on decades old characters that's been on the market for 5+ years still fetches $29.

The manufacturers behind the PlayStation, Wii, and X-Box platforms keep tighter control. The only license so many games a year and require strict fees be paid back for access to the system. Video games have also grown up a lot, and are often married to the production of the film or television shows themselves as the “real” actors get involved with motion capture and voice acting.

Look outside the closed systems and its much bleaker. Games for the Mac and PC tend to sell for much less. Often times even skipping physical product and instead going to a gift card for download or online access. Games for desktop computers often come out much later or as an after thought,

Games for tablets and phones have had to switch to a freemium model. Now most rely upon in-app purchases and ads, making gaming a tough option (especially for those with kids who figure out how to access purchases or get exposed to unexpected content). For example, the Snoopy Street Fair game makes it a little too easy to rack up a bunch of virtual coins that cost real money and I’m shocked at how many ads for slot machine and gambling games pop-up in free apps my kids download.

What we’re seeing in the gaming industry is that closed systems work. Tighter control over access had lead to barriers that have generally preserved price and quality. The more open the system, the more prices have tumbled and quality suffers at the hands of quantity.

Content Has Ulterior Motives

The more content becomes ubiquitous. The more it is perceived as free. These days video is a tool to lead to commerce. On nearly every platform, content is “free.” What does it cost? Maybe your email, or a survey, or a purchase of something else.

Belong to Amazon Prime, get free movies and music while you shop. Have a cellphone premium plan? Get unlimited data to stream content off of certain platforms. Buy a new Blu-ray player or TV? There’s tons of apps offering up premium content at no cost.

Nearly every device on the planet can gain never-ending stream of content that was professionally produced. In a scramble to capture eyeballs, the entertainment industry is trying to convert business any way it can. Rather than take a stand and sell its content based on merits, we’ve devolved into a culture where the real money is in selling cell phone plans, internet access, and online shipping. What used to be considered a utility is now in control over what content you can see and have access to. All you can eat for just a small price to pay.

Are we screwed?

The Little Guy Is Screwed

I found myself jaw agap at Target the other day, There were shelves of movies priced at $4 (and not just that Scooby-Doo flick). Not dusty old garbage… recent Hollywood hits. A lot of other content was priced well below $10 as well (even for HD).

If you break that down… most stores mark products up 50% in order to cover the floor space, electricity, and staff. So the distributor sold those moves for about $2. But of course those DVD had to be manufactured and shipped. By the time you paid for the plastic, machines, and shipping there’s very little left for the author.

What happens if the creator decides to do it themselves? Well, if they go to any major DVD or Blu-ray duplicator they’ll pay about $2.50 a disc (assuming they can scrape together enough to order a few thousand at a time). They’ll also need to cover shipping the product to their home or office. Then toss in advertising, marketing, shipping and customer service. Oh, and maybe a little bit to actually pay all the people who worked on the project. Its pretty hard to compete when your completion is selling the finished product for less than it costs you to just manufacture and ship the delivery device.

I’d argue that right now the companies that can afford to wipe out competition are doing so every day. Between giving it away and selling at a loss, major companies are choosing to eliminate a lot of options.

Self-Inflicted Wounds

This isn’t just big evil companies. Just about every creative professional I’ve met undervalues their worth. From spec work, to underbidding, to basement companies I’ve seen it all.

Most creative professionals cannot tell if they are making or losing money. They fail to charge a rate that is sustainable so they can meet even their most basic needs. Their desire to create leads them to many projects that should be passed on, but instead are easily filled via Craigslist and with promises of exposure or future opportunity.

The truth is the problem is even deeper. The current generation of millennials suffers huge financial problems from expensive loans, limited job opportunities, and unlivable wages. Not because of any evil master plans, but because we have a broken system.

Character copyright Pixar.

To quote a very insightful film: “Everyone can be super! And when everyone's super... no one will be.” We have a modern workforce that believes in just-in-time education. You don’t have to know anything as everything is “free” to access when you need it.

Everyone has been fed drivel to “do what they love” rather than faced with the reality of finding what they are good at and is meaningful.

What’s Next?

I’d argue that the decline of our photo, design, and video industries is a symptom of greater problems. We live in a society where the act of creation is essentially worthless. Ideas hold no value, they are merely vehicles to attach ads to or drive purchase of physical goods.

Consumerism is rampant. Education and intelligence are plummeting. We have confused convenience for freedom, access for knowledge.

In my audience are a lot of artists and craftsmen…. I raise the alarm and hope that awareness can turn the tide. I hope that people can start finding sustainable work. That clients and consumers will be willing to pay sustainable prices that allow me to care for my family and gainfully employ others. That my children will grow up wanting to capture stories and inspire others.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. This is a work in progress that I will continue to edit and expand. I sincerely hope these musings can help raise awareness for the creativity wasteland that’s forming.

“We live in a disposable society. It's easier to throw things out than to fix them. We even give it a name - we call it recycling.” – Neil LaBute
Created By
Richard Harrington

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