Sunday, 24 March 2013

Sita Sings The Blues: A Viable Economic Model for Free Culture

'Sita Sings The Blues' is arguably not just an acclaimed cultural work but also an important marker in the evolution of the Free Culture movement. The film is, first and foremost of course, a wonderful and deeply personal animation about separation, loss and recovery. I would strongly urge you to watch this unique creation, available from here in streaming, downloadable and physical forms.

But 'Sita' is also an important milestone in the development and publication of modern free culture. Self-funded and entirely self-published with no distributor, either major or indie, 'Sita Sings The Blues' was made available to the public under a Creative Commons license and tapped revenue streams including 'creator-endorsed' third-party sales, donations and independent theatrical showings but the work remains entirely legal to download, stream, redistribute commercially, alter and remix with no obligation to funnel any money back to Nina Paley, the producer and director.

This article is not intended to be a review of the film itself but rather an examination of whether its critical success and high-profile nature can shed any light on the development of a free-cultural film model which may supplement or exist alongside the existing studio model. The circumstances surrounding the music rights of 'Sita' and the recent change to an even more permissive license will not be touched upon on this article, but may be in the future within a broader article about Free Culture and the current broken copyright system.

The existence of films as an artistic endeavour, distinct from its effective dissemination, was never dependent upon the dominant studio system. While the cost of the highest grade professional equipment is, and likely will always be, beyond the reach of most, the overall cost of producing a professional film is far lower with the advance of technology and has increased the scope and power available to independent film-makers. Regardless of theatrical releases and mainstream acceptance, cinema is firmly a part of global culture and will continue to be made by artists as a means of self-expression. But the question of finding new means of production and distribution is not unimportant, the creation of culture will always continue but the effective dissemination of those works is just as important for society as their creation.

Of course, advocates of the traditional studio system argue that finding alternative models of funding and distribution wholly disregards the success of the studios in financing and promoting smaller films and indie fare. The frequent argument is that the blockbuster success of movies like Avatar and Harry Potter fund the smaller, less commercial, films from the studios. Studio such as Mirimax that were part of the system, in this case the Disney behemoth for 17 years, were able to foster an culture of creative freedom and risk-taking precisely because of major studio backing. Thus the success of Clerks and Kevin Smith is directly because of Mirimax's ownership by Disney and the billions raked in by National Treasure and the Pirates of the Caribbean.

There may be some merit in this argument, notwithstanding high-profile dissension by one of the primary supposed beneficiaries Kevin Smith, but it does sidestep many serious issues in favour of focusing on the alleged benefits of studio distribution and marketing. The 'big leagues' are assumed to be the end-goal of all film-makers and the argument completely ignores the structural disadvantages of the studio system. As Smith argues, far from adding value to the product, the studio system routines adds extraordinarily high non-production costs, in his case a final bill of an extra $20 million on top of a modest $4 million budget for the film's actual production. There is a strong argument that rather than enabling the production and publication of cultural works that would otherwise be impossible, the studio system has established a choke-point on the effective dissemination of film and seeks to extract rent, in the economic rather than property sense, on all films that pass through.

Some films, by their very nature, do require extraordinarily high levels of investment. The Lord of the Rings trilogy for example was a critically lauded film series but needed a combined budget of $281 million for production alone without the extra marketing and distribution costs. But while major studio funding may be necessary for such works, the vast majority of films do need such massive finance for production as even medium-budget films often have marketing and distribution as the largest single cost.

With 'Sita' creator, Nina Paley, largely financing the production herself, including a substantial amount for music rights which lead her to use Creative Commons licensing, the self-publication of the film represented a major risk in light of the major studios role of cultural gatekeepers. Between March 2009 and March 2010, 'Sita' earned Nina £132,000 from its various revenue streams. It was an unambiguous success given the film's production costs and the fact the highest earning projection, for Nina herself rather than for the film, from studios and distributors came to $50,000 over 10 years.

While the revenue of Sita may not be in the billions, it represents a major milestone for Free Culture. The philosophical underpinnings of Free Culture are not under discussion here but the financial viability of producing and publishing works in the highest cost artistic medium, film. Culture expression is not dependent on commerce and finance and, of course, has it's own intrinsic value, but the benefit of society lies in its widespread dissemination.

Artists would continue to create cultural works but without an adequate financial model, the scale and scope of the works would be substantially reduced. 'Sita Sings The Blues' showed that there can be viable model for the distribution of film, the most costly form of popular art, completely outside of the studio system.

Because of that success and the figures quoted to Nina Paley by the distributors prior to the CC-licensing, we can see that the studio system certainly played the role of a gatekeeper seeking economic rent. The film's overwhelming critical success also proves there was little artistic merit in studios acting as quality filters, even beyond the moral argument that they should not. Huge barriers still exist, the studio systems grip on the medium of film is not limited to the widespread aspiration of joining the ranks of millionaire artists but includes structural control of theatres, blanket marketing and public perception, and strongest of all, the broken copyright system which severely hinders the ability of artists to use existing works outside of the system itself, but 'Sita' demonstrates that it is possible to make both a critically lauded and financially successful film outside of the system and, crucially, distribute it as a free work.

Whether the success is 'Sita' will be replicated by other free works remains to be seen, but it is clear the Free Culture movement is not restricted to small-scale works or cultural mediums where the barrier to entry is lower, but can tackle possibly the most gated and entrenched cultural gatekeepers today.


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