In the world of the modern internet, there exists a concept called peer production. You’re probably already very familiar with works produced under this mode. Wikipedia primarily bases its content off of peer production. Likewise almost all free and open source software like the Linux servers that run 90% of the internet, are also made using peer production models.
Last year though, something very interesting happened. A meme went viral on Tumblr about a fake Martin Scorse film called Goncharov. A collective running bit, the meme attracted songs, spec scripts, movie posters, costume designs, and so many other artifacts that would be assembled as part of a pre-production or a pitch process for a movie. All of which were created and distributed through a type of decentralized, uncoordinated peer production. It made me wonder what could have been produced if there had been some tool, structure, or platform to focus all that energy into an actual production.
Especially, in the light of the ongoing SAG-AFTRA & WGA strikes, I think there’s an interesting moment for change in the way entertainment is produced in the USA. The workers that make movies & TV in the country are on strike right now because the middleman bureaucracy of studio production has squeezed too hard & has reached the point that it is trying to push all the humans who actually make art within the system, out of it.
To me, what peer production points towards is a new means of managing the production of goods and services that relies on self-organizing, decentralized community networks that can evolve organically out of the group members doing the actual creative work & the end customers who engage with it. This stands in contrast to the status quo where the control of labor is top-down & the work is centralized in as few laborers as possible in order to maximize the extraction of profit off of that labor.
Crowdfunding as a concept and fundraising mechanism has been around for over a decade now (see my piece from 2012). It has never been easier to attract money to a project, but now instead of attracting ten investors at ten thousand dollars from your local friend, family, & golf network, you can attract ten thousand investors at ten dollars a pop from around the world. Which is to say, you can get your audience or customers to pay for the production up front and cut out investors.
This new ease of raising funds undermines one of the value propositions old studios provided. The other of course being the purchase, maintenance, and provision of capital intensive studio space & filmmaking equipment. However, we are also in a moment where the actual capital costs of tools & input commodities have been driven to near zero. A combination of cheap computers, smartphone proliferation, and a large number of free post-production tool sets now means that the core cost of movie & tv production is the actual creative labor.
And now we’re at a point where the big entertainment studios think they can cut writers and actors and all the other creative labor out of the production cycle! But you don't get the good shit without creative humans. You don’t get novelty without humans. You don’t get art without humans!
Ultimately this stuff is for and by humans, so to try and squeeze them out of the process with AI is just another short-term cost-cutting measure to profit this quarter in exchange for a long-term loss. It's ripping the copper out of the walls, it’s squeezing all the juice out of the orange just to be left with the bitter pulp.
So in a moment where it’s never been easier to raise funds for a project, where it’s never been cheaper to produce art, and where the old institutions responsible for fundraising and providing the tools & space for the actual humans who make art are trying to squeeze the humans themselves out of the picture, what new institutions could we build to put some humanity back into our art?
To start with, I would describe these new forms as a type of worker-customer hybrid cooperative. The workers need customers to value & fund the final work (i.e. what good is a show to an empty theater) and the customers want the workers to do the work in the first place (i.e. what good is money if you can’t exchange it for goods and services).
Control & ownership of the cooperative would be represented by two types of shares, one for customers & one for workers. The customer shares would be issued as part of crowdfunding rounds at the beginning of the project. Worker shares would be issued as part of the actual production workflow for things such as contributing concept art, recording voice lines, writing scripts, animating scenes, project management, etc. For legal purposes the cooperative would have copyrights to the work artifacts and final work, but would release stuff back into the public domain or leverage a creative-commons license to prevent work from being locked up for more than five years.
The shares themselves then have value for a few reasons. A share entitles you to vote on steering decisions, authorizing and approving submitted work, and ultimately a share of the profits. I would propose that the power/profit/approval ratio between shares skew towards worker shares. Something like an 80:20 split and ultimately never going lower than 51% for worker shares. The first person to initialize the project would be issued 1 worker share as the chief steward, based on the Little Red Hen Principle. Shares would be non-transferable.
From those initial points a few work pipelines would need to be tooled up. A core mechanism for proposing, planning, intaking, tracking, validating and approving work for the production would be needed.
A core loop of assigning worker share values to tasks, approving the issuance of the work order, & finalizing work artifacts & issuance on delivery would need to be developed. A mechanism for assigning & tracking responsibility for keeping different workflows moving forward and getting delivered could also be implemented. Lastly, a mechanism for creating milestones that when met (and maybe based on supporter approval), disburse actual funds to outstanding worker shares for meeting milestones from the funding pool gathered from supporter contributions could help keep productions moving.
So now that we have a high level idea of what’s going on, let’s look at what an animated production of everyone’s favorite Shakespere play, Hamlet, might look like.
Pre-production on this should be pretty straightforward. The script is already written (and blessedly in the public domain). As it’s going to be animated, there is an opportunity for some parallelized production flows too.
Starting with the animation side of things, we’re probably going to want some concept art. Character design for each of the characters & set design for each of the scenes. The chief steward cuts 10 character design tickets & 10 scene design tickets on the workflow tool & assigns each a value of 1 worker share, assuming the average artist can conduct the work on each ticket in about an hour.
This work cut out, it’s time to break out voice acting work. 10 tickets are written calling for the first line reads of each of the characters. We assume it’s maybe 5 minutes of finished audio, but that it'll have taken the actor an hour to do a few reads & clean up the audio before shipping.
Some mechanism for gating tickets behind approval of other tickets could be implemented to mirror a tryout/portfolio approval process on the part of all cooperative members. That is to say, anyone can pull the “first” ticket, but whoever’s work gets the most approval from the customer/worker shareholders then gets access to the rest of the tickets in that work bucket.
Then you can imagine that as customers fund the project, they can begin to have some say in approving or disapproving things. Maybe the workers can’t decide on which actor to pick for the part of Hamlet, so they leave the vote open to just customers to pick the actor.
Obviously this is not an airtight, ISO standard proposal, it’s more of a thought experiment about how to arrange and manage this kind of work but hopefully it paints a decent enough sketch.
Perhaps more complicated endeavors or more complicated productions utilizing this system might not work. But in the current crowdfunding environment, there's clearly been some gaps and failures and the system isn't fully there anyway. Think of Star Citizen as a great example of this. It's relatively easy to get the money, but systems of accountability and checking in seem harder to come by.
I guess there’s also the caveat that there might be a lot of crap work being produced. The free stuff might be overwhelming. But, if you put together a production crew, or production community and make a name for yourself that way, or you make a name for yourself as an independent animator or a voice actor, supporters can trust the production & workers can trust the work.
I'm of the opinion that we are on the cusp of software development and platform development being democratized and in that process these big lumbering bureaucracies that sit in the middle and fundamentally introduce inefficiencies into the system in an effort to arbitrage profit will be cleared away in favor of processes & systems similar to the one I have described above.
I think we can replace these middleman institutions with software systems that distribute the decision-making apparatus with collective voting systems and new tools & processes will have to be developed to manage and facilitate this distributed democracy.
This is food for thought in this moment, where people are being threatened with the notion that automation will take creative, novel, generative work away from humans. But what if the real truth is that automation is more likely to remove the boring, useless middlemen that have given us a decade plus of boring, repetitive Marvel movies (among other things). I like to think we’ll get there sooner rather than later and I’m trying to do my part to help move things along. I hope, when you see an opportunity to jump aboard, you will too.