Nina Paley Releases Some Data On 'Sita Sings The Blues': The More She Shared, The More She Made

from the funny-how-that-works dept

Earlier this year, we wrote about the ridiculous situation that Nina Paley faced in trying to release an amazing film, Sita Sings the Blues. Basically, some copyright holders of the music used in the film put positively insane terms on the use of their music. This made no sense, considering that the music (from the 1920s) was mostly unlistened to these days — and the only thing the movie would likely do is increase demand for people to get legitimate versions of the music. Eventually, Paley worked out a plan to release the film under a Creative Commons license and put in place a business model like the ones we’ve talked about for years: give away the infinite, sell the scarce.

And apparently, it’s working. Pistol points us to a talk that Nina Paley just gave revealing some of the results. You can see the video here (it’s a bit over 20 minutes):

The key quote, on how she describes the business model sounds pretty much exactly like what we talk about here:

The business model — and I do want to make money — I very much want to make money, and I chose this because I felt I’d make more money doing this than with a conventional distribution deal. What I’m doing is that I’m not selling the content. The content is free. The content is Sita Sings The Blues. It’s digital. It’s made of 0s and 1s and 0s and 1s can be copied freely and easily by lots of people…. Containers are not free. And where the money comes from is the containers. And the containers, for example, are DVDs, merchandise, t-shirts, 35 mm film prints, physical screenings. The film is free, but the container of that film is not free. And that’s what we’re selling…

The more the content flows freely, the more demand there is for those containers. So I want as many people as possible to share Sita Sings the Blues because that drives up the demand for the containers… That was the theory when we started this, and so far it has proven correct. Yes, I love money.

So, how much money? Well, she details all the different areas of where the money came from, and it comes out as follows:

  • $21,000 in donations (most at the very beginning)
  • $25,100 from the store for merchandise (which cost $8,500). So, net: $16,600
  • $3,000 from Channel 13 for broadcasting it (even though they didn’t have to pay)

And that’s not all. She also talks about a theater that downloaded her film online to show it and then sent her a check for $1,900 (as she said “the dream scenario”), and the fact that her success with the model has created all sorts of paid speaking gigs as well. Oh, and there’s other things as well.

She’s done some commercial distribution deals in a variety of different regions (and admits that she’d love it if she didn’t have to handle all the distribution). So even though anyone can download the content online, actually distributing a 35mm print of the film (the container) uses a full distribution deal — and, in fact, they’ve found that many people who downloaded and watched the film, still go and see it in the theater, because it’s a different experience to go see it in the theater. Most of those deals are new, so she didn’t have data on sales from that yet.

On top of that, she’s done deals with DVD distributors. She offers up a special edition (signed) DVD that she distributes herself for $100. Or there’s the regular version (sold via Question Copyright) for $20. This is being done to basically prove that you can sell DVDs of content that can be downloaded. In 2 months, they’ve sold 700 of them — with no marketing. Then they signed a professional DVD distributor, who put it on Amazon, Netflix and stores… and they were able to sell way more than Nina or Question Copyright — as you’d expect (though, the distributor got a bit confused and asked about trying to take the film down from YouTube, and had to be told not to do that — old habits die hard, perhaps). Once again, this shows that having good partners helps, but also shows that just because something is available free (even from “competitors”) it doesn’t mean someone with a strong marketing effort can’t seriously outsell the others.

Finally, there’s another interesting element which is worth discussing. For the goods sold directly from Nina’s site, they’re using a special Creator-Endorsed Mark, so that buyer’s know some money is going back to the creator. This is the sort of thing that always freaks people out when we talk about this stuff. They insist that others will make t-shirts and things and who will want to buy the official versions then? Well, it turns out lots of people. Because they want to support the artist, and having the Creator Endorsed mark does that. As Nina says:

It is entirely legal for others to sell unendorsed products. It is entirely legal to sell Sita Sings the Blues t-shirts or sippy cups or whatever, but they cannot claim that the money goes to me, unless they work out a revenue share with me first, they cannot display the creator endorsed mark. We believe that this mark increases the value of the merchandise, because people want to support the artist.

This is really great info, and she notes that within a few months, she’ll have a lot more info on the theatrical distribution revenue as well. But, all in all, it looks like she’ll easily be able to pay off the $50,000 it cost to officially license the music (no matter how ridiculous it was that she needed to do that), and should be able to earn a nice profit from it. And… I’ll bet that her next movie (or whatever she does next) will have a nice built-in audience as well.

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Comments on “Nina Paley Releases Some Data On 'Sita Sings The Blues': The More She Shared, The More She Made”

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some old guy says:

I remember this!

My kids and I watched this movie and loved it. I didn’t buy anything tho. We did watch it several times tho.

I’d love to see the local theater carrying it, it would be awesome.

If you haven’t seen this movie yet, do so. It’s incredibly well done, even if it seems to be quite “different” at first.

Matt says:

Let's do the math

This model is obviously kicking butt compared to those big films that make millions… The previous comments show the most common scenario–people say they’re willing to pay for it, but happily get it for free and don’t pay anything. But hey, if this lady wants to sell it this way, hey more power to her. With a video that doesn’t have lots of trailers being publicized on TV, this is probably a good way to drive viewership, and potentially it will result in more money for her. However, I would have a hard time believing that one of the big films could still make the millions they do if they gave it away for free… So me an example of one of those please.

Ryan says:

Re: Let's do the math

It’s funny, I read so much criticism of CEOs and corporations and the like making too much money, and people say they need to be taxed harder–which only hurts the economy in the long run.

Then here we have an example where the new market of giving it away free helps the consumers and the vast majority of small-time producers at the possible expense of the big-timers…and people bitch that they should be entitled to their millions at our expense.

You really are screwed either way, I guess…

eclecticdave (profile) says:

Re: Let's do the math

> However, I would have a hard time believing that one of the big films could still make the millions they do if they gave it away for free… So me an example of one of those please.

Well, the nearest thing is probably the Star Wars franchise. Yes it made something like $3 Billion at the box office, but it has to date also made something like 3 times as much in merchandising.

I can’t think of any reason why it wouldn’t have made just as much (or more) from merch if they had screened the films for free.

Jupiter (profile) says:

Re: Let's do the math

You’re assuming that every movie should make millions or that the only movies that are worthwhile make millions. There are lots of indie movies that will turn a profit at a million dollars or less, and these movies will never be seen in any multiplex or studio-controlled cable television or any other way.

I’m not saying these movies are good or bad. Sita Sings the Blues is good, but nothing Hollywood would ever be interested in. However, if people can make a film for $50K and make a profit online of $500K, people can make a living, a whole lot of films are going to get made, they will be very diverse (i.e. not made specifically to entertain 18-year-old-boys) and a few of those films will be awesome (and a few of those few will make millions, at which time the big studios will jump in and buy up whatever seems to be working.)

It’s getting very cheap to make movies, but as long as the distribution systems are controlled by big studios the only movies you’re going to see at the theatre are mega-budget, effects-laden action fantasy sequels. That’s okay every once in a while, but I’m getting pretty sick of eating cookies every time I sit down to dinner. Sometimes I’d like a salad, sometimes I’d like a steak, sometimes I’d like Chinese. Hollywood is just a cookie factory.

It’s awesome seeing someone put their work on the line and try to do things in a different way.

stat_insig (profile) says:

Economy of this movie

This is a wonderful piece of work, much better than an amateur creation. I watched this movie online for free and liked it. I would have paid $10 to watch it in a theater or $1 to rent it through redbox.

It is good to hear that she made some money out of this venture. But I wonder how much she would have made if this movie was released commercially. Also how much exposure she would have got.

Ben (profile) says:

Re: Economy of this movie

The point, I thought, was that she _couldn’t_ release the movie commercially (the only way she could get the rights to the music that she got was to not sell the content). I am very interested to hear the numbers after the professional distributor’s numbers are in. I suspect it will be huge compared to the existing numbers, and all at no additional cost/effort by her.

Mockingbird (profile) says:

deadweight loss

We shouldn’t be having the discussion at all. If the copyrights from the 1920s had expired after 56 years, as the public was promised they would when the copyrights were secured, all that music would be in the public domain now.

An analogy I have used before on these boards is the analogy of copyrights to patents in antibiotics. For the public to get the full benefit of the patent in an antibiotic, the patent should expire, and the drug be promoted to the public domain, while the drug is still near the peak of its effectiveness: sooner, in other words, rather than later.

In the same way, for the public to get the full benefit of a copyrighted song, copyright in songs should expire while the song’s popularity is still a living memory. This puts an upper limit of about 60 years on such copyrights, with shorter terms being better still.

David (profile) says:

I hope she does well but

I don’t see it. Not yet. You add up the numbers above, and that’s not quite $50k, so let just round up and say it is. How much did it cost her to make the film? Has she recovered that yet? Let’s say she has. Everything else is gravy. She’s going to get onesies and twosies coming in now, people sending in a few bucks here and there, and that’s fine.

We can’t really compare this to a big Hollywood movie, or even a “big” independent movie easily. I also don’t have a clue about how much the artist gets after distribution costs are subtracted. I imagine it would be more than a few thousand, although the music copyright holders might have wanted more if it had been released “for real”.

If Ms. Paley is happy, then great, but I just don’t see this as that good of a business model. It is something she did out of need and desperation. And as discussed before, it could have likely been avoided if she had asked for the music rights before starting. They likely could have cost much less at that point. Regardless of how stupid the copyright laws might be, surely she knew better.

And so now she has to do the distribution herself, and rely on donations and T-shirt sales to actually make money off of what is really a good movie. And that’s “a good business model”?

How many people have actually seen it, really? I did, and sent in a donation because I thought it was worth it. I’d have paid to see it in a theater too, if I could have shown up when it was here for one night of a film festival.

Maybe now that she’s paid off the copyright fee (apparently), she can really distribute the movie and gain a wider audience. Because that’s probably the only way she really is going to make anything from her movie.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I hope she does well but


What is really annoying about this entire story is that if the movie is so good (apparently it is) that it shouldn’t be hard for her to find actual distribution for it – and any contract would likely have included enough of an advance to pay off the copyright issue.

It sort of makes you wonder if this isn’t the route that was planned all along, for a movie that might not have any true commercial potential?

Jupiter (profile) says:

Re: Re: I hope she does well but

There’s a reason the movie has not distribution – it is about Indian mythology. When was the last time Hollywood did a film about that? Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom?

Hollywood offers an oppressively small view of the world, and unless you step outside LA’s boundaries you’ll never realize there’s a world of cinema and bunch of people doing it just so other people can see their work – not to make millions and live in mansions.

It’s a terrific little film made cheaply enough (thanks to computers) that she can risk it all on a new distribution method, and risk that people will actually get to see it, which is far more important to her than making a buck.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: I hope she does well but

Your second sentence nailed it in two words: “not yet”. Nobody is saying that these new business models have fully matured — an example like this demonstrates that a) this model is undeniably possible, and b) that it shows some pretty convincing potential for growth.

Also keep in mind that a lot of distribution channels are locked down by the studio monopolies right now (theaters especially), but that the landscape will change as more artists experiment with distribution and promotion models.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: I hope she does well but

Maybe now that she’s paid off the copyright fee (apparently), she can really distribute the movie and gain a wider audience. Because that’s probably the only way she really is going to make anything from her movie.

I’m not sure if you actually read the post or watched the presentation, but she details all of the commercial distribution deals she already has. It’s not new. She already has them.

Also, not sure why you say “now that she’s paid off…” She paid that off at the very beginning.

David (profile) says:


Well, the movie has been out a little over a year now, so you both are wrong. The original point was that the licenses for the songs was ridiculous true, but the point now is whether her “great business model” is making her money.

It isn’t, yet.

Will it? We’ll have to wait and see. I wish her all the luck. However, selling a few DVDs here and there and a T-shirt or two is not going to ultimately be a winning strategy. She may someday make all her money back, heck it may even let her afford better cat food now and then, but it’s not really going to pay any kind of living wage. And it’s not a business model that will work for very many films.

It might be what gets “her foot in the door”. If you want to argue that, that could be true. But then, she has to fall back on the previous model of actually having a distributor pick up the film and do the bulk of the work. It sounded like the distribution deals she has were just a few small ones here and there, and not one that would put it in art houses across the US for weeks at a time.

I think that Ms. Paley is probably happy she’s making money, perhaps even recovered her investment. I don’t think her model is widely applicable, nor do I think it will make her as much as a “traditional” model would have. If she’s happy with a few buck trickling in, good for her.

David (profile) says:


I apologize. I read some comments on IMDB that indicated (now that I look back) November, 2008. IMBD itself lists the year as 2008. Some comments indicate “27 February 2009” as the date the movie was available online. It did apparently play before that, but I guess it wasn’t “released”. So I guess 7 months is in fact “months”, although I would have said “several” and not “few”.

Anonymous Coward says:

“The movie’s been out for a few months, not years.”

It premiered in February 2008. Not quite two years but sure as hell not “months” unless you’re just using the average TechDirt readers monistic arguing style (“It’s just 1’s and 0’s maaaaaaaaaan.”) in which case one could easily say it’s only been out for a matter of nano-seconds…

“The point of mentioning that number was how ridiculous it was that it cost that much.”

Speaking of points, what was the point of neglecting to mention the budget? Or the gross-to-date? Those numbers seem like they would be pretty relevant to the discussion so their omission is rather curious, wouldn’t you say? I’m not even the first one to bring this up.

jay says:

Experience jazz and blues like never before through a dazzling new film! “Sita Sings the Blues” is a spunky animated retelling of the ancient Hindu epic the Ramayana. Told from the virtuous Sita’s point of view, the film features the vocals of jazz legend Annette Hanshaw, whose plaintive lyrics and sensual, bluesy voice perfectly capture Sita’s steadfast devotion to her husband Rama. This gorgeously animated film is now available to rent or own on DVD through Netflix and Amazon

Profit from someone else's volunteer copyleft work says:

“And the containers, for example, are DVDs, merchandise, t-shirts, 35 mm film prints, physical screenings. The film is free, but the container of that film is not free. And that’s what we’re selling…”

Only works insofar as someone else doesn’t do the same, outselling her — not being required to pay her **anything**.

That’s not a viable option for things of larger success, it’s more restricted to small “cult” things with a faithful group of fans, and only for people who already have reasonably good means of profitable distribution of media or exhibitions.

If the things sells really well, anyone with a better selling strategy outsells you while selling your own work, while you may not even have recovered the production costs. It’s only worth doing with a small sample of your own work, hoping to reach a larger audience and eventually grab profits from copyrigts (copylefts are still copyrights) under a more restricting license, so one can reap a larger share of the profit one’s own work.

It’s misleading and borderline hypocritical, to present that under the language of being something “against” or “without copyrights”.

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