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.

Filed Under: business model, data, nina paley, results, sita sings the blues


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  1. icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), 27 Aug 2009 @ 4:25am

    Re:

    It premiered in February 2008. Not quite two years but sure as hell not "months"

    Released to the public. Yes, it premiered and played at some festivals, but it was not available to the public or via any of these business models until March.

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