from the yup,-probably dept
Last week, in one of their daily roundups, the folks at AVClub made a passing comment about Louis C.K.'s cable television show Louie:
you still have to subscribe to a cable package that features FX in order to watch the season premiere of Louie tonight—but the way things are going, he’ll eventually find a way around that as well.
It's half a joke, and not intended as a serious near-future prediction, but it nevertheless raises an interesting question: have we reached the point where a show of that caliber could be made independently? Louie is a fairly inexpensive show—the season two budget was $300,000 per episode, with an additional $200,000 spent on a particularly ambitious outing, so that season cost a little over $4-million. C.K. has leveraged his network of friends (and quasi-enemies) in the comedy industry, plus lots of production shortcuts and personal licensing deals for music, to accomplish some impressive feats with that cash—and the show is widely praised by critics and fans (though there are dissenters). Moreover, unlike some shows that arguably benefit from the design-by-committee nature of some TV networks, Louie is already helmed entirely by C.K., who has almost complete creative control.
So... We know Louis C.K. pulled $1 million in just a few days by selling a single comedy special directly to fans. We know he's made $6 million in a week selling tickets to his tour. We know creators can raise millions on Kickstarter. We've seen established Hollywood talent combine crowdfunding with private investment to escape the studio system. There's little doubt that, with some combination of these models and other innovative ideas, someone like Louis C.K. could put together a show like Louie without any network support and distribute it entirely through the internet (and any TV networks that wanted to license it—on his terms).
I'm not suggesting Louis C.K. has any particular desire or reason to do this with Louie right now—it's my understanding that FX has been extremely supportive and treated him really well. But, realistically, how long will it take before someone does this? All the mechanisms are in place, or nearly so, and the media buzz around things like Kickstarter and C.K.'s direct-sale experiments has inspired a lot of entertainers to start considering alternative business models. It could even be C.K. himself who eventually leads the way again: while Louie is going great right now, he frequently mentions in both his comedy and interviews that he knows the show and his current status won't last forever—and I can't help but assume that part of the reason he's been running these recent sales experiments is that he's a very smart guy who sees what's happening in the industry and is trying to future-proof his career. If something were to happen and Louie was cancelled prematurely, I wouldn't be surprised to see C.K. and his fans finding a way to keep it going on their own. Though he hasn't actually said as much, a recent interview suggests the possibility can't be far from his mind:
The show has been a precious thing to me, and it’s been something I’m horribly grateful for. It’s just such a big deal to me that I’m getting to do this. I’m aware of how fleeting it is. I’m aware that, at best, it’ll go eight years, and that a year after those eight years are over, it’ll feel like a distant memory. I’m aware of that.
That’s one reason that I’m working really hard on it. I’m physically pretty banged up from this season from shit that I did. I fucking jumped into a boat that was 10 feet off a dock, and I really hurt my knee. I’ve taken such a beating. But I do it because I know I’m not going to get an opportunity to do this for very long. This is going to feel like it was only a few years as soon as it’s over. I’m trying to really slow down time while it’s going on. And it’s really important to me that I earn it, that I earn what I’ve got in front of me by doing the show as well as possible. So that’s how I feel about it. It’s a big fucking deal. The web thing was a huge euphoria. It was a crazy feeling. It was like physically altering. Looking at my phone and watching the sales come, like a thousand per fucking minute, was insane. I was in a bathroom at LAX, looking at the sales for the web thing on my phone, and I started laughing. I couldn’t control it. And I realized I was laughing like Laurence Olivier when he’s getting his diamonds in the bank in Marathon Man. [Laughs.] He just starts giggling, like, “I can’t believe what’s happening here.” And I had a similar moment like that these last two days, because I put all these tickets on sale [for the upcoming tour] on the Internet in the same way, and it’s crazy. It’s gangbusters. I mean, half the tour is sold out, and we’ve added shows in like eight cities.
Critics of new entertainment business models like to suggest that quality content can't be produced without the financial backing that can only come from studios, networks, record labels and other big businesses, and they tend to dismiss every counter-example as somehow inferior art—but that's an increasingly untenable position. Not only is quality content already being produced in new ways, but the stage is set for even bigger and more expensive projects. And considering how new some of these models are and how rapidly they've grown, if we're already at the point where a show like Louie could probably be made outside the traditional ecosystem, is it really so inconceivable that one day in the near future even things like Game of Thrones and the red-herring of the $200 million movie could break free as well? A Kickstarter for a movie that hits the hundreds of millions sounds impossible now—but it wasn't that long ago that $10-million for a watch, $3 million for a video game or $1 million for an album were considered just as unrealistic. And that's just Kickstarter, not direct sales of the finished product or any of the other moneymaking opportunities that a piece of entertainment creates. When you think about it that way, it seems like it's only a matter of time.