Making good content is hard. Making economically viable content is even harder. Most is lost to obscurity, financial ruin, or both.
This is not a pessimistic view – any more than is my conviction that the beating Michael Phelps in the 100-meter freestyle is hard (unless you’re a shark). However, there are far more would-be auteurs and tycoons than intrepid swimmers.
As a consequence, there are countless entrepreneurs and executives who pursue content businesses and are confronted with a tremendous noise-to-signal ratio that makes financial success particularly challenging. Even so, every year millions take their chance.
What draws us toward the flame?
There is no consensus on why moths plunge repeatedly into bulbs and candle flames at night. The most compelling theory - and it is only that, a theory - is that moths navigate by the position of celestial objects. In the absence of the sun or moon, when they get near a flame or artificial light, they assess the relative size and location of the source as if it were the sun and pilot themselves accordingly.
Unfortunately, the non-sun light sources are typically closer than most moths expect, so SMACK!
Something similar occurs with entrepreneurs/creators and content. The confusion between the bright flame of fandom and the distant star of quality leads many to commit to content businesses without a true understanding of the complexities and rigors of the field.
Consider: The average American adult watches five hours of television a day. That’s 1,825 hours a year. The average American worker clocks 1,783 hours a year. So, based on television alone, the average commitment to consuming content carries an opportunity cost equal, at least, to a full-time job.
That’s a lot of love for content. But consuming content is not the same as creating it. A point missed by many. SMACK!
Implications for the Market
To complicate matters, the market for content is subject to shifts in taste and shocks from out of the blue. It is very difficult to pick a winner and very easy to reject something great because it’s different.
The more complicated the content, the more difficult it is to sort wheat from chaff. When interpretation is thrown into the mix (e.g., a director, actors, editor, composer, in the case of film and television), linear determinations of quality are approximate at best.
Critic Anton Ego, in the Pixar film “Ratatouille,” expressed this sublimely: “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
The culture and energy of the film business are deeply informed by this reality. On the one hand, content is incredibly attractive, and there is tremendous competition to be involved in its creation. On the other hand, nobody really knows what will be a hit.
To a certain extent, this is true of any product. P&G launches a new floor cleaner: it doesn’t sell in Peoria, and it’s scrapped. The product manager has a career set-back, is processed through the corporate HR machine and deployed onto something else.
The difference for much content, and certainly film, is that there is no way to prototype or test the market before a significant financial commitment. In film, the best approximation is comparison to another movie that has done well in the past. Perhaps a franchise sequel. If not a sequel, then a film of similar genre with the same actor. And so, a lot of content moves toward branding considerations, and justifiably so.
The Rest of the Field
This dynamic is true for the biggest spenders (e.g. the major studios) for whom there is much risk and much reward. For those not in the A-list-actor, franchise-property business, the uncertainty is much higher. In fact, most measures involve an unreasonable level of uncertainty for investment. And yet billions are spent every year in this risky endeavor.
Such is the pull of the bright light of content. Consuming something that resonates with your world-view, confirms some aspect of your emotional life, or ignites a fire in your soul is tremendously satisfying. The possibility of creating something that achieves this in others can be orders of magnitude more so.
The trick is to distinguish between the navigational markers of content creation and venture creation. They are different. For the content creator, smashing against light bulbs or singeing wings is part of the process, pain and all, of discovering the sun. For the content enterprise, bouncing around can come at tremendous expense.
In the business of content creation, there is no way to fully separate the two priorities. The good news is that, when managed appropriately, they can support each other. However, to ensure that they are not confused, it is essential to have a business model that offsets risk.
Get yourself a reliable GPS, then shoot for the stars.