Comedian Louis CK recently released a statement on his latest venture: 1) Pay a video crew out of pocket to record two shows at the Beacon Theater. 2) Direct and edit the thing himself. 3) Put the thing up for a $5 download with no restrictions.
The result? Over a 100,000 downloads on the first day, more than paying off any expenses incurred during production. By day 4, he's profited over $200,000 "(after taxes $75.58)" Dan Frommer puts that number into some perspective: He’s converted about 20% of Twitter followers, 10% of the “Louie” Season 2 premiere audience, and it’s modest compared to some forms of media. Even Louie CK admits he could've made more from a big media company if he let them do all the work, but that really doesn't compare apples to apples.
As Peter Kafka aptly explains, because Louis CK now owns this whole damn thing, he can use it however he wants. It just so happens, he's selling it direct to fans at a price and value that is in that prime sweet spot for web commerce: Too cheap to bother pirating, low overhead in production and distribution, and available directly from the creator. Louis CK has a window in which to keep on keepin' on, until he decides it's the right time to sell some rights to HBO or a basic cable outlet.
Funny... Louis CK isn't the first to experience the Louis CK window. Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, and Kevin Smith have all started tapping their devoted fanbase following similar models. Let's use Kevin Smith as a prime example.
Kevin Smith financed his latest film Red State on a super-tight budget of favors and hope. Once complete, he had his own "Louis CK Window" for the movie. If he used a big studio or distributor, he'd end up having to pay millions to mass-market a movie that cost a fraction of that. "No way," said Smith. Or at least, I assume he did at some point.
Instead, he took the film on the road to live screenings around the US and Canada, pairing the screenings with a bawdy Q&As with himself and a rotating cast of friends... and the actual cast of the movie. After a few months on tour, then he decided to release on blu-ray, DVD, yada yada yada.
Within one or two screenings, Smith paid off all the debts incurred from the movie's production – Much like Louis CK covered his expenses of production within 12 hours. Sure, the numbers might not compare to major distribution channels, but if ventures like these are going to make a difference, we have to compare them to actual costs, not to other media. That brings us to games.
In my two published games, I've had the great fortune to experience a handful of "Louis CK Windows" and each case they went in two different paths.
In Happy Birthday, Robot!, I released a free Google Document on the Story-Games forum, solicited feedback and ran some tests at Dreamation to feel out the potential market. That was my first window. I had a Happily, the response was great and I launched my first Kickstarter campaign raising $3k. With the help of my friends at Evil Hat matching that amount and handling production, we were able to turn a profit in the first year. Later that year, I negotiated a licensing agreement to Sandstorm. They'll publish and package the game with a pretty nice advance-on-royalties and the option for Evil Hat to sell off remaining stock from the first run. A win-win-win as far as I'm concerned.
In Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, I once again partnered with Evil Hat. We kept costs low by doing the layout, writing and editing in-house. We got fantastic art from new artists, spread out over the previous year-and-a-half. I blogged and tweeted about the game incessantly. With all that, we had such a successful Kickstarter campaign that we actually launched at-profit! Thereafter, any PDF or book sold would be pure gravy for both me and Evil Hat. It's unlikely a major publisher will come along with a big check to license Do, but that option is still available in the long-term.
Wow, this is getting to be a long post. I'll just wrap this up by encouraging creators everywhere in all fields to reconsider your options. You can build a strong body of work in public to get an audience who will pay you to do what you do, without necessarily going to a big label. You still can, for sure, but we live in a world where you don't have to anymore. What's more there are partners out there, like Evil Hat, who are eager to participate in the creator-owned, fan-focused model with you.