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The Open-Source Film Movement

Open source films are a horse of a different color. Open films are unique in their business model when compared with the traditional business of filmmaking. From the get go, open source films are not expected to produce ANY revenue from ticket sales or exhibition fees. Open source films are open to everyone to simply and freely view.

To contrast open source films with their traditional sisters, look at their respective processes.

The production of any high-quality film (commercial or open source) is a “corporate art form.” Here, I’m using the term “corporate” in two connotations.

The first is the connotation that filmmaking typically requires an organized group of people working together toward a common vision and goal. The number of people working on a film is far more numerous than most people realize, even on small films. Many of the people in the cast and crew are artists, highly-skilled in their various crafts. Others are in support roles, helping the artists work efficiently. Taken together, it is a bunch of people.

All of the people on the cast and crew typically need to be paid something. Large fees, guild minimums or even minimum wage, it all add up to a real expense. Also, there are others costs related to things like insurance, bonds, taxes, overhead and other benefits. Many of these craftspeople need expensive equipment such as cameras, lenses, lights, sound gear, computers and software. There are also consumables to be purchased and used. Taken together, it is a bunch of money.

Herein, the second connotation of the term “corporate” arises. The organization supporting the production of a film is usually some legal form of a corporation. Some responsible entity has to raise the required funds to produce the film, be a good steward in the expenditure of the film’s funds, see that the vendors get paid and that the work is finished.

It is not unrealistic that even short subject films can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Feature films from major studios can cost over one hundred million dollars to produce. One of the 2015 Academy Award nominees, Whiplash, was a “low budget film” that still amounted to over $3-million US.

Filmmaking is an expensive art form.

The traditional film production company enters the venture hoping that the cost of the production of the film will be recouped and a profit made from licensing fees paid to the production company by film distributors, theater owners, DVD/BluRay publishers and online distributors. The sales of tickets, disks and online fees by people who watch the finished products pay for the film and hopefully turn a profit for those who took the risk of the production.

This business model goes back to Thomas Alva Edison.

The business model has worked very well for over a century, but it is not without its flaws.

Getting a film funded is difficult. Risks are high and, as a creative endeavor, many things can go wrong. As production budgets and risks increase, it becomes progressively more difficult to get funding.

The most vulnerable to the traditional business model facing high and still-increasing productions costs are the films at the important edges of the filmmaking community. Experimental films, non-commercial art films, student films and highly-innovative films are produced less frequently.

As a result, it becomes more challenging for young new talent to break into the business. New talent used to showcase their talent in small creative projects, get noticed by the studios and traditional production companies. They then landed paying jobs in their craft. With fewer small films being produced, there are fewer showcase opportunities.

In the last 15 years, a few intrepid people have been experimenting with an entirely new business model; that of the open source film.

Open source films approach productions as an open and communal effort. Creative talent can come from anywhere, and all are invited to contribute their time and talents. All of the ideas and work product are fully public and free to all.

In turn, the finished product, the film itself, is totally free to view. There are no licensing fees or tickets sold for viewing.

In this business model, much of the production costs of open source films are contributed to the effort by the creative team making the film. They work as unpaid volunteers or for very small fees, typically far less than they could earn in the open marketplace. In-kind donations cannot contribute everything. There are always irreducible residues of production budgets that must be paid in cash. The cash budgets are contributed by some combination of grants from foundations or governments and crowd-sourced donations from individuals, often $10-20 at a time.

In open source films, since there are no revenue streams after the production from licensing or exhibition feees. There are no revenue sources to recoup the investment in the film in the future. Therefore, the entire budget of the film has to be secured upfront before finishing the production.

People contribute for the love of their films and to benefit the public.

Definition of an Open Source Film

From Wikipedia:

“One definition of open-source film is based on the OSI's open-source software definition and the definition of free cultural licenses. This definition can be applied to films where:

  • The license of the movie is approved for free cultural works. Specifically this is true for the Creative Commons licenses.
  • The materials used in the movie (sources) are also available under a license that is approved for free cultural works.
  • The movie and its sources are made publicly available via an online download or by other means that are either free or with a cost that covers reasonable reproduction expenses only.
  • The sources should be viewable and editable with free/open-source software. If this is not the case, they must be convertible into such a format by using free/open-source software. The same applies to the movie itself.
  • It should be possible to re-create or re-assemble the movie using the source materials.

Films or film projects that do not meet these criteria are either not open source or partially open source.”

Common Characteristics of Open Source Films

Open source films often provide a form of on-the-job training for their participants. In other words, they have significant education, training and career preparation aspect. Inexperienced young people can gain significant skills and experience in an open source film project.

Open source films typical lack any advertising or promotional budget. Filmmakers struggle to get their films funded and released; adverting and promotion budgets are typically an afterthought. Awareness of the availability of open source films are entirely grass-roots, word-of-mouth efforts. Open source films do benefit greatly from social media, blogs and websites that not only become channels to learn about the films but also to view it. Since the open source film can be freely viewed with typically a Creative Commons license, website isn’t limited to merely discussing the film but can show it from within their web pages.

Open course films open participate in the film festival circuit. Film festivals from a perfect forum for getting the film watched and a word-of-mouth campaign started.

Open source film projects means that its entire work product is "open" and freely available. All of its assets such as drawings, segments, models, films and soundtracks are available to anyone to use under Creative Commons license. Open source films make a large volume of material available to be re-edited into new projects.

Funding the Four Films

Open source films use multiple ways to fund their projects. As cited above, since these films don’t receive any fees from ticket sales, licensing or royalties, each project typically has no sustaining revenue stream. They have to acquire all of their funding in advance of production or as the film is in production (just in time funding.)

Each open source film uses some combination of typical sources such as:

  • Personal contributions made by the principals of the film’s team
  • Personal contributions made on a grass-roots basis through crowd-funding sources my KickStarter.
  • Grants from foundations
  • Subsidies from cultural funds from local state or federal sources reflecting the public benefit many of the film projects
  • Corporate sponsorship also reflecting the public benefit many of the film projects
  • Pre-release sales campaigns of film-related premiums such as posters, appeal, campaigns, DVDs, and the like
  • Sales of workshops, training, seminars, documentation, books and the like as part of an educational effort that is an important part of open projects
  • Commercial jobs take by the production crew to cross-subsidize their film project
  • Many filmmakers use their day jobs or side jobs to self-fund all or a portion of their films. 

The components listed above are the core funding sources of many open source films. However, each film project figures out new and creative ways to expand the number of sources to fund their projects. Filmmakers are creative people so many of the funding sources that are developed are equally creative.

Open Source Films Will Not Replace the Studio System

The business model of open source films won’t replace that of the traditional studio. In my opinion, it is not intended to.

Instead, open source and commercial films synergistically exist within the same filmmaking ecosystem.