Zach Braff, Amanda Palmer, and the New 90-9-1 Rule: The Indifferent, the Haters, and the Ones who Love You.
Zach Braff is going to raise over $2 million for a movie without a distributor, without a studio, and really, without anything more than a kind of strange pitch video.
For almost everyone, that’s a lot of money — a real lot, given that it’s hit that point in just a few days. But Zach Braff has money, of course; he starred in Scrubs and wrote, directed, and starred in Garden State, which made $35 million in the box office. He’s got money, and probably enough to make another movie. Regardless, he has access, name recognition, and all the other stuff that the “almost everyone” crowd lacks. Which is why there’s significant backlash against the project.
Good. Because they don’t need everyone to like them to be successful.
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There’s an informal rule of online communities called the 90-9-1 principle. 1% of the user base creates the vast majority of the content; 9% dabbles; 90% participate only in minor amounts if at all. The point is that you don’t need a whole lot of people to participate in order to create something pretty impressive. 1 That’s how Wikipedia became the behemoth it is today.
The funding of content can — and, I think will — follow the same pattern. Once a person has a large enough following 2, you can fund basically anything you’d like. Braff has only 28,000 backers of the above-cited Kickstarter, which is much less than the 1% of the weekly viewership of Scrubs, for example. The traditional 90-9-1 principle applies here, as a very small amount of backers are (via their dollars) creating something for the 90.
But what about the haters? That requires another 90-9-1 rule.
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I’m going to go out on a very tiny limb here: Braff is going to get to make his movie, and pocket a significant (to a normal person) amount of money for himself. Similarly, Amanda Palmer can raise six or seven figures for a new album whenever she wants. But more importantly, they can sell the risk to their fans. Compare what they’re doing/did to Louis CK’s $5 download or Andrew Sullivan’s decision to go indy. Braff and Palmer didn’t make the content and then sell it. They didn’t quit their jobs and go on their own. They make their art conditional on it finding dollars, not the other way around.
People who don’t particularly like Louis CK or Andrew Sullivan haven’t taken up arms against their declarations of independence with anywhere near the fervor that we’ve seen for Braff and Palmer. 3 It makes a lot of sense that there’s backlash against the latter because of two simple facts:
1. They’re rich, an better able to shoulder that risk than the rest of us, who typically aren’t rich.
2. They don’t need to sell that risk in order to make what they want to make.
Point one there requires very little explanation, if any. The second one, though, probably does. The operative word is “make.” They could have made their film or album — the question is, could they sell it? If Braff wanted to make his “Wish I Was Here” movie 4, he could have. That’s true even if he wanted to make it without anyone else having final approval over what went into the movie and what got cut. He could have self-financed, found out-of-industry investors, or taken on debt. Most of us don’t have the wealth, reputation, or connections to do that, but he clearly does; that’s how he created Garden State. I don’t really know what happened with Amanda Palmer, but I’d be surprised if she didn’t have a way to fund the creation of the album she wished.
Traditionally, artists don’t take this risk. The publisher or label or studio does; the artist by and large gets paid either way. Louis CK and Andrew Sullivan are breaking the mold pretty dramatically here when you look at it from that vantage point. On the flipside, it kind of makes sense that Braff and Palmer don’t want to be in that seat. Generations of artists simply haven’t.
On top of that, the upside from going indy is big. They don’t have to pay for a ton of overhead relative to traditional methods, the costs are much lower. There are many fewer stakeholders in the project, they receive a higher percentage of the payout. But we already knew that.
Combine that, though, with the ability to sell your risk to your fans, and we’re onto something big. (That’s really Kickstarter’s whole thesis.) If you have a few million fans and 1% of them pony up $100 on average, you’re golden.
But again, what about the haters?
The vast majority of people in the U.S. have no idea who Amanda Palmer is. More know who Zack Braff is, but there are 300-something million of us at, at its peak, Scrubs only (“only!”) had 15 million viewers. That’s your first 90% — the group of the addressable market (TV owners? movie goers?) who are indifferent to or unaware of the artist. They just don’t matter, at least not insofar as funding the content is concerned. 5 Your fans are the 1%. A small fraction of them (1% of the 1%) will fund the creation of the content, and the rest of them will likely buy it once it’s made, unless it sucks. 6 And then there’s the haters. As long as they’re a relatively small group — even if they’re much, much larger than your true fans — you’re probably OK. That’s the 9%. Like the original 90-9-1 principle, the actual percentages are made up; they’re demonstrative of the underlying theory.
In the end, the fans matter and the antagonists — unless there is an absolutely enormous amount of them — simply don’t.
- The 1% isn’t intended to be accurate; rather, it’s demonstrative. In the case of Wikipedia, it is certainly overstated. If you look at the growth of Wikipedia (see the graph here) you’ll note that it crossed 1 million articles in early 2006. About 70% of the US population was online by then — that’s about 200 ml\illion Americans.. But there were only about 50,000 active editors on Wikipedia in 2006. If that’s 1% of the Wikipedia readership, then only 5 million of that 200 million (2.5%)- nowhere near the reality at the time. ↩
- I realize this is a big given. Few people have the following of a Zach Braff or Amanda Palmer, and in both those cases, they developed their audiences only after a major entertainment brand or two “discovered” them and made them famous. A large part of the backlash against them is due to this. I see this as a temporary problem ripe for disruption and *not* a true barrier to entry for the heretofore undiscovered creators. But that’s a story for another day. ↩
- A large part of the anti-Palmer backlash is because she tells her story as an outsider — as if anyone could do what she’s done — which doesn’t jive with the fact that she was part of the duo the Dresden Dolls, which released two studio albums under a Warner Music Group subsidiary’s label. But even if she acknowledge that fact, I think there’s still be meaningful backlash because she’s not assuming the risk of her work not selling. ↩
- It bothers me to no end that he said “Was” and not “Were.” ↩
- Much like Wikipedia, though, they could become customers/users later on. There’s a lot of upside here, although it’s hard to get it. But imagine if Braff’s movie gets a Best Picture nomination… ↩
- There’s a HUGE amount of upside here. That’s why Garden State grossed $35 million at the box office. Or, put another way: if 350,000 people see this movie in theaters, at $10 a ticket, that’s $3.5 million — 10% of what Garden State made. If Braff gets $2 per ticket, that’s $700,000 right to him. Wow! ↩