Madje Steber, pictured in this image shot by her daughter Maggie, died three years ago after a long struggle with dementia. “The photos are of her, but at some point I realised the story is really mine,” says Maggie Steber, who has produced a 22-minute multimedia film in two parts with Mediastorm. Images © Maggie Steber.
In early 2008, multimedia producer Brian Storm contacted photographers Maggie Steber and Phillip Toledano to put together two short films about the care and ultimate loss of their ageing parents. Both refused at first. "Maggie wasn't ready," recalls Storm. But, four years later, Storm convinced both photographers to go ahead with the films, which have now been published on Mediastorm - with a twist: viewers are required to pay $1.99 to see each film.
"I started thinking about this in the fall of last year," Storm tells BJP. "We were working on these two projects for a long time. We knew they were going to be really strong. It just coincided with my desire to complete Mediastorm's business model. We make money from corporate works and from workshops, but we weren't making money from the productions themselves. It felt like it was time to focus on that."
MediaStorm has produced almost 100 multimedia presentations in the past seven years, most of them freely available on the company's website. "For seven years, we've built a very passionate and loyal audience. We've proven that we do high-tier productions that are worth people's time. But I thought we needed more than that. We wanted people to value us not just with their time, but also with their wallet."
"The reality of the economics for us is that when we have a million people coming to us to watch things free, it's costing us a lot of money," he adds. "It costs us a lot to produce and service it. As a result, we weren't doing a lot of marketing; we weren't telling anyone it even existed because there was just no financial upside for us. I felt like it was time for us to tell people we existed. And if we want to do that, we'd better have some way of making money once they get to the site."
The Pay Per Story scheme, as described by Storm, requires viewers to pay $1.99 for unlimited access to a story. The revenues are split evenly between the photographer and the producer, who in turn has pledged to re-invest the money in the productions as well as in marketing. "How amazing would it be to see the trailer for Phil Toledano's film in a movie theatre just before the latest blockbuster? That costs a lot of money. But if we're successful with this Pay Per Story model, I'll spend that money to do it."
A Shadow Remains explores Phillip Toledano's personal history as he considers the impact that love and loss has had on his life, and the life of his family. His film is also available on Mediastorm under the site's new Pay Per Story initiative. Images © Phillip Toledano.
Beyond making it work for his company, Storm has a goal to build a sustainable business model around documentary photography at a time when an increasing number of practitioners are struggling to make ends meet.
But when Storm first discussed his idea with Steber and Toledano, they were hesitant. "We had a very interesting conversation," he says. "Of course, they were a little bit hesitant, because when you are a photographer, you really want people to have access to the story. But I felt that if we didn't try to figure this out, nobody would be pushing for it. So, if we can figure it out then, maybe, we can help change the profession. I think our stories are worth it."
"Someone has to lead the charge," Steber tells BJP. "If Brian is willing to go out on a limb, I'll go with him." Toledano agrees, saying: "I think it would be fair to say that initially I was a little taken aback. But then, as I thought about it, it occurred to me that we've all become conditioned to expect the web to be free. Perhaps we need a little reconditioning - to retrain us to pay for something that's worthwhile."
The price was key, says Storm. "I think $0.99 is a no-brainer. You don't even think about that amount. But that felt too low for something we spent a year working on. We didn't want to diminish the value of our work - $1.99 is still less than a cup of coffee."
Storm also needed the right back-end architecture to manage these transactions. "We could have used YouTube or Vimeo, but these guys didn't allow us to brand it the way we wanted and wouldn't enable us to perform transactions," he says. "We could have built an app to take advantage of the device's popularity and App Store, but that would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instead, we chose to make the player work on the iPad. We don't have an app, but the entire website has been optimised for the iPad. Everything we think we could do in an app, we can also do on the website. We figured we should just focus on that."
More importantly, developing an app - or even just selling movies on iTunes - would have meant losing 30 percent of the revenues to Apple, as well as ownership of the customer relationship. "The beauty of our model is that we own the customer relationship," says Storm, enabling him to build a financially engaged audience. "It's us taking control of our own destiny."
Of course, when you start charging people, you run the risk of reducing the size of your audience. "There's no doubt about that," says Storm. "You don't need to run any business model to figure that out."
For Toledano, photographers have no choice. "I'm sure fewer people will see the film, and that does sadden me. But, on the other hand, artists can't keep starving for their art. In the same way we pay for food to nourish our bodies, isn't it fair to pay for something that nourishes our soul?"
Steber agrees and adds that photographers have a responsibility to market their work. "We need to find new ways to show our images. We have to find new avenues - foundations and companies that share our philosophies. In the case of our stories, I think there are outlets aimed specifically at an older generation. There are large organisations, such as the Alzheimer's Association, maybe even the Gates Foundation. Perhaps they could help us promote the work or even show it on their own sites. In other words, we have to do the research and we have to be bold and audacious about looking for support. Innovations shouldn't come only from the likes of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. We have to think outside the box, like they did."
If it works, says Storm, "we will be able to start marketing our production to build, over time, a larger audience."
Storm will also look to benefit financially from the platform. "The player can be licensed and rebranded," he tells BJP. "If a photographer has been working on a story for five years and wants to go direct to the market, they don't need to put it on another website, they can do it themselves. We are building new relationships with our audiences. Some photographers have 100,000 Facebook fans and Twitter followers - and that's a brand new thing - but they don't have a mechanism for playback, branding and transactions. We do. We think that it's going to be the key."
"We want to see this space thrive. We are trying to get other people to do what we do. If we can get 200 or 300 companies to do it, that could be very powerful."
Visit www.mediastorm.com for more information.
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