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Journey Quest–The New Distribution Model

I had a chance to listen to a presentation by Matt Vancil, the writer and director of Journey Quest at the Film+Music+Happy Hour at the Spitfire. Turns out these film social mixers aren’t a total waste of time after all.

If you haven’t watched Journey Quest yet, you need to. It’s a jolly parody of the role playing, SCA, larping culture we’ve all come to know and love. It’s geeky, dorky, and populated by preposterous caricatures of role playing archetypes: a block headed knight, a cowardly wizard, a sharp tongued elf, a sardonic cleric. My favorite is the wizard and his douchey, talking sword. Kind of like a PG version of Your Highness, with Danny McBride. I’ll save my review for later, but go watch it, it’s  good fun.

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The fact that I like this product is not why I am fascinated by Matt Vancil and Ben Dobyns, the creators of Journey Quest. They’ve caught my interest because they are in the vanguard of a new model of media distribution, one that actually works, and that Matt and Ben  feel should be adopted immediately by all indie film makers.

No one is arguing that the old ways of distributing films are going the way of the dodo bird, it has already happened. I’ll cut to the chase and give you a synopsis of their distribution model. If I’ve skipped over something, Ben Dobyns has promised that they will make the presentation available for viewing as soon as they get a break from filming. Did I mention that they raised over a hundred thousand dollars through kickstarter to fund their second season? Think about that while we cover their strategy.

Media is free. That’s right, any media they produce is distributed through a creative commons license. Fans may copy, distribute, edit and modify to their heart’s content. Their strategy stems from their belief that the internet is little more than a massive digital duplicating machine, and that most media is currently offered free or is going to be offered free very shortly. Matt argues that the traditional strategy of charging for units of the content and creating value through scarcity has a negative affect on the attitude of fans toward the project. He continues by asserting that piracy is not a criminal act, but an expression of desire and love for the content. Fans want their content, and they want it now. Also, Matt pointed out that fans don’t want to be an audience so much as they want to have a part in the story themselves. One fan of Journey Quest created an animated version of an episode that Matt grudgingly admitted may have been better than what they had actually filmed.

Failstarter! Matt went on to give a hearty spanking to the Kickstarter culture that has sprung up around indie film. His primary critique is that film makers ask for money before they have proven they can deliver a product, and often mismanage the funds they do receive, resulting in an unfinished, or lousy product. He chided film makers for offering ‘white elephant’, or unwanted incentives. Matt said, “Offer something that they actually want, that is special, creates a connection to the project, and will have value after the project is complete.” He also warned against asking for finishing funds for a project, pointing out that this merely tells people that you did not do a good job budgeting your money the first time around. Hey, didn’t I just post an article about Kickstarter? Yeah I did. Right here: Failstarter: Why Your Crowd Funding Campaign Will Succeed Anyway. That’s not to say that crowd funding is an outmoded way of generating funds. Matt pointed out that a full ten percent of the films at Sundance were crowd funded. He went on to explain why Journey Quest had so much success with it’s Kickstarter campaign, and why the same model could work for anyone.

Fan base first. Money later. Matt and Ben have been making dorky, geeky goodness for a good ten years. They have gradually built up a following, producing their media on a shoe string budget with the help of a core of enthusiastic, dedicated volunteers. When they finally launched a Kickstarter campaign, they had a large, geeky fan base that showed them the love. This approach, building a relationship with fans before you ask for money is at the core of Matt’s philosophy. “If the fans love your work, they will let nothing stand between them and getting their content,” Matt said. They will show up on your doorstep, shove a twenty in your hand and ask you why the next episode isn’t out yet. This is the unspoken agreement between the film maker and their fans in a Kickstarter campaign: the fans love what you have done so far and trust that if they give you their hard earned money you will spend it on creating more of what they love and deliver it to them. “If you shit on your audience,” Matt says, “betray them or disappoint them, you are sunk.”

The Model. So here’s my understanding of the distribution model employed by Matt and Ben. They feel their way of doing things should be adopted by all independent makers of entertainment products. This model seems particularly well suited for webseries-style products.

  1. Make something with your resources as they exist now. Start off small, even if it’s one five minute episode.
  2. Put it out on any distribution channel you have available to you. Your website, social media, YouTube, or one of the thousand independent film streaming services.
  3. Determine how it was received and how you can better capture you audience’s love next time.
  4. Repeat one through four for a bit before moving on to step 5. If you have enough content, you may now repackage it into a pilot, a feature, whatever your heart desires.
  5.  If you cannot develop a fan base, start over on step one with a new product. Or quit and become an organic mushroom farmer in Carnation. If you have developed a fan base, move on to step 7.
  6. Give the fans an opportunity to show their love for your product based on what you have already done. You may use Kickstarter if you would like. If they show the love, move on to step 8.
  7. Create more of what your fans love, except better. Because of your fan’s support you will have a larger budget.
  8. Repeat step 7.
  9. Create a new product that will appeal to your existing fan base and bring them along for the journey. Start at step 1.

Granted, I’m sharing Matt’s presentation with you from memory, and I put my own douchey spin on it, but the fact remains that their business model is working for them, in spades.

There’s a couple things worth mentioning about the Journey Quest‘s success that Matt did not cover. Journey Quest is very entertaining. Who would have guessed: you make something entertaining and people will want it. It’s a good lesson for the rest of us independent film maker types who keep trying to shove our blase, artsy, ‘made for other film makers’ fare down our non-existent audience’s throats. To borrow a phrase, “If you build it they will come.”

Journey Quest targeted a genre that already has a built in, rabid fan base ready pounce on the next bit of content that comes their way: the role-playing, fantasy crowd. It’s an easy target to hit, but Matt and Ben scored a bulls eye. Like the role-playing crowd before them, the steam punk crowd is ready to devour anything that sits within their genre. Food for thought?

I doubt Matt and Ben will generate any profit for themselves personally from Journey Quest. At best I think they will have their production costs covered. Frankly, I bet the news of Journey Quest‘s successful Kickstarter campaign has emboldened every member of their crew to ask for a raise or an increased budget. I can just imagine the wardrobe department sitting down and running the  books: “Well, they have a hundred and fifty to work with, that means we could at least get them to budget twenty thousand for wizard’s cloaks.” If there is money to be made for Matt and Ben, I expect it would be made on the next project, or in some sort of ancillary or sideways fashion.

Journey Quest has created an atmosphere of inclusive, joyful volunteerism. Fans are lining up to contribute their time and energies to making the next episodes. There’s no arm bending or pulling in of favors that are never intended to be repaid here. People are dying to be a part of this production.

And isn’t that what indie is supposed to be all about? Doing it for the love?

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