Case Studies/A Swarm of Angels
I believe building a feature film from the ground up to be ready for remixing, easy to view, ready to share, and perfect for download, is the way to go. This is the way to invent the future of film… So as much of the project as possible will be licensed under the more flexible ideas of copyright developed by Creative Commons. — A Swarm Of Angels Director Matt Hanson
A Swarm of Angels (ASOA) began in January 2006 on the initiative of Matt Hanson, a 36 year-old visionary director based in Brighton, UK. Hanson’s idea was to gather people from around the word with the desire to take part in a movie-making process. Participation was intended to be ‘creativity/passion/curiosity’-oriented, as opposed to being focused on profit and ownership. Distribution of the final film was agreed to be 'free' (in the open culture sense) because, in the words of Hanson, ‘you can’t control media these days. You need to go with it, rather than fight it. We’re part of the remix generation, with the DIY digital tools to make our own digital media, whether that’s film, music, or whatever.’ This means that the product is able to be used, not just consumed, and the users can watch or remix it and, eventually, spin the wheel forward. ‘If you look at the Greek epics,’ says Hanson, ’the story-tellers that were recounting their tales always put their own spin on it.’
As analysed by Oxford Internet Institute researcher Irene Cassarino, the ASOA business model was designed to be ‘a valid new alternative, maybe more enlightened’ than the Hollywood entertainment world. Hanson objected to the possibility that ASOA would become a massively distributed investment opportunity. Instead, he aimed to attract a host of ‘angels,’ keen to give a reasonable amount of their money to sustain an altogether groundbreaking movie-making project in return for having an opportunity to become involved in the creative process.
The minimum subscription fee to participate in the experience and to micro-found the movie was set at £25. Founders contributing these funds were given exclusive rights to participate in the decision-making process through a web-based polling system, an online discussion forum and a wiki platform. Visitors are allowed to assist, but not to actively collaborate. Hanson adheres to the ‘one head one vote’ governance rule within the community, which is the only resemblance to the limited ownership model. Instead, ASOA is unique in following a crowd-funded subscription model. As Hanson expresses it: ‘After all, plenty of films have tried the ”many producers/investors route,” but none have tapped into the wisdom of crowds.’ The distributed ownership also avoids claims regarding possible opportunity for reward, as anyone investing such a small sum does not usually expect to gain from it.
Hanson was the first subscriber to ASOA on 16 January 2006; the second angel joined on 13th of March 2007. By the 7th July 2007, 1000 members had been reached – the second milestone for the project. The first development phases have now been running for approximately two years. The main outcomes are two draft scripts (‘The Unfold’ and ‘The Ravages’), the trailer and poster for the project, and a poster for ‘The Unfold,’ while other outputs are still in the pipeline.
The angels are the initial and primary source of funding. Hanson declares that with this support the movie could then gather additional funds from media companies and distributors who might want to broadcast or use assets from the production for their own commercial endeavours, and from other opportunities for the project which don’t conflict with ASOA general principles, such as sponsorship and equipment partnership. Funds are required to collect and centralise resources that are not available from within the community, such as film equipment. It is intended that production crew receive 'proper salaries' based on their involvement, and ’market rates' for a £1 million feature. Matt Hanson also draws a salary from the project, having decided a few months after the project was launched to concentrate on ASOA and cancel other work such as upcoming book projects, consultancy and other productions. Hanson regularly engages in promotional events around the world like in his recent appearance as a keynote speaker at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. Nobody else in the community, regardless of the commitment, is directly paid. In Phase 3, full details on all expenditure and remuneration will be provided to the angels, so that they will have the ability to feedback on budgets, and so forth as they are produced for relevant phases/production.
After a consultation process with the angels, it was decided that ASOA will release its end-products to the public under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 licence.
The ShareAlike element ensures that the material is available for reuse by other filmmakers, while the Noncommercial option enables the Swarm to generate revenue by offering a separate remunerated license to commercially exploit the created movie, e.g. by screening it in a movie theatre or showing it on TV. This ensures word-of-mouth promotion is unrestricted, whilst providing a guarantee that no commercial entity can appropriate the benefits of the project without remunerating the creative community.
Most contributors to ASOA publish their creations on their own websites or on a website provided by Hanson for the streaming of big files and publish the link in the ASOA forum. When contributing media content to ASOA the contributing member has to agree to a 'Media Release Statement' in which they grant a non-exclusive license (subject to attribution) for their contribution ’to be used as part of the A Swarm of Angels project.’ Without such an open licence, it would become almost impossible to track rights related to the different contributions.
The ASOA slogan is ‘Remixing Cinema’: the project aims to empower not only creators actively engaged with the ASOA community, but to every creator within or beyond the bounds of the 'Swarm' in the present and in the future by releasing a movie which actively invites remixing. In order to govern and protect this vision, a particular set of Creative Commons licenses have been chosen. CC is an integral part of the identity of the project. When surveyed via questionnaire, 70% of ASOA’s top contributors agreed or strongly agreed that ’Creative Commons Licenses enable creativity.’
Nevertheless, Creative Commons’ Noncommercial licensing option has been controversial. While Matt Hanson did not want corporations to gain from ASOA without contributing remuneration, several angels objected that the generation of income (even for future productions) should not be part of the model, because it was potentially dangerous: they argued that money should always come upfront from angels and should be directly related to a specific project ’so that interested people could fund artistic people to generate interesting work and all of our lives can be enriched by the result’ (JoeK).
The core unresolved questions ASOA is facing are:
- which aspects of the production and financial model should differ from the traditional cinema 1.0 system?
- how to position ASOA with respect to other open business frameworks (eg those used in software production); and
- whether to allow any additional money from commercial exploitation of the original project to be injected into future projects.
For a deeper analysis of organisational and legal issues involved please see the working paper:
Cassarino, Richter: "Swarm Creativity - The Legal and Organizational Challenger of Open Content Film Production" , to be presented at the upcoming DIME conference on the Creative Industries and Intellectual Property, May 22-23, 2008, London, UK http://www.dime-eu.org/wp14/conferences/creative-industries
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