The present and future of post production business and technology

When is a market saturated?

A post this week by Justin Evans titled RED One Rentals Impending Crash hit my reading at just the right time. Over the weekend I recorded some interviews with Rick Young of MacVideo – a fellow Aussie now living and working in the UK – and a whole bunch of people who were around the foundation of the LA Final Cut Pro User Group. I started to form some parallels in my mind. As have many others to be sure.

Justin has one very, very good point: a RED One is not a good investment for a rental company. Sadly neither was setting up for Final Cut Pro rentals. In both cases a solution you rented as needed (because it was so expensive you couldn’t afford to own it) has been supplanted by “buy it and you’ll always have it to use.” That pattern also applies to HD video camcorders.

The DV Rebel’s Guide author Stu Maschwitze advises readers to own their own camera above owning an edit system. He proceeds to give several examples of where he’s been able to get dramatic shots that add high production value to his shows, just because he had the camera with him.

Projects that wouldn’t have been made are now being made. There are more opportunities to make money in video production than ever before. There are probably few opportunities to make enormous – dare I say “excessive” – profits.

Right now budget projects tend toward formats like HDV or AVCHD/AVCCAM because the cameras are very affordable and the quality “isn’t too bad.” Heck, it’s high definition with quality at least 10x that of my first pro video cameras, and in inflation-adjusted terms about 1/10th the cost. (Not to mention 1/10th the weight.)

But it does limit production in two ways: it limits where the product can go given the quality requirements of some outlets, and it limits what you can do with the image. Particularly with RAW footage – what the sensor saw is what’s in the image – you can push the image in Color Timing a lot, lot further than those formats that limit color information.

Quality has always cost. No-one’s ever been unhappy about that other than the cost-requirement limited what got made and distributed. So industries evolve high cost structures. Budgets get bigger because there’s more at stake and when successes happen, everyone who contributed to their success wanted their share of the (quite often extreme) profits.

Television is the child of film and radio and inherited many of the same cost structures for program production. Given the limited outlets of the day that was entirely appropriate. In the last decade there’s been an explosion of outlets. The number of cable channels have dramatically increased thanks to the Clinton-era Telecommunications Act of 1996. And there’s this thing called ‘The Internet’ that seems to be opening up increasing number of distribution opportunities.

Back in 1999, if you told me there’d be more than 1.25 million registered Final Cut Pro users within 10 years, I’d have been credulous. Although there were about 300,000 Premiere 5/6 users at that time, it was the dominant NLE – Avid having fewer than 1/3 that number of customers at the time. People seem to find a reason to pay for professional editing software beyond what ships free on every Mac.

Apple announced their customer number at the MacWorld ’09 Final Cut Pro User Group Supermeet, but these following are likely to be reasonably close. Avid’s user base has continued to grow and I’ll say a generous 200,000. Premiere Pro has to have well over half a million legitimate customers. Sony Vegas is up over 300,000 customers. Avid Liquid has about 400,000 customers iirc. Other NLEs, like Edius I don’t have a feel for. (Please feel free to correct any numbers in the comments or private email.) Add them together and there about 2 million people in the world who have paid for professional editing software.

You’ll note how I’m carefully avoiding calling them all “editors”. People are obviously using Final Cut Pro in ways that would be quite foreign to an experienced entertainment industry or documentary editor. But if they’re editing, satisfying a need and making a living from it, that’s a good thing. That’s a heck of a lot more people employed (or working for themselves in some way) – making a living doing what they like doing – than ever there was before.

It’s the same in the music and print design businesses. The transition to digital technologies demolished existing cost structures and opened up thousands of new employment opportunities.

Red Digital Cinema, with the RED One now and Scarlet and Epic coming up, will probably sell in numbers that “make no sense” if you expect the industry (film, television, entertainment, education and all other types of production) to not change.

The concept of an “Independent model of Television production” came from Mathew Winer, write/producer of Mad Men: Television production more modeled on Independent Movie production approaches. People like Television, and YouTube-like content supplements but does not replace Television programming.

What we’re currently seeing is a trend for “quality production” away from the big four Networks to smaller players simply because the market (viewers and therefore advertisers) for drama or comedy production on the networks is not big enough. Even ratings winners like American Idol attract audiences that would have seen the show cancelled even 10 years ago.

The cable industry doesn’t have the same cost structures as network, and the Internet has even fewer constraints. Josh Whedon’s Dr Horrible’s Sing-along Blog was purportedly produced for around US$100,000 on the SAG “low budget production” contract. His cast probably didn’t get paid as much as their Network Shows did, but at a time when nothing was shooting because of the writer’s strike, any work is good work. Particularly if that work is in a Guild that has a greater than 95% unemployment rate!

Shows like Mad Men and Friday Night Lights are doing high quality work with “very constrained” budgets. (Anyone know what the per-episode budgets are, let me know in the comments or private email.) What’s to say that under-employed actors and under-employed writers and under-employed-everything-else in LA (Toronto, New York, Vancouver, Denver, wherever) couldn’t produce their own shows for Internet distribution?

There are budget ways to do effects and better green/blue screen tools than ever before. Apple has put advanced color timing in the hands of anyone who wants to try and give their project the “big production” look.

The availability of “quality that no-one can complain about, ever” tools like those coming from Red Digital Cinema completes the production side. The tools of quality production are democratized. A new, new industry arises that aspires to decent middle class incomes with employment opportunities for anyone with the desire, drive and talent to create television, film, conference video, or event videography…

May a million United Artists bloom. If only we could get the distribution side solved.







One response to “When is a market saturated?”

  1. Jerry Hofmann

    You said it all with the word “democratization”. Gone are the days when only the wealthy could play… this opens up more production by more people than ever before, and the internet is the future of distribution for all these new producers.

    I’ve never seen such growth in our industry… now it’s not who has the gear has a career, but success will be determined by talent and creativity rather than by those with the dough for the gear… nearly anyone can afford to work with high end tools that heretofore were so high priced, that only the well heeled could even attempt a production career.

    It’s a good thing I believe.