Open Source: Not A Valuable Business Model For Movies?

Can film makers use principles known from open source software to produce their works and make a living while doing so? That’s the question Tim Baumann set out to explore when he began producing his first feature film Valkaamaa in October of 2006. Baumann published version 1.0 of the movie online this week, where users can now download it for free, ready to watch and remix.


For Baumann, this three-year process wasn’t just about making a movie. He also used Valkaamaa as a testbed for his dissertation in computer science that dealt with ways that filmmakers can utilize open source strategies. So what’s his final take after more than three years of open source film making? Bauman seemed skeptical: “It looks like hardly anyone is going to be able to live off of this, much less build a valuable business.”

Valkaama is based on a forthcoming book by German author Hendrik Behnisch, and it chronicles a quest for a mythical place in northern Finland. The total production budget of the movie was 2000 Euros (about $2800), and Baumann is the first one to admit that we’re not talking a first-class production here. It would be unlikely that anyone would want to add the movie as a DVD to a magazine “due to its production quality,” he wrote in his dissertation.

Limited means made it even more important for Baumann to use open source principles to get Valkaama done. He uploaded a first raw cut of the movie to a FTP server in 2008, and volunteers have been helping with writing and recording the score as well as various post-production issues ever since. This was made possible by using liberal Creative Commons licenses which ensured that people didn’t have to ask for permission first before, say, producing a trailer. All in all, close to 50 people were involved in the production of Valkaama, Baumann told me.

His dissertation analyzed various ways traditional open source vendors are making money, despite giving away their products for free, and contrasted them with the way the traditional movie business makes money. The biggest difference: Windowing doesn’t really work in the world of open source, because the availability of the material is an essential part of its openness. Baumann also analyzed a number of other open film projects ranging from Star Wreck to Elephant’s Dream. His conclusion: Open source film making is possible, and there are some opportunities to make money.

However, making this work in real life seems to be much harder than on paper. Baumann concluded early on that many open source business models really didn’t make any sense for Valkaama. Crowd sourcing is tough, for example, if you just start out and don’t have a crowd yet. Merchandizing and brand licensing also don’t seem to be an option for a one-off production, and donations have so far only brought in a couple of bucks.

Baumann isn’t ready to give up on open film making completely, but he cautioned that it could be hard to finance more cost-intensive productions this way. Still, there might be an opportunity in this process when costs are not really an issue. Baumann wrote in his masters thesis that it open source could be an interesting opportunity for new companies looking for a loss leader to make a name for themselves. Using unorthodox production and distribution mechanisms definitely helps to get people talking — even if it’s just about the fact that this won’t make you rich.

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