Blog Post

Catching up with Caution Zero’s Stephen McCandless: Turning “Funny” into Money

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

A little over two years since NewTeeVee came online, we’re catching up with some veterans who’ve been working with the medium since before Google paid off YouTube’s VCs, Hulu was just a glint in News Corp. and NBC Universal’s eye and Apple hadn’t taken up its set-top box hobby. This is the third in a series by one of the original NewTeeVee writers, Jackson West. See also part 1: Chuck Olsen and part 2: The Burg.
Stephen McCandless of Caution Zero Network manages to be winningly sincere about producing drama and comedy, while remaining unsentimental about his goal of making it pay. Cherub: the Vampire with Bunny Slippers managed to find an audience among Buffy fans when videos online was still something new and exciting to many. “My goals were unabashedly commercial,” he wrote in an email. “My interest was in figuring out if there was any way for artists to support themselves through online media.” Unfortunately, he still hasn’t found the magic formula. “The online ‘business model’ is still unproven — at least for those of us not named ‘Joss Whedon.’,”he wrote.

Caution Zero’s What the Funny, which I thoroughly enjoyed, still hasn’t been fully released online. (You can buy the DVD on Amazon, but that’s not exactly a revolutionary new media concept.) The show has been picked up for distribution by Cinetic Rights Media, the digital division of Cinetic Media which has banked a number of successes in the independent film world. CRM focuses on projects which may never see television or theatrical release, and McCandless praised them for being “technology-agnostic.” The company has managed to place independent features like 1994’s Oscar-winning documentary Hoop Dreams on Hulu, complete with presumably revenue-generating limited commercial interruptions.

I think the show could certainly find an audience on YouTube or do well as an iTunes podcast, but not only would that not cover the expense, it wouldn’t guarantee a residual income for the producers or performers. And residual income is the stuff from which art for art’s sake can exist.

“The rush of new ideas and technology distracts people from all that hasn’t changed,” McCandless pointed out. And that’s both from a dramatic standpoint (people still love the three-act structure) and the business angle. You’ll still have to advertise your productions, or at least pray for a mention on BoingBoing or Digg. And you’ll still have to struggle for access to distribution and paying customers (be they viewers or advertisers), who tend to hang out with the same people they’ve always hung out with (be it Disney for the former or Madison Avenue for the latter).

But what has changed? McCandless says he feels that the big difference is at least a starry-eyed artiste doesn’t necessarily have to move to New York or Los Angeles. “You can take advantage of small town networks for support and notoriety,” for instance, or find collaborators and get feedback without the formalities or cost. “I was only able to make What the Funny because of the connections I had in Seattle.”

Caution Zero has since been focusing on commercial work instead of narrative fiction, and while that work provides technical know-how and money to build the business, it doesn’t help McCandless achieve his original goal: creating an income engine for artists. At least not yet. “It’s still the same long-shot, but at least I have one,” he adds. So what’s he learned, besides patience? “To be even more suspicious of the promises of technology and to not lose track of the basics of what my job is as a creator.”