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  • Karen Frost

Things I Learned from Trying To Finance Lesbian Web Series and Movies

Several years ago, I started what I thought was going to be a great project: I would give money to small-scale visual content creators as a way of helping get more lesbian content into the world. I've spent years of my life watching, analyzing, and writing about lesbian TV, movies, and web series, so this seemed like the perfect passion project. It would fuse my interests in sapphic pop culture and economics to answer an important question--working together, could these creators and I leverage algorithms in YouTube in order to direct the maximum number of viewers to their content? Could we improve opportunities for creators to make money through things like ad and subscription revenue so that with this money, they could create more content, kicking off a sort of expanding spiral of awesome queerness?

It seemed like a very simple plan, albeit idealistic. I had an identified problem--there's not enough LGBT content--and had an easy solution: give LGBT content creators money to create it. If you had asked me how this ludicrously simple plan could have gone wrong, I would have said, "It can't. The plan is foolproof." Of course, you've probably guessed by now that in fact, absolutely nothing went according to plan. And it was not foolproof.

While I learned several interesting lessons over the course of the years I was engaged in this experiment, only a few are worth sharing in this post. So here are some of the problems I encountered and what they mean for the sapphic community writ large:

Problem 1: No one wanted my money. Initially, I offered funding by application. I assumed there would be a lot of interest in the opportunity for free money, so I thought that by filtering project applications, I could select the projects that looked the most promising for this experiment. All I had to do was wait for the applications to come flooding in and take my pick...right? In fact, there was no tidal wave. There wasn't even a trickle. There were about three applications. Maybe just two, even. And even when I proactively approached content creators, they either didn't return my emails or ghosted me after a few exchanges.

This leads to three hypotheses for why no one was interested in my free money:

  1. Content creators in some geographic areas don't need external funding. I began my experiment with the key assumption that globally, the primary barrier to content creation is the lack of money. But it seems this doesn't always seem to be the case. My overtures to content creators in Thailand and China, in particular, were consistently rebuffed. This appears from the outside--although this may not be the case in reality--to be for the most part because these creators are able to secure domestic sources of funding. These sources include pre-sales, product placement, co-productions and, possibly, donations from rich locals. Why talk to a random American if you can get all the money you need at home? This is actually a good news story--no, a GREAT news story--and we're seeing it play out right now in Thailand. Studios and creators there are producing dozens of web series, with some of the highest production values we've yet seen for web series.

  2. Some content creators prefer stringless crowdfunding to the predictability of investors. One creator with whom I interacted needed money for their project...but they wanted it all to come from crowdfunding. The allure of crowdfunding is that all the money comes without strings--the creator can do whatever they want and never owe anything back to an investor. So on the plus side, it's truly free money. On the down side, crowdfunding is unpredictable. Creators can meet their budget goal or--more often than not--they fall short. What my conversation with that creator suggests is that private investment isn't the universal solution that I thought it was from the outside, and we'll continue to see crowdfunding campaigns as some creators weigh the pros of perceived freedom against the con of easy access to money.

  3. Does everyone hate Americans? This one is just a wild theory, but part of me wonders if one reason my investment project failed is because Americans have a negative reputation. Perhaps non-American creators ghosted me once they realized I'm from the country that is embarrassed to call Florida one of its own...

Problem 2: There's...too much content? Five years ago, I would have said there's no such thing as "too much lesbian stuff." I would have pointed to the size of the global sapphic population, historical under representation, etc...but from a socio-economics perspective, there might be--kind of. Here's what I mean: in the last few years, the market has been saturated with sapphic-themed web series and TV shows. According to my lesbian web series master list, there are now over 340 lesbian web series online, the vast majority of which can be viewed for free on YouTube. This content is coming not just from the usual places, but from new geographic areas like South Korea and Thailand. There's so much, in fact, that the global sapphic community can't even find it all. You can't watch what you don't even know exists.

So my original premise--the world needs more LGBT content--is both right and wrong. The world does need more content (especially from under represented places like Africa and Eastern Europe). From an absolute perspective, of course there's no such thing as "too much" content--particularly if you're a viewer. But from a producer's prospective, with so much content floating around already and with the dozens of web series now hitting YouTube each year, it's hard to leverage YouTube (and Twitter, which is another conversation) algorithms to get views. Put another way, if there's not a significant, professional marketing campaign behind a lesbian web series right now, it's almost certainly not getting enough views for creators to make much money off it (if it makes any at all--look up YouTube payout requirements for more info). This means the market can uplift highly professionally produced web series, but it's squeezing out lower budget web series.

Problem 3: No one wants to pay for content. Perhaps my most controversial take--but a hill I will absolutely die on--is that modern audiences don't want to pay for content. In a very real way, "distributors" like Spotify and YouTube have taught consumers that content can be free...and so now they expect it to be free pretty much across the board. Efforts by producers to paywall content is largely ineffective. Audiences will either refuse to pay for it by not watching or they'll immediately pirate the content. Either way, the producers lose. One of my investment projects started on a streaming site that would allow viewers to watch the project through either pay per view or a subscription to the site. The project got a mere 50 views over the course of months.

Presently, the sapphic market isn't supporting any kind of monetization that isn't ad revenue (AVOD). Put another way, for the most part, if viewers have to pay for content, they won't (excluding streaming services like Hulu, Netflix, etc., for which people already have a subscription and therefore it's not viewed as an extra cost). This is a pretty terrible development for content creators and their financial backers. Without going into detail here, the criteria to make ANY money off YouTube is exceptionally high. Achieving a full return on investment? Simply not possible.

The lesson here, and this is a huge discovery, is that there's no longer much room for "investment" in small-scale LGBT content. There's no flywheel of monetization that will help a content creator perpetually fund the creation of more content. There's only giving money to projects or creating projects and never getting much money back from them. Which, in some ways, has always been the truth about producing sapphic content, no matter how large the budget. With few exceptions, these are labors of love, not profitable ventures. We fund and create these things because we want to see them, not because we have any hope of making money off them.

Problem 4: Our creators aren't business people. Several years and another lifetime ago, I wrote an article for the old tello Films website about what I characterized as "the rise of amateurs in content production." The point was that in the last ten years especially, things like social media and self-publishing has enabled people who otherwise might not have found a means of distribution to get their content into the world. This is a positive development because it lets more voices be heard, but it also means that many of these creators haven't taken formal, business-related courses--courses that might give them a better sense of how to create legal documents such as operating agreements or contracts, or how to conduct marketing. And since many of their projects leverage other non-professionals, the content being produced sometimes ends up being deficient on the business side of things.

In the course of my little experiment, I found time and again that creators were inexperienced when it came to the post-production side of content creation. They overvalued the impact of film festivals, for example, and vastly undervalued the benefit of marketing. They didn't have a distribution plan. Their PR strategy was "Make TikTok account?". Based on my experiences, the stereotype about creatives having their head in the clouds isn't entirely wrong. Many new content creators have a vision for what they want to create, but not how to get that creation in front of as many eyes as possible. Unfortunately, this can be a recipe for failure.

What does the lack of business savvy among many content creators mean for the wider community? It means we need to proactively find ways to offer mentorship to our creators. A rising tide lifts all boats, and it would be fantastic if creators or business people who have already carried out projects and been successful could give back to the community through advice and mentorship.

The absence of experience in marketing also means that we as viewers have to help out. There's no publicity machine working to make sure that sapphic content is highlighted in the community. Grassroots amplification matters more than ever. Consistently, across the board, my creators discovered that LGBT social media influencers would not promote them. LGBT organizations would not spotlight them. Their own friends and families didn't retweet them. The only way their projects gained visibility was if fans/viewers talked about them on social media. So one of the best things that we can do for creators is to talk about their projects. Direct viewers to them. Please.

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