Anti-commodity and free distribution in film and video work

In a 2002 article reflecting on the first decade of the London Filmmakers Co-operative (1966-76), one of its founding members Malcolm LeGrice observed:
“Where the film-makers established some semblance of functioning economy through Co-op distribution and exhibition rentals (financial exchange for the experience not ownership of the object), the non-filmmaker artists had little option than the sale of works or documentation. I believe this anti-commodity characteristic, together with the more collective attitude of the Co-op film-makers, challenged the ideology of artistic individualism and the demand for a marketable individual identity, and I think this carries over into an ethical/aesthetic form in the work itself.”
(Malcolm Le Grice – Filmwaves / art in-sight, 2002)

Contrast this with a video that popped up on my YouTube subscriber feed yesterday titled ‘The Top 10 Skills You Need To Dominate YouTube’, which included advice on ‘Branding’, ‘Business Strategy’, ‘Data Analytics’, and ‘YouTube Strategy’. Whereas it’s been noted here before, the parallels between the founding aspiration of the New York Filmmakers Co-operative for filmmakers to be able to freely self-distribute their work, and the ethos of online film-makers to do the same – videos such as this from YouTube approved consultants, reduce online film-making to a branch of digital marketing. The freedom to produce and distribute your own work is traded off against the financial possibilities offered through advertising revenue. It’s not producers and distributors influencing the nature and content of the work, but the insights from YouTube analytics and the need to develop a clearly defined, individual brand.

This is perhaps why artist film-makers seem to have a preference for Vimeo as an online platform for sharing their work, often paying a fee for greater flexibility and more features. ‘A marketable individual identity’ doesn’t hold much sway on Vimeo, where the algorithm is a less dominant force, and experimentation seems to be rewarded.

However, LeGrice notes the way that artist filmmakers were rejecting the model defined by the commercial art market in de-commodifying their work. And you can see that this also applies even to the ad-rev pursuing video producers and marketeers on YouTube who have established an alternative model of commercial video production where the producer is also the client, and the real commodity is not the video work but the attention of the audience, established through models such as that described in the Video Creators video. In this scenario, the videos themselves almost become disposable, a means to an end in a constant stream of content produced to appease the algorithm. Creators can adapt their work to fit the needs of sponsors, videos talking about mental health sponsored by therapy apps, vlogs about books and reading sponsored by Audible etc. The financial exchange is for a period of time in the attention span of the audience, not for the video work itself, which continues to belong to the creator.

However it’s achieved, through sponsorship, ad-share, or paid downloads and streams, online digital film-makers have achieved one of the principle aims of the sixties filmmakers co-operatives – to establish a ‘functioning economy’, find alternative sources of funding, and destroying the ‘budget myth’.