The other day I watched a documentary on the rise and fall of Rooster Teeth, the web video production company behind Red vs. Blue and other series. It followed what seems to me to be an all-too familiar pattern, one that we who wish to produce content ought to consider very carefully.
The short version is that it all started with a group of four or five friends messing around in Halo and producing some funny videos. This eventually spun off into a comedy series, then into a legitimate science fiction series with a comedic edge and actual animation. With the series growing and pulling in a profit, the core group of friends expanded into a full-on production company under the auspices of several larger companies, and ultimately of Microsoft. The staff eventually numbered in the hundreds of employees trying to produce professional-level content.
Then stories of abusive or exploitative work environments emerged, people began leaving the company, personal lives broke apart, and they jumped on board the political bandwagon, with the result that today the company is careening towards bankruptcy, while at least one of the core cast sadly comments how much he misses the days of a group of friends crammed into a room just having fun.
This seems the pattern of a lot of web content, at least the stuff that takes off (even though most of it doesn’t get as big as Rooster Teeth did). It begins as a simple, crude passion project by some creative individual or group of friends. Then it gets popular, it starts pulling in money. The creators quit their day jobs to work on it full time. They expand, improve the technical aspect, maybe hire people (usually fans of their work) and incorporate. They reach a peak of popularity. Then the pressure of constantly producing, of managing a company, of the continual growth that is demanded of a corporation begins to tell. Quality suffers. New projects, created from necessity instead of inspiration, or in any case coming from a different place than the original work, fail to recapture the charm of the earlier ones. Perhaps they suffer some kind of breakdown, or they lose perspective on their work, or their personal lives begin to crack.
There is a difference between doing something for fun and doing it for a living. It is difficult to maintain the spark of creativity when you are doing it for your livelihood, and when a misstep may cost you real money.
Then of course, a lot of these kinds of products have a natural ‘sell-by’ date. You can’t keep a comedy series going indefinitely. You can’t keep reviewing old movies or old video games forever. Sooner or later the novelty will wear off, or the quality will slip, or the story will end, and then what will you be left with?
See, setting out to be a professional entertainer, or the founder of a corporation requires a ton of preparatory work involving blood, sweat, and tears. A lot of the people who made it in the early YouTube boom never had anything like that; they simply started a fun hobby, a chance to express themselves a little, and then bit by bit it becomes a job, or even a company. Small wonder many, if not most of them, cracked under the pressure; It’s the sort of thing that can easily turn heads and crush the creative spark that birthed the enterprise in the first place.
Basically, the kind of people who can create fun, popular videos do not usually seem to be the same kind of people who can successfully manage the pressures of running an entertainment business. Honestly, my impression is that most of them don’t want to; they just want to escape the rat race and do things they enjoy. But you can’t just do that; you can’t simply coast on a decent income, you have to keep expanding and keep the subscriptions up.
Me, I don’t know how to prevent this sort of thing from happening, but it’s something all of us who hope to make money from our passions need to be aware of. It might be well to plan ahead what you would do if you work started taking off, how you would approach the business and professional side of things. And to consider just what you want your work and your enterprise to look like, if it comes to that.