Feature Story: Rich as Bro

23 June, 2009 by IF

As producers still struggle with the concept of giving away their content online for free, Simon de Bruyn speaks to several creatives who have found ways to make money by doing just that.

In April last year a short film called Beached Whale was premiered with little fanfare.


Since then it is has been seen by over four million people and is arguably the most profitable Australian short ever made. For an outlay of about $15 in production and marketing costs, the film has netted its producers over $1 million so far. All this for a film that was launched for free on YouTube.

The short, which quickly became a viral video, is an animated skit featuring a Kiwi whale and seagull talking on a beach, with the humour clearly coming from the New Zealand accents and pronunciation. It’s very simple and very funny. Mash-ups and imitations by other users have also clocked in excess of 800,000 views.

Click here to see the Beached Whale clip on YouTube.

Beached Whale producer Jarod Green, of The Handsomity Institute in Sydney, says that while the level of success was a surprise (helped along by comedy act The Flight of the Conchords posting it on their blog) the film was always intended to test the concept that the free distribution channels of social networking tools could result in financial return.

The Handsomity Institute started off selling merchandise on custom clothing website Café Press, and later inked a deal with clothing company Supre, and was fielding offers from toy and jewellry makers. Meanwhile, the video was available for anyone to view or remix online for free.

Melbourne-based writer, director and satirist Dan Ilic is a firm believer that free content online can generate income. Whether he is using social networks to sell tickets for the Beaconsfield musical he wrote, or selling t-shirts off the back of his Freeview spoof video, Ilic is a disciple of the new economy where traditional commercial activity is being combined with sharing free economies online.

“It’s this thing called the hybrid economy that American academic Lawrence Lessig and a couple of others have been throwing around where people are selling physical things for their digital content. That’s the new economy: selling something physical to support the digital,” he says.

“I’ve only started using Café Press, after seeing what it did for the Beached Whale guys, who still get about $US9000 a month from there. I made shirts to capitalise on the ‘fake Stephen Conroy’ issue on Twitter and sold seven on the first day. It wasn’t a lot but made me $40. I’ve also started selling shirts, mugs and clocks based on the Freeview spoof I did with [Triple J film critic] Marc Fennell to promote our comedy festival show.”

Nicholas Carlton is another Melbourne-based writer, director and producer who is experimenting with these ideas. The 19-year old is currently completing his second year at the Victorian College of the Arts, but last year started scripting a 24-episode online series called Oz Girl, which tells the story of a country girl, Sadie, as she settles in to city life with her prima donna cousin Megan.

Click here to watch the first episode of Oz Girl.

The series is hosted on platforms such as Bebo, Koldcast TV, YouTube, TiVo, and iTunes. Over 22,000 people have subscribed to the show on Bebo alone. Carlton says he retains full ownership of the show, and turned down some big offers in order to keep it. He says the story has been designed to encompass brand partnerships and while he funded the first series himself, he forecasts that the second series will not only be fully funded by brands, but will turn a profit.

When the series launched he started selling merchandise much in the same way as Ilic and Green have and will soon release a compilation soundtrack through iTunes. He is now looking to develop opportunities within the show itself.

“We have employed a full time brand manager now, and are looking at partnering with clothing, makeup and accessory brands for our audience of mostly teenage girls,” he explains.

“We have also started running SMS competitions at the end of each episode, and people text a number and can win free wallpaper for their phone from the show, or send messages to the characters. We get $2 for every $3.50 SMS.

“Our goal is to establish characters and allow the audience to create an emotional connection and then use these characters to sell stuff. Oz Girl is intended to be a commercial enterprise to service an audience and we started the show like you’d start up a business.”

This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of INSIDEFILM.