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Louis, Eat Cake

December 14, 2011

Democracy may not be a truth-producing machine, but it seems to succeed when the product need not be exclusive or universal. Take Louis C.K. as an example, the latest big, fat data point in my unceasingly told-you-so argument on what it means to produce in the digital era. Because I’ve made the argument more times than I care to count, here it is in short: big studio productions used to be necessary to produce entertainment because the means of production and distribution were expensive and scarce (i.e., high barriers to entry); now, everyone has a high-quality camera on their phone and the internet is a sufficiently large platform to allow anyone to share anything with anyone at costs approaching zero (i.e., low barriers to entry). The digital era is thus democratized for content as inputs and outlets have proliferated, allowing people to pick and choose content with much greater specificity.

Louis C.K. has benefited from this fractured media because has a specific brand of humor that may not be for everybody, so he would have never made it on broadcast TV back when each station had to try to get as big a market share as possible. After all, some people don’t have a sense of humor or triple-digit IQs. But that strong sense of specificity and individuality makes him a lightning rod for that segment of the population who do share in his comedic sensibility.

And Louis combines that strong artistic perspective with an incredible work ethic; he famously develops a new hour of material every year and then never performs any of those jokes again after video-taping an hour-long special. And that’s not counting writing, directing, producing, acting and editing his amazing FX show “Louie,” which is basically the most profound thing on TV (or raising his daughters).

Louis’ deal with FX is famous within the comedy industry; he has almost complete control with essentially no veto power by the network, meaning it is basically entirely his vision that makes it onto the airwaves. As he told Reddit in an AMA (i.e., Ask Me Anything):

I got [almost complete control] by demanding it and refusing to do the show any other way at all and by having the leverage that I was completely willing to walk away without doing the show and by agreeing to an extremely low budget so that they could offset the risk of giving me this freedom becuase they are risking less money. [sic]

I have had conversations with them about very few moments in the show but zero battles.

The resulting combination is that Louis is a one-man industry, capable of bringing ready-to-consume content to market with a relatively small budget, especially since most of the content is based around normal, everyday human interactions. He is the paragon of what a comic can achieve with a little bit of financing and total independence.

Now, Louis decided to take things all the way to the grand experiment: he decided to put up his own production budget and produce and distribute an hour-long special all by himself (with some hired hands for taping and a website of course). This is the kind of thing that would normally be financed by HBO or some studio like that, and it would normally come with the usual bells and whistles that come with a huge marketing department and the other bloated vestigial remnants of the studio production model in days of yore. By contrast, all Louis had was a small social media campaign run entirely by himself (including the aforementioned Reddit AMA and the outtake clip below). Which left people wondering, could Louis actually turn a profit by selling it to the people directly (and for only $5 no less)?

The short answer: yes. The long answer: and then some. In a statement released after just four days of sales, Louis said:

The show went on sale at noon on Saturday, December 10th. 12 hours later, we had over 50,000 purchases and had earned $250,000, breaking even on the cost of production and website. As of Today, we’ve sold over 110,000 copies for a total of over $500,000. Minus some money for PayPal charges etc, I have a profit around $200,000 (after taxes $75.58). This is less than I would have been paid by a large company to simply perform the show and let them sell it to you, but they would have charged you about $20 for the video. They would have given you an encrypted and regionally restricted video of limited value, and they would have owned your private information for their own use. They would have withheld international availability indefinitely. This way, you only paid $5, you can use the video any way you want, and you can watch it in Dublin, whatever the city is in Belgium, or Dubai. I got paid nice, and I still own the video (as do you). You never have to join anything, and you never have to hear from us again.

Louis proved what was more or less predicted: that a big studio is not necessary when the quality of the content is there and there is a sufficient built-in audience willing to consume the stuff, if you’d only serve it up to them in a convenient manner that doesn’t impose other ancillary costs (like a subscription to HBO for the year). What’s more dramatic is that the disintermediation of not needing an HBO as a middleman means that artists now have a model to make their own “Louis C.K. deal,” and bring their product to market without running it past the dreaded censors.

Others, including Bill Maher, are already following suit. Who knows, maybe the revolution will be televised, after all? Just on YouTube instead of network TV.

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