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Why Web Monetization makes me more hopeful about film funding than anything in 22 years since Netribution launched…

In 2006 we wrote here about this new idea of crowd-source financing to fund films, which had funded a few short films – a couple of years before IndieGoGo and Kickstarter took off. We'd followed the growth of a new website 'craze' called YouTube, that was making the industry sit up sweaty, followed their first feature filmmakers Arin and Susan and written about alternative exhibition as Secret Cinema was starting in 2008, doing our own small research project at that time – Living Cinema. But none of these, I think, comes slightly close to the potential of Web Monetization , the protocol for decentralised web subscriptions, across film, music and journalism. 

  • It's not just that Web Monetization currently pays out at $0.36 per hour, 36 times higher than Amazon Prime's $0.01/€0.01/£0.01.
  • Nor is it just that it's been designed to prevent new web monopolies from forming around it, with the underlying infrastrucutre designed as open protocols – allowing an ecosystem of multiple subscription providers interoperating with limitless media providers.
  • It's not even because it's global at its heart, built around Interledger, which is trying to reduce payment processing fees to the absolute lower possible, in a non-monopolistic way. Given it can cost up to 50% in payment processing fees to buy a digital film or album from much of Afrcia in the west, this no small thing.
  • It isn't even because of the $100m seed fund, Grant for the Web, making awards to technology and content producers exploring it – which awarded Netribution our first substantial funding in a long time for project MOVA.
  • It's that it has the potential to separate the business of content production/licensing and distribution/promotion for video online, and so restore to film-watching online something that's been missing from most of the web video experience ­– the role of the expert curator, programmer, flea-pit cinema, film festival – the human selecting and introducing films that no Big Data-fed algorythm guessing what you want to see can come close to. I love subscription platforms, and subscribe to most, but miss the curation taken for granted at a film festival or great video store, and which the old DVD/VHS distribution architecture allowed for. We can read a blog of recommendations of what to watch, but we have to go elsewhere to watch them. Web Monetization doesn't mind where you watch the film because it's a funding model for outside of the 'walled gardens'.

This year, I'll do my best to explain a technology that is still being built, that's not a standard at the Worldwide Web Consortium (tho it's a proposal), that has key features around community moderation and governance still missing, and that currently is used on barely 1,500 websites, with so few people paying to subscribe thru you'd be lucky to make the ~£15 we've made this last year across this site and a few others.

But it feels like the start of something that proposes a shift in how media is funded online – from everyone paying with their attention and data to support an advertising industry dependent on surveilence – to subsidising media creation by dripping a stream of payments from those who can afford it as they browse the web invisibly and seemlessly with a browser wallet. It's Charlie Brooker's 'magic coins' idea that he proposed to save journalism 12 years ago. It's open, it's designed to be global, it's being seed-funded well, and over the next year or three, I think will take off if only for the simple reason that the current way media is funded online is such a mess. Hustling hard to get millions of viewers for a video in return for barely the price of a Happy Meal – and – beyond a lucky-few on Patreon, only the hope of becomming a full-time ad-industry sponsored influencer, a Truman Burbank, turning the unique special person that your fans fell in love with, into a full-time QVC lifestyle shopping channel. Which is fine if that's what you want, but maybe there needs to be some other paths for funding video culture online.

Think what it could do for world cinema. Every year, of the approximately 10,000 new feature films that UNESCO says are released, around 2,000 come from Nigeria. Around another 2,000 come from India. And yet Netflix has less than 4,000 feature films IN TOTAL on its platform. Amazon Prime has just over 12,000. Across Hulu, HBO and Disney Plus, according to ReelGood, there's barely 20,000 features on the SVoD platforms – ie two years of cinema releases, or under 3% of the 713,000 features ever made, according to The Movie Databae or 4.5% of IMDB's 470,000 listed. 36 times more money per hour streaming from a web browser wallet, through the curation space that recommended the work, directly back to the filmmaker, with no middle-person beyond perhaps a climate-responsible video streaming provider.

So, for the first time in over a decade since it seemed clear the direction of the web's development, was the explosion of FaceBook and YouTube to monopoly position without a sound revenue model for creators – it feels there's some hope for funding independent media online outside of the major platforms.