Sunday, July 06, 2008

Winning is Losing

Today, I was sitting on the couch reading while Sunny was watching “She’s Got The Look”, a reality show where the ‘prize’ is a contract with a modeling agency.

Now, I despise reality TV in all forms, as I’ve talked about at length in the past, but I hate shows like ‘She’s Got the Look’, ‘American Idol’ and ‘America’s Next Top Model’ for a totally different reason.

These shows basically prey on people’s lack of understanding about the business side behind ‘dream jobs’. There are millions of people out there who want to be singers, artists, writers etc, but only a tiny percentage of those people understand things like licensing or primary and tertiary rights.

Basically, if you enter a competition like these, all you’re doing is competing for a job while simultaneously giving up all your rights.

Let’s just say that there’s a reason that 99% of the runners-up on American Idol make more money than the winners.

Let me give you a real-world example.

Every year Platinum Studios holds a ‘Webcomic Competition’. Like American Idol, on the surface it sounds like a really good thing. The ‘winner’ gets a comic book deal where Platinum will publish their comic in print, host it on their website and make sure it gets an absolute ton of advertising and marketing. You can go from an obscure, backwater internet comic to getting worldwide attention over night!

The problem comes in when you actually look at the terms of the contract you win. Platinum aren’t publishing your comic…they own it. That’s right, they’re not publishing your comic for you. They take ownership of your comic and pay you to draw it for them.

Want to know the worst part? You’ve just made yourself totally expendable. They own your comic, so they don’t actually need you any more.

So, if your comic doesn’t actually do all that well, they drop it after a couple of months…but they’re not going to give your rights back to you, meaning you can’t even continue it on your own on the web.

Even worse, if your comic becomes the next ‘Superman’ or ‘X-Men’, guess who’s going to get all that money? The answer is not you.

You’re nothing more than a paid artist. Because they own your idea, they’re free to pitch it to Hollywood, get it on TV, make lunchboxes and action figures. When you enter than competition you’ve signed a contract that says Platinum now owns your comic and they’ll pay you to draw it for a fixed period of time.

So imagine that for a second. You’ve won this competition and suddenly your comic is made into a blockbuster movie, you can’t walk into a store without seeing posters, action figures, coffee mugs and all other sorts of merchandise with your characters on them. Your idea is now worth millions…but all you’re getting is the salary you agreed to when you signed that contract.

Then you have a choice. You can either keep drawing your comic for the relative pittance, or you can rock the boat a little, get fired and get zero.

If you think this is an extreme example, DJ Coffman, last year’s winner posted on his blog that he was ‘ending his relationship’ with Platinum because they were either paying him late or not at all.

Then he asked Platinum if he could have at least the web-rights back, so that he could keep the readership he’s gained so far…and Platinum flat out refused. After all, why would they? They make their money by selling ideas. Why give an idea back for free?

In other words, DJ Coffman’s idea is dead. The idea I’m sure was ‘his baby’, something he was proud of and thought would take him ‘all the way’. Instead, it’s at the bottom of a filing cabinet somewhere and will probably never see the light of day again…and even if it does, and eventually gets turned into a blockbuster movie…all Coffman will be able to do is watch.

I can’t talk about this without mentioning Siegel and Shuster. While they didn’t enter a competition, they were so desperate to get their comic in print that they signed whatever was in front of them.

They sold the rights to their idea for $130 dollars. They then worked on the comic for a few years until they sued for more money…and were completely cut out of the loop.

Yes, it’s true that they were making around $70,000 a year while they worked on their comic, damn good money in the 1940’s…but it’s cast in a whole different light when you realize the character they created was Superman…a character that was making National Comics Publications millions and millions a year.

My point is that that what I’ve talked about here is true of all of these ‘competitions’.

Look at American Idol. The winners do get recording contracts, but they only get contracts that say they have to pay for their own wardrobe, their touring costs, marketing costs etc. In other words, they basically become the recording studio’s bitch. Lots of money is made, but the so-called winner sees very little of it.

Here’s my point of view on it. If you have the chops to become a singer, writer, artist or whatever, you have a skill or talent that these company’s want. Entering one of these competitions is doing things backwards. You should be attempting to sell your skill or talent for the highest price possible…not competing with other people for the worst possible contract.

At risk of laboring the point, entering one of these competitions is like hearing about a car dealership that’s desperate for second hand cars, and instead of driving your car over there and negotiating a fair price, instead you enter a competition where the ‘prize’ is the right to sell your car for a fraction of it’s actual value….and if you win and decide that you don’t really want to sell your car for a tenth of its worth, they get your car anyway and just don’t pay you.

1 comment:

DJC said...

DJ Coffman here. Just wanted to clarify a few things for you on your article here. While a lot of what you say is great advice and warning to creators, I can't be used as an example of someone who's been screwed over, even though I ended Hero By Night.

1. Even if they continued to do anything with it, I get royalties and bonuses in my original contract. So, it would bring me joy to walk in and see a HBN lunchbox and know I'd have an accountant going through records to see what I was owed. Anything they do with it, I get paid. Although, I would rather them use common sense and allow me to continue a webcomic myself or such... which leads us to...

2. The rights thing. I didn't ask actually, THEY offered it to me first. But they DID change their mind after I talked publicly about not being paid on time. I guess they got bent out of shape about it.

3. HBN wasn't my "baby". While I am proud of it, there were never stars in my eyes thinking this would be the thing that takes me to the top. I've often publicly told creators to not sell their "babies", and i Have a few things of my own that are never for sale (Yirmumah, and others)

I went from working with a company that was always distrusted by the comic book community, and was very hard to get press for (unless you were paying for it) right off to working with the band The Flobots on a graphic novel and website designs for them. Not everyone can have a freelancer mindset to do this as a profession (drawing comics)