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December 10, 2007

the business of stopmo: a primer and a manifesto

by sven at 11:59 pm

[Reprinted from a thread I started at This is an essay I wrote in response to the "How about it - can we make a little scratch in today's digital media environment?" thread, here.]

PART I - Making Something to Sell

OK, let's get down to basics... Givens: (1) You're a person who loves filmmaking. (2) You want to make money while doing it. ...What we're talking about here is running a business.


So, let's think like we're running a business. First off, you need a product to sell. Your product is your film. But filmmaking isn't like painting, where you would ever sell the original... We're in the business of selling copies. I'm going to assume that means making DVDs.

If you were a world-renowned painter who could sell a single painting for $20,000, maybe you could earn a year's worth of living expenses with one sale. No one's going to buy a DVD for $20,000 though...

So, it looks like you're going to need to sell many DVDs in order to make this endeavor profitable. That means keeping inventory on hand. Suppose for the moment that you want a hundred copies available for sale. Right now I can see three options:

(1) buy a stack of blank DVDs, cases, and labels for about $100 total and deal with production and order-fulfillment yourself;

(2) have a professional service burn the discs and print the labels for you, at a cost of ~$7.50 each, therefore $750 total (different deals will vary);

(3) use a print-on-demand service like, which allows you to produce each DVD when it is ordered -- and which will take care of fulfilling orders for you, too -- thus, an out-of-pocket cost of $0.

[Personally, I know which means of production I want to pursue. ;-) ]

Let me point out that most of the folks on SMA don't even get this far in terms of creating their stopmo business model... Which drives me nuts! Here we have a message board full of stopmo enthusiasts -- the people most likely in all the world to buy a stopmo film -- and we don't even make it possible to buy films from each other! I'd love to buy DVDs from Nick, Lio, Strider, Paul, Mysterious Ron, Jriggity, Toggo... I'll stop there -- but you get my drift.

Folks, I WANT to buy your films -- but I can't, because there's no physical product there to buy! PLEASE, pick a means for producing some inventory, even if it's just home-burned DVDs, and make them available to me!


OK, so let's assume that you want to be in the business of creating DVDs to sell. You first got into this art because you love it, not in order to make money -- so to make the transition, you're going to have to change your perspective and start thinking about the budget.

Here's the challenge that every maker of art must face: in order to make a profit, you have to bring in more money than you spent on creating your product. Easy enough -- except for one horrifying glitch: stopmo is astronomically expensive to produce!

How expensive? Let's look at a hypothetical 5-minute film and talk about what your initial investment is.

Tools of the trade, a computer and camera, you probably owned anyway -- so I'm willing to ignore those. Sculpey, aluminum armature wire, plaster, wood... I'll bet you could make a fine looking 5-minute film for under $100 in material costs. Even if you move up to foam latex and silicone, the material costs probably won't kill you...

It's TIME that's the killer. How many hours does it take to make a stopmo film, when you consider both fabrication and animating? Let's say you work at 12fps, and can pose a frame every 2.5 minutes. That's 2 seconds of film produced per hour. A five minute film, then, takes 150 hours to shoot. Fabrication usually takes longer than shooting the film itself -- I usually estimate 3 times as long -- so, we'll say that this 5 minute film takes 600 hours total to make.

If you were paying yourself a bit better than minimum wage, say $10 per hour, that means this hypothetical 5 minute film is going to cost you $6100 to create. That's how much money you're going to have to make back, just to break even!

Oh, I could talk about cutting corners at this point -- using cheaper materials, stories with fewer characters, filming at a lower fps... But who am I kidding? If you don't love the film, you're not going to go through the hell of creating it. Just accept that, yes, stopmo is painfully expensive to create.


Pricing is not guess work. It's math. Deal with it. Embrace it. It's not that damned hard.

If you were making one-of-a-kind paintings, this is the formula you would use to price your products: cost of materials + cost of labor + mark-up to whatever the market is willing to pay.

The accepted price point (what people are willing to pay) for feature-length DVDs is $10-$25. People might be willing to pay less than that, but they're not going to pay more. Your film is only 5 minutes long, so you're going to be doing pretty well if you can get people to spend $10...

But, if you sell just one copy of your film for $10, you've just made negative $6090. ...Which is why you're in the business of selling DVD copies, not the original. (Duh.)

OK, let's set our sights on just breaking even. Let's say that you use an online print-on-demand service, where it costs $7.50 to produce a DVD -- but whatever you charge on top of that is money that goes to you. If you can sell your DVDs for $10 each, that means you're raking in $2.50 each...

Which means it's an easy calculation to figure out how much volume we need to move. To make back your initial investment of $6100, you're going to have to sell 2440 copies.


And to make a modest living of $20,000 per year? That's another 8000 copies that you're going to want to move.



I assume that the people I'm writing this for are artists. We have visions that we want to share on film. However, we also have craft skills that we can sell... Which, sadly, is a much more profitable route to go.

As far as I can see, there are four ways to try to make money while doing stopmo:

(1) make your own film and sell DVD copies;

(2) work as an animator/fabricator at a studio that does stopmo;

(3) start your own stopmo studio, which produces and sells TV commercials and music videos to companies with deep pockets (deep because they're moving huge volumes of their own products);

(4) create a film and sell it to a media company that makes its profits either by distributing a catalog of films, or which broadcasts content and makes its real money off ad revenue.

I've done a little bit of freelance work for a local stopmo studio... If I recall, I was making $15/hour before taxes. Freelance work, kinda by definition, isn't steady... But suppose I wanted to make $20,000 a year doing that. If we assume that taxes are going to take about a third of my pay before it even reaches me, then it's easy to figure out that I'm going to need to work for 2000 hours each year. ...Which translates into fifty weeks of 40 hours each.

Nice work if you can get it... But of course, that's not going to leave a lot of time in your life to make that hypothetical 5-minute film I mentioned earlier, which would take 600 hours to produce (fifteen 40-hour weeks).

Running your own stopmo studio, you can get big money coming in, which hypothetically you can channel into a side project -- possibly making a film even with the help of other animators... But the level of complexity grows too, in terms of getting people their paychecks, dealing with insurance, etc... Well, I don't know enough to go that route.

Plus, if your own studio could make a film, you'd still have to find a media company that will buy it for distribution. At that level, you're not going to risk making a film before finding a buyer -- you're going to court potential buyers with a pitch, and try to sell them on investing in you up front.

Are there media companies interested in buying short films from people who've already created a product? Probably. But I don't personally know anything about them. All I can do is ask: How much is any particular company -- who is primarily interested in their own profit -- likely to pay for 5 minutes worth of content? ...$50? $500? $2000?

Maybe broadcast media are different -- but if the company in question sells DVDs, then they'd be subject to the same math that we talked about earlier: To earn $20,000, they'd have to move 10,440 copies.

Granted, they can probably get volume discounts during production -- but that's still a truly phenomenal number of units to sell when your product only lasts 5 minutes. ...And did I mention that your royalties are going to be skimmed off the top? Probably something like 25 or 50 cents per unit?

PART II - Who's going to buy what you make?

OK, now that we've taken a fairly in-depth look at the options for making things to sell, I want to turn attention to consumers -- the people you're going to try to sell your products to.


Let's start with the big picture.

Markets don't simply exist -- they grow or they shrink. ...And, in my opinion, we have it in our power to help make the size of the stopmo audience go in either direction.

I believe that at the heart of every consumer movement there is a core of die-hard enthusiasts. Be their passion for stamp-collecting or for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, wherever there's a shared passion, you've got the seed for a money tree. For stopmo, that essential core of enthusiasts is us -- the 6000-odd lurkers and contributors at SMA.

Look at science fiction. Back in the 30s it was viewed as badly-written kid stuff, not to be taken seriously. It was printed on pulp paper, the cheapest material available, because both the paper and the content was so disposable. Sci fi films have followed a similar path -- look back at attitudes in the 60s -- before 2001 and Star Wars -- when it was all B-movie stuff, not taken seriously by the general public. Where is sci fi now? It's a huge force in the book publishing industry, and it's raking in billions of dollars world-wide in the sale of films. Why? The enthusiasts were determined and won out.

More recently, look at how anime has taken root in the US. It wasn't very long ago that it was just a handful of enthusiasts who even knew what anime is... Now, go into Best Buy, and there are shelves of the stuff for sale.

Why can't the same thing happen with stopmo? In Eastern Europe, the puppet film tradition (I'm told) has a long heritage and continues to thrive. It's a different culture, with stronger ties to traditional puppetry... But even so, why couldn't it happen here too?


Stopmo certainly can sell. Wallace and Gromit, the Nightmare Before Christmas, Robot Chicken... People are hungry for this stuff.

It seems to me that the real problem that we have in terms of marketing our own home-brewed stopmo films is length. In my opinion, a DVD is generally supposed to provide between 45-minutes and 2-hours worth of entertainment. If I buy a 5-minute stopmo film on DVD for $10, I definitely feel like I'm doing the author a bit of a favor. Mind you, it's a favor that I'm eager to do, because I love the art form.

I want to point out that stopmo is not the only art form that suffers from issues of scale. How about short stories? You can sell a short story in the form of a chapbook -- but generally you're going to have a challenging time selling to anyone besides other short-story enthusiasts.

Even more generally, I'd like to point out that MOST artists are starving artists. Poets, novelists, painters, sculptors, makers of short live-action films... We all have to struggle with the time-invested vs. income-generated equation.

Short stories, though, I think are a particularly good analogy for stopmoes to look at. How do you sell a short story? Put it in an anthology.

A DVD anthology of good looking films, in attractive packaging? That could sell.

Enough units to make back what you spent on making your film? Um, honestly probably not. But I'm willing to bet that a 30 minute DVD that contains six five-minute shorts can at least sell more volume than those six films could if they were packaged independently.


Stopmoes... We love this art form with a crazy intensity. We'll eat up whatever gets produced. And yet we aren't even making our films into physical products and selling them to each other!

The way I see it, we need to stop imagining cinderella stories: starving artist gets swept away by producer prince and lives happily ever after in the castle of film distribution. Instead, we need to take power into our own hands. With home DVD-burners and online print-on-demand services, we now have the means of inexpensively producing the very products that we ourselves want to buy.

Imagine if you will a DVD compilation title "the best of"... Pretty sweet, huh?

Then, if we as a community were to continue developing in this direction -- insisting that our projects become actual products, and pressing to make the best single-short DVDs and anthology DVDs we can -- well, then how can we fail to begin attracting a broader audience?


Time to wrap this up. And here's where I step up onto my wooden crate marked "manifesto-brand soaps"...

We who love stop-motion animation and who want to see its influence in the world grow, we must:

(1) Take responsibility for turning our filmmaking projects into more than a just hobby, but rather a business. (Even if it loses money.)

(2) Produce DVD versions of our films, and at the very least make them available for sale to other stopmo enthusiasts.

(3) Gather our short films together into anthologies, which make film-viewers feel like they are getting full-value for their entertainment dollar.

(4) Begin expanding the market for stop-motion animation, first by making our products available to other stopmo enthusiasts, and then by drawing others into the passion.

(5) Keep making films. Because if we don't give the audience products to buy frequently enough, their shopping attention won't stay engaged, and they'll just wander away.

And in my best inspirational seminar voice:

We're all in this together folks, so let's "get down to business" -- and really get to work.

[End of speech. You'll find copies of my book in the lobby. I'll be available for signing after a brief intermission... :-P ]

posted by sven | December 10, 2007 11:59 PM | categories: stopmo, writing