Are We All Dying From “Exposure?

I was recently invited to submit some of my travel films to a new section on the website of a major American publication. It’s a showcase of short films and when you go to the site, it’s full of spectacular nature, adventure, and travel films that are daringly executed, expertly shot, and beautifully edited…and, to watch one, you have to sit through a 30 second, non-fast-forwardable commercial.

“Fair enough,” I think to myself when I check it out and watch the same 30-second commercial before each of about a dozen films  I viewed on the site to get an idea of what they were running, “you’ve got to pay for these high production-value films somehow.”

(I’m not sure, though, if I were a casual visitor to the site, that I’d sit through more than one film on those terms.)

The process to get a film up there is a daunting two-step gauntlet…first you submit to one of a board of editors. If the piece passes muster with that editor, he or she takes it to the full board of editors, and they must approve the piece and then, and only then, does it make the website.

I submitted six films, waited a month or so, and was thrilled to hear that three of my films made the cut! We were swapping addresses for contracts to be sent and just before we hung up, I threw out a question.  “In all the excitement,” I said, “I forgot to ask you how you pay for these things…by the minute, by the piece, how?”

And then I heard the words that stopped me dead in my tracks.

“Oh we don’t pay to run these…most people are happy to do it for the exposure.”

Dead silence on my end. A giant of American publishing, a 30 second mandatory commercial, a gauntlet to be run that makes getting a film into Sundance look like a cakewalk, and they don’t pay a dime to the content creator?

“Does that change anything?”

“You are #@%$^&*()_&^^$4¢£∞∞¢ right it does,” I think to myself.

But being the well-raised son of a very proper English lady, I say politely, “Yes, it does. I would prefer to be paid for my work, and if I can’t be, I don’t want to give you the films.” They wouldn’t budge, and neither would I, and so we went our separate ways…but it doesn’t always work that way.

A day or two later, I am approached by an editor of a custom publications company to have me and my work featured in an advertorial they are preparing for a photo industry giant. I am thrilled, and will be interviewed by a great writer, and the piece will be featured in a couple of major magazines.

I’ve gotten all the info, know what my deadlines are, but thanks to the experience of being “once bitten, twice shy,” I assume nothing and ask right away, “what are the rates for this?”

And I am told, “oh, we don’t pay—everyone else has been happy to do it for the exposure.”  (Later, I poll some other colleagues, only to find out that some shooters are hiring publicists to try to get in on this “opportunity.”)

Hiring a publicist to get the opportunity to give away work for free for commercial usage?

Oh, sweet mother of Jefferson Davis, break out the defibrillator, because the Old Man in Motion’s heart is stopped from sheer incredulity and disbelief. In what galaxy or universe can this be construed as a business plan for a professional?

You do all this for nothing, I’m told,  so you can get more “followers?” Well, that’s great, because if you run your business like this, it’s just a matter of time before you starve to death. And then you’re going to need a lot of followers to act as pall bearers when they cart you off to potter’s field for your pauper’s burial, because the funeral director wants actual $$$, and not “Likes,” to let you use his hearse.

And so, despite all the good breeding me old English mum tried to instill in me, I respond:

“No, that’s unacceptable….if the writer is being paid, and the magazine is being paid, and the printer is being paid, and if everyone else in the whole process of producing this piece is being paid or drawing a salary, then I want to be paid as well!”

And then, mirabile dictu, I get an email response asking, “How much?”

And we proceed to have a negotiation, just like two professionals, that results in a fee that we both can live with, one that is enough for me to be able to look at myself in the mirror (not, I hasten to add, the Old Man in Motion’s favorite activity these last few years:-). and still call myself a professional.

Look, I know this isn’t same business it was twenty years ago, and I know we’re in a “sharing” economy (which, as far as I can see, means that “many people share so that a few may profit wildly”—think Instagram—300 million contributing free work for a company with about 100 employees, valued conservatively at $20 billion (that’s BILLION with a B).

You do the math, but at a certain point, giving up your work for free so that major corporations can commercially exploit it is just plain career suicide and just hastens the demise of our profession.

Remember the observation that the great Walt Kelly made in a classic Pogo comic poster to promote the first Earth Day, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”

But this is nothing new…take a look at this clip from the great cult classic 70’s film “Putney Swope,”  a satire of the advertising business (among other things) directed by Robert Downey Jr’s father.