One year ago this weekend, directors Ridley Scott and Kevin Macdonald commissioned YouTube users to produce video depicting an aspect of their daily life and to submit it to a designated channel on the video sharing site. The directors would then take that footage and compile it into a feature-length documentary, Life in a Day (more info here). Now, on the anniversary of that event, YouTube, along with National Geographic Movies, is distributing the film theatrically in a limited nationwide release (a list of theaters is available here). As a number of people have observed, the story of the film’s production is awash in the language of crowdsourcing, with Life in a Day’s YouTube page describing the movie as “user-generated feature film.” I haven’t yet seen the film–although I hope to see it soon–but the planned release has sparked a renewed discussion of the implications of crowdsourcing within the movie industry. Specifically, what does it mean if studios are profiting off of the work of hundreds, or in this case, thousands of participants who contributed footage (some estimates suggest the filmakers received over 81,000 submissions of over 4,500 hours of footage) that was considered for the documentary?
Marketing and publicity expert Sheri Candler looks at the process for Life in Day and points out that participants likely signed a consent form (which they, of course, did voluntarily), giving over rights to the footage. More crucially for her, they are now expected to participate in the marketing of the film as part of the “marketing SWAT team” designed to create buzz and fill seats at a local movie theater. Although she acknowledges that contributors receive a “co-director” credit, that credit doesn’t appear on IMDB, and users do not profit financially from their participation. Finally, she worries that users cannot even see the film since it is not available online. Candler has some reasonable arguments regarding the potential for financial exploitation here, and this is something that I have been weighing quite a bit when reviewing the appeals toward crowdsourcing made by a number of independent filmmakers.
Edward J. Delaney, writing for Documentary Tech, takes this a step further, arguing that many of these crowdsourcing initiatives create a “false relationship” between the user/audience and the producer/filmmaker. Delaney’s argument is enticing, especially given the use of affectionate terms to describe people who contribute to the production of a film. Delaney and Candler are likely right to surmise that some participants are seduced into believing that their participation will serve as a bridge into the film industry, that they will be “discovered” (to use Delaney’s phrase) due to their contributions. There is certainly a culture of celebrity within YouTube, one that is reinforced through the various “success stories,” in which amateurs gain international attention through their videos. And, yes, National Geographic is a profit-making institution making a film in which many of the participants are working as volunteers. Crowdsourcing leaves open the potential for exploitation, and fan activity, in particular, is uncompensated, even while studios can use that activity to build attention (and presumably profit).
But, as I suggested on Twitter, we need a more nuanced understanding of why people chose to participate in Life in a Day. The film has been billed as a kind of anthropological “project,” a snapshot of a moment in the history of the world. There might be significant non-monetary reasons to contribute to such a project, including the attempt to provide a more vivid portrait of that particular day. Where are we? What is our world really like? How can we make the world a better place? Sure, it’s easy to take advantage of people’s good intentions, but to some extent, the argument that people are being duped assumes that they are unaware, dupes of participatory culture. I don’t think there is significant evidence to support the claim that “most [participants] probably think it might get them somewhere.” Candler is certainly correct to argue that filmmakers should make a conscious effort not to exploit their audience when using the techniques of crowdsourcing, and certainly many projects (including Life in a Day) have the potential to generate enormous value for major media conglomerates, but to some extent, I think that perceiving crowdsourcing merely as free labor misses the many ocmplicated motivations that might inform people’s desires to participate in producing or promoting a movie or TV show.