The Honest Truth
Let me start by saying that I'm no stranger to crowdsourced contests. I've sold a whole bunch of commercials on sites like Poptent and Zooppa, and in 2011, my feature film, Black Hat, won $100,000 in the Amazon Studios launch contest. I've submitted over 100 "crowdsourced" commercials and I have some strong opinions I'm going to share here about both the positives and negatives of these contests.
This article is going to be focused on commercial crowdsourced contest sites like Zooppa, Tongal, MoFilm, Vizy (a merger of Userfarm and Poptent) and others. There are a lot of contests online but I'm specifically highlighting "crowdsourced contests" or "crowdsourced content" which in its most basic form is an artist working for free for a company or brand that has an intent to buy. I'm not referring to film contests like 24 or 48 hours contest, or other general film contests.
What's the Big Idea?
Here is the basic idea of a crowdsourced commercial contest for those who don't know: a brand, let's say Staples, wants to run a social, web or TV campaign. The brand wants to create a bunch of content they can use, but don't want to spend a lot of money. They save tremendously on production costs, because they don't produce anything. Instead, they hire a company like one of the aforementioned sites - for our example, let's say Zooppa. A rep from Staples or their ad agency will create a brief which often times has a very vague outline of what type of commercial the brand is looking for - depending on the contest site you may receive a brief that does not include the information you would receive when working with an ad agency. Some brands will be specific about their demographics and message, but other times, and this may be because the campaign they are running is low priority, it seems like they're just scratching their heads thinking, "Let's just see what these filmmakers come up with and hope one of them is good."
Anyone who is a member of this crowdsourcing site (it's free to be a member) can download the brief, interpret how they see fit, and put their own money into making a commercial for the brand. When the deadline passes, all these commercials which will vary greatly in quality are sent to the company, in this case Staples, and after several weeks or months (people love to complain about how long some of the brands take to make a decision) they will purchase several of these commercials, for previously announced amounts of money. Typically this looks something like $7500-10000 for the winner, and each subsequent winner getting less with the bottom tier being something like $500. Depending on the site and the brand there could be anywhere from 3 to 10 winners. That typically means that something like one hundred or more commercials will not be purchased.
So the questions is...
If you entered your work into a crowdsourced contest and didn't win, did you just waste your time and money?
I can certainly recall being sour on more than a few occasions. I'm certainly dumbfounded at times when I see a user-made advertisement with very poor video and audio quality get a purchase. I've at times been outraged when I've seen certain ads purchased when they clearly didn't adhere to the "rules" as defined by the brief. On top of all that, I absolutely fucking hate when some shitty "jingle" or "white guy rap-parody" gets a purchase.
But with all that said, I always make a commercial based on my tastes and always with the intent that if my spot doesn't get purchased, it may still find a home on my reel and may lead to me potentially getting work somewhere down the road.
In truth, some of my ads that have been purchased have never shown up on my reel, and some of the spec commercials I'm most proud of, didn't even get a sniff at the prize money.
Spec work is an important part of growing as a filmmaker. The process of breaking down a brief, writing a script, casting, shooting, and editing all with a deadline, over and over again, has refined my skills as a filmmaker. Do I wish my track record of winning 10 times out of over 100 was a bit better? Sure. I am upset when I see a poorly made ad get a purchase over my more polished video? The better question may be, how do I feel about some of the ads being made by groups who are clearly on the professional level?
Was this the end game of the brands the whole time?
Sure they had to endure a few years with the majority of the entries looking like they had been shot with cell phones or noobs who just purchased their first DSLR. It was obvious many people didn't understand how to decode a brief. The messaging was wrong, the casting was wrong, the humor was inappropriate or just not funny. But the payout was good. I sold a commercial to Novartis in 2013 that cost me absolutely nothing to make and netted me $7500. I took some photos and videos of my dogs playing and walking in the park with my wife. I made a fancy pack shot in Cinema 4D and the next thing I knew, the commercial I had done the least amount of work for, had won me a nice paycheck. Of course, I also made two other commercials for the same contest, both of which I thought were more creative and both of which I put more work into, but neither of which got a purchase.
Flash forward three years, and you'll see spec ads that look as good or better than the shit you see on TV. Shot on Red. Shot on Alexa. Well acted, well lit, and well executed. You start to wonder how much of their own money people are risking for a payout. It's not just solo filmmakers anymore. Video production companies are making spec ads and fighting against commercials made with an iphone for large cash prizes. After all, as far as I know, there's nothing in the rules that say these contests are for amateurs only. Spielberg could enter if he wanted to. But who really benefits from this level of competition?
Well the answer is simple. Brands are doling out miniscule amounts of money and are now receiving some really well done ads that in a typical advertising format who have cost them a lot more to make. Clearly, the brands are the ones who are winning.
The question any filmmaker has to ask themselves is, should I participate in contest spec work? Plenty refuse to. Plenty are enticed by the large cash payouts or recognition. Some just want to improve their work.
I've drastically reduced the amount of spec contests I submit too, and that's mostly due to the fact that I have a hard time just keeping up with my regular client work. I do have to acknowledge, however, that many of the clients I produce ads for have hired me, because they've seen my spec work. Whether it was purchased or not, it made an impression on them.
Will you work on spec contests? Let's start a conversation...