This journal is devoted to the entertainment industry, and to the challenges that technology and the web pose to it.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Bill Cosby, comedian, teacher, repurposer.

Bill Cosby is a business genius. He's been a mainstay of standup comedy for fifty years. In that time, he's made astounding and prodigious contributions to the canon of comedy, as well as to television, and even (many forgettable, but a couple of not so bad) movies.

He's on top of the world financially because he wrote and performed great material, and he made his material work for him—over and over again.

Many on the money side of showbusiness call this "repurposing". No matter how quickly you can churn out original material, you can't just be writing all the time. If you're a performer, you have to perform it; if you write, you need time to be a person, have a life, and then come back to writing. What do you do in the meantime? How do you earn a living between gigs? You make sure your past work becomes a future annuity.

For a few examples, we will now turn to our friend Dr. Cosby. (Yup, he got a doctorate in the 1970s. His dissertation was called An Integration of the Visual Media via Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids into the Elementary School Curriculum as a Teaching Aid and Vehicle to Achieve Increased Learning. He only repurposed a little bit in his dissertation. I guess he had to be serious and analytical in a Ph.D thesis...but the thesis was based on his hit characters.

In the 1970s he wanted to reach out to kids with positive messages about getting an education, and just generally being good. He had done standup about his friend Fat Albert, and his whole gang of buddies from Philadelphia. Fat Albert and The Cosby Kids became a huge television hit. It ran for eight years, and for many years after that in reruns. There were holiday specials too. Herbie Hancock who wrote music for the "Fat Albert" TV series put out an album of the music from the show—another great example of repurposing!

More recently, Fat Albert became a movie, and another payday for Bill Cosby—the characters' creator.

So that's at least five uses of Fat Albert (standup, TV show, specials, movie, Ph.D thesis). Then there was Fat Albert merchandise. Merchandising (see the Merchandising's really hilarious..) isn't just for the million-sellers's become so easy and cheap to make "stuff", that you can, and should be thinking about new ways to make money off your old work.

If Cosby had only one repurposing success to his name, he'd still have been considered a business genius as well as a comedy giant. But in 1981, he started honing material that he performed consistently through 1982, and filmed for a 1983 movie called Bill Cosby, Himself . The material was his biggest seller to date. He saw that the material had "legs"—that it could do much more than just be a standup piece. He pitched it to NBC as the basis for a TV series. They were smart to have signed the show, because the standup routines that had started as Bill Cosby-Himself became The Cosby Show—one of NBC's biggest hits of all time.

In addition to the standup comedy performances, the movie, the TV show, Bill wrote several books about subjects he covered in his standup and on "The Cosby Show". The books are now e-books, and audiobooks too. Although he had to frame the material differently for each iteration of the work, the lion's share was already done, as he'd written it back in 1981, and refined it in 1982.

So let's assume for a moment you're not as well-known as Bill Cosby. How do you make this work for you? It varies. Comedians and musicians—even lesser-known ones—can always put out and sell CDs/DVDs of their live shows, or even create "studio" recordings of their best material. These days it's much cheaper to make a record than it was when The Cosby Show first went on the air. Once it's recorded, you can get the material up on iTunes or other digital music services and sell it there; you can let a publisher (song pimp) represent the work for you and try to sell it for use in movies, TV, stage, and other media. If you're smart, you'll keep at least half of the publishing rights , and always own your song. If a song you own ever gets big, whoever owns the publishing will collect a large annuity from that one work. If someone else owns the publishing rights to your song, they'll get paid every time you perform it live. The Performance Rights Agencies (BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, and SoundExchange in the US) pay the composer and the publisher for every public performance of material a given agency represents. (Some people get paid twice—once as the composer, and once as the publisher.)

Here's an unusual but very creative example of repurposing: Composer Andy Brick has toured Europe conducting arrangements for symphony orchestra of music he wrote for video games. The music for video games has gotten pretty serious. The budgets reflect how serious the producers are about having the music sound great, and the game producers hire top talent to compose music for their games. Everybody wins.

Comedians don't have the same options, but they have just as many. A smart comedian can perform their material live, produce a DVD, convert the DVD to digital media and sell it on iTunes and whichever other services will add it to their catalogs.

BUT, spoken word performers get really wildly ripped off with respect to performance rights/performance royalties. I wrote about that a while back. This article, and the one following it pertain to any spoken word performer who cares about making money from the use of their material.

What about writers? The wonderful author and commentator Tracy Quan wrote a (fiction) column in Salon (online) magazine. The column was called Diary Of A Manhattan Call Girl. The column was a  big hit, and Tracy turned it into a book. The first book was a big hit, so she wrote a sequel, and a sequel-to-the-sequel

Let's look at one last example. Jonathan Katz created a TV series—Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist—that was a triple-play of repurposing. Jonathan used pieces of his own standup comedy in the character of Dr. Katz. His patients were all other standup comedians who did THEIR respective acts while "on the couch" with their comedian-therapist, and it got used again as Dr. Katz Live when Jonathan, other actors from the animated series, as well as his standup-comedian-patients worked their material while on the couch. Everybody won there.

Jonathan's podcast Hey We're Back has a few animated segments to it. Animators had heard the podcast and picked segments they wanted to animate. Holding For Miss Kiley is a fabulous repurposing of the original work.

The practical lesson here: Every creative work has more than one (potential) commercial use.Realizing income from your creative work requires a little effort and a little imagination.

Figure out how else you can sell intellectual property you've already created. Ask your fans if they'd buy it in some proposed new form (CD/DVD? video game? TV Show?). Create, repurpose, pay your bills with the repurposing money, create some more, and so on, and so on.

If you have had, or have heard of any particularly clever methods of repurposing, please write to me and let me know. I'll publish it in a future post, thus repurposing your work. See how that works?