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Peer Production: Rethinking the Economics of Collaboration

By Pamela Yoder

Back in the good old days, productions were like families. People joined together with a common goal--to make a film--and they worked hard to make that goal into a finished film.

As pressure on costs has increased, and the fees that freelancers earn in reality TV have risen, however, documentary production has become a more complex economic arrangement.

But technology and passion have helped to relight the content-driven world of doc production. Now, thanks to the ubiquity of tools, there is a future just around the corner, in which the key word is "collaboration." This future is exciting and empowering, and the elements are visible if you look for them.

Remote production teams used to be impossible (we've all FedEx'd  tape back and forth to an editor who's been working remotely). That kind of long-distance affair makes it difficult to keep a team's vision in focus. But today, Internet-based collaboration tools are on the horizon. Crafty Mac users have already figured out that you can hook your DV camera up to iChat and play rough cuts across the Net in real time to a partner across the world. 

And that's just the beginning. Many of the staples of current production are likely to change as travel is replaced by multi-camera shooter/producer teams being hired on location. This new form of peer production allows for a larger group of filmmakers to work in a collaborative fashion to help one another achieve their goals. This nascent movement allows a filmmaker in New York to reach out to a filmmaker in San Francisco and request help shooting a West Coast interview for a film being completed in New York. That door swings both ways, of course.

In the new world of peer production, the edit room will exist in a virtual space, a Web-based edit platform that invites multiple editors, shared rough cuts and real-time collaboration among team members.

Every portion of the filmmaking process will move into this shared creative space, with tasks like logging quickly taken up by teams of screener/loggers. One remote logging tool,,  a free tool we're developing,  is one of  several that are likely to add fuel to the fire of a remote filmmaker workplace. At the same time, shared storage and distribution sites like, and will make low-cost--or no-cost--storage available to media-makers around the world.

The empowerment of a new community of media-makers is likely to be scary to some. It does mean that the pond just got bigger. But think about how much time we as filmmakers spend selling, raising money, cutting corners and thinking about the economics of what we do.

Imagine if we could add to our world the ethos that is currently exploding in the software community, as "open source" software is created by teams of passionate volunteers. Within this community there is an understanding that work is done for a variety of reasons. Some work is done to fuel one's creative, social or political passions. Other work is done to pay bills. And lastly, some work is bartered with others to help the community as a whole. Imagine if you found that DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus needed a pick-up shot of Al Franken's hometown in Minneapolis? Would you grab a camera and shoot it for them? Sure you would. You'd be proud to have your name associated with them and their work. You're getting paid--just not in dollars. You're getting paid in karma, in credits and in pride.

If you think this system doesn't work, just take a look at  the web browser FireFox,  the bit torrent-driven Broadcast Machine ( blog you like or any piece of open-source software that you use. Creative people create because it's what we do. Rethinking the economics of collaboration is one  step toward an emerging world in which documentaries become an even larger part of the editorial fabric of our daily lives. And that's a future worth working toward.


Steve Rosenbaum can be reached at