[Updated 6/3/13] I’ve never had more projects taking shape or in discussion with as many partners at the same time. That’s pretty good. But none of them are yet paying for themselves. So what’s the tipping point which makes you a fully self-sustaining creative, for life?
‘Critical mass’ is a term I’ve borrowed from nuclear physics, which I use a lot when discussing projects in the creative industries. In physics, it refers to when objects or celestial bodies become so large that they pass a threshold which means that something big and self-perpetuating can happen. Examples of this would be the Sun and other stars (which passed a point of ‘critical mass’ such that they coalesced into hugely hot, dense, energy-producing bodies; and will one day pass another point by which they will die and turn into other types of celestial body); and nuclear weapons (where the uranium in the warhead has to pass a certain level of enrichment and mass before a chain reaction can happen). Nearly all of the energy which makes life and existence possible arises from the consequences of celestial bodies reaching critical mass and staying that way for millions of years.
So what has this got to do with creative projects? Well, the first thing to point out is that any creative needs an income of some kind in order to pay for their lives while they deliver their projects. That income may come from some other source altogether, but if the creative project or your career itself is going to be viable and successful, at some point it will need to pass a point of critical mass where the money it is generating is more than it is costing its creator in order to exist at all. And having passed that point of critical mass, it needs to stay above that threshold for as long as possible, ideally for the rest of your career. I’ve written at length elsewhere here about how to choose your ideal partners to create beautiful productions with, and about the challenges of bringing a strong slate of productions to fruition. The vast majority of ideas will never become a viable finished product, never mind a profitable one. So you have to avoid becoming what I would call a ‘one-project pony’. You need a strong combination of different projects that are at different stages of development, including completed ones that are being promoted to the marketplace, all of which have a strong chance of success. I learned once that, on average, it’s the eighth screenplay a writer makes which becomes the first one to be made into a film. I also learned that 90% of first-time feature film directors in the UK never get to make another. So let’s not confuse ‘getting something written or produced’ with ‘reaching critical mass’. Critical mass is what happens if something you’ve written or produced is successful and sets in motion a pattern of further work which you are paid for upfront.
Now, I’m someone who likes to structure and organise things – even the scatterbrained day-to-day ideas, developments and correspondence of a free-thinking versatile creative. So when I’m working on something, I make sure it gets added to the right list or spreadsheet, where I can track its prospects and its progress. I’ve never been satisfied with any of the task management software anyone else has put together, so I’ve ended up developing systems to manage them better for myself – and if you develop mobile or web apps yourself, get in touch and let’s go 50:50 on bringing my simple and elegant solution to market.
The result is that I keep tabs not only on how many projects I’m working on, their percentage chance of success, and the amount of money I could realistically expect to be paid for them, but also what I need to do with them and when.
Here’s a maxim I can suggest for developing your own projects or partnerships in this industry: that things will be ready when they’re ready. You might desperately need the money to come through in the next three months, and put all your eggs into the basket that you think has the best chance of hatching to make that happen. But you’ll almost certainly rush the project and waste the opportunity to get it right. Nothing ever comes through as fast as it should, and you need enough contingency planning to cover you for whatever delays could happen. So relax. Be circumspect. Keep your enthusiasm cautious. Don’t go all-in on anything that might blow up in your face; you only get one reputation.
I’ve come up with a formula which I’m testing out, which sets me tangible and measurable targets to meet in order to achieve and maintain critical mass with my creative career. Elements of the formula are this. One, over the last six months, have I earned more than the minimum target I have set myself to cover my cost of living and needs for disposable income? Two, if I multiply the chance that a venture will succeed by the likely revenue that venture could make me in the next six months if it does, how much will this venture really be worth to me in that time? Three, if I add up the sum total of those realistic values, does it add up to something higher than what I’ll need in order to live in the next year?
Here are the different projects vying for my time right now (February 2013). You might think that by having all this going on I’m being unfocused and indeterminate, but in fact it’s just committed pragmatism and multiple approaches to achieving the same unified goal. Being brutally honest about their prospects of paying for themselves and succeeding, I reckon that by combining the bread-and-butter income prospects with the more exciting and nebulous creative projects going on, I’m still just a little short. But if just one of the big projects comes off, I’ll be above critical mass. And once I’m there, I plan on staying there for good.
Projects I’m helping other people or clients with: (March 6th updates in italics)
- Bread-and-butter income: I’m an increasingly confident and accomplished web designer and video producer, among other things, I manage the Producers’ Forum’s communications, and I’m getting invited more and more to do talks and bid for bigger and better-paid commissions. Nearly all of my prospects with more than a one-in-three chance of happening come under this category – so they’re still subsidising my creative projects to a significant extent. As these commissions combine my creative and technical skills and get me more exposure across the industry, I’m happy with that working balance, but of course my goal is for my own creative projects to buy me out of that situation by reaching critical mass.
- Delivering media training courses where I can also see my own productions delivered with the trainees (more on this here). Interesting but has been keeping me in limbo for most of the last six months already, so a case of ‘wait and see’.
- Locations officer and assistant producer for two different colleagues’ feature films, apparently both shooting in the next two months. Flattering and fun, but, we’ve been here before. We’ll see. (Update: one of these confirmed to film in Mid-March but didn’t need my help in the end due to keeping to local locations instead.)
- I’ve been asked about producing placed TV content for a commercial digital channel on behalf partner companies which could be the subject of the programming. Curious.
- Participating in a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” style series for a local filmmaker I’ve worked with before, helping him with an international event, and appearing in the film he wants to shoot soon. I don’t mind saying yes to things when someone else is doing the running; if I’m getting a stake in things then my advice is free, and that’s my most useful contribution most of the time.
Projects I have a personal stake in:
- Writing a book based on some remarkable true-life stories, in partnership with a committed investor and a contributor. In effect, the contributor provides material, I’m paid upfront to write that material into a commercially-viable high-quality book, the investor sells the book, we split the profits equally. I’ve even been able to write the contract myself, and it’s about to be signed. It seems. Update: of course, once it reached the crunch, this one’s been ‘postponed’. Unless it’s already signed for and money changing hands, never take for granted that speculative projects are going to happen, and never in your mind give them better than a fifty-fifty chance of coming off.
- Turning my CITIZENS series concepts and demos into a full-quality demo episode made with an accomplished colleague, creating a full and polished treatment and package to promote to commissioners, and meanwhile turning the experimental, apocryphal prequel series I’ve made into an interactive online game and challenge that promotes the concept and series. Update: making my own mobile app for the series may be surprisingly viable – more research needed.
- Turning my lifestyle and leisure series concepts and demos into a viable package that can be pitched to established production companies and commissioners.
- Editing my short film THE MOURNING AFTER and submitting it to festivals.
- Setting up a Script Readings partnership website for a producer colleague, which could bring in revenue for us both.
- Developing a feature film treatment and script for the same producer, which already apparently has name talent attached.
- Turning my mobile app ideas into products on the market. Viable and potentially profitable in the medium term if I can attach a developer to go 50:50 on one. Update: I may even be able to do these myself.
- A business proposal that brings all of my own projects and services together into a consistent, compelling package. I’m pleased with what I’ve got and I’ve had positive feedback from a successful businessman-investor, but this is definitely one that’ll ‘be ready when it’s ready’. So there’s no rush.
- Finalising my sci-fi novel trilogy, and promoting it to publishers or self-publishing. Worth doing if I can do it quickly enough; this is under review.
- A video/podcast series about life as a creative and all the stories and advice it generates. Beats doing self-promotion in the traditional, pitchy way, but needs a substantial weekly commitment and maybe a production assistant.
- Putting on an innovative production of King Lear and making a feature film about it. I’ve been offered this chance by a theatre I’m friendly with, but for now I’ve had to put it on hold.
I think it’s wise to always plan six months ahead. In that time I reckon that less than a quarter of these will deliver any meaningful results, at least a third will fold or be put on hold indefinitely, and the others will have made slow progress compared to what might have been possible. Being more focused and taking a gamble could make one of them succeed – or cripple it by pushing too far too fast and ruining its reputation.
But if any one of the big prospects comes good, then I could be set up for a long time to come. Critical mass achieved and sustainable.
Watch out for my update on this article in six months’ time. Should be curious.