How to Make $55,000 by Giving Away A Film How to Make $55,000 by Giving Away A Film
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How to Make $55,000 by Giving Away A Film

Sita Sings the Blues

Filmmaker Nina Paley explains in the Wall Street Journal how she’s earned $55,000 from her animated feature Sita Sings the Blues by giving it away for free. The idea of offering content for free is still counterintuitive to a lot of artists, but I’m a firm believer that this concept will eventually become an important part in the arsenal of indie filmmakers. Nina is among the first within the animation community to prove that it works. A good starting point for understanding the concept is Chris Anderson’s recent book Free: The Future of a Radical Price.

  • I’ll buy the rights for $60,000.

  • sam

    Question: Did she have to pay for the use of those songs in her film? Or did she give away her film for free because she couldn’t charge for it while still using copy written songs?

  • Tim Hodge

    How much did the film cost to make?

  • It’s not a huge windfall for four years’ work, but long may it continue to work for her. She’s earned it.

  • spencer drew bogart tinder

    tim ~ in the interview/lecture linked to this post, nina says she spent roughly $80,000 to produce the film (entirely by herself, more or less). that amount doesn’t include costs for food and rent incurred while making the movie, or the $50,000 in legal fees required to decriminalize the finished product in court.

    if you have a few minutes, definitely look at her blog and the linked video. it’s very interesting.

  • Brian

    It helps that her movie rocks.

  • Jay Taylor

    Didn’t she spend something like $80k on making the film? Is she $25k in the hole, or is the $55k considered profit?

  • Moses

    If you have access to Itunes you can get Chris Anderson’s book Free: The Future of a Radical Price for free as an audiobook.

  • Nina Paley is my hero. I bought a copy of her film AND bought a t-shirt.
    An amazing animator who has created a really neat film. I glad to hear that she’s making a few bucks now.

  • Very inspiring! Power to the creators of the world! Keep it comin.

  • Jason

    Nina is fearless and has a unique vision, and thank god she’s found a way to share it with the rest of us. Go, Nina! I hope the revenue stream for Sita continues. You deserve it.

  • The $55,000 is my personal film-related income so far. It’s not the film’s gross, which is higher; distributors, cinemas, etc. all took their (much deserved) portions, and there are expenses associated with the e-store, like the cost of manufacturing DVDs and pins and t-shirts, as well as the order fulfillment service’s valuable work.

    And the $55,000 certainly not “profit.” As many here noted, the film cost significantly more than that to make. $80,000 production + $50,000 license fees + $20,000 legal fees + $120,000 food/rent/living/me-related expenses for the 3+ years I worked on it, which totals $270,000. Sometimes I reckon the film’s budget as $8,000,000: $270,000 expenses plus a $7,730,000 director’s fee, payable on the “back end.” Like most “back end” deals I’ll probably never see it, but it’s nice to know if the film ever does net $8million, I’ll be getting it. ($8million is what I decided I would sell all rights to the film for, back when I still thought that way.)

    The importance of the $55,000 number is it exceeds what any distributor told me I could ever expect to get from the film. Films can gross over a $million but none of that ever reaches the director or producer. Most independent films do far worse for their directors, even “successful” ones. But most directors don’t talk about that publicly, because they fear it’s bad press.

    Most indie films are also financed by investors, who when they lose money on films keep it quiet. Most films lose money. Because “Sita” didn’t have traditional investors, I could afford both to free it and be very transparent about the financial aspects, which I hope is useful to others.

  • The article says: “Ms. Paley argues that content should be free, while “containers” for content — such as DVDs — should be paid for. ”

    It appears that she doesn’t actually believe that herself since the DVDs she’s selling are priced WAY more than a blank DVD, no?

    A fair price for a movie on DVD, but if content really has no value why would a DVD with a movie on it be more than a DVD without one?

  • @robcat – exactly. The content is free, but it adds value to the container. A DVD with “Sita” is worth more than a blank DVD.

    Content has great value. Just because it’s free (libre), doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. Just look at how it increases the monetary value of its containers! It’s like magic. You can try it yourself: try selling a blank DVD vs. selling a DVD containing “Sita Sings the Blues.” Which command the higher price? (Just be sure to send $1.65 to these licensors if you sell the latter.)

  • @ robcat2075:

    One could argue that you’re also paying for Nina’s time to produce the DVDs as well cost of printing the sleeves. You could download the film for free and burn it to your own low-cost DVD, but don’t we all have better things to do with our time? Plus, Nina’s DVD sleeve art looks *much* nicer than writing “SITA” in black sharpie ;)

    Besides, she’s a small-time “manufacturer”, so her prices can’t exactly match the big conglomerates’ now, can they?

  • Good for you Nina! As for robcat2075’s question, I think you misunderstood. It’s not that you pay the blank dvd price. The idea is that you can download the film for free if you like and it is available for download, but if you would like a nice official dvd, that is what you can pay for. I like this concept and am very interested in experimenting with it as well.

  • it’s pat

    Wow Nina. With all the questions people have asked about production expenses, and your brief comment of explanation- I think the story of this business model is as fascinating as the story in the film, and it hasn’t really been told yet.

    “Because “Sita” didn’t have traditional investors, I could afford both to free it and be very transparent about the financial aspects.”

    Disentangling a production from the huge web of vested interests is a rare thing. It would be great to get a view of the entire production vertically, along with comparisons to what is (and isn’t) happening horizontally.

  • Kudos to Nina Paley for a job well done.

    Things are changing and will continue to change. I think the traditional “gate keepers” already know this is happening, and they fear it.

  • Thanks for answering, Nina, and I look forward to seeing the film finally, I’d been following it for so long!

    I am a fan of not merely accepting existing distribution models and figuring out the right combination of keeping your rights as well as pocketing as much of the money; I participated in Radiohead’s experiment two years ago.

    However, while 55,000 is nice, and more than what people were expecting her to make, as Ms. Paley says, it’s still nowhere near recouping her costs, and this movie has reached a notoriety with animation fans because of the legal issues, which led to people wanting to lend the movie a hand.

    It’s a plan that will offer diminishing returns as soon as more and more people do it (one would argue the returns are already quite diminished), because the novelty would wear off. That’s why I don’t begrudge the smaller bands who criticize Radiohead’s methods, since it’s true that much of the success of their direct/free distribution model came from that fact that 1) they’re one of the biggest bands in the world and 2) they got a shit ton of publicity for it. Nine Inch Nails even did a similar model not too far after and it wasn’t nearly as successful (but still far more successful than if random unsigned indie band did it themselves).

    Anyway, good job Ms. Paley for not giving up your dream of showing the movie to as many people as possible and not letting the earlier difficulties in getting the movie released stop her.

  • justin rasch

    inspiration 100%

  • Blasko

    I shudder to think of your hourly wage, Nina. But that’s not what it’s all about, is it. At any rate, in our home, you’ve clearly beat out the big studios. I’ve got plenty of Pixar on the shelf, but all my 20 month-old can ask for is “Sita! Sita!” Any chance of a fair-trade Hanuman plush doll?

  • wgan

    good on her, at least she’s got something back, fantastic little piece, stunning and memorable, however, what she earned financially simply reflects that under this model, it’s just not viable, so, young and ambient artists, please do not try this at home;)

  • james madison

    Well done Nina!

  • Congratulations, Nina. However, I’m not sure that Sita makes for a particularly good model for the financing of indie film – while I’m sure I would have heard of the film even without the licensing controversy, the $20 I donated to your cause (after downloading the film) was specifically because of the licensing controversy, since I strongly believe that it’s criminal how tightly the media cartels have locked up creative works at no benefit to the actual creators.

    That said, the “give the content away for free and let actual fans spend money on a paid version” model seems to be working pretty well for a number of independent musicians these days, such as Brad Sucks, Stateshirt, and Scott Andrew. And then don’t forget the amazing things that can happen when someone licenses your work – Jami Sieber very quickly became the top-grossing artist on Magnatune because her work had been licensed in the sleeper hit independent game “Braid,” all thanks to Magnatune basically being an independent music licensing clearing-house. That particular idea probably doesn’t map very well to animation, though.

  • Just look at what happened with Don Hertzfeldt. Although unintentionally his films appeared on youtube, this caused him to gain popularity on the web which helped him out on promoting himself, dvd sales, as well as gaining a fan following.

  • Yay, Nina. Sure I burned my own copy of the movie after donating for a download. It took several hours, the resulting disc still has a few dropouts, sometimes my early model DVD chokes on it, and I had to choose a “compromise” compression setting in iMovie to get it onto a disc. I think we all can appreciate the value in a professionally compressed and duplicated commercial DVD. I believe there is the matter of paying not only storage but taxes on unsold inventory, so the production run might have been too small to get a good-sized volume discount, nu?
    It’s a funny thing, monetizing the internet. I now get paid a penny per page view writing about beer on For 15 years before that, I got 25¢ a word rewriting press releases and occasionally doing interviews for Chicago Tribune advertising sections. But will articles I wrote online a year ago still be clicked on, continuing to drop a few cents in my cup? Or will the extra effort and expenses spent for those few pennies mean I come out even behind the millions who do the same ting online for free?
    Wel, I also hope “Sita” might set you up with possible financing for your next project.

  • Yay Nina!!!!

    I wonder if BLU has made some money from MUTO’s wild spread, and if Creative Commons helped.

    I think it’s so exciting to retain creative control and create independent work and have hope of making a living at it- Nina, you are most inspiring!

  • Kustom Kool

    Nina Paley is my hero.

    Indie rock bands and such are pretty much resigned to a business model that mirrors Nina’s in many ways. Someone puts out your record, maybe they make a few bucks on it but the important thing is getting your work seen/heard and trying to keep as much ancillary rights as possible. Their is money to be made in t-shirts, buttons and pins sold on tour. And just like back-end movie deals, most of the money distributors promise is subject to flimsy accounting – smoke and mirrors.

    Still, I hope Nina gets her 8 million bucks one way or another.

  • Michael

    @ Jeffrey Simonetta,
    I’d be curious to learn more about Don Hertzfeldt’s business model, it’s my dream to someday follow in his footsteps. He famously has never had a job other than doing his own independent animation and so I wonder how easily he gets by, especially by not pursuing commercial work on the side. I don’t think anyone’s ever done that before. I’m guessing his DVD sales and box office from his “Evening with..” tour must be substantial, but are there other sources of revenue too?

  • @ Micheal

    I am not sure of Don’s exact business model, but most of his fans discovered who he was by viewing his films online, mainly Rejected, Billy’s Balloons, and his work on The Animation Show. Some would like his work so much that they’d go to his site and want to buy DVD’s and/or Tshirts. These people would tend to continue to follow his new films.

    When he makes his dvds he makes sure to ad extra content to make it more worth buying then simply adding his films to a disc.

    He says he turns a blind eye to his older films popping up on free sites but trys to remove his most recent work. In addition, youtube started to put ads on his older works so now he gets a little bit of cash per view.

    He just wishes that the the quality of his films didn’t look like crap online, there’s one thing to see his film in a festival and then to see it online.

  • Andre

    I love Sita! I’ve seen it several times and I enjoy the artwork as well as the 1920’s songs of Annette Hanshaw. Ms. Paley, you are fantastic!