For years, we’ve argued that the role of middlemen in the entertainment industry has been changing drastically. Most were built up on the basis of being gatekeepers: choosing who would get to go out and perform to the world, and using that gatekeeper status to (1) put themselves (the middlemen) in the center of everything and (2) demand nearly all ownership and profits from the results. But the new world is one in which gatekeepers are obsolete. The natural limits of things like broadcast television or movies are fluttering away thanks to the internet and all the technology that allows anyone to be a creator. That doesn’t mean that middlemen aren’t necessary any more. They absolutely are. But their roles are as enablers, not gatekeepers. They have to put the content creators back in the center and accept that they don’t have full control, and they don’t get to keep 85 cents of every dollar earned.
Famed comedian Patton Oswalt took to the stage at the “Just for Laughs Comedy Conference” in Montreal recently and made this point brilliantly in the form of two “letters.” (Thanks to Pickle Monger for calling this to our attention.) The first letter was to fellow comedians — more or less telling them to take control over their own career. They had to stop looking for the gatekeeper to come along and pick them, and take charge. Here’s just a snippet, but the whole thing is worth reading:
[Following a brief description of his very successful career] But if you listened very carefully, you would have heard two words over and over again: “lucky” and “given.” Those are two very very dangerous words for a comedian. Those two words can put you to sleep, especially once you get a taste of both being “lucky” and being “given.” The days about luck and being given are about to end. They’re about to go away.
Not totally. There are always comedians who will work hard and get noticed by agents and managers and record labels. There will always be an element of that. And they deserve their success. And there’s always going to be people who benefit from that.
What I mean is: Not being lucky and not being given are no longer going to define your career as a comedian and as an artist.
The second letter addresses the gatekeepers quite directly. Again, a snippet, though you should read the whole thing:
You guys need to stop thinking like gatekeepers. You need to do it for the sake of your own survival.
Because all of us comedians after watching Louis CK revolutionize sitcoms and comedy recordings and live tours. And listening to “WTF With Marc Maron” and “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and watching the growth of the UCB Theatre on two coasts and seeing careers being made on Twitter and Youtube.
Our careers don’t hinge on somebody in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in our direction. There are no gates. They’re gone. The model for success as a comedian in the ’70s and ’80s? That was middle school.
He goes on to talk about how they can stop being gatekeepers and start actually helping (first by being “fans”) but then goes on to point out why the gatekeeper role is gone in a very simple fashion:
We can just walk away.
You know why we can do that now? Because of these. (Oswalt holds up an iPhone)
In my hand right now I’m holding more filmmaking technology than Orson Welles had when he filmed Citizen Kane.
I’m holding almost the same amount of cinematography, post-editing, sound editing, and broadcast capabilities as you have at your tv network.
In a couple of years it’s going to be fucking equal. I see what’s fucking coming. This isn’t a threat, this is an offer.
It’s an offer so few gatekeepers have been willing to take up.
I think it’s great that Oswalt is saying this stuff. For the last few years, as Louis CK has revolutionized various parts of the comedy industry (as we’ve detailed here), it’s been interesting to see how other comics have reacted. I keep hearing about how comedians want a “Louis CK deal,” — which is a deal like the one that Louis got for his show on FX (where he basically has full control over every aspect of the product). The problem, of course, is that no one else wants to give out such a deal — and even if other comedians got it, many wouldn’t know what to do with it. Because of that, I’ve heard some suggest that there isn’t much to learn from Louis, since his situation is one of a kind.
I think Oswalt is much more on the right track, though. Of course, the answer isn’t just in “getting the Louis CK deal” or even just copying exactly how he released his last comedy special. It’s in recognizing the larger point of Oswalt’s keynote: that the old rules and old gatekeepers are meaningless. You can forge your own path, and whereas you used to have to work within the confines of the system, nowadays you have lots of options. Every opportunity is there.