Building The Wall - Who is going to pay for it?
By now you may have read that Motortrend (Roadkill) has made an announcement that it is moving their shows away from YouTube and onto their own website. (The YouTube channel is slated to remain online to broadcast promos and trailers for the content that will be available on the MotorTrend website). Somewhat unsurprisingly, the internet has done what the internet does, and people are angry - very angry. There has been an uproar across the web-o-sphere, and an onslaught of comments directed at Roadkill, the shows hosts, and Motortrend. It's almost like it's become personal. Our inbox over the last day or so has filled with emails from MCM fans, RK viewers and even journalists wanting us to talk about it. It actually has nothing to do with us, nor is it our business what they do or how they run their business, but there appears to be some speculation or fear that Mighty Car Mods may follow suit.
So in the interest of responding to the mountain of mail we're getting, this article will be an attempt to address the environment in which we're both working in. The first thing we need to collectively acknowledge, is that no matter what videos you watch, they have inherent costs that require resources (time, ability, money, technical info, creative skills etc). Someone has to foot the bill. The question is, who is going to pay for it?
The reality is that making quality automotive episodes costs time and money. Compared to creating large scale films, from a production viewpoint Vlogging is cheap and easy which is why so many people do it. Get a camera, talk into it and upload it. The threshold of required ability is so low that a child can do it. There are some notable exceptions like Casey Neistat (who we made a video with last year and was genuinely shocked that we made our own music for the show) but the point is you don’t need a degree, cinematography experience, a composer, a crew or film school to get into Vlogging. Just hold a camera and talk into it. Along with how accessible and instant it is, it’s costs next to nothing to make and you can make it without an experienced TV sized crew.
If you compare this to larger scale automotive productions like Top Gear or Roadkill, there’s just no comparison in the amount of effort and cost required. Top Gear reportedly had budgets of up to 1 million pounds per episode. But the daily proliferation of automotive Vloggers has retrained a lot of viewers to expect a higher frequency of content, and there is an expectation that it should be free. And maybe it should be free? But everyone involved needs to be paid so where does that money come from?
To explore this in a way that keeps us all on the same page, lets look at what it costs to make a fairly standard episode of TV. As a rough number you could be looking at somewhere between $250,000-$1,000,000+ to make an episode of TV (this amount can vary drastically depending on whether it’s a home-brew camping show or Game of Thrones, where its playing and a whole host of production and post production related expenses). So how could YouTube compete with “long form” production values online? Well in 2011, YouTube embarked on a $100 Million spending spree to fund channels which could get funded to the tune of up to $5 Million per channel (Yes 5 million dollars!). They were looking at investing in longer form content. We were not involved with this funding but a lot of channels including MotorTrend did receive funding to kick start their channels. According to Finnegan in one of their video Q&As posted in December 2017, Roadkill was funded by YouTube money and when that ran out, Dodge came along as a sponsor. A principle sponsor like that made sure the show could keep running instead of them needing numerous smaller sponsors to keep funding the show.
We never got any funding to start our show and you can probably tell based on the scope of our productions compared to Road Kills initial offerings. In the early days of MCM our videos we’re really simple and really cheap to make so maybe we were spending $100 on mods for an episode and then presenting, filming, making music over the following week and then releasing it for “free”. (Free to viewers, but at a cost to us) Think about our 2 minute video of painting parts of a car black back in 2008 (yes our videos used to be that short!) Just a camera and some black paint.
That was 10 years ago and I’m sure anyone reading this is in a very different place in their lives now compared to a decade ago. After making around 500 videos across our channels the thought of doing a video such as that doesn’t excite us as much as going drifting in Japan or doing some crazy engine swap with our mates, thereby pushing the bounderies of our technical and film making skills. We realised that we wanted to learn more and try to push what was possible. Anyone who is into modifying cars knows that it can be expensive! Even if you’re not filming it, just buying the parts you need can really add up and this doesn’t account for your time doing the actual work and then trying to make something entertaining that people across diverse age groups and demographics can all get something out of.
While we’ve never had access to Game of Thrones level of budgets or bulk YouTube funding, we’ve been content going along with a largely self-funded show, and throughout our time on the platform we’ve been really fortunate over the years to have some long term supporting sponsors, and the opportunity to work with larger budgets on specific sponsored builds that allowed us to create something that we’d never be able to do otherwise. When Paramount Pictures approached us to work on Transformers, we already owned the Cresta and we also already knew that we wanted to make a drag car - we just couldn’t afford to do it. There was no way we could self fund a project of that scale, and all the people involved. We’d be working day jobs and saving for years just to fund a single YouTube video. We really wanted to do the project and asked if they could help fund it. Like any sponsorship arrangement whether it’s a brand sponsoring a football team or a beer sponsoring a music venue, they are also looking for a return on their investment in terms of awareness of their product or service. In this case we’d talk about the film. The film gets promoted. We get to fund a car build, the audience gets to watch it for free, and everyone’s a winner. So lets just drive right in and talk about the money.
A car build like the Cresta cost upwards of $50,000. Then there’s the actual video production costs. While we edit the episodes ourselves, and film them as much as we can, there are limitations on how much we can actually do while we’re flying down the quarter mile in 10 seconds. We need aerial footage, external camera crew, back up drives on site for 12 GoPros, and location audio. In addition to the build cost there is also the hire of the track, ambulance, fire engine, insurance, fuel and food for the crew and mates who are helping out. When the edit was all done, it took a few weeks to create the original soundtrack (which we did ourselves) and this included hiring vocalists, then mixing (which we did ourselves) before mastering and distribution (which we did independently). At a ballpark I’d suggest that the retail cost of producing a full scaled production like this including the car, production, location, music, emergency services and insurance would be upwards of $100,000. This is before you’ve even broadcast it anywhere. So how do you fund something like this? There’s a number of options:
1) Self fund it so we can release it for free
2) Self fund it then put the videos behind a paywall so viewers have to pay to watch it
3) Sell it to a cable TV network and viewers need to pay to subscribe to watch it (there will probably be commercial breaks throughout it)
4) A sponsor can foot the bill - viewers get to watch it for free and there will be a promotion of some kind in the video
The question is: If you wanted to make a video, which method do you think would work best for you and your viewers?
There is a 5th option, and that is that you just don’t ever do any builds that require any amount of significant resources. In some ways you could operate as a Vlogger putting out daily videos with limited production value talking about whatever eBay part you glued on your car. Costs would be low. Production value would be low (like the first years of MCM) and on a personal level maybe this would be enough. Vloggers are relevant and current, and it's cheap entertainment, but I’d be surprised if they are still making the exact same stuff and going just as strong in 10 years time...
So lets get back to the funding models. All of these models presented above are valid, and are neither “better” or “worse” than another. They are simply different avenues to fund a project that is inherently going to be expensive to produce. It’s up to each company, media group or YouTube channel to decide how they are going to work it, and how this impacts their audience. For us we’ve always felt that our primary concern should be that anyone can watch MCM at anytime for free on YouTube. Maybe one day we’ll get into fishing and make a brand new show and that will have a different arrangement and it’s own production ethic, and it’s own costs and budgets, but Mighty Car Mods was always meant to be a fun "hobby" that people could watch for free. (I say "hobby" because neither of us are automotive professionals and our primary motivation is to hang out and have fun while we make videos. Getting paid is a bonus. Our "real" careers are actually in music and audio engineering) The reality is that there is a heap of work in creating a show that is regularly filming large automotive projects, filming overseas or doing crazy builds, but we want people to be able to watch it without barriers. That's our model, but it doesn't mean that it is right for everyone.
When Discovery Channel came along it was important to us that any Mighty Car Mods episodes they aired would be on YouTube for free because we didn’t like the idea of the videos being ‘exclusive’ or content that required our viewers to pay for access. The fact is, that we set our boundaries of what we were willing to do and not do. We are not a huge company - we are just two guys who are ringing in mates to help out when we need assistance, so this was an easy and quick decision. Interestingly once our episodes started airing on Discovery Channel, some people cried out that “MCM has sold out” and “I noticed a change once it started on Discovery Channel”. In fact the deal we had done with Discovery Channel was only for existing Youtube videos, and the negotiations began well over a year before they broadcast any episodes on TV so there was no correlation at all between what we were doing on YouTube and what Discovery Channel was broadcasting. We were just really stoked that Discovery Channel believed in our videos enough to broadcast them around the world, would be seen by a whole new audience and we had some funding to make some new videos (which would also go to YouTube first). Same goes with QANTAS who air our episodes inflight worldwide. We love that international visitors and travellers can watch MCM on a plane. But all the episodes they are seeing are also available for free on YouTube without any delay or paid access.
When doing larger builds, or filming overseas it can be extremely costly. Our battle with RoadKill was no exception. When we filmed with Roadkill in 2016, each side was responsible for funding their own episode. It was important to us that anyone could watch both of the episodes for free and to the full credit of MotorTrend, they agreed. From our side we brought in 2 mates to help with cameras/organisation, and had a bunch of friends already in LA as they were going to SEMA. We covered our own flights, accomodation during our build, bought our own food and paid our small crew. Including our car this was approximately $20,000 out of pocket. (This is not including time to edit, make music and produce the actual video as we don’t invoice ourselves for our time making it). This is $20,000 of hard costs going out the door. It’s unlikely that even the biggest YouTube stars are going to make $20,000 on a single YouTube video. When our video came out we had less money than what we started with, but we had an awesome time, the trip of a lifetime and our primary intention was to have an awesome experience hanging out with some guys that we soon realised were absolute legends. That’s what a holiday is and that’s the way we treated it. It’s a VERY different situation when it’s a large company that needs to run as a profitable business to support a building full of staff. The income to pay everyone has to come from somewhere and a sponsor is a great way for any football team, race team, extreme sportsperson or YouTube channel to stay productive.
When we are creating sponsored videos - our contract states that we have 100% creative control over what we make. If a sponsor doesn’t agree to it, then we don’t do the deal. And fortunately for us, we get so many sponsorship opportunities that we can pick and choose what we think is a really good fit (literally 99% of them never make it past the first email or phone call). The best partnerships are with a brand of which we are already customers. Often if we have an idea of our own we will approach a company ourselves - recently we asked Supercheap Auto if we could race their V8 Supercar. We did not ask for money to present it. We did not ask for money to broadcast it on our channel and we were not paid. But they did cover the costs of track hire and emergency crew which means we could make a really great video. Sometimes we contact a company about an idea and it comes off, other times it doesn't. Last year we contacted two car manufactures about filming in their factory - they each had a vehicle that we were really interested in using on the show. We did not ask to be paid to present the video, or for money to broadcast the video on our channel. We would work for “free” if they would help us make it happen. One company failed to return our calls and eventually laughed at us and said it was impossible. The other company organised to meet us within 24 hours and worked really hard to make it happen. They actually followed through and made it happen.
So what happens from here? We never received any of the bulk YouTube funding that happened back in 2011, so our approach to YouTube has always been quite different. We understand that we’re basically on our own with the support of some select sponsors and an incredible group of loyal viewers from around the world. We started out making videos on the driveway, funding it ourselves and releasing the videos for free. Even when YouTube activated monetisation on our channel we didn’t turn it on because we never set out to run a business, expand a media empire or spend all our time running a company. As we started making more videos and fans started asking for bigger builds and more detailed videos, our episodes started costing more in time and resources. We realised that we needed to finance it somehow to keep it running because we were working day jobs, then sinking all our pay into a show that was going out for free. A combination of YouTube ads, supportive sponsors and the wonderful support of MCM fans buying merchandise has kept MCM “free” for 10 years, and that’s the way it’s going to stay. Occasionally we’re going to talk about sponsors in the videos because the support of these companies means that we can stay independent of a large network, TV channel or production company and we are so grateful to them for helping us make the show.
In light of the news that MotorTrend is moving their channels to their own website, it has been disappointing to see how many awful and personal comments have been made about the shows hosts on Facebook and YouTube. Back in 2016 Finnegan stated in a video that “The best thing about YouTube is the comments”. The comments are now disabled. This is obviously not a personal choice. It’s a time of change that is probably just as difficult for them as it would be for anyone who is part of a company that is restructuring. But anyone suggesting that this is a personal decision by any of the hosts needs to think about the scale of what they are involved in. This is not a couple of dickheads on a driveway with their mates. This is a large, funded media company with diverse interests and a suite of shows that need to be funded.
Finnegan and Freiburger seriously impressed us with their work ethic and attitude when we were filming with them in 2016. They are the real deal who have been working their asses off for years and they certainly don’t deserve the heat they’re getting. The reality is, they work for a large company (that needs to make money) and they are not personally responsible for the decisions that are made on a company level. They are employees and shouldn't be copping it from all sides. The videos they make are expensive, and most importantly, they're good, largely because David and Mike are both incredibly talented guys with great on screen character and presence. There are large crews involved and a lot of collective experience to pull off one of their episodes. We don’t claim to know what is going on behind closed doors over at MotorTrend but we do know that the insults do not need to be personal. Decisions have been made and from this point onwards you can choose to subscribe, or not.
So what does the future look like for Mighty Car Mods? The short version is that we are not going anywhere. We'll always be in control of what we make and episodes of MCM will go on YouTube for free. This is possible because of generous support from fans, and the ongoing support from a small group of select sponsors.
The truth is that in the current media climate, the power is in the viewers hands to decide what to watch, how and when. The old adage says that you get what you pay for, but Youtube has changed that. You now also get what you don't pay for. But there's always a cost. The question is: who is going to pay for it?
On a personal note we wish David and Mike all the best for their future endeavours both professionally and personally. If they ever find their way out to Australia we'll have a BBQ and a MIRA warmed up and ready to go.