It was using this strategy that Kirby Ferguson, after a decade of making online video, was able to quit his full-time job and focus exclusively on filmmaking. He first made waves in 2010 with the release of the online documentary Everything is a Remix which argues that all creative works are derivative and we should encourage the use of the old when creating the new. The web series was released in four installments for free and racked up millions of views leading to a bevvy of speaking gigs and donations — the new creative economy at work.
Now, Ferguson is switching tactics with his new documentary This is Not a Conspiracy Theory. He plans to release the film behind a paywall in December, opting for immediate suitability instead of wide accessibility of Remix. We spoke with Ferguson about the new economics of creativity and what it takes to succeed in this dynamic.
For the casual observer, it appeared that your first documentary came out of nowhere, but I’m sure you tried tons of things before “Everything Is A Remix” gained traction. True?
I’ve been doing online video since the early days, around ’99 or 2000. I started with comedy. I did that for two or three years on the side. It was hard for me to find my voice doing that. It just wasn’t interesting to me. I actually wanted to make arguments with what I was doing.
It seems you found your lane here with these two documentaries.
It was the first style that I did where I was like, “Oh, okay, like this is what my talents are for.”
Everything is a Remix, Pt. 1
That’s the great part of the web, right? You can do a thousand little experiments and stretch.
Yeah, and you can see how your work is going. Most of the time, you’re working on your voice. It’s just your own journey. You’re just working on your stuff and trying to get better, putting it out there and getting a response from it. Getting a feel for an audience is important, and the Internet is a great place to try and fail. Because if you fail, nobody really sees it, nobody cares. No harm, no foul.
I think that’s a good template: throw everything against the wall because it’s the Internet and space is cheap.
You released “Everything is a Remix” in installments. Why?
When you put it out in installments, you see the feedback and you can shift course, things can happen that wouldn’t have happened if you were just doing it on your own. It is a way to incorporate the wisdom of the audience into the project.
Which is different than your typical filmmaker, who may think: “I need this to be completely perfect before showing it to the world.” What led you to that iterative approach versus the “normal” path?
I think the interactive method is more approachable. When I think something has to be perfect, I’ll just fiddle with it forever. The truth is, for releasing stuff on the net, I don’t think it matters if it’s perfect. I really don’t. It has to be really good and I try to get the concepts and the ideas as perfect as I can get them. But for the filmmaking, I don’t think people are going to watch it or not because it’s got that extra bit of polish on it.
At the end, when it becomes a movie, it is going to be on TVs and big screens at that point and it has got to look as good as it can. Then I’ll try and polish it up.
I think for me it is a way to not go down a rabbit hole of perfectionism and it is a way to keep the thing coming out on a reasonable schedule.
What are the economics of these two projects? Is this your full-time job?
Yep. I’m an independent filmmaker, I make a go of it. I did have a job when I started it. The documentaries get me work, they get me speaking engagements, I sell some merchandise, I get some donations, and it all kind of adds up to a living. And then This Is Not A Conspiracy Theory would be awesome if it could make me a living on its own from subscription fees.
It seems like that has led you to have complete creative control over everything you want to do, which is where everyone wants to be.
Which is my dream, really. Honestly, like I’d rather have freedom with what I’m doing than be loaded and be working with producers that say stuff like, “we should really have a talking bear in this one,” and advocate for all sorts of stupid ideas. If you feel like you’re some sort of a wage slave, that’s not a good place for a creative person to be.
What would your advice be to the 20-year-old version of you, who’s just starting their career?
I wish I had Everything Is A Remix when I was younger. I wish I knew that you can just start copying other people’s stuff and fiddling with it, and putting stuff into it, and just sort of build from there. It’s okay to be primitive. That’s a perfectly fine way to start making things.
I wish the earlier me understood work and practice more. Just the repeated concerted effort to get better at things. I wish I didn’t have the notions of talent and genius I had back then. I thought, “Oh, these other people, they just have something that I don’t have.” When really, they are just people who work more.
I wish I understood work. Work is the key to anything you want to do. If you want to play the guitar—anybody can learn to play the fucking guitar—you can be good at it. Maybe you won’t get to be a genius but you could be good.
You can be good enough to write good songs or make a good film or whatever. There’s no such thing as not having enough talent to get to that level. I mean, persistence is talent, really. Just sticking with it. Talent is not stopping.
TED Talk: Embrace the remix