Machinima in 2007 part 2 - Legal Machinima and the Brain-Drain

And welcome to part 2 of my round-up of last year’s developments and issues in Machinima! In part 1, yesterday, I talked about community breakdown and feature films. Today, I’m discussing how the legal landscape has changed, and how the hirings of Machinima creators by games companies is altering the Machinima world.

The Rise and Rise of Legal Machinima

I’ve been doing Machinima for a decade now. And let me tell you, it has frequently been a pretty wild and lawless land out here.

The last few years have seen Machinima creators get steadily sicker of being unsure of their legal status, unhappy about being unable to make money, and generally sick as the proverbial parrot of legal arguments, confusion, and uncertainty.

And one of the biggest changes of the last year has been the massive advance in options for Machinima where you definitely, absolutely won’t get sued - and might even be able to make money.

Of course, one of the big stories of the year in Machinima has been Microsoft’s history-making move to provide a clear license for Machinima creation. They did it at the right time, they did it in the right way, and they even listened to the people they were licensing to. Halo Machinima creators are now in the clear for an enormous variety of Machinima creation, and that will extend to other Microsoft engines.

And Blizzard Entertainment jumped on the licensing bandwagon shortly afterward, with a license that’s better in some ways (notably the sponsorship provisions) and worse in rather a lot of others (notably the just-plain-incomprehensible film festival permissions, the harsh content restrictions, and the deeply unclear exemptions for download fees.). Still, again, WoW Machinima artists are now, mostly, in the clear.

You can’t use either of those engines to make money without contacting the developers (although Microsoft, in particular, seem very open to that idea, and Blizzard have presumably licensed Nhym’s recent appearance on The Escapist - more below). But, handily, 2007 has also been interesting with regard to cash-making Machinima.

One of the other big stories in Machinima, in September, was the aquisition of Molotov Alva’s “My Second Life” by HBO, for an undisclosed “six-figure sum”. Whilst the hyperbole about this being the first big money in Machinima is clearly rubbish (for example, Strange Company was involved in a six-figure Machinima project back in 2001), it’s great proof of the theory that Machinima is a potential incubator for new film ideas - and that companies will actually buy them! And, of course, this couldn’t have happened without Second Life’s status as the first virtual world where commercial work was allowed and encouraged.

2007 was also the year of Moviestorm’s launch. Moviestorm is, of course, the free, commercially-licensed Machinima platform from longtime developers Short Fuze, which has attracted a lot of funding and currently employs one of the authors of this blog. (Not me - Johnnie Ingram, my co-author). Already we’re seeing the first good films coming from Moviestorm users, notably Fling Films’ Morning Run Amok and Phil “Overman” Rice’s Ad Absurdem and What I Love About XMas. Moviestorm is still very much in development, but for serious and commercial Machinima creation it offers massive potential.

Three years or so ago, Machinima was basically uncharted waters, legally speaking. 2007 has very much been the year where we’ve finally been able to, mostly, stop worrying about being sued.

Will this trend continue? Probably. A lot depends on how successful Halo and WoW moviemaking continue to be - but currently, as I mentioned above, they’re two of the most obviously strong communities out there. Many people are looking for EA to follow suit - whether or not it’ll happen I’m not sure, but probably not until they release a new, Machinima-friendly game.

Money Comes Calling

Where did the old school go in 2007? Mostly into (presumably) high-paying games company jobs.

Paul Marino, Michelle Petit-Mee, Jason Choi, Red Sky Foundry, Terran Gregory, Tristan Pope - over the last two years, the games industry has really started to hoover up Machinima talent for its cutscene teams. Meanwhile, there have been other companies hiring too. Notably, in February Electric Sheep grabbed the Ill Clan, whilst Short Fuze/Moviestorm now houses several ex-StrangeCo people.

Before I start, I should say that of course this is fantastic news for the people involved, and I’m not in any way saying that they should continue to starve in garages for their art. I can’t say that strongly enough.

Being hired by a games company is threatening to become the default “exit strategy” for a Machinima team., though, and that does pose some problems for the Machinima community.

Rather than a successful filmmaker suddenly breaking through into making very big, successful films, offering a role model for those below them, we seem to have a situation where very successful filmmakers disappear into games companies doing not-very-high-profile jobs (speaking in terms of public visibility), have to massively diminish their involvement with the Machinima community thanks to time issues, and certainly are unlikely to be able to make their own movies any more.

(The situation with the Ill Clan is obviously better (excepting Electric Sheep’s recent downsizing, which I hope didn’t affect them too badly), but, again, they’re many less indie videos these days.)

Quite what that means for filmmaking in Machinima is uncertain. I think there’s a risk that Machinima faces that, each year, most of the top people will eventually be hired away, just as they reach a stage in their careers where they have the audience and expertise to make Machinima films that could go truly mainstream. That’s happened over the last couple of years, I think, and has possibly accelerated the decay of the Machinima community I wrote about yesterday, as well as making it very likely that we’re not going to see a truly breakout film from any of the hirees - the people most likely to have the talent to create a breakout Machinima film - any time soon.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. For starters, maybe the people involved didn’t want to create huge movies that would break Machinima out and make them the next Spielburg, etc, etc. I know I have a nasty tendancy to view any talented Machinima creator as the Next Big Hope for the industry, whether or not they’re insane enough to want to make films full-time. That’s unfair and it’s a lot of pressure to put on people.

And there are more signs of opportunities existing for Machinima creators that do allow them to create their own work, or at least work that’s close to what they want to do. The Ill Clan’s partnership with Electric Sheep allowed them to make The Grid Review, a darned interesting show of which they’re justifiably proud. Friedrich Kirschner has been an official Artist-In-Residence in Stuttgart for the last year. Obviously, Strange Company is still creating indie Machinima full time. Nanoflix’s Stolen Life was funded and quite high-profile. As I previously mentioned, HBO aquired “My Second Life”. And most recently, WoW filmmaker Nhym was hired (presumably for cash, although we don’t know for sure) by the Warcry network to create a series for them - which is a tremendously positive development, given that they appear to have, rather than wanting Nhym just for his technical skills, wanted to pay him for the indie work he’s already doing. That’s what should be happening, and what will enable Machinima to grow: companies recognising and wanting to pay for the creativity and storytelling in the Machinima works that come out.

(Unfortunately, in a stunning example of mis-marketing, the Escapist Magazine, Warcry’s sister publication, then offered Nhym’s first piece, a very WoW-centric rap parody video, in place of the incredibly popular and totally dissimilar Zero Punctuation, over Christmas. The ensuing flamewar resulted in Nhym backing out of the deal - a very wise move on his part - and the entire thing subsequently being removed from the Escapist’s front page. Still, the fact that he was hired in the first place shows that there are more and more opportunities out there.)

We can hope that more direct filmmaking opportunities start to arise as licensing issues diminish, into 2008 and beyond. I hope they do - if only because, from a selfish point of view, I’d like to keep seeing films from our top filmmakers.