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Will Cinema Just Disappear?

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South Africa’s local film industry is becoming a serious economic player, but for all the advances in technology, film distribution has become far more complex. We delve into whether theatrical releases are still feasible.


There’s the old ADAGE that “there must be money in film”, but research and interviews this reporter conducted recently revealed a complex and tricky new system that needs to be simplified and explained.

The biggest question remains, why do it? What are the models for making money?

There must be money being made somewhere since the South African and African film industry and box office seems to be thriving. The time has come to demystify one very specific area of the business of film and this is distribution.

A brief explanation of distribution is in order before we delve into the technological advancements that have disrupted the entire industry over the last few years.

Distribution is defined as the release of a completed film. Back in the 1980s, 1990s and up until the late 2000s, the process was fairly simple; write the script, get the funding or studio backing, shoot the film, post-produce the film and have a distributor release the film to cinemas, then video or DVD and ultimately television.

The process is no longer that simple. One of the major reasons for the more complex distribution model these days is the advent of high-end digital technology.

Back in the day, about a decade or so ago, all films were projected on 35mm film. The origination format was irrelevant but the final product was always 35mm projection. Now, although 35mm has its advantages, it also has its flaws.

It was both cumbersome and expensive. Prints of film cost anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 per print, then there was the delivery costs associated with the prints, as well as the fact that after a certain period of time, the prints would be damaged and/or ruined – due to their organic nature, film as a medium does degrade over time.

The advent of high-definition cameras in the early 2000s and ultimately 4K and 5K cameras in the last five years changed everything.

Cinemas decided to adopt a new standard, the Digital Cinema Print (DCP). A DCP is a digital file that, much like a film print, consists of a variety of digital stills and sound files that are sequenced and recognized by the digital projectors that cinema owners have now equipped their cinemas with.

The file can be either in 2K or 4K depending on the projection system that’s available.

The cost of the digital conversion from the old 35mm projectors was astronomical, so much so, that the cinema owners, locally and internationally, had to be subsidized by what’s now become known as a virtual print fee. This has effectively replaced the old 35mm print fee and is cheaper, ranging from $750 per screen to $2,000 per screen.

Helen Kuun from Indigenous Film Distribution in South Africa has some insights on this.

“When the world converted to the DCP system, all that equipment had to be funded by two banks in the world who funded it because it was around R1.5 million ($110,000) per screen to the software and hardware conversion.

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“So the exhibitors put up as much money as they could and then Arts Alliance Ventures put up the rest of the money; everywhere in the world, they are there for digital conversion as a bank, so that digital print goes straight to them to pay off the digital equipment. But there is an end in sight, it’s November of 2020.”

The financial burden has now been placed on the distributor who owns the film to pay the virtual print fee to screen it. This has become an additional rather large expense, thereby reducing profit margins for the filmmakers and their respective distributors.

If you want to put your film into 100 cinemas, at $650 per cinema, that’s $65,000, and this is more than the entire budget of some South African feature films.

Also, the exhibitors are keeping on average 55% of your box office receipts on top of all these fees and this excludes print and advertising costs.

The burden of profit is far greater than it used to be, even though it’s become cheaper than ever to produce a film with 4K production and projection available to almost all.

“You have to structure your funding. You need to source money from more than one place in the world. You can tap into various structures of soft funding and then you can have two environments of recoupable funding. If you’re spending, say R10 million ($732,000), you should be able to, quite easily have not more than 60% of your budget recoupable due to soft money,” Kuun says.

Due to the complex nature of the business structures behind the independent film world, this is often times why the cinema market is flooded with mainstream Hollywood releases and not local independents.

We spoke to Ben Crowley, CEO of Gravel Road Media in Cape Town, who’s a South African and international distributor, about the merits of a theatrical release. Is it still feasible?

“Releasing a film theatrically is not necessarily the start and the end of the film. It’s a very important part of the life of a film, certainly if you’re wanting to drive other sales because a good theatrical performance will drive your home entertainment sales, it will drive your pay TV price, it can influence your initial batch of marketing that happens, creating awareness around the project, so it is important especially with the higher budget films. One shouldn’t be naïve thinking you can do a high budget film and then release it straight to TV or VOD (video on demand) platforms,” he says.

The truth is this money is being made in the process of windowing.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that South Africa’s local film industry is becoming a serious economic player, having contributed R5.4 billion ($395 million) to the GDP during the 2016/17 financial year.

The research was gathered from an economic impact assessment study commissioned by the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF).

With the Department of Trade and Industry’s filmmaking incentive schemes and rebates in place, production has been taking place swiftly in South Africa over the course of the last four to five years. Let’s face it, a 40% rebate on all local revenue spent is an attractive offer to any producer, because it’s soft money.

There are also various regional film commission incentives around the country and the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Film Commission is one such office making a viable swing for the stars in terms of what they’re offering for development in the province. We spoke to Carol Coetzee, the CEO of the KZN Film Commission.

“We are a fully-funded government organization, funded by the Department of Economic, Tourism and Environment Affairs and we have a very clear mandate. First of all, we look at promoting the region (KZN) as a destination for productions and secondly, we focus on the KZN film industry and how we facilitate the development. One of those areas is through the funding of film productions so we fund right from the beginning of development through to production right through to marketing and distribution and we’ve got about 160 projects on our portfolio at the moment.

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“We’ve had about 26 productions that have been completed in the last four years, that’s how long we’ve been around. We really have quite an interesting selection process. We want to have a balance of historical artistic films but we also want to have a balance of films that are going to be commercially viable but our focus is KZN stories so they get priority,” Coetzee says.

But where are these films being seen?  They’re certainly not all at your local cinema complex. You also can’t find many of them on physical media (DVD or Blu-ray) but where you can find them is the new on-demand platforms like Amazon, Netflix, Showmax, DSTV Box Office, Cell C Black and many others and across specialist local television channels like Mzansi Magic and KykNET.

With the death of physical media, the video-on-demand platforms have become the go-to for independent filmmakers and, let’s face it, all African filmmakers encompass the word independent.

We spoke to Crowley of Gravel Road about their distribution arm.

“We work with all the major VOD platforms, so your Netflix, Showmax… there’s a plethora of VOD platforms that are popping up. Some are better than others, some pay more, some pay less. When you’re trying to build a relationship with anyone, you’ve got to get to know who the buyers are.

“VOD is all about volume as well, so the amount of content and the quality of content that you’re pushing through to them as well. Eventually you become a reliable supplier of good quality content.

“It’s not something that anyone can do and it’s not something that a filmmaker should want to be doing. Filmmakers should concentrate on making movies and let distributors who have these relationships deal with it because it’s a very complex side of the film business, when you’re dealing with rights and how they’re carved up amongst the different platforms. It’s really not for the faint-hearted.”

We also asked Crowley  as to whether or not he thought film was still a viable revenue stream or business model.

“I think film is still viable, it just really comes down to doing your research and knowing who your market is. What you find is that filmmakers often go and make a movie without thinking about their market.

“You have to take the reverse approach. So, first think about your market, what does the market want and then produce for that market and also know what the buying power of your market is. So, if your market is a hundred people strong you can’t go and make a movie that’s going to cost a hundred million rand.”

A logical approach, but there’s a conflict of interest with exhibitors. Exhibitors want big box office returns and instant gratification and they seem to propagate the myth that only Hollywood or big action adventure superhero films can deliver these numbers with an attractive young cast, which you’ll have to compete directly against.

Crowley offers another solution – local content quotas.

“Local content quotas would be a good idea from a local circuit perspective because what that will do is it will open up the market to a lot more South African content because we need to get our audiences used to watching more local content theatrically.

“I think more so what should actually happen is also to have a levy or a tax on all the international films that get released in this market, where a small percentage of that box office taking actually gets allocated back into the industry by some sort of fund that’s administered by the NFVF or some other body so we can further develop our industry. It’s worked excellently in France.”

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So what then do you do with your finished film to pay back those investors to whom you’ve promised the earth. This is where the term windowing comes into play – it is the gradual platform release of your film to various forms of media over a period of two years. This is the life of the film.

Step one is to secure your theatrical release and prepare yourself for the fact that you’re probably not going to make any money at this stage. Your exhibitor is going to take a minimum of 55% of the receipts, which leaves you with about 45% of the box office gross, then your distributor is going to take off their expenses for releasing your film off the balance before you see a cent.

These figures can amount to millions; including things like advertising and virtual print fees per screen. You’d need to try and keep the costs down and secure as much free publicity as possible but the chances of you actually making any kind of return on investment at the South African box office are slim to none, unless you have the kind of hit that transcends all markets locally, it’s highly unlikely though.

You’re left with the video-on-demand platforms and television stations, which your distributor will approach for you. The key to making money seems to be to get an international buyout from one of the big international on-demand platforms like Netflix, Shudder, Hulu and Amazon.

Research reveals even these license figures vary wildly; anywhere from $10,000 to $250,000.

VOD platforms are broken down into several sub -categories: TVOD (Transactional Video on Demand). This is a service like iTunes, where you rent or buy a specific film; SVOD (Subscription Video on Demand). These are subscription-based monthly services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Showmax and so on; then there’s AVOD (Advertiser Video on Demand). Free video on-demand services that have commercials peppering their content, an example of this would be TubiTV.

Windowing reveals that an ideal strategy would be to keep a two- to three-month gap between releases on each one of these services for maximum impact. After you’ve hit the VOD platforms, there are hundreds of TV channels crying for content, again the figures aren’t big in terms of rights but if you take the sheer volume of platforms available today, windowing your film can become a potential goldmine.

All the VOD platforms and TV stations take into account whether or not you’ve had a theatrical release in your country of origin since that automatically pushes the value of your film up. So although you won’t be making any money off the theatrical release it’s still something important to secure since it increases the value of your film down the line in the distribution window chain.

Kuun has some encouraging but sobering words.

“The good thing is volumes of content are increasing across the board worldwide because there are so many more places to host it but it doesn’t mean that every single piece of content that goes out there is watched by millions of people, so every platform has its place. Cinema will always be there, I don’t personally think it will just disappear, it will always have a place because it’s about going out and having a communal experience.”

With the sheer volume of platforms and windows available to you and with a good marketing plan, the opportunity is still there to make some serious cash, it just takes patience and happens strategically.

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Can Diddy’s Ciroc Recipe Work On Alkaline Water?

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The first time Sean “Diddy” Combs took a sip of Aquahydrate alkaline water—given to him by pal Mark Wahlberg at a Las Vegas boxing match in the early 2010s—he found it to be an ideal antidote for evenings spent consuming adult beverages.

“I went out that night and had a Vegas night, and I woke up and had a Vegas morning,” Diddy told me in 2015. “I drank two of the [Aquahydrate] bottles and it was, like, the best tasting water that I’ve tasted. And it really, honestly helped me recover.”

Diddy became the face of the company alongside Wahlberg shortly thereafter, and the pair invested $20 million in Aquahydrate over the years while billionaire Ron Burkle’s Yucaipa added another $27 million.

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They aren’t the only ones with lofty ambitions for the brand: last week the Alkaline Water Co., the publicly-traded purveyor of competitor Alkaline88, bought Aquahydrate in an all-stock deal that valued the latter at about $50 million.

For Diddy, who ranks No. 4 on our recently-released list of hip-hop’s top earners and boasts a net worth of $740 million, alkaline water holdings are just a drop in his financial bucket. His Diageo-backed Ciroc vodka—and its myriad flavors, from Red Berry to Summer Watermelon—is responsible for the lion’s share of his wealth. But it’s clear he thinks alkaline water, flavored variants included, could swell his portfolio. So do his new partners.

Diddy
CRAIG BARRITT AND ALEXANDER TAMARGO/GETTY IMAGES. DESIGN: NICK DESANTIS/FORBES

“You put both these brands under one public company, it makes a ton of sense,” says Aaron Keay, Alkaline’s chairman, of the Aquahydrate deal. “We see synergies on distribution, we see cost-savings on cost of goods. On production, on logistics, on staffing. … And we don’t see both brands actually then competing for the same target market.”

In the past, flavored water has enriched investors including some of Diddy’s hip-hop world comrades. A little over a decade ago, 50 Cent famously took Vitaminwater equity in lieu of stock as payment for his endorsement—and walked away with some $100 million when Coca-Cola bought its parent company for $4.1 billion in 2007.

A ten-figure valuation for an alkaline water company seems an outlandish target even for the notoriously bombastic Diddy. But Keay notes Alkaline clocked $33 million in revenues over the past fiscal year and had been expecting $48 million in 2020; now, with Aquahydrate on board, he projects closer to $60-$65 million. That compares favorably to Core Water, which was doing some $80 million as of last year before getting acquired.

“For two or three years, Core Water was just another clear water,” says Keay. “Then they added about a half dozen flavors. Sales doubled. They got bought for $500 million. I mean, for us, $500 million would be a big number off of where our market cap is right now.”

Diddy appears to be an ideal ally in achieving that goal. With Ciroc, once a middling vodka in Diageo’s roster, he was able to articulate importance of the brand’s defining trait: it was made from grapes, not grains (never mind that this might technically disqualify it from being considered a vodka). His contention, according to Stephen Rust, Diageo’s president of new business and reserve brands, is that grapes are simply sexier than potatoes.

“One of his favorite things [to say] is, ‘If you can have a vodka that comes from a history of winemaking, why would you do that versus the history of coming from potatoes?’” Rust explained in an interview for my book, 3 Kings: Diddy, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, And Hip-Hop’s Multibillion-Dollar Rise. “That’s Sean.”

With alkaline water, Diddy has demonstrated a similar knack for sizing up a product and extracting an elemental notion that passes muster with consumers (if not necessarily scientists). If “you’re full of acid,” Diddy once explained to me, you need to “get your body leveled out.”

Vodka and water, of course, are two very different products, and the same tactics won’t necessarily translate from one business to another. Flavored water itself seems to have been over-carbonated of late, as the recent struggles of brands like La Croix show; Alkaline’s shares have slumped this year as well.

Perhaps that’s why Alkaline is looking beyond its flagship bottled water business. Future plans call for a move towards cans in a nod to environmentally-conscious customers, as well as expansion into the nascent CBD-infused beverage space. Keay figures Diddy and Wahlberg, along with fellow celebrity investor Jillian Michaels, should provide a boost across the board.

“Once the FDA makes a ruling about how CBD is going to be distributed through those chains and channels, those guys are going to want trusted brands, brands that they know already have a consumer following,” says Keay. “And that was another big reason why it made sense to bring [Diddy, Wahlberg and Michaels] in, because it’s only going to help.”

Zack O’Malley Greenburg; Forbes

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The Highest-Paid Actors 2019: Dwayne Johnson, Bradley Cooper And Chris Hemsworth

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A bankable leading man is still one of Hollywood’s surest bets, even if your name isn’t Leonardo DiCaprio. While the lucrative twenty-twenty deal ($20 million upfront and 20% of gross profit) doled out to the likes of Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise may be more or less gone, Hollywood still has its big-money brands, those actors who can promise an audience so big that they command not only an eight-figure salary to show up on set but also a decent chunk of a film’s nebulous “pool”—or the money left over after some but not all of the bills are paid. 

Dwayne Johnson, also known as the Rock, tops the Forbes list of the world’s ten highest-paid actors, collecting $89.4 million between June 1, 2018, and June 1, 2019.

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“It has to be audience first. What does the audience want, and what is the best scenario that we can create that will send them home happy?” Johnson told Forbes in 2018.

It seems he makes the audience happy. Johnson has landed a pay formula as close to the famed twenty-twenty deal of yore as any star can get these days. He’ll collect an upfront salary of up to $23.5 million—his highest quote yet—for the forthcoming Jumanji: The Next Level.

He also commands up to 15% of the pool from high-grossing franchise movies, including Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which had a worldwide box office of $962.1 million. And he is paid $700,000 per episode for HBO’s Ballers and seven figures in royalties for his line of clothing, shoes and headphones with Under Armour.

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While Johnson’s deal is the biggest in the business right now, he’s not the only one with a lucrative deal. Robert Downey Jr. gets $20 million upfront and nearly 8% of the pool for his role as Iron Man, and that amounted to about $55 million for his work in Avengers: Endgame, which grossed $2.796 billion at the box office. 

That gross was so big that it secured spots on this year’s top-earner list for Chris Hemsworth, Bradley Cooper and Paul Rudd, in addition to Downey; together, they earned $284 million, with most of that coming from the franchise. 

“Celebrities such as Downey and (Scarlett) Johansson currently have extreme leverage to demand enormous compensation packages from studios investing hundreds of millions of dollars in making tent-pole films, such as The Avengers series,” entertainment lawyer David Chidekel of Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae told Forbes. 

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Cooper is the rare actor who can thank a bet on himself for his 2019 ranking. The actor earned only about 10% of his $57 million payday for voicing Rocket Raccoon in Avengers. 

Seventy percent came from A Star Is Born, the smaller musical drama that he directed, produced, cowrote and starred in with Lady Gaga. The movie was a passion project for Cooper, and he forfeited any upfront salary to go into the film and Gaga’s salary. It paid off—the movie, which had a production budget of only $36 million, grossed $435 million worldwide, leaving Cooper with an estimated $40 million. 

The full list is below. Earnings estimates are based on data from Nielsen, ComScore, Box Office Mojo and IMDB, as well as interviews with industry insiders. All figures are pretax; fees for agents, managers and lawyers (generally 10%, 15% and 5%, respectively) are not deducted.

The World’s Highest-Paid Actors Of 2019

10. Will Smith

Earnings: $35 million

9. Paul Rudd

Earnings: $41 million

8. Chris Evans

Earnings: $43.5 million

6. Adam Sandler (tie)

Earnings: $57 million

6. Bradley Cooper (tie)

Earnings: $57 million

5. Jackie Chan

Earnings: $58 million

4. Akshay Kumar

Earnings: $65 million

3. Robert Downey Jr.

Earnings: $66 million

2. Chris Hemsworth

Earnings: $76.4 million

1. Dwayne Johnson

-Madeline Berg; Forbes

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Comedian Jim Gaffigan Rakes In $30 Million By Ditching Netflix And Betting On Himself

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Gripping a lukewarm Heineken, Jim Gaffigan hunches his six-foot-one frame over a peeling table in the green room of the An Grianán Theatre in Letterkenny, Ireland. Summer nights are never terribly hot in these parts, but this one is warm enough to need some air conditioning, which the theater almost never uses. It’s hardly a glamorous moment. But then again, glamour isn’t really his thing.

“There’s nothing sexy about Jim Gaffigan,” he says, sweat dotting his brow. “I’m not young. I don’t have a full head of hair. I’m out of shape. I don’t talk about having dinner with Kanye.”

Fortunately for him, he is funny. Just ask the more than 300,000 people in 15 countries who’ve paid an average of $56 to see his latest routine. For the 53-year-old father of five, it’s been a grueling schedule: more than 75 cities in the past year, including whistle-stops like Letterkenny, a northern community of 20,000 that was once lauded as the Republic’s “tidiest town.”

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They may not offer much sizzle, but places like this are the lifeblood of Gaffigan’s business. He has raked in $30 million this year, putting him at No. 3 on Forbes’ list of the highest-earning stand-up comedians. Half of that was earned by putting “butts in seats.”

The rest comes from spreading his punch lines far and wide. And in this business, if those jokes are funny enough—and your reach wide enough—you can fill a lot of seats with a lot of butts. With the right distribution deal, those jokes can deliver exponential returns. But that’s where it gets a bit tricky.

“In the entertainment industry, every house is made of ice and it’s melting,” Gaffigan says. “So you’d better be building a new house.”  

Gaffigan’s been building. In 2016, he agreed to partner with Netflix, the industry’s dominant force and home to original specials from all but one of the comedians on Forbes’ ranking. Last year he cut loose from the kingmaker and placed a bigger bet on himself, pairing up with Comedy Dynamics, an independent producer, to release his next special everywhere but Netflix. 

Gaffigan will star in the first original stand-up special on Amazon, which is going after the streaming giant with a push into comedy. Quality Time goes live today, and it can be shopped on the open streaming market when its exclusive run with Amazon Prime Video is up in two years. And that market is only expanding.

Gaffigan has learned a bit about home building in the entertainment industry. He cut his teeth on the club circuit in the early 1990s, when HBO was the primary destination for stand-up specials and Comedy Central was a fledgling cable network.

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In 2000, he landed what was then the holy grail of comedy success—a broadcast sitcom—which was the source of the fortunes the creators of Seinfeld and Roseanne minted once they had enough seasons on the air and could sell the series into syndication.

Gaffigan’s shot proved to be short-lived, but six years later he scored a second chance and headlined a Comedy Central special called Beyond the Pale. This time it paid dividends, landing him his first theater show a month later. The butts were now coming to the seats, and while his rise was live, in person, with microphone in hand, his breakout was digital.

At the time, YouTube was changing the rules of the game, providing comedians a global platform with unprecedented distribution. Then Twitter emerged, giving comedy bookers a real-time assessment of who was attracting audiences.

READ MORE | The World’s Highest-Paid Comedians Of 2018

Then came the debut of streaming on Netflix, which latched onto comedy as a cheap and effective way to lure subscribers, while some, notably the now disgraced Louis C.K., used streaming to control their own distribution, making their shows available for fans to purchase directly.

“It was a technological wave that crashed over the stand-up world,” says Wayne Federman, a comedian and professor of the history of stand-up at the University of Southern California. “And we’re still all trying to figure out what’s going on.”

Gaffigan’s first original Netflix special aired in 2017, long after the company had reshaped the industry. It was a promising place to be: Aziz Ansari and Ali Wong were propelled into superstar status through their Netflix specials, while household names like Dave Chappelle and Jerry Seinfeld reportedly cashed in with $60 million (Chappelle) and $100 million (Seinfeld) paydays in exchange for long-term, multi-program deals. Gaffigan’s first special, Cinco, sold for a more modest seven-figure sum.

Jim Gaffigan stand up comedy specials for Netflix and Amazon Original
COURTESY

It was more than just a check; it was access to a potential audience of nearly 94 million. Although Netflix’s subscriber base has grown since then, so has its stand-up library. The platform now shops nearly four times the number of original stand-up specials than when Cinco debuted.

That makes it harder to stand out in the scroll. Plus, the streamer often holds onto specials in perpetuity, including Cinco. The up-front money is nice, but there is no ability to earn on the back end. 

Gaffigan used his next special, 2018’s Noble Ape, which was directed and cowritten by his wife, Jeannie Gaffigan, to test the waters. Comedy Dynamics bought the rights and made it available everywhere Netflix wasn’t. It had a theatrical release and could be purchased and rented on multiple services, including  iTunes, YouTube and Walmart’s VUDU.

Later, there were short streaming windows on Comedy Central and Amazon Prime. According to Comedy Dynamics CEO Brian Volk-Weiss, it was even syndicated to planes and cruise ships. The up-front payment to Gaffigan from Comedy Dynamics was lower than at Netflix, but the wide distribution allowed him to earn on the back end, bringing in a total of $10 million, according to Forbes estimates.

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And new services are on the way from Apple, WarnerMedia, NBCUniversal and Disney, any one of which could choose to pursue cheap-to-produce and popular stand-up specials. 

Because of this widening field, stand-up specials may have more life (and revenue) in them, and that could be good for comedians looking to gamble on their success with deals that offer back-end participation. “We have titles in our library that are making more in year 12 than they made in year one,” says Volk-Weiss, whose company also owns specials by Bob Saget, Iliza Shlesinger and Janeane Garofalo.

Still, leaving Netflix means walking away from a partner that has now established itself as a formidable entertainment company. Netflix has some 180 original hour-long stand-up specials and is singularly focused on exploiting content around the world. Gaffigan, though, is content to keep the bet on himself.

“In the entertainment industry, every house is made of ice and it’s melting. So you’d better be building a new house.”

In the stuffy backstage room in Letterkenny, Gaffigan reviews some of the new material he tried out on stage. A joke about Ireland’s nonsensical roads killed it. He stumbled with a bit about the English. The classics played well—“My dad never went to a parent-teacher conference; my dad didn’t know I went to school.”  

And he’s well aware that Amazon’s core mission is to sell stuff, even though it has won critical acclaim for shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Transparent. With plans to deliver three more specials over the next five years, he’s got time to see just how good a partner the retailer might be. Along the way, he may decide it’s time to find a new neighborhood.

“The reason I went to Amazon is to expand my audience,” he says. “I don’t know what they’re gonna do and I don’t fully understand their marketing might. I might be pleasantly surprised. I mean, it’s a huge corporation. They could probably make more selling socks.”

-Ariel Shapiro; Forbes

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