In 2007, Netflix launched a streaming service in tandem with their DVD service, aimed at a more global audience. By 2016 the company was offering a seemingly revolutionary idea of constant original movies and series that traded the higher cable cost in the traditional tv industry with a more manageable monthly fee. Cable, but better.
Highlighting this were award-winning series like Stranger Things and Orange is the New Black, and a near-constant announcement of new works by avant-garde directors and studios that prior had struggled to truly deliver their vision. The carte blanche of creativity was bankrolled by a simple and expensive business model: "If More Cool Stuff only we can make, More People Come In". It was seen as a breath of fresh air by those that worked in tv and film, and its runaway success coupled with declining DVD and Blu-ray sales let to a goldrush as every studio under the sun tried to create a competitor. Disney+ and Paramount+ and Amazon Prime and Hulu and Shutter and Crunchyroll and Max and Plex and a hundred others flooded the market as fast as servers could be brought online.
It is now 2023, and the trap of streaming has fully been sprung. High creative freedom and sky-high budgets at Netflix have largely been dropped, residuals of older shows caused multiple sectors of the industry to strike, and year-on-year Netflix loses its grip on subscription amounts.
Streaming-only business models turn out to be an expensive smoke-show, a way not to fund yourself into profitability, but a way to burn cash till you're the only game in town. The long-term health of the platform can come later, right now what matters is attempting to do what Amazon did to brick-and-mortar stores. So what the hell does this all have to do with comics?
In 2017 I was visiting Finland, and a creator told me that his Webtoon original funded his downpayment for the house I was staying in. The Webtoon was about then-contemporary memes, and was by all accounts a modest hit. I admired the big bucks he had gotten, and wondered if I could do the same. It is now 2023, and comics creators at Webtoons often discuss less than amazing pay, poor social media push, and general editorial issues. Additional reading on these issues can be found here: Comics Beat Article, CBR Article, Reddit discussion from an Originals creator
For the sake of full disclosure, I do work as an editor at a webcomics publisher, and thus can be considered a direct competitor of services like Webtoons and Tapas. I am also not going to pretend the issues I outline here are exclusive to these platforms, or even that they don't present themselves in one form or another at the publisher I work at. What I'd like to underline however, is the way that these platforms went about creating their audiences, and how it draws parallels with streaming.
The central tenant of streaming is keeping your audience on your platform as long as possible. This is shared across most online services, like social media platforms, and webtoon is in fact a platform. It seeks by design to keep you on its website as long as possible, feeding you new suggestions and original series for as long as you are willing to listen. It is near impossible for creators to try and embed links to patreon, kickstarter or other services that help them fund their series. This is by design, and a big reason for why services like Tapas Ink and Webtoon Coins exist. It is not an additional service meant to help add more money to creators, it is meant to keep readers away from patreon, because going to patreon is leaving the platform. Leaving the platform is bad.
Webtoon Coins is also in particular egregious, as it is reported as one of the main revenue models of the platform. Creators are asked to make episodes well in advance (not unusual in itself as a backlog assists with emergencies or illness) for the express purpose of an early-access premium for paying customers. Put another way, direct support of webtoon creators conflicts with Webtoon's business model. This is compounded by the work hours enforced by Webtoons, with some creators reporting 70-hour work weeks, or 10 hours per day just drawing. This might be at the very least tolerable if the pay was at 2017 levels, if this was a slog that paid for your rent and food and lead to a sizable savings on the side. But it doesn't, the platform is awash with creators making potentially less than minimum wage with a promise of higher revenue for well-performing series. The rub being that the bar for higher revenue is set so high as to be completely untenable for the vast majority of creators, effectively creating a situation where your minimum pay, is your entire pay throughout.
Though the following is mostly industry rumor at present, there have been rumblings of Webtoon pushing deeper into South American audiences in the last few years. This would make sense for two core reasons. Firstly, Spanish is the world's second most spoken language, and although many of the countries do not have on-average high-income customers, the sheer size can assist in balancing this factor out. Secondly, and more importantly for this article, this is a chance to underpay local artists further, either to market to Spanish-speakers as a way of opting-in to the platform, or attempting to get global numbers with underpaid labour. Webtoon, a South Korean subsidiary of Line Naver, effectively saw what Netflix did with South Korean talent and said "Good golly, what if we found our own underserved talent pool to exploit?" All of this is predicated on exploitation of the artist. This is not to say that comics artists can't be treated fairly, but we must remember that comics are always a low-profit endeavour, due to the hours and pay needed to fund it. Having a free, massive platform like webtoon is thus probably working on even less margins, and to make the numbers make sense, either the company runs perpetually at a loss or it homes in on cost-cutting measures. The artist is the cost-cutting measure, forever exploitable, forever replaceable with newer talent.
This end form has already been created. Our situation is already like that of Netflix talents.
And then this year, Netflix talent stood up for itself. They fought for their rights, and won. This is what we can learn from streaming services as a whole: Their plan has always been to trap audiences into long-term commitment, but it fails to account for the autonomy of the creators involved.
Next year, several animation guilds and unions will be renegotiating their contracts. There are already comics freelancer guilds being created behind closed doors.
It is a wonderful time to be learning from others.