A Cautionary Tale: What Can Happen When Your Personal Video Goes Viral

By Alexandra Beller

Alexandra Beller

Photo credit: Jody Christopherson.

It was a perfect day. Having been a mother for six years, and a choreographer for twelve, I’d come to accept that I almost always felt guilty about forsaking one or the other of my loves (babies or art). On this particular day, I’d brought my 14-month old boy, Ivo, into the studio to experiment with my company. He’d started walking at 11 months and recently begun doing these astoundingly beautiful little dances, full of desire and instability and fearlessness — just what I was trying to create with my dancers. I’d decided to bring him to rehearsal and attempt to follow, and eventually learn, his dances.

We danced together for about an hour, and then he left with the sitter and we continued to unravel what we’d done with him. I felt so full. Satisfying both of my roles simultaneously and so deeply was something that had literally NEVER happened to me. As a celebratory, and casual, gesture, I posted a one-minute clip from rehearsal. “Missing Kendra, but having a great rehearsal!” was the post (I’d had a dancer out that day). I posted at 8:30 p.m. that evening and turned off my phone.

The next morning, I had 826 emails; 815 were notifications from Facebook that someone had shared or commented on my video. I clicked over to Facebook. I expected my usual number of responses to a cute post: 100 to 200 “Likes” and a bunch of comments (20? maybe 30?). The video already had 500,000 views, and around 40,000 “Likes.” By 3:00 p.m. it had a million views.

“You’ve gone viral,” said my tech savvy friend. “One million is the definition of viral.” I didn’t have any experience with this, nor any idea what, if anything, it required of me. I watched, fascinated, as it got picked up and spread by Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Perez Hilton: 50 million views, 200 million, 300 million views on each site. Then it started getting posted by less famous sources, and I noticed my name was no longer on it, but advertisements were. I was soon contacted by a licensing company.

“We’d like to help you control this, so that you can benefit from it, and retain some ownership of it. We’ll also help get it attention from major outlets like ‘The Ellen DeGeneres Show,’ ‘The Wendy Williams Show,’ etc. This could be a big hit!!” Sounded great. At this point, the video had 750 million views. Most of the re-posted videos had no connection to me, and did not mention my name or my company’s name. Since this was a rehearsal for a new dance work, connecting the massive interest in what was essentially our artistic process to the company seemed important. Did I have 750,000 possible audience members for our upcoming La MaMa season? Half that many potential new Kickstarter donors?

I signed an agreement stating that the licensing company would help control the spread of the video, request compensation from those who’d posted and were monetizing it, and share that money with me 70 percent/30 percent. Seemed like a smart move. After all, I wasn’t making anything from it now, though others were. If I could pay for the rehearsal space for the rest of the making of the work, and even rehearsal pay for the dancers, that seemed like an awesome tradeoff. I was not entirely comfortable taking part in a system that monetized a video of my little monkey, but I figured since I’d unknowingly put us in the situation where it WAS already being commercialized, the proceeds might as well go to my art rather than random self-serving strangers.

I saw the links to the video getting deleted, but no money came in yet from the licensor. After six months I contacted them. “What’s the status of our video, and are there any funds from it?” “Uh, no… nothing has come in yet, but we’ll keep you informed!”

Dancers Carly Berrett Plagianakos, Lea Fulton, Edward Rice, and Simon Thomas-Train in milkdreams.

Dancers Carly Berrett Plagianakos, Lea Fulton, Edward Rice, and Simon Thomas-Train in milkdreams. Photo credit: Judith Stuart

Meanwhile, I was close to finishing my piece, an evening-length work called milkdreams for four dancers. We’d been working on it now for over two years. The show was four months away at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre. I was launching a Kickstarter campaign for $7,000 to help offset the production fees. And the video was still going viral. It had reached almost one billion views. Most of them still contained no link to my work, my website, La MaMa, or the company.

“If I had ONE PENNY for every time the video has been viewed, I’d have $10 million,” I said in the introduction to the Kickstarter video. I wanted to remind people of the disconnect between how we ingest, share, take and discard each other’s material, versus supporting, nurturing, and collaborating on it. What if it cost a penny watch a video? Would we still watch the clip from rehearsal, the improv in the empty living room, the backstage moment in the theater? Would we value these little pieces of art and process more if we had to pay for them?

My grant writer suggested that my money would be better spent on a PR person than on her services. I hired one, who put me in touch with a social media strategist/online marketing specialist. “So, the bottom line is: If you had handled this right, you could probably have put your kids through college on the money you could’ve made from this video.” This was the first thing he told me when I asked if there was money to be made from the mad ride of the video. I don’t need to tell you that, as an artist with two kids, one of whom is eight years away from college, this fairly leveled me.

Nothing to be done about that, but he told me he could help me moving forward, as long as I could relieve myself of my agreement with the licensor. “It’s been eight months, and I haven’t heard anything from you, there’s been no action on the video in terms of new venues, and there has been no money, so I’d like to be let out of our agreement.” I sent this message that day to my contact. No response, but within two hours, there was a payment to my bank account for $268.

I sent a few more emails, beginning to escalate towards anger. No response. Finally, upon threatening them with legal action, I received this:

Unfortunately, we will not move forward with the termination request. We have honored the contract and will continue to do so. Please reach out anytime you have any questions or concerns in the future. Thank you!

Livid, I went back and forth with the new social media person, and he suggested he had a contact who might be able to help us out of my bad deal. It has been 16 months of negotiating, and I am still not out of the contract, and have never received any other payment. I subsequently found out that they had put their license on a video that was not in the contract, which we had never discussed.

Helpless, angry, stressed, and without options, I gave up thinking about the issue, or working to resolve it, and turned my attention to where it belonged: my art and my family. I learned a very expensive lesson. I should’ve controlled my video right away. I should never have trusted this company to take care of me. I should have watermarked the video and linked it to my website. There should have been a link inside the actual original video that I controlled. I should’ve tagged it in such a way that I could collect data from its progress across four continents, to 40 countries. But I didn’t.

And, even now, almost four years later, I still see the video come up on social media and other sites occasionally, frequently unmarked and uncredited. Even harder, I’ve seen the concept — my concept — borrowed and reused to monetize products in television commercials and online marketing campaigns. There was the video for diapers, in which the yoga class is following a baby, and the recent spoof by Jenna Dewan Tatum and James Corden where they follow a toddler’s dance. People send these to me with casual messages: “Look! You’ve inspired a trend! :)” the source for these now viral, and often lucrative, events.

Is this a cautionary tale, a plea to artists to protect themselves, and their work product? A request to the general population that they shift their priorities to consume art in a way that is not so greedy? Maybe this is all of these. And I feel a little catharsis in telling the story of the day my baby became more famous than me.

Alexandra Bellerartistic director of Alexandra Beller/Dances from 2002, was a member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company from 1995 to 2001. She helped to create The Belle Epoch with Martha Clarke and Charles Mee. She was a two-year artist-in-residence at HERE Art Space, and has also been an AIR at Dance New Amsterdam and DMAC.

Alexandra has created more than 40 original dance theater works, both for her own and other companies. Her choreography has been presented at or commissioned by Dance Theater Workshop, 92nd St. Y, Aaron Davis Hall, Danspace Project at St. Mark’s, Abron’s Art Center, Joyce SoHo, P.S. 122, WAX, HERE, The Connelly Theater, SUNY Purchase College, Dance New Amsterdam, Symphony Space, and Jacob’s Pillow and has been commissioned by companies in Arizona, Michigan, Texas, Korea, Hong Kong, Oslo, Cyprus, Maine, New York City, Florida, Boston, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and elsewhere. AB/Dances toured to the Open Look Festival in St. Petersburg, Bytom Festival in Poland, and throughout Michigan, Massachusetts, and New York. It received the company residency at The Yard in 2004. Commissioned projects include the premiere of her evening-length work other stories at ICA in Boston (co-commissioned by Summer Stages), and a two-week season at La Mama (NYC) to premiere milkdreams, which has been the subject of two international documentaries. 

Alexandra has choreographed for numerous theater companies, including Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Bedlam Theatre Company, Taylor Mac, Soomi Kim, Theatre Askew, and others. Upcoming projects include choreographing for the off-Broadway show Sense and Sensibility by Bedlam Theatre Company, and for a new production by playwright Dael Orlandersmith. She holds a BFA and an MFA in dance and is a certified movement analyst in Laban Movement Analysis and Bartenieff Fundamentals. 


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