Distribution Platforms for Your Indie Film in the Digital Age

Michael DeBlis

For young or first-time filmmakers, the obstacles to getting their film scene have been huge historically. It’s why we celebrate the pioneers of independent filmmakers who have managed to get their films made without a studio distribution deal, pre-sale or other means of financing. Modern technology has democratized the process somewhat, making new venues and mediums available to filmmakers, allowing their work to speak directly to the people. Services like Netflix, Amazon Studios and iTunes offer new ways of distributing films, but not without certain caveats. Everyone wants to be in pictures, from filmmakers to millionaires. The tech stock oligarchs are opening new ways for independent filmmakers to be seen, yet they’re simultaneously incorporating the old barriers that made being seen so difficult.

The Backstory

Sometime in the late 1990s, film fans and animation fans began trading rare, out-of-print or not-yet released in the US copies of movies over the Internet through crude methods. The files themselves were low-bitrate versions of foreign DVDs or VHS prints captured on to computer hard drives, then uploaded in small pieces and later reassembled. It was a practice only for devotes. Later, Internet uploads expanded to movies in release on DVD and even pirated copies of movies in theaters.

Movie studios reacted as wildly as did music labels to Internet sharing, calling lawyers on consumers trying to quell the popularity of sharing. Where some saw a negative, others saw an opportunity, like adult film distributors who realized that consumers would prefer the instant gratification and privacy of watching video on their computers.

Other factors made it clear to some that streaming could be a profitable way of delivering movies. There was cable television’s on-demand services, digital downloads of music being a massive success and the rapid advances of broadband video. It became clear that the consumer wanted streaming as an option and didn’t mind ditching the theater or physical media. Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO, realized this when he all but abandoned his wildly successful mail order DVD service for streaming in 2011.

Today the major streaming providers are moving into delivering original content directly to viewers. Set-top boxes, gaming consoles and Smart TVs ameliorate the downside of watching a cinemascope movie on a 15” screen laptop by allowing streaming directly to flat panel televisions. The theatrical experience is becoming less significant to consumers than convenience and privacy, so in some ways it makes sense to attempt to deliver your work to where the consumer eyeballs are.

For a few years, streaming services were making it easy for filmmakers to put original works on the web. One could make a little money from ad revenue or direct sales revenue, but there was no way the streaming services could match the marketing power of studios and film festivals. It was really difficult to be seen using streaming. Most independent filmmakers relied on the old ways; getting in at film festivals, trying to get distribution deals through foreign studios or other standard methods of getting their films made. It was a difficult time. Now, things are changing.

The Top Choices for Streaming Distribution

Today, the major streaming services appear fully committed to producing and distributing original content. The major players are competing with studios, and some even offer opportunity to the independent.

Netflix — Currently the highest profile streaming service that creates and airs original works, Netflix is making stars while making money for itself. For a few moments in May of 2018, the company stock was valued higher than the Walt Disney Company (Netflix still ranks above Comcast). They’re willing to spend in bulk on several concurrent projects rather than a handful of big budgeted movies or series. They broke the Duffer Brothers with “Stranger Things,” propelled the career of Dee Rees with Mudbound and found space for Idris Elba with Beasts of no Nation and Jason Bateman with “Ozarks.” Netflix is throwing money at its in-house production company and cutting back on licensing deals with other producers. That’s great news if you’re established, not so hot if you’re new. The big deals are mostly going to established television series producers. On the other hand, the company hopes to eventually stream 50% original works (up from 30%) so there’s room for the best newcomers.

While Netflix appears willing to spend and to take chances with their programming, their financing methods are being questioned. One reason they are spending so much on proven talent is that the original programming is actually cheaper for them over the long-term, as licensing fees cost them every time a movie airs. No one knows whether they’ll be able to keep up the focus on original programming. If you do get in; however, you’re guaranteed millions will if nothing else know your project exists, and you will get paid.

Amazon Studios — Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has his hands in all the major modes of communication, running a movie studio, a newspaper and producing serialized dramas for their streaming service. Amazon Studios at one time provided an entry point for Amazon Instant Video to unknowns by allowing the unsolicited submission of screenplays and story concepts with the chance of having Amazon finance low-budget projects. They are closing that venue in 2018 now that they see themselves as competing with traditional movie studios. Amazon is now making acquisitions involving big names like a Hollywood studio, as well as producing films and series, much like its direct competitor Netflix. It has toyed with short theatrical runs for the movies it distributes, a way to lure Oscar winners like Spike and Woody into the fold. Amazon may be more likely to succeed at producing original work over the long term, as Bezos’ brainchild will always have cash from Amazon.com.

Amazon may not fund your project; however, they still appear to be open to distribution deals and will fill their Instant Video catalog with projects from unknowns.

Hulu — Hulu has been more of a direct competitor to Netflix’s old model of reintroducing older works to new audiences. Recently they’ve been producing original content that’s making them more a competitor to Amazon. Their series like “The Handmaid’s Tale” have captivated audiences and brought the producers joy during awards season. Outside of that series and a handful of others, they haven’t made much of an impact. Hulu is still more interested in acting as a DVR service for those who don’t have a DVR, airing previously aired content, and they aren’t as willing to spend on original content so far. They make money through ads or the ad-free subscription service. If you get on with Hulu, expect one or both of those as a revenue stream for your work.

Youtube — Youtube was one of the places that made it apparent that there was an audience for streaming, that people were willing to watch content on their computer. Unfortunately, most of that content was uploaded to the service illegally, and Youtube had to recon with that. Eventually, they began partnering with music studios (much of the pirated content was — and is — music and music videos) to deliver legitimate content. Youtube doesn’t really have a strong identity, except perhaps as a place where the talentless can find an audience and make a mint through ad revenue. They’re trying to change that with a foray into producing original scripted content.

Youtube Red is the membership service where Youtube is placing its in-house projects. However, if you don’t have a deal with them you may still place your content on Red. You’ll take a percentage of the membership fee as well as continuing to get ad revenue. Getting in at Youtube Red now, sort of at the ground floor may be a great way to get a foot in the door and be seen. However, they are very late to the paid streaming game. You could be stuck on a platform that the tastemakers ignore.

Vimeo — Vimeo is still a service primarily focused on hosting user uploaded content, anything from captures of 70s sitcoms to originally created works. Annually the service offers a contest to find the best in original content, offering prizes and judged by some luminaries in the film business like David Lynch. It would be hard to break through the noise simply uploading your work to the service. However, you can make a name for yourself if you do well in their contest (anything of winners past?). Vimeo also has an on-demand service that will distribute your original work and charge per view. You keep 90% of the revenue in the sharing program, and there are other methods of monetizing your work. You could strategize, using Vimeo as a platform to earn and put those earnings to work on making a feature.

iTunes — iTunes is not yet a premier first-run medium. As such, people don’t go there looking for original content that isn’t music or a podcast. That doesn’t mean you can’t make a distribution deal with iTunes, earning a percentage of revenue from VOD sales. The question is, like Youtube or Vimeo, will people go to iTunes to find your work?

Mubi — Mubi may be the refuge for the indie filmmaker in the new streaming paradigm. It’s not a massive content dumping ground like Netflix, nor in competition with traditional studios like Amazon. Unlike iTunes, it’s recognized as a curator of fine cinema, not music. Now it is interested in first-run distribution. It has experimented with limited-run theatrical distribution in the UK, and is partnering with streaming distributors Crunchyroll and Funimation, two studios that translate Asian pop culture for Western audiences, on a new app. Mubi caters to those who would love to discover the next great director, and right now, it appears to be the streaming service with a distribution arm that is the most open to new talent.

Your talent is what is going to get you seen. Even if you get past the new age gatekeepers and strike a deal with a streaming service, you’re still competing with thousands of other works, not just features, but prestige television and documentaries. Don’t seek a streaming deal because you think there’s less of a barrier to success, because that’s untrue.

Protecting your Work on the Internet

Streaming services that offer opportunities for indie filmmakers come and go. Some allow users to upload work. Getting your work up on those sites may not yield a career boost, and could hurt if someone decides to download, then distribute your work without permission.

Hold on to your online rights no matter what kind of deal you make. Don’t sell them off to any production company as difficult as it may be. Especially don’t give a long-term agreement to any distributor for the right to broadcast your work online. If you lose control of your online distribution rights and some lax company owns them, you may find free copies of your hard work on some backwater video aggregation site, as b-roll in another film or chopped and screwed into something else entirely.

The best way to protect your work is to bring any deal you make to an attorney first. You need an experienced entertainment lawyer to take a look, one who understand the needs and goals of the independent filmmaker. They can direct you to the distribution deal that’s best for you, streaming or otherwise, that will put you on the road towards success.

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