Filmmaker Magazine asked a number of Independent Film Week participants to guest blog on their website; I started writing a post but it ballooned into a verbose treatise on the future of digital distribution, so it ended up on their site as a Web Exclusive. It’s cross-posted here for no good reason.
Along with Zachary Lieberman (co-creator of The West Side), I spoke on Monday’s panel “Your Film Online,” and I wanted to expand here on some thoughts I shared during that panel — mostly in response to the prevailing wisdom that “the sky is falling” on independent film.
I’m a New Face of independent film, not an Industry Veteran, so maybe it’s naiveté that leads me to have a very different outlook on distribution than The Film Department CEO Mark Gill, whose comments in June were still on everyone’s lips at IFW. After proclaiming, “as it relates to independent film, the sky really is falling,” Gill’s solution was for the indie film world to make “fewer, better” movies. Unfortunately, that’s not actually a productive piece of advice. After he spoke, did most of the audience pack it up and leave to pursue a different career? No. Everyone’s already trying to make the best film they can, and telling financiers or filmmakers to try harder isn’t going to materially affect the market.
While Gill obviously gave the right speech at the right time and touched nerves across the industry, if we take a step back from the shake-up currently going on, the future is very clearly brighter than ever for independent productions; we just need to embrace a number of fundamental changes in distribution. Ten years ago, to get someone to pay to see your indie film, you had to mobilize a local crowd in dozens of markets in order to get butts into art house seats. Now we’ve got a global interconnected audience of millions of online movie watchers and the answer is to make less movies? No. The audience is larger than ever; we don’t need to make fewer movies. The answer is we need to make it easier to watch movies.
The way independent film distribution currently works is self-defeating. Let’s say I’m reading the current issue of Filmmaker and I find out about a film that opened at Sundance. I want to see it… but I can’t. The film showed at the festival, a distributor bought the rights to it, and now it won’t come to a theater for six to nine months and won’t be on DVD for a full year. Here I am with my interest piqued, the title of the film foremost in my head, but in order for that movie to earn a dime from me — an interested, paying customer — they’re going to have to count on me remembering the film several months later. They have to count on me actually becoming aware of its release through an advertisement or a listing of showtimes during the theatrical window, they have to count on me being in town and having some free time during that brief period, they have to count on me being able to interest someone else in the film as well (like most people I prefer not to go to the theater alone), and on top of all of that, they have to count on me actually remembering the article I read nine months ago and connecting that to the title of the film currently listed on the marquee next to several other titles.
What kind of consumer-facing product is intentionally made this elusive? In the above situation, if I do eventually realize I wanted to see the film, I’ll add it to my Netflix queue at position 336, which is not a great value proposition to the distributor or filmmaker. Even worse, after reading the Filmmaker article, I might never hear about the film again, and, like so many other movies I was interested in at one point, it might fall through the cracks and I’ll never see (or pay for) it.
It doesn’t make sense: if your film has someone’s interest piqued, they need to be able to plunk down a few bucks and watch it NOW. Not tomorrow, not next month, certainly not a full year from now.
The way I see it, there are two main problems with distribution as it stands today: one, release windows, and two, online experience.
In terms of release windows, I understand the arguments behind finding an audience and building hype. But the marketing costs that a movie incurs in order to achieve some sort of penetration into the collective cultural conscience is not befitting of an indie film. Besides, in the indie world, advance hype for something that hasn’t come out yet is more expensive and less effective than a simple recommendation from a friend for something that’s currently available. Regardless, if you’re going to spend money building an audience for a film, why not build that audience while the film is actually available for purchase, instead of during an “advertising-only” window?
The supporters of staggered theatrical windows and expensive ad campaigns have a reason to want to stick to their guns: their jobs depend on it. Distributors are the ones whose companies are in trouble, so they’re the ones most likely to cry apocalypse. On Wednesday’s panel “The State of Independent Distribution,” Scott Kirsner of Cinematech asked Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard about the wisdom of continuing to use release windows in the face of piracy. Why not make a film available for paying customers if it’s already available for free via illicit channels? Bernard’s response: “Because people are used to windows.” Well, people were used to snail mail before e-mail came along, and most of us have managed to adapt (with the exception of a certain Presidential candidate). I doubt many of us would want to go back to waiting three days for cross-country written communication, just as one day I doubt any of us will want to go back to waiting for film reels to be shipped across the country for an exclusive theatrical window.
If release windows are completely done away with and we put every film online day-and-date, wouldn’t that put many theaters out of business? Probably, but for most major releases nowadays, the film is already online day-and-date. It’s on Bittorrent, it’s on Kazaa or whatever file-sharing service they use on college campuses these days, it’s available via any number of illicit online distribution channels. These pirated copies are popular for two main reasons: price (free!) and convenience (now!). It’s hard to beat the pirates on the price issue, but as it stands, the illegal option is also more convenient than the legit option, and that’s a problem. Not only is it more convenient, but it’s also often of higher quality: if you look around on Bittorrent, the community cares deeply about the quality of the films they’re downloading; they rip a movie from an HDTV broadcast if possible, they make it available with subtitles in several different languages, and in general a downloader can watch a better quality movie for free than if they actually ponied up the cash to watch it through an authorized download or streaming service. Ultimately, when piracy is offering a more convenient, higher-quality experience in addition to a cheaper one, we’re failing at digital distribution.
There are existing online distribution options — including nascent day-and-date release plans like IFC’s VOD program — but the currently available choices offer limited viewing options and no sense of ownership. Using myself as an example, at home I have several legal means to watch movies online: one is my Netflix subscription, with its Watch Instantly feature, but it offers an extremely limited selection (less than 10% of Netflix’s titles are available to watch online), and it doesn’t work at all on my Mac. So I turn to iTunes, Amazon, or my Playstation, all of which tout online video stores; each has a different catalog, however, so you never know if the content you’re looking for will be available on that particular store. Additionally, each store has a different pricing structure and different viewing limitations thanks to their Digital Rights Management. Only my Playstation is hooked up to my TV, so content bought at Amazon or iTunes is only viewable on my laptop. Whereas if I download a movie illegally I can play it on the screen of my choice, if I “buy” a movie from an online store the DRM often won’t let me transfer the film to other devices. And limited transferability is only part of the problem with DRM; mainly, the issue is the consumer’s ephemeral ownership of a product they paid real money for. I don’t have any faith that a movie I purchase online today will be watchable three years from now; I might have an entirely new computer that it won’t transfer to, or I might forget the password to an account I have to “refresh” my licenses with. Imagine if you bought a DVD at the store and it expired after a few days unless you logged into a server; no one would buy such a disc. They actually tried that with DIVX ten years ago… and no one bought it. Yet DRM today is essentially the same as the failed DIVX experiment.
After years of hemorrhaging money, the music industry is finally offering decent options for online music consumption: iTunes and Amazon (and Rhapsody, I should note, since I currently work there) are finally selling MP3s, which are DRM-free and thus work on any device. That sounds like actual ownership. That sounds like an experience finally equal to that of… what’s already available online via pirated means, for free.
And that’s where watching movies online becomes viable. If I want to buy something, give it to me free of restrictions and I’ll gladly pay money for it and start building a library. Indeed, if people are buying millions of unprotected MP3s from online stores — instead of just one person on the planet buying the album and emailing the files to everyone — I’m pretty sure consumers will buy a DRM-free movie, load it onto any device they own, and enjoy it however they want. They’re much less likely to email around a 2GB movie file than a 4MB music file anyway. As a final point, does anyone think that selling a protected file to the paying customer is going to prevent piracy when there are a million unprotected, pirated copies of that same song or movie already available online? All DRM does is screw the person who actually paid for it.
Consumers don’t expect to pay as much for a digital file as they would for a physical product that was manufactured and shipped across the country, and rightfully so. But as filmmakers we’ll sell a whole lot more copies of our movie at a lower price point, and we’ll end up making more money this way anyway (the same thing happened with DVD when it undercut the price point of rental tapes — the drastic increase in number of units sold more than outweighed the drop in per-unit revenue). Today, a $20 DVD nets the filmmaker how much after the physical production, distribution, and company overhead? $2? Environmentally it’s not a great time to be shrinkwrapping a disc and freighting it all around the country, anyway. If we sell it through an online store for $10 we’ll keep significantly more than $2 of that sale; if we sell it on our own site, we’ll keep the whole $10.
And that’s another point about the bright future of indie film: direct sales. Gary Hustwit (dir., Helvetica) talked on Wednesday’s panel “The Digital Download” about the revenue streams he was able to generate directly from fans; when asked how much they added up to, he tellingly responded, “a lot.” And thus ended the panel. Some of these revenue streams were just rounded up by Peter Broderick in a two-part post at IndieWire, “Welcome to the New World of distribution” (part 1, part 2). As with countless business innovations over the years, cutting out the middleman, or at least reducing his role, is of paramount importance for independent productions. Getting back to Gill’s speech, he predicted, “it will feel like we just survived a medieval plague. The carnage and the stench will be overwhelming.” He’s right, but the carcasses he speaks of will be the bodies of distribution companies and theater owners, not filmmakers.
The future of independent film is instant, digital gratification. As filmmakers, we’ve already brought down production costs down by shooting digitally; now we need distribution costs brought down by distributing digitally as well. Cut out the P&A — the 35mm blowup, the trucks across the country, the bloated ad campaign — and put our films in digital theaters and online, simultaneously. Make our films available anytime, anywhere: on our computers, on our iPhones, iPods, Playstations, TVs, etc. — all with the guarantee that if you buy it, it’s DRM-free. People will pay for something if they actually own what they’re paying for. In addition to hundreds of digital theater screens, we also now have hundreds of millions of computers with internet connections as our venues. That’s a lot of screens. I’m pretty sure the sky is not falling.