Aziz-ansari-224x166Back in December, Louis C.K. did the unthinkable for a major comedian with an HBO special and his own television show on FX: he bankrolled the filming of his own comedy show and then distributed it online for only $5, with absolutely no restrictions. For big stars, that type of DIY distribution has historically been equivalent to selling DVDs out of the back of your car. It's now starting to catch on with major celebrity talent who are sick of dealing with the gatekeepers and want to release their own products, in whatever fashion they desire, directly to fans for a reasonable price. Now Aziz Ansari is getting in on the action with the release of his own comedy special.

Aziz talks about his venture in this New York Times article:

Pay-cable channels like HBO and Showtime, comedians say, are too focused on scripted programming, while on basic cable, Comedy Central offers specials to nearly everyone, with little quality control and licensing deals that are not lucrative.

“I don’t get any money from the specials that air on Comedy Central,” said Mr. Ansari, who also stars on the NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation.” “I haven’t seen any checks from the DVDs, CDs. If I just put it out in a traditional way, I wouldn’t have made any money, so why don’t I do it this way?” Comedy Central said Mr. Ansari had been paid a six-figure advance and continues to receive residuals on his last televised special.

Comedy Central's response is interesting, but it's fascinating to see big stars take advantage of the resources they have, and bypass a lot of the garbage that goes into distributing a product. Aziz is offering his special for the same price as Louis C.K., except he is giving the option to download or stream immediately.

If Aziz is even half as successful as Louis C.K. distributing his special, there will be a lot of comedians that will follow suit. On one hand, it's far more lucrative to cut out the middle men - on the other, doing everything yourself gives you complete creative control, and no possibility of anything being censored.

Koo actually wrote a great article about digital distribution for Filmmaker Magazine, back when the economy collapsed and things looked incredibly grim for the independent film world. The issue of piracy is hotly debated, but as I have said, people are willing to pay for content, but it has to be reasonably priced compared to the physical version, convenient to buy, and high-quality. Digital downloads are exploding every year, but yet Hollywood is still mostly clinging to the same model they've had for decades. Only now that they are seeing a decline in ticket sales are they starting to explore digital distribution and day-and-date VOD and theater releases.

It is great to see independent distribution methods starting to take off and gain traction with the mainstream public. Koo brought up a great point to me, that if a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino were to run a Kickstarter, he could easily grab seven figures. Then if he self-distributed the movie for $5-$10 online, he could easily make that back, and plenty more. Many more filmmakers could be bypassing the traditional funding and distribution methods if they really wanted to. Part of the reason I don't think you've seen them do that, is because for many of them, once you get to a certain budget level, it's very hard to go back. Tarantino's recent films have all been $50 million dollars plus. You can't make the same movie that you can make for that kind of money. It's true that a lot of money goes to waste, and some actors are paid obscene amounts of money, but in the end, there is a lot of that money that does show up on screen - certainly more than a couple million dollars worth. These filmmakers, if they really want to make films, could be doing as many as they want without studio influence.

Digital distribution is going to be extremely important for independent filmmakers going forward, but we've got to keep our budgets realistic. Traditional distribution wastes a tremendous amount of money on advertising, but we can take advantage of free advertising through film festivals and other sources, and immediately release our films digitally instead of having to wait months to sell that movie. Celebrities are at an advantage in a certain respect, they've already been through the traditional gate-keeping process, and they've had millions spent on them in terms of advertising. So while they may not actively be spending money on advertisement, the reason they are famous in the first place is because millions were spent putting them there.

Just today, the Senate passed a tweaked version of the JOBS Act which includes a provision for Crowdinvesting in the U.S. It must now pass the House, but it's an important step for bypassing traditional funding sources. There are a lot of options for independent filmmakers going forward, but we must be willing to change with the times and explore new and innovative ways of fundraising and distribution.

[via The New York Times]