"Okay Google, save independent film."
As a website-running nerd and a filmmaker well-versed in cameras and software, I can be considered a power user of pretty much anything with a screen or buttons. The only piece of technology I can't use well? My cable box. And that's because there is no way to use it well.
For indies, we don't expect our movies to be in the regular rotation on the cable channels — the kind of film that happens to be on one of the low-numbered, popular channels that viewers regularly flip past and end up watching. Customers have to find indie movies, because they won't already be playing when they turn on the TV, unless they have their cable box set to turn on to a channel like IFC or Sundance.
But this is what it looks like to find something on a cable box: recently I was trying to check out the TV show Orphan Black to see what all the hype is about. So I go to my On Demand channel ("conveniently" located at channel 1,000) to find it. But it turns out you can't just go to your On Demand channel to find most content, because there are several different On Demand channels categorized with labels like "Primetime," "Entertainment," "Cutting Edge," and the pièce de résistance, "Nature & Kldge." Other than the channel that uses the mystery abbreviation "Kldge," whatever the hell that is, Orphan Black could be in any of these subchannels, right? It is entertainment, primetime, and cutting edge. But it will only show up in one. Since there's no way of knowing which, I turn to the (very slow, character-by-character) search function. What came up (after about ten seconds of load time)? Nothing. Because it turns out that the show, when it broadcasts, is listed as "Orphan Black," but in the On Demand listings it is called "Orphan Blk." It would have been many times easier for me, as a cable customer, to go to BitTorrent and download it illegally than it would be for me to find the damn thing on the actually legal service that I'm paying three figures a month for.
So, let's recap: if someone's heard of your film, in order to actually find it on their cable box, they must: 1) know they have On Demand in the first place, 2) know where to find On Demand, 3) know which particular On Demand channel to search on, 4) know to search for several abbreviated versions of the title if they don't find it initially, and 5) remember their PIN code to make the purchase, if they ever set it up in first place, and if they didn't, know the default PIN code. Going through those steps, you go from 75% to 50% to 25% to 10% to 5% of the customers. By the time you narrow down the customer base to people who fit all of those criteria, you've already lost most of your potential viewers.
The uselessness of cable boxes affects indies even more than the majors.
So what does this have to do with indies? Doesn't this general crapfest affect all content equally? No. Big studio movies get the coveted promotional spots that run in a loop when you go to the On-Demand channel. They are the ones listed as "featured." Our content is rarely going to be at the top of any of the listings, unless our film starts with a number or an "A," and even then, some are starting to say that the practice of beta-stacking is dead (or dying). Our content is much harder to find than that of majors, and since as I explained it's already hard enough to find anything on cable boxes, the uselessness of cable boxes affects indies even more than the majors. This is killing our opportunity to get someone to find, pay for, and watch our movies. And that's killing our careers.
Before you say, "I cut the cord months ago, and now I just watch everything on Netflix so cable companies don't matter anymore," take a look at these charts:
TV remains the preferred device to watch content on for 92% of consumers (source). And as big as Netflix and Hulu are, with 42 million combined subscribers, the cable networks on these charts add up to more than twice that number. So even if we are marketing our films on direct-to-fan platforms like VHX, Vimeo On Demand, and many others, we need to find a way to tap into this much larger customer base, or at least the devices they watch their content on, if we're going to forge sustainable careers.
What indies need is a universal search box on all TVs that draws from multiple catalogs at once. Customers should be able to type, or say, the name of our film and find it immediately.
Thankfully, we are living in a time when everything is being disrupted by technological advances. The cable box's days are numbered, or at least the cable box as we know it, given over-the-top viewership is undeniably on the rise. The problem with over-the-top solutions like Apple TV, however — as I have written before (good lord, that was six years ago?) — is that each channel is sequestered to its own library. You have to browse the catalogs of Netflix, iTunes, and Hulu completely separately on an Apple TV, not to mention that the cable box is a separate, well, box. This favors the more ubiquitous titles that are available on multiple platforms (you are more likely to watch something that is easy to find; you are less likely to watch something that is hard to find). What indies need is a universal search box on all TVs that draws from multiple catalogs at once. Customers should be able to type, or say, the name of our film and find it immediately. And this search should be platform agnostic —whether it's on your cable box or set-top box, and whether it's on iTunes, Netflix, VHX, Vimeo on Demand, or an even smaller platform. The way it is currently, regardless of which device consumers are using — an Apple TV, game console, Roku, or media PC — the vast majority of them are not going to jump through the hoops of downloading a file and figuring out how to open it on their TV, as opposed to just clicking on a convenient option that is native to their device.
Who is going to solve this problem? Apple TV is not an open ecosystem, and I don't have high hopes for indies ever finding an easy route to the big screen there (other than being in iTunes, or using a sidedoor like AirPlay (which introduces more user friction, like getting your laptop connected and then dealing with stuttery playback)). Because it's my belief that the pain point for indies at present is the search box, my hopes are therefore pinned on the search giant, Google. The problem is, they've already failed at this before.
Google reboots its TV
When Google announced their first foray into TV four years ago, I wrote, optimistically, "Google TV is what independent filmmakers have been waiting for." In retrospect, I couldn't have been more wrong, because in turned out no one was waiting for Google TV — or, at least, no one was buying it. Google tried again with their Roku-esque dongle Chromecast, but that was never going to disrupt the industry for mainstream viewers, except perhaps by lowering the price of entry. Thus the quest continues for someone to replace cable boxes that, in an age of multi-touch, voice-activated operating systems, feel ancient and kludgy (most of them are made by companies that you last encountered when you got your first graphing calculator — and it feels like they're using the same processors and GUIs in these cable boxes as they were in the TI-81). Microsoft is trying with the Xbox (which unfortunately has to resort to IR-blasting), Apple has long had a rumored next-gen TV product in the works, and now Google is trying again with its new Nexus Player, which runs the latest version of Android TV. Similar to how Google launches unbranded Nexus phones as an example of best practices for Android phones, the Nexus Player is an unbranded example of what other manufacturers can do with Android TV. Here's a quick look from The Verge:
To this video I would add that we need "more independent films." When movies on indie platforms are available on your set-top box right alongside films from the giants, that creates something closer to an even playing field. Will the Google Nexus Player, which is just another method for Google to establish its Android TV operating system to encourage manufacturers to integrate it into more Smart TVs, have this kind of impact? I think it could, because when the operating system is powering over-the-top content and, potentially, the cable guide, that's when the search box becomes the killer feature (Microsoft is trying this with the Xbox but, again, IR blaster "integration" = death). Android is much more open than iOS and, even though Vimeo (for example) has an Apple TV channel, there's no universal search that will lead you to a Vimeo On Demand title.
I've been proven wrong before by believing in Google, but their product strategy is, for better or for worse, to launch multiple versions of everything and find out which one works. Google Wave failed, but now Google Inbox is a more realistic and successful take on rethinking email. Google TV failed, but now perhaps the Nexus Player and Android TV can succeed. Because no matter how independent we want to be, we need our art to be consumable on the devices and platforms millions of people use every day. In fact, our only chance of being independent — financially — depends on it. And for our art to be consumable it first needs to be findable. Here's to hoping with the "Search movies, TV, and more" functionality, Google will help even the playing field.