In the span of a few short years, distribution in the independent film world has leaped from DIY (“Do It Yourself”) to DIWO (“Do It With Others” — i.e., crowdfunding) to what Ted Hope recently christened “direct interdependent distribution.” The term highlights a new relationship between filmmakers and audiences that relies even less on middlemen — and in some cases cuts them out completely.
My documentary Library of the Early Mind is at the back end of a 14-month run of screenings to very respectable audiences at universities, libraries and museums in the United States and Canada. We’ve done about 50 since our premiere at Harvard, and close to 10,000 people having seen the film. Many of those viewers told us directly they wanted to buy a copy for their libraries or classes. Others wanted to watch it again or recommend it to friends. And others, we’d heard, couldn’t make a screening but would have wanted to see the film. Digital delivery reaches all of these groups, making it a newly legitimate choice for any filmmaker with an audience (or the ability to find one). And it’s a path we’re taking in December (along with a DVD release). In the handful of years since my previous documentary, people have simply become more comfortable viewing films on digital devices (just as my newly released book appears to far to be racking up more sales in Amazon’s Kindle store than in paper-and-ink).
While video juggernaut YouTube launched a paid rental service earlier this year, there is a widening circle of companies offering direct distribution — and its catching on among documentary filmmakers like me. Dynamo Player and Distrify are two platforms for filmmakers confident they have the marketing skill to move consumers to buy their product from their own website, while tying streaming to theatrical efforts and a DVD release. Both link purchases to Paypal or Amazon, and take a 30 percent cut of each sale. Distribber, owned by the crowdfunding company IndieGoGo, takes a fee up front to place films on high-traffic entertainment hubs such as iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and cable video-on-demand. The percentages may rival a traditional distributor, but I know too many filmmakers who’ve rued the deals they struck with distributors whose idea of marketing was little more than an addition to a catalog.
Two Case Studies
By the time the makers brought Until the Light Takes Us, a documentary about the “black metal” music scene in Norway, to direct online distribution, it had already been seen in theaters in the United States and internationally, watched on DVD and Blu-Ray and seen on Netflix and VOD. So, co-director Ewell says, “defining the audience that’s accessing the film via the Dynamo player is an interesting task.”
“First of all, it’s generally not people who saw it in theaters or who own the DVD,” she says. “I believe the appeal is primarily for people who casually hear about the film or have it recommended by a friend or via social media sharing, forums, etc., who then pop over to our website, where they find that it’s readily available. We see a slight uptick in usage whenever we have press around the film. There’s also an international element to the film and its fanbase, and not all international territories are served by local distribution.”
The filmmakers can set their own price, and Dynamo CEO Rob Millis says the sweet spot for a streaming window is $3 to $5. At a higher price, views (and revenue) fall. At a lower price, it doesn’t seem valuable when compared to the Hollywood competition (typically $2.99 or $3.99 for an online rental).
Ewell says she sees the online viewing audience this way: “I believe that people who watch the film on our site are watching for one of two reasons: either convenience or a desire to support our work. Or both. So I keep the price reasonable, but at a level that it actually matters. And we make it easy to access.”
Wake Up, in which director Elrod chronicles a spiritual awakening, premiered at SXSW in 2009 with a modest run of festivals and community screenings, but Producer Amy Slotnick says the film lends itself to delivery via the web.
“I think this model has worked for Wake Up because it is a film that speaks to a niche mind–body–spirit audience who are very active and passionate about the topics in the film,” Slotnick says. “The Dynamo platform has helped us build momentum within that niche market, without adding to our costs.”
Because the films are online, social-media initiatives help spread the word.
“Someone can easily tell friends and family how to access it without having to coordinate a DVD shipping or theater visit,” Slotnick says. “It also works well for our grassroots outreach to non-profit, religious and scientific organizations related to spirituality, metaphysics and consciousness because those groups can easily include a link in weekly newsletters, on social networks and in their other publications.”
The viewers for Dynamo and Distrify look like Vimeo’s player, with familiar controls, and there is reasonable security to prevent downloading or ripping. Dynamo’s Millis also notes that films can be streamed in HD. Self-distributing filmmakers can create “nice clean, well-designed player pages, where the film is a bit bigger and where it’s really inviting to the viewer,” he says. “So much of what we’ve seen in sales is about presentation.”
Distrify’s Peter Gerard, a documentary filmmaker turned founder, differentiates his platform from competitors based on its ability to sell tickets and DVDs in addition to streaming films over Facebook and Apple’s iPad and iPhone devices without the need to pay for entry into the iTunes catalog.
“You just go to the film page and you can pay and watch straight on the device,” says Gerard.
A New Life for Special Features
Another interesting side benefit for this kind of delivery is the opportunity to sell bonus material. For my documentary about children’s literature, we’ve been asked if we’d be sharing longer interviews with the prominent authors in the film, such as Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events), Chris Van Allsburg (The Polar Express, Jumanji) and R.L. Stine (Goosebumps). With digital delivery, we could rent uncut interviews for a dollar (or two).
With Until the Light Takes Us, Ewell says, “We also have all four hours of extras up, so people who bought a single disc version of the DVD and perhaps even a few who saw it in theaters but want to see the extras, are able to.” Their website has a variety of bundled extras, from $0.99 clips to $4.99 video extras that are longer than the film.
“I know that my film is available for the rock-bottom price of free via less-than-legal torrents,” says Ewell. “At the same time, I’ve always stuck by the idea that if I don’t act as if my film is worth something, no one else will. So I checked around for prevailing prices on boutique sites — not online big box retailers like Amazon or iTunes, but indie-specific streaming sites — and priced the feature accordingly, with the extras priced per duration or in one or two cases, per demand.”
Since starting streaming online, Ewell reports that the extra features have collected more rents than the film and that she’s been happy with sales overall.
A Third Way
Distribber is a different animal, more than a technical middleman but less than a traditional distributor. Distribber charges an up-front fee of $1,595 for HD video ($1,295 for SD) to deliver to iTunes. For Hulu, add $399. For delivery to video-on-demand — and 80 percent of U.S. households with cable (according to their site) — the cost is $9,999, pending carrier approval. Distribber is something that augments Dynamo and Distrify, instead of competing with them.
The key, of course, is creating a campaign that makes people aware of the film (and how to watch it) and then converts interest into streams. I suspect innovative marketing will educate new audiences to click play, pay and view.
As Sheri Candler, indie film marketing specialist and author of the book Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul recently said on her blog, it’s more and more the filmmaker’s responsibility “to have a solid plan from the outset that isn’t solely dependent on a distributor coming along and making your film whole, which is to say paying a minimum guarantee that recoups your production budget with interest. Very few of those deals exist now, no matter what producer’s agents and distributors like to say.”