The Big Boys

I’m always struck by the giant-sized film posters pasted on the walls of the Paris metro stations. Harry Potter and his friends seemed to be everywhere a few months ago. While kids were busy tugging on their mum’s shirts and begging to see the movie, indie filmmakers throughout the city stared up at these posters and dreamt of the day they’d see their film publicized up there.

But the reality for many is like a bucket of cold water in the face. The big boys – with dollar signs in their eyes – are always on the hunt for the next blockbuster smash hit. So unless your film has a top script, brand name director and high profile cast – you don’t stand much of a chance.

So I was thrilled when indie filmmaker Steven Mills told me he managed to secure a distribution deal. His film Cigar at the Beach played at 160 festivals in 31 countries winning the Best Non-European Dramatic Short at ECU 2007 along the way. He admits that he was “very aggressive” in submitting his film to festivals but in the end it was the attention he paid to the markets which proved to be the most valuable.

At the short film festival Clermont-Ferrand, Mills met Ouat Media Inc, a distribution company who are based in Toronto. After he sent them a DVD they decided to represent Cigar at the Beach exclusively worldwide. “But if I hadn't already been selected into a lot of festivals I may not have looked as good,” said Mills. “So all festivals have their importance, but to end the story – markets are a must!”

Digital Diversity

But a solution is emerging. An increasing number of creative yet cash strapped and frustrated filmmakers are looking to the Internet where they’re finding an abundance of opportunities.

I decided to Google “movie downloads” and was astounded by the huge number of websites offering top quality films over the Internet. There’s loads of new companies that have popped up in the last few years such as Movielink, MovieFlix, IndieFlix, Netflix, GreenCine and CinemaNow. The one that caught my eye – perhaps because it sounds a little different to the rest of the mob – was Azureus.

Azureus offers filmmakers free video hosting on their and the opportunity to sell their films on a pay-per-view basis. Their business is booming with peer-to-peer technology which has made it possible for users even with an ordinary internet connection to download films with the click of a mouse. “The advantage of peer-to-peer is that the more people who download a file, the more bandwidth those individuals are contributing and the faster that file is downloaded,” said Peter Bradley, Vice President of Business Development at Azureus.

The media industry heavyweights now all want a piece of the action too. In February 2007 Walmart became the first traditional retailer to announce that it well sell digital movies and television shows online. NBC and News Corp have joined forces to build a new network for showing their TV shows, video clips and movies on the Internet.

Apple has also dived into the booming online film market with the launch of the iTunes movie service in September 2006. Customers are now able to pay and download the latest films to watch on Apple TV, in iTunes on a Mac or PC, or enjoy it “to go” on an iPod or iPhone.

In November 2007, Ed Burns latest film, Purple Violets, became the first feature to be distributed exclusively on iTunes. It had its premiere at The Tribecca Film Festival in April and while it drew positive reviews there were only a couple of “half-assed theatrical offers” and none of them panned out. Purple Violets can now be downloaded on iTunes for US$ 12.99.

“We’re thrilled Ed Burns chose to premiere Purple Violets exclusively on the iTunes Store,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s vice president of iTunes. “Apple continually strives to provide the most innovative offerings to our customers and we look forward to more great independent film makers debuting their films via iTunes.”

Filmmaker Adil Akram believes that digital distribution has “great potential” for indie filmmakers. Akram’s short film Detained, which was nominated for Best European Dramatic Short at ECU 2007, explores the civil right to privacy when a citizen is removed from a flight and questioned in a future British totalitarian state. “Detained really has something powerful to say,” said Akram. “I'd like as many people worldwide to see Detained as physically possible - and realistically the best way that's going to happen is through digital distribution.”

The indie filmmakers I’ve been chatting with all believe the biggest advantage of digital distribution is exposure to a more diverse audience. “Audiences at festivals tend to be almost exclusively film buffs, but on the internet or mobile phone distribution I would hope that my new audience would be more "normal" everyday folk who just want to be quickly entertained,” said Phil Lepherd whose film Give and Take was nominated for Best European Dramatic Short at ECU 2007. “I think occasionally we confuse the aim of indie films and try to please festivals and other filmmakers too much, but really it's the general public we really should be aiming for.”

Our friends at Azureus offer a screeners program which allows filmmakers to post content online and give away free downloads. Bradley explains that this allows the market to build buzz. “People tell their friends. They rate it. They rank it. It’s a very cheap way of driving demand for content. Even our corporate clients take advantage of this,” he said giving the example of the BBC who offer first episodes for free.

While it is obvious that the films will get exposure, it is not clear what the financial benefits will be. Long gone are the days of money up-front minimum guarantees. Instead, the distributor and filmmaker now split the back end.

Mills tells me that he receives a 50-50 percentage split of what Ouat Media Inc gets for Cigar at the Beach after a 25% recoup of what they've put out to get the film into the market. ”I don't expect a lot of money,” he said. “I'm just glad there is the possibility that my film can still get in front of audiences and that its life has not ended now that the 18-month festival cycle has subsided”

Azureus aims to build a community for independent filmmakers and to help them monetize their content. “Our model is to be the eBay of digital media,” explains Bradley. “The user would contact me or someone in the company through our partners page and we would outline the goals for their content and how to help them monetize it—the pricing, the geographical territories, the level of DRM protection they would like, and whether they would like to participate in our free screeners program.”

With royalties based on the number of viewings, it definitely makes sense for indie filmmakers to use the Internet as a marketing tool through mass emails, message boards, blogs and viral marketing.

Azureus offers their filmmakers additional social networking and viral marketing features. “But it’s really up to the promoter, the owner of the content, to drive demand for it,” says Bradley who points to the example of The Silent City. “You’ll see buttons that enable you to add it immediately to social networking groups such as Facebook and Delicious. There are also comments about the film. This particular example is an independent filmmaker trying to raise funds for his film.”

I also stumbled across the success story of Reversal, a drama about high school wrestling. I was astounded to learn that it has never been shown in theaters or on TV or even offered in video stores but it has generated more than a million dollars in sales of DVDs and merchandising over the Web.

But this new cinematic democracy has not been universally well received. “I think it's both exciting that I can now reach an audience of tens of thousands, but depressing that in some ways you can end up shouting into the wind,” said Lepherd who reflects a wide spread concern that content is becoming more important than production values. “A short film takes up a lot of time and effort and love and skill, but in many cases when faced with a choice the average internet user may rather watch a 30 second clip of someone accidentally throwing a dart into their friend's hand.”

But I can’t help wondering will these digital distribution services thrive or even survive?

Some say the key to the success of online movie sites will be getting customers to embrace it as part of their home entertainment experience. GreenCine uses DivX technology to allow users to download a film, burn it to a disc and watch it on their DVD player. Azureus enables its customers to hook up their PC to the TV.

“We’re already compatible with Microsoft’s XBOX,” said Bradley. “It’s an important feature to us because our focus is on quality of the image. It’s not YouTube. It’s not a low-resolution file. It’s really designed to be plugged into the back of your TV and seen in the resolution that the filmmaker intended it to be.”

Apple’s iTunes movie store risks sinking if they don’t acquire some serious content quickly. “We’re really at the beginning stage in the movie space,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s vice president for iTunes adding that iTunes has fewer than 1,000 titles for sale.

In an attempt to grab content, Apple is in the midst of doing all sorts of deals with individual filmmakers, studios and film festivals. They began selling shorts nominated for the 2006 Academy Awards and have distributed about half of the Sundance Film Festival shorts this year at US$1.99 which is the same price as a television episode. Perhaps the way forward for Apple is to continue to aggressively pursue partnerships with film festivals around the world.

But the best way for filmmakers to understand digital distribution is as a supplement to theatrical distribution. “Basically, it's a fifth and sixth ace in the deck,” said Steven Mills, the director of Cigar at the Beach. “I don't think the digital opportunities are going to overtake the ones that already exist, but rather add to the tools indie filmmakers can use to keep their film from shelf-death.”

With the advent of the digital age it does seem as though diversity has triumphed over scarcity. Over the next few months I will be on a mission to investigate the latest distribution options out there for Indie filmmakers. In January’s newsletter we’ll have some exciting news to tell everyone about mobile phone distribution – we guarantee it’s a fast paced and exciting thing to be involved it!

But don’t sit around and wait till then. There’s plenty you can be doing right now to chart your own path to success. It clearly pays off to submit your film to as many festivals as possible, attend the film markets as well as contact the online movie services such as Azureus. And don’t forget to use the Internet and websites such as MySpace and Facbook to get the word out there about your flick.