Self-distribution Beckons For Many Filmmakers

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Sat, 10/04/2014 - 02:10
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The second panel at this year’s VIFF Industry, the adjunct industry event of the Vancouver International Film Festival, focussed on distribution - both digital and theatrical.

Many of the themes tackled in the earlier Crowdfunding panel were echoed here by a fresh set of panelists - in particular, the importance of using internet technologies to discover, engage, and maintain one’s audience.

Trish Dolman, producer-director of Screen Siren Pictures, chairing the panel, noted that she still found email one of the most effective ways of getting to her audience. She asked about best practices for indie filmmakers looking to distribute their work directly on the multitude of platforms today.

There is now a plethora of online platforms to choose from, from Distrify to Vimeo.

The technology now allows filmmakers to target individual regions or countries by IP address, so you can sell your film to one country at one price, to another country at another price, and block another country altogether (because of rights issues, for example). Your video can also be optimised for different devices and the buy form for your film can be embedded on your site or elsewhere online. You also get a slew of data about where your sales and traffic is coming from - including customer emails.

Alexandra Marvar, director of marketing for VHX, talked about some of the benefits of the online video distribution platform. VHX only announced that it was open to the public following private beta testing in March, but it already carries 2,642 titles for sale and recently logged its millionth user (as I write VHX stats page says that it has 1,003,090 customers and $3,941,779 in sales from 471,493 transactions).

Unlike Vimeo or YouTube, there's no curatorial or social media aspect to VHX, so it’s up to the filmmaker to market the film, but it has an impressive suite of tools for distributing and monitoring video. It charges a straight fee of 10% + 50¢ per transaction (there are no currency and credit card fees).

There was a sense listening to the panel that the digital distribution ecosystem is evolving rapidly: Joe Pascual co-founder of Vancouver/Los Angeles based Dotstudioz noted that the company’s distribution platform is still in beta. Straith Schreder, director of brand marketing for peer to peer filesharer BitTorrent was appearing just as the company launched its first paygate.

Thom Yorke agreed to be the guinea pig with the release of his latest album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. With a BitTorrent “bundle” of files the user can choose from a freebie bundle (e.g. mp3s, videos, images, or PDFs) or can sign up to an email list for premium content from the artist. In Thom Yorke’s case, the user can pay a fee at the paygate for the full premium content bundle.

James Emanuel Shapiro, Chief Operating Officer of U.S. arthouse film chain Drafthouse Films, gave an example of how BitTorrent bundles are being used to create awareness around a film when talking about Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing - a unique documentary where perpetrators of genocide in Indonesia acted out their crimes in the style of their favourite Hollywood films. Shapiro talked about how they used BitTorrent initially to get the film out in Indonesia for underground screenings. They also released a BitTorrent bundle with exclusive content on the same day that they released the director’s cut of the film on iTunes, helping to raise awareness. BitTorrent reported that the bundle had 3.5 million downloads less than a month later, by the time the Oscar nomination came around, helping to pave the way for another U.S. theatrical run.

As well as a fast growing theatre chain (19 theatres expanding to 50), Drafthouse offer video sales for many of their films on their site. A second distributor, Dylan Marchetti of Amplify Releasing, suggested that with the global reach of the internet, many films are best suited to going the online route directly - much as straight-to-DVD films used to. Some films might even best suited to being posted on YouTube.

However, the explosion of video on demand has meant that revenues in that area have been falling, so filmmakers should keep their expectations realistic and up-to-date, especially with the market changing so rapidly.

Marvar noted that webisodes are hot right now (citing "wildly popular" series Black and Sexy, which launched on Vine, can be found on YouTube and bought on VHX). Pascual talked about how, with the rapid rise in YouTubers, at VidCon ("a parallel universe to TIFF") you could find 15 year-olds who understood the business of video sales online.

Broadcast deals were discussed briefly as a promising financing route for making movies, if you can secure a deal, with the caveat that broadcasters are increasingly looking for more rights than they might have in the past. Dolman noted that in Canada broadcasters typically look for online rights. Everyone is trying to augment their bottom line.

Both distributors seemed firmly convinced - in spite of falling revenues - that there is and will be for years to come plenty of demand for a decent theatrical experience. People enjoy the experience of having their emotions twiddled in a dark room with others. Drafthouse have focussed also on the social aspect of the cinema-going experience, enforcing etiquette such as no cell phone use and introducing table serviced food and alcohol.

Shapiro said that although most indie filmmakers are going to struggle with theatrical self-distribution, it is becoming “pretty interesting”. Since “no-one knows their film better”, with the right set of organisational skills they could pull off a success.