Calling video on demand the emerging wave of film distribution no longer seems accurate: with YouTube, iTunes and Netflix all into or fast approaching their second decade, digital streaming and downloads are arguably already the primary means of independent film distribution. But what is still emerging is the vast array of VOD and download services available to independent filmmakers seeking to reach audiences of paying, online movie viewers. The companies composing today’s field, discussed here, roughly fall into three permeable categories: the established players; the large cadre of new start-ups, many of which offer tools for filmmakers beyond simply hosting their films; and a few services that, for filmmakers, might be a little further outside the box but could still enable a satisfying digital release.
THE BIG PLAYERS
Expanding as new companies gain steam, this category includes familiar names that have been around for years and achieved wide public usage: Google, Apple, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Vimeo and Fandor. (Next year’s version of this article would likely include video stores created by cable giants such as Comcast and Verizon, both of whom have entered the download-to-own market in the past year.) With the exception of YouTube, which is one of Google’s video platforms, all of the first five companies require filmmakers to submit their titles through an aggregator — a company that handles video/audio transcoding and metadata creation and therefore acts as a gatekeeper to many VOD platforms. Amazon, Vimeo and Fandor, which all allow open submissions, are discussed last.
Google distributes movies in four main ways: through free videos on YouTube’s main interface; through paid downloads via its Movies feature; through content provided on YouTube’s monthly subscription Paid Channels; and on Google Play, Android’s former store that is now available online as well as on Android devices (Google Play for iOS does not yet include “Movies & TV”).
The main YouTube interface has the advantage of high usage: it’s the place to be if you want to reach the greatest number of viewers, revenue be damned. This may be the appropriate approach for films dealing with social causes or filmmakers seeking to build an audience, but unless content draws hundreds of thousands of views and is thus capable of monetizing itself on a CPM ad-based model, it will take one of the other services to extract revenue directly from viewers. This is true even of YouTube’s Original Channels, an initiative launched in 2011 that allows invited content creators to enhance their brand but is still ad-supported and free for subscribers. Google’s initial investment of $300 million was spread among some 114 channels, providing many filmmakers’ most significant budgets to date, but producers are required to pay back that investment — earned through ad revenue — before any profits come through. (New channels since the launch are reportedly receiving smaller investments that are easier to recoup, making Original Channels enticing for filmmakers interested in short-form content. In November, however, all references to the initiative were removed from YouTube, implying no new channels will be starting anytime soon.)
Still ongoing is YouTube’s Movies feature, built into the site as a channel. Through the Movies page, individual titles are available for rental or purchase, ranging roughly from $1 to stream a small film up to $15 to purchase a new Hollywood release. Filmmakers cannot submit individual films, however, as content is acquired from third parties such as studios and distributors. Indie content comes from companies such as Cinetic Rights Management, Millennium Entertainment, or documentary distributor Journeyman Pictures, and filmmakers’ payments are handled through the online distribution deals made with them, not directly with Google. As with other large services, such as iTunes, the sheer amount of content can potentially work against filmmakers, with individual titles easily overlooked. And while films are grouped by genre, no single category represents narrative independent films. (There is a documentary section, however.) Purchases may also be hampered by the average YouTube surfer’s predilection for free content, although Google is working to change that mentality. Showing actual films — rather than videos of cats — is the first step in that direction.
YouTube’s subscription-based Paid Channels still have both these problems but, for filmmakers able to gather a sufficient subscriber base, this option offers distinct advantages over ad-supported videos. First launched last May, the channels, which were generally connected with large producers such as National Geographic and Sesame Workshop, were initially reported to be struggling to find subscribers. This may or may not change with the initiative’s second phase, which began in October when Google opened up Paid Channels to any YouTube partner (a designation for high-volume content creators with free subscription channels) with more than 10,000 subscribers. In other words, anyone with a relatively successful free channel can attempt the move into paid subscriptions without any further application process (although they must create a new channel, not add subscription fees to their old one). YouTube doesn’t release payment figures, but it’s been reported that revenue is split 45% for YouTube, 55% for filmmakers. There are still less than 100 Paid Channels, again ranging from $1 to $15 a month.
Google’s main initiative outside YouTube — and the option perhaps most enticing for feature-length films — is Google Play. Google’s response to iTunes, Google Play includes books, apps, music and journalism, in addition to movies and television. Therefore, it attracts users expecting to pay. Individual film titles are available for rental or purchase, with prices essentially equivalent to YouTube Movies. But while a Google Play Artist Hub allows musicians to upload and begin selling their music directly — a strong advantage over iTunes for bands and musicians without a label — no such feature appears to be available for filmmakers yet. As with iTunes, an aggregator is still required, and its fees must be accounted for in any financial planning.
Although Google Play has been steadily increasing its market share, iTunes is still the largest resource for downloading music, films and apps, with $2.4 billion in revenue each quarter and 800 downloads per second. Again, it’s easy to get lost in such a busy marketplace, and, again, an aggregator — as well as an encoding process that generally runs $2,000 — is necessary to get your film on the site, but being on the site can make your work available to one of the Internet’s largest consumer markets. Nigel John Stanford is a New Zealand-based composer and executive producer of the experimental film TimeScapes, a feature-length documentary composed entirely of time-lapsed photography directed and shot by Tom Lowe. While his film performed best on its own website, he recognizes the need for big sites such as iTunes, Netflix and Amazon. “You do need to be in the big ones like iTunes because some people will only buy their media through their preferred system.” iTunes opens up the vast market of iOS devices and the smaller, but significant one, of Apple TV, and with iTunes’ 70 to 30 percent revenue split in favor of filmmakers, it’s still possible to earn a profit even with aggregator and encoding fees.
Netflix had a banner year with its original content in 2013, surpassing HBO with 31.1 million U.S. VOD subscribers and expanding into Latin America, the U.K. and the Netherlands. And while iTunes has nearly 600 million users, Netflix’s 30 million-plus pay every month specifically for films and series. Prashant Bhargava, director of the 2012 Indian feature Patang, puts it simply, “Most films get their largest audience base once they are on Netflix.” Such exposure comes, however, with the risks of cannibalization and poor financial returns, the latter because Netflix pays filmmakers flat fees for one- or two-year license periods, rather than on a per-rental or per-view basis like most of its competitors. Some have reported revenue as low as $1,300 for a Netflix run — deals are negotiated on an individual basis, depending on internal analytics that predict a film’s profitability as well as on external factors such as festival buzz — and an aggregator’s fee generally has to be subtracted from the filmmakers’ portion. In a March 2013 blog post, filmmaker Douglas Horn lamented how fans had streamed his film Entry Level multiple times on Netflix, under the impression each click increased his income; instead, the film remained unwatched on other sites that would have paid him for those views. If you want broad exposure for a small to decent payment, Netflix can be the way to go, but, following Horn’s evaluation, if you want to expand into any other types of online campaign, it may be best to be avoided or at least delayed.
Hulu has two platforms: its entirely ad-supported primary service and Hulu Plus, which includes an $8 monthly subscription along with advertisements. On both platforms Hulu splits ad revenue 50/50 with filmmakers. Again, you’ll need an aggregator to submit. Hulu has arguably been seen primarily as a television-centered site, but its catalog of new films is growing, along with its profits and subscribers: Hulu Plus reached 4 million users last year, and having work available alongside the Criterion Collection’s catalog can attract the type of cineastes many filmmakers are hoping to reach.
For its part, Amazon Instant Video seems ideally situated: it’s both the largest retailer on the Internet and, in recent years, a well-accepted outlet for streaming video. Like on iTunes, titles can be rented or downloaded. Additionally, some titles are available for free streaming to members of Amazon Prime, a $79 annual subscription service that also grants members free shipping on most products and some free material for Kindle devices. As with Hulu, payment is split 50/50 for purchases and rental. Like Netflix, Amazon Prime licenses titles for one-year contracts for prenegotiated fees. (One distributor reported to a filmmaker a $231 12-month license fee received for her experimental title.) Those interested in tapping into Amazon can approach it in two ways. One is through distributors and aggregators, which can get your film available alongside Thor: The Dark World. The other is through CreateSpace, a DIY service Amazon first acquired for DVD fulfillment and self-publishing in 2005. Its VOD component allows for open enrollment with no set-up fees, though the technical specifications may require an experienced transcoder.
There are dozens of options beyond CreateSpace for those who don’t want to work with an aggregator, distributor or perhaps even someone to transcode video. Foremost among these is Vimeo, which has always catered to serious video professionals and brings a solid reputation and an audience that believes content creators should be paid, with its option of placing a pay-what-you-wish tip jar on any video illustrates. Patang was initially released on the site, and Bhargava cites this as the reason why: “I have always been a big fan of Vimeo. It’s a platform for creativity, process and collaboration, constructed for the artist rather than the consumer.” As other online players have caught up technically, Vimeo’s On Demand feature, which launched last March with additional improvements in September, has sought to expand its visibility with the general public. It reflects Vimeo’s roots by catering to indies both in the content on its site and pay-through to content creators: filmmakers pay an annual $200 fee for Vimeo PRO membership (which has other benefits such as increased memory and HD plays), then set up a free On Demand account, upload films and set their own prices for rentals and/or purchases. Customers’ transaction fees are deducted from revenue, then Vimeo only keeps 10%, transferring the other 90% to the filmmaker’s PayPal account once a month. And it was that number that most attracted Patang. The film’s producer Jaideep Punjabi says, “Our strategy has been to capitalize on the 90/10 split that Vimeo offers to our closest friends, fans and family — prior to opening the film up to other platforms.” Bhargava adds, “The revenue model differs greatly from other platforms. In the case of iTunes and the cable providers, we only receive 35%. An aggregator is necessary to position the product and broker the deal. The process to release is also longer. Reporting is not immediate. We rely on our aggregators for reports. Revenue is returned months later. On Vimeo, we upload, we get daily reports, we see the revenue right away.” While the film will soon expand to other platforms, for now Punjabi and Bhargava are happy with their experience. With Vimeo, “we as the filmmakers are empowered,” Bhargava says.
Fandor, which launched at SXSW in 2011, has consistently targeted the independent film community. It publishes the blog Keyframe, and its broad-ranging online catalog of more than 10,000 films is well designed and layered with recommendations for users. The San Francisco-based company is also growing, expanding into Canada last September, adding Sony and Android devices in November, and striking distribution deals with Oscilloscope Laboratories, Cinedigm and Factory 25 in December. The site selects its content but allows direct submission via a DVD or hard drive. Viewers subscribe for $70 a year, $45 for 6 months, or $22.50 for 3 months; this revenue is then shared with filmmakers 50/50, with payments based on the amount of time a film gets watched.
None of the above discussion should imply that aggregators are inimical to a successful release. They can be a seasoned guide, opening doors that would otherwise remain closed and saving time by reducing the number of partners to deal with. The trick, as always, is to find the right one. iTunes lists its preferred aggregators online: North American names include bitMAX, Juice, Cinetic Rights Management, Inception, New Video and Premiere Digital. Others include KinoNation, distribber and TuneCore. Most of these work on commission; fees were once as high as 50% but have now dropped significantly, depending on what services are performed. KinoNation takes 20% of all sales, for instance, while New Video takes only 12% for those fortunate enough to be an alummus of the Sundance Film Festival or the Sundance Institute’s labs or grant programs.
Some aggregators don’t take any commission at all. Filmmakers instead pay an upfront fee and then receive 100% of any revenue from iTunes, Amazon, etc. Fees vary depending on the destination platform (which often determines the amount of transcoding work required) and whether the video is SD or HD. For instance distribber, which is owned by Indiegogo, charges $1,295 for iTunes in SD, $1,595 for HD (plus an annual $79 maintenance fee); $399 to add Hulu or $750 for Hulu by itself; $250 (SD) or $395 (HD) to add Netflix to iTunes, or $595/$795 for Netflix alone; and a mere $95 for Amazon On Demand. All of your money less $39 is refunded if a platform rejects your film. A much steeper $5,000 fee is charged for cable and satellite placement, but in that scenario distribber is acting as a distributor as well. Whether such fees are wiser than a commission depends on how much revenue you generate — it would require $1,500 of revenue on Hulu, for instance, before you earned back your $750 fee and started making a profit — but overall distribber’s business model makes it one of the more popular aggregators. Quiver Digital works similarly, as does TuneCore, which was originally created for musicians and averages an upfront fee of $999 for SD content and $1249 for HD. Having to deal with aggregators’ fees and commissions is not sufficient reason to avoid them altogether; filmmakers simply need to take them into account and weigh their utility against a host of new VOD services that don’t require any middlemen.
The list of these companies can be intimidating, and it keeps growing every week with new niche and specialty websites: Distrify, VHX, IndieFlix, Reelhouse, MoPix, Assemble, Seed&Spark, FetchApp, SnagFilms, IndieReign, Fillim, Light Cone, FLM.TV, Fandor, VUDU, Viewster, Pivotshare, NoBudge and many others. Additionally, many film festivals are now moving into the VOD realm, led by Sundance, Tribeca and the Toronto International Film Festival. Through its Artist Services program, Sundance uses its brand to leverage alumni filmmakers onto iTunes, Amazon, Netflix and other sites, using New Video as an aggregator. Toronto recently entered an innovative arrangement with Vimeo in which the online platform offered TIFF filmmakers a $10,000 advance followed by a 90/10 revenue split if they’d give the service a film’s streaming premiere.
Each site/service below differs slightly in emphasis and business model — the nonprofit Light Cone focuses on experimental film, for instance, and NoBudge simply shows free films selected by filmmaker Kentucker Audley — but overall what makes them categorically different from platforms such as Amazon, Netflix and Google Play is that they combine equal parts distribution with outreach tools: liking, sharing, discussing and even embedding the film are frequently built into their DNA, which can mean welcome help for filmmakers’ thin marketing budgets. New technology even lets platforms such as Distrify, Pivotshare and IndieReign transact purchases within a trailer’s video player, wherever that might be embedded. Also, they’re filmmaker friendly, as all but one — Walmart’s VUDU — allow for direct submission or immediate enrollment.
There is very little cross-platform cannibalization at this level; every platform discussed here allows you to retain your rights and exhibit across the Internet. They heavily favor direct payments from viewers for a permanent download or one- to five-day rental. Only one, IndieFlix, functions on a pure subscription model, charging customers $7 per month. If you’re showing directly on Indieflix.com, you share in the royalty pool based on the total number of minutes your film is viewed. But since IndieFlix is also an aggregator, revenue from other sites is split 70/30 in the filmmaker’s favor. Similarly, SnagFilms is the only platform based entirely on advertising. Originally focused on documentaries, SnagFilms, which owns Indiewire, has branched out to include narrative content, offering filmmakers a 50/50 split of all ad revenue.
The rest of these platforms function on a rental or purchase model, frequently with filmmakers setting the price themselves. Prices for viewers tend to range between $1 and $7 for two- to three-day rentals, and up to $15 or even $20 for HD downloads. Here are some of the most important platforms for filmmakers to be aware of:
Distrify Filmmakers choose a monthly plan — free, $20, $99 or $501 — for different resolutions and number of features and then get roughly 75% of revenue, again based on number of minutes watched. There are also small data charges when a film is first uploaded, such as $8.38/GB for videos, or other fees for other pieces of physical merchandise. Anyone can enroll. One of Distrify’s unique innovations is monetizing incentives for fans to embed films around the Web: anyone who does so gets a 10% cut, making the final breakdown 10/65/25. The company’s blog claims hundreds of fans have already tapped into this feature.
VHX A few pilot films have used this service, and it will become publicly available in early 2014. They’ll take a percentage, as yet unspecified, of gross, along with a small transaction fee. One unique feature is the ability to send protected press screeners. At least for now films are hosted on external sites, not on VHX.TV.
IndieReign This company has strong sharing and embedding tools for its 50,000 registered users and allows filmmakers to set their own price, which averages around $2 per rental — but with a guileless invitation to pay more if desired. Filmmakers keep 70%. A recent deal with Indiegogo allows filmmakers to start advertising during their fundraising stage, with the intent that they will stay with one platform from conception through distribution.
MoPix There’s a one-time setup (about $150) and an annual maintenance fee, but beyond that filmmakers receive 80% of revenue. Filmmakers set their own price and can include multiple videos, images and PDFs within one title in order to create special features and packages. Content is available for multiple platforms, and MoPix even includes in their premium account service specially made apps. MoPix also acts as an aggregator for Google and iTunes.
VUDU VUDU enables rentals or downloads, including “$2 for 2 nights.” Their UltraViolet account stores all purchased films in the cloud so users can access them anywhere. Since being purchased by Walmart in 2010, VUDU must limit its content to the same type of material you could find in a retail store, and hence, an aggregator or distributor is required to submit a film.
Reelhouse With 94% of revenue after transaction fees (i.e. PayPal) going to filmmakers, Reelhouse offers one of the most generous deals out there. Again, filmmakers set their own price for both rentals and downloads: it’s generally a few dollars for a two-day rental, up to $20 to own something such as Man of Steel. Special features are included in an ALL ACCESS brand, and shorts are welcome along with features. Films can be embedded on other sites as well as www.reelhouse.org, and filmmakers can also sell merchandise or just ask for tips.
Fillim Again, filmmakers can set the price for rentals or downloads, with a 70/30 split less third-party fees. Titles range roughly from $1 to $16.
Seed&Spark While Seed&Spark offers rentals only ($3), it does have a type of in-store currency (“sparks”) viewers earn by following filmmakers, funding them through the company’s crowdfunding arm and sharing. Bringing together crowdfunding with distribution and community, Seed&Spark aims to be a one-stop shop.
FetchApp Filmmakers pay a monthly fee depending on how much storage space they need, from $5 for 25MB up to $500 for 100GB. Beyond that, 100% of profits go to the creators, who again set the price of their own films.
Pivotshare This service is for embedding on external sites only. The payment options are intriguing for their many forms; they allow for rental, purchase, tips or even subscriptions to filmmakers with large or ongoing catalogs, much like a YouTube channel. There are no fees — only a 30% commission.
This is obviously a crowded field, and there are many other companies, with new start-ups announcing almost weekly. It’s also a market that’s still shaking out. For example, Chill, a popular Los Angeles-based company that catered to comedians as well as filmmakers, laid off 40% of its staff in October and shut down its main platform. As new companies jostle for position, they will seek to differentiate themselves by offering new features for viewers and new services for filmmakers. Assemble, a London-based firm, is moving in new directions by being as much a publicist as a VOD platform, helping with issues such as website design and branding. Thus, the firm works with many filmmakers who are still in production, interfacing with Kickstarter or Indiegogo to build an audience through real-time making-of videos, social media pages, rewards for donations and other content. When the film is complete, Assemble can even assist with merchandising and theatrical screenings. As Assemble and Seed&Spark demonstrate, interest in being involved with a film’s entire lifecycle — a type of new-millennium vertical integration — is increasing. Distrify released its first crowdfunded project, Pawan Kumar’s Kannada-language film Lucia in September, and Reelhouse’s viewers recently funded a nonfiction Web series about the construction of an oil pipeline in northern Canada as production went along.
One of the first independent films to distribute through these sites was Indie Game: The Movie in June 2012. The Winnipeg-based team of Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky chose to use VHX primarily because it was the only service offering the package they wanted. “In fact,” Swirsky says, “VHX wasn’t even officially launched just then. They had the Aziz [Ansari comedy] special, but Indie Game: The Movie was their first film.” It turned out to be a mutually beneficial relationship. “Even though VHX wasn’t set to launch until later in the fall, it was too perfect a match for all of us not to work together.” Swirsky says VHX offered him and Pajot four crucial services: 1) digital downloads and streams to Kickstarter and pre-order backers; 2) producing those downloads and streams DRM-free in multiple formats (mobile, 1080p, etc.); 3) making the film available for purchase worldwide; and 4) providing the filmmakers full access to (and the rights to retain) the film’s data. The second point — DRM-free files — is crucial and a necessity for worldwide sales.
VHX continued to work with Pajot and Swirsky for more than a year, adding 23 additional languages, commentary tracks, coupon codes, dynamic pricing and, this past summer, a new anthology of short films that follow up on the feature. “Overall,” Swirsky summarizes, “I think we gravitate toward VHX because they’re a team born of the Internet stepping into film, not the other way around . . . They have the same love for experimentation and data that we do. And when you’re dealing with this new digital distribution landscape, those are two of the most powerful things you can have.”
The U.S.-New Zealand team behind TimeScapes used many of these VOD platforms. Still, Stanford says, “A vast majority of our sales have been from our own website. We built our own delivery system where we let people download the film as a QuickTime file. This gives us the flexibility to offer superhigh-resolution files, optimized for 30-inch and 4K displays. [TimeScapes is, in fact, billed as the first ever film released as a 4K file.] We offer the files DRM-free, which made it easier to make but is also better for the customers as they don’t have to deal with any difficult software procedures.” Though the TimeScapes team did this on their own site, DRM-free files are also a main draw of VHX and nearly all other VOD platforms.
Given this emphasis on their own site, how useful have various online platforms been for Timescapes? “iTunes has given us some sales, but people don’t really discover the movie there,” Stanford says. “It’s more that people find out about us from our online videos and then go to iTunes to buy it if they are using an iPad or Apple TV. Several other independent delivery platforms have approached us, but we have not bothered to sign up with any.” Not that he doesn’t recognize the importance of these sites. He will shortly add the film to Google Play and Amazon Prime, but not, at present, to VUDU, Reelhouse or any other platform discussed here, despite using Quiver and its sister company Premiere Digital Services as an aggregator to get into the iTunes Store.
A somewhat similar example is 51 Paintings, the first in a series of five planned feature-length films in which Australian artist Shaun Wilson recreates medieval religious paintings with modern-day models. Wilson and his team have, to date, released the film on Reelhouse, Vimeo On Demand, Chill, Fillim, IndieReign, FLM.TV, Movie Discovery and Distrify, and used the aggregator KinoNation and the theatrical peer-to-peer services Simple Machine and OpenIndie. Since 51 Paintings will, like The Cremaster Cycle, be followed by four similar films, the filmmakers used so many platforms to “experiment to see what types of audiences dwell on each service and also to closely examine traffic sources and demographics.” The results? According to Wilson, “Most of our traffic is coming from Vimeo On Demand, MoPix and IndieReign, which have a solid community built around each avenue. All of the sites have been fantastic to deal with, although communication from FLM has been zero despite our numerous requests for help when we had uploading issues.” How easy was the process? “We found the award for best back-end design is definitely MoPix with Reelhouse and IndieReign a close second. The best upload facility is shared between MoPix and Chill, and the best award for site community is Reelhouse and IndieReign. In fact, we were surprised to find just how good most of our services really were, and even the sites who rejected 51 Paintings, such as Seed&Spark, have still kept in touch with us.”
For the most part, interfaces and customer service have been sufficiently helpful to make the uploading and maintenance of the film the easiest part of Wilson’s process. His advice to other filmmakers has to do with bookkeeping: “Go make a spreadsheet listing every online distributor you can find. First make note of the specific financial arrangements (PayPal or not), then, for non-U.S. citizens, look at the taxation implications of withholding tax and tax treaties with the IRS. Next, examine the commissions and other fees associated with each service — don’t forget about PayPal and credit card transaction fees — and then, once the financial side of things is out of the way, target the best service for your potential audience. Finally, prep all of your assets well in advance and allow three weeks of revision and quality control between site registration and final upload.”
All in all, there are as many ways to use these platforms and their services as there are films, which is why this survey ends with a few examples that fall outside even “traditional” VOD distribution campaigns.
LOOKING FURTHER AFIELD
There are obviously enough film-specific VOD services available to keep any producer busy sorting through them for months, but Kieran Masterton, a technologist at both Distrify and Assemble (and also a Filmmaker contributor), suggests it’s also important to look at “non-film-centric options because they’re viable choices for filmmakers that often get ignored.” If none of the traditional VOD sites offers the right tools for you, some online commerce sites might just help you create the niche your film needs.
Gumroad is one of these. It has the same overall ethos as the film-specific VOD services discussed above, but it reaches outside cinema to include music, books, software, games and other digital products. Once content is uploaded, creators can push it anywhere on the Web — social media or their own websites — with all transactions handled by Gumroad at a 5% + 25¢ transaction fee. Creators can set any price from free through $1,000, or use Gumroad’s pay-what-you-wish model. The documentary BÖIKZMÖIND, about fixed-gear cycling in northern England, used Gumroad to produce a downloadable zip file containing the 30-minute film with a 20-minute making-of documentary, a book and artistically packaged DVD with even more video content, and a T-shirt (with regular and glow-in-the-dark print versions) and pair of shorts. This marriage of VOD and physical merchandise worked well enough that the team didn’t have to resort to any other online service or fulfillment house. First-time director Gavin Strange came from a design background and was used to getting work in front of an audience quickly, which Gumroad facilitated.
“I would have loved to have had the film on Netflix and iTunes,” he says, “as I was eager to see if it could play with the big boys! I had the options to [do that]. I had a ProRes version of the film and all the music cleared, but when I looked into those options they were so convoluted, and you had to go through lots of hoops to even get the chance to submit your film, it instantly put me off. So I gave up hope of any sort of digital distribution until I found Gumroad. Their system made it super simple: upload the file, decide on a price and they take a tiny fee for it.” Strange sees this as a model for all truly independent online distribution. “I really think, in this digital age, things should be as streamlined as possible. But so much of that gatekeeper-publisher mentality has crept into digital distribution, it’s the same old story of the big publishers controlling everything and making things so damn difficult. I’m all for keeping it simple, as that’s the way I’d like to make films — for simplicity and enjoyment. It really shouldn’t be any more complex than that!”
Other traditional e-commerce sites normally focused on physical products may also suit VOD well. Shopify, while designed for general business transactions, can be adapted for selling digital files, as can sites such as Bigcommerce, Goodsie, Volusion, Interspire, CoreCommerce and others. Sites such as these can also sell tickets to physical events, indicating a new way to create theatrical screenings and helping filmmakers manage their real-space (theatrical), merchandise-based (DVD) and online (VOD) screenings all in one hub. Three years ago the instructional video company MindBites was already promoting itself as a means for filmmakers to host their streaming or downloadable videos, and now such services have, of course, been joined by the many other embeddable video players discussed above. The result: multiple avenues to host films online, in ways or in venues that generally fall outside the gaze of the film community.
For those filmmakers housing their films on their own website, even PayPal — which is often how payments are handled through other services anyhow — can be a sufficient transactional service; any other way to collect payment can work too, as TimeScapes’ example illustrates.
Finally, there are apps. Packaging your film as an app provides several benefits, but cautionary considerations must be evaluated first. On the plus side, releasing a film as an iOS app lets filmmakers tap into iTunes’ vast marketplace without the intermediary of an aggregator. Also, like packaging a film for the Kindle, making an app allows for the inclusion of interactive elements —whether transmedia narratives or more traditional DVD-esque special features — that can enrich the viewing experience, extend the product’s shelf life and enhance overall value. On the downside, viewers are used to discovering movies in iTunes or Google Play, not in the App Store. Perhaps more problematic is the introduction of coding into the postproduction process, as video and audio must be properly transcoded and elements packaged into an app rather than video file. An individual coder could do this, or there are also companies that specialize in turning films into apps: Horn specifically points to Veam, a firm that’s already having success in converting YouTube channels into apps. This is a new distribution outlet, of course, and the financial ins and outs are less established, but Horn points out that app development generally includes a base fee payment “plus a per-minute of encoding cost for standard fare,” with fees for additional features. Revenue is just as variable, as filmmakers may still have to split their income with the app developer after Apple or Google takes their fee — or they could negotiate an initial deal where the coding company receives none of this money.
No matter where or how a film is released, one age-old obstacle remains. “What is challenging is the marketing,” Patang’s Bhargava says. “As most filmmakers will point out, our jobs now rarely end at the completion of our work. In the case of Vimeo, our outreach is limited to our outreach.” This work will only expand as Patang rolls out on other platforms. TimeScapes’ Stanford describes it this way: “My opinion is that a small independent film like ours needs to create all of its own audience through its own marketing. No one is going to discover the movie on [the large] platforms by themselves.” And Patang’s Punjabi adds, “The most important approach relies on identifying niches which allow for a greater conversion through your marketing activities. The degree of outreach required by filmmakers to do this is remarkably high.” This approach has been true for more than a decade, of course, but VOD just gives filmmakers new ways to do it.