I was at a NYWIFT event the other night talking with some filmmakers about the necessity of distribution today- as in, is it time to toss the whole concept out with VHS and Pluto being a planet. It seems to me that distribution is responsible for my knowing about most of the cool films that I do- that without it people in the US might have remained blissfully unaware of the French New Wave, of Takeshi Kitano, or Down By Law. Now perhaps the magical internet has made everything different, but I wonder if some of the basic functions of distribution are still necessary- and not possible to satisfy simply by having some open downloading pool.
Brian Shirey, Head of DVD Production at Kino International says,
I may be old-fashioned, but I think distribution’s primary purpose is to wade through the mountain of films screened at festivals every year to find the few that are truly good enough to be seen on a wider scale. This should be done to the mutual financial benefit of all, although that should not be the central goal… If a filmmaker rejects distribution on the grounds that the technology allows him or her to just do it themselves — through digital streaming, or other online applications — then there is no mediation in the process and the market will potentially suffer a glut of home-made, low-quality, self-satisfying films.
For me, the point of distribution has nothing to do with technology, which is really just a means to the end. It’s about finding the quality and getting it out there, and hoping, but not guaranteeing, that audiences will come. Filmmakers should have to earn that opportunity.
What IS the point of distribution and is it still relevant today? Some basic ideas:
- + to make money by selling films
- + to select the films people will want to see– for arthouse cinema, usually the best, best reviewed and highest festival-honoured
- + marketing films once they are made and have received accolades- there is a tiny percentage of people who might just go see any well-reviewed movie. But most people need to know more, need to see a trailer, some image, etc.
One might think that without distribution fest honors and reviewing would be enough to tell people about good films. So far that hasn’t been the case. There has also been a lot of buzz lately about how professional reviewing is going by the wayside. There are many more festivals than ever- maybe even too many. Top festivals currently rely on distributors for revenue and the markets are what attract top films. Would top festivals even be “top” if it weren’t for the markets? Festivals are expensive for filmmakers, though at present a lot of that expense is industry-directed.
Some have posited that festivals could be a distribution strategy unto themselves (though I believe that is called semi-theatrical, and there are many distributors and some filmmakers who have done alright on that circuit). Scott Kirsner suuggested at CinemaTech that a possible avenue of revenue for filmmakers could be digital sales or DVD sales during their festival runs. Though eventually this may yield cash for films that don’t have a more traditional path to sales, I see a couple of hurdles at the moment- one being the impact on TV sales, the more obvious being the unlikelihood of a filmmaker with a feature in one of the major festivals having anywhere the kind of time and resources it would take to make DVDs or proper downloads happen.
Scott also wrote a great piece on getting films onto iTunes, and in the comments I noticed the idea emerging that online markets should be democratic- a kind of anti-distribution model in which anyone can put things up and somehow consumers will sort it out– and yet people will get paid for content. (There was also an interesting follow-up article on distributing short films at the blog Deep Structure.)
Right now to administrate and deliver content has costs. Content providers are there to earn money. A free-for-all system is not the most effective way to earn money. EVEN if the issue of legal and digitizing standards and bandwidth were all irrelevant.
Customers will use the system that is most to their taste and meets their technical demands most effectively. The customer demand for a site with every thing that is out there, especially films without marketing and festival exposure, is small. And I would think the only way to monetize such a site would be ad revenue, because consumers are unlikely to buy these films online without any marketing- it is sort of the digital equivalent of the guy who tries to sell you a DVR of his awesome movie on the subway.
Distributors are not as important in the online sphere IF a filmmaker is proactive and has marketing savvy (and has budgeted for marketing). A filmmaker today can go through Amazon’s CreateSpace program to place their film on Amazon (and even sell to Amazon VOD), they can do their own limited theatrical and semi-theatrical runs, they can create a website, Facebook, myspace, and hook up with communities who would be into the film and other filmmakers, they can work with a number of online markets to get the film out there streaming/download-to-rent or –own.
That said, to take a film to the ‘next level’ or for filmmakers who don’t want a full-time unpaid job after they are done making the movie, distributors are still important. Distributors find the most commercial and most quality films and then have a team of people to take them to established theatres, big retail, and even online markets like iTunes that don’t deal with filmmakers one –on-one. Customers and buyers know the distributors, know they can be trusted to deliver quality product with certain standards.
Neal Block, Director of Theatrical Distribution at Magnolia Pictures says,
Sure, online distribution would absolutely “democratize” the process of getting movies in front of viewers, but the most important thing moving forward with that would be to make sure there are qualified people making the acquisition choices. It’s a lot like film and music bloggers – everyone thinks they can write fantastic criticism, but they can’t. There’s a reason people are hired as critics, and why people trust those critics’ opinions. Strict quality control is the only way that online distribution is going to be a long-term success.
The catch is the cut that the distributor takes- which will be in addition to all the other little cuts along the way from theatres, wholesalers, and even iTunes. Talk to some filmmakers who have made films similar to yours and get a sense of the numbers you should be looking at and what will make sense for your project.
The concern I think a lot of people at smaller companies see now is what will happen to the indie companies during this transition. Of the arthouse and indie distributors, a lot of the ones you’d actually want to trust your film to are small- but smaller companies are less likely to have Electronic Distribution (ED) rights for their catalogue films (and less able to acquire them), less likely to be in Blu-Ray, less likely to be capitalized in a way to survive the transition into digital if it means a few years when revenues are scanty. As Jonathan Howell, Director of Theatrical Booking at New Yorker Films put it:
Everyone’s wondering what the distribution model of the future (which is pretty much next week, if not last week) will look like. The traditional model, which has been relatively stable for the past hundred years (with television and then home video both making rather significant waves), is in the process of being broken, but it’s not yet clear precisely what will replace it. We all know it’s going to go digital, and film will be relegated to the position of the much-loved/much-maligned LP record–probably not abolished, but pushed into a niche. We all suspect it’ll be largely a question of transmitting this digital data into people’s homes, probably at least as much as transmitting it into cinemas, but that shift hasn’t yet taken place. So we’re all left in the position of a person knows they’re going to be moving homes for a long, long time before it actually happens–even though we’re not sure yet precisely where we’re going to move to. But, in short, we all realize that the lease is up, so to speak–it’s just that no one wants to take that step until there’s a consensus about “where we’re going to live” once we move. There’s the anxiety of having to choose between VHS and Beta, or Blu-ray and that other technology that I’ve already forgotten the name of because it lost just a few months ago. We’re behind the 8-ball.
It’s a good time to be careful- and if there is one certainty in the film world of today, it’s that filmmakers need to be educated. Go to panels, do internet research, and above all, talk to other filmmakers and to people in the industry. Since no one really knows what is next, try to do short deals!
UPDATE: TuneCore can now put indie films up on iTunes for a fee. It looks like a good deal for indie filmmakers- we’ll see if it’s a good deal for iTunes… (Though apparently “The movies placed in the iTunes store are editorially approved by the iTunes staff.”)