Archive for the ‘iTunes’ Category

Sundance Shorts free at iTunes

Friday, January 16th, 2009

During the festival run, January 15-25, iTunes will offer for free 10 shorts screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The featured films are “Magnetic Movie”, “Countertransference”, “Acting For the Camera”, “James”, “Hug”, “From Burger it Came”, “Field Notes From Dimension X: Oasis”, “This Way Up”, “I Live in the Woods”, and “Instead of Abracadabra.”

At previous panels I have heard the idea floated about that a good idea would be to have features run online concurrent with their festival dates. No telling exactly what the repercussions of this would be for TV sales in particular (and slightly less of a concern might be theatrical impact) but for shorts, it’s seems only to be a winning proposition.

Distribution, Downloads, Democracy and Doubt

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

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.”)

Sony's "Open Market" could open the Digital Market- a little

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

TechCrunch reports today on a move by the major studios to protect digital media through a DRM scheme called Open Market.  Rather than bow to the the individual protections of a single retailer, otherwise known as iTunes, the studios are working with about 30 different retailers and portals, including Amazon, Best Buy, Direct TV, Time Warner Cable, T-Mobile, Target, Wal-Mart, and others to create a system whereby any digital media available through the participating companies would be subject to third party encryption that would only work on registered devices.  (Essentially, you could only play the movie on a device you had registered in advance for the purpose of ‘using’ that file).

This could be good news for indies, since it has been shown time and again how distasteful these kind of DRM methods are to consumers, who want to be able to use media they paid for when and where they want it, as they would a DVD.  If indies are able to market their downloadable products on Amazon or other portals as DRM-free (or at least, not “Open Market”) it may be a selling point.

Indies get tactical, but is self-distribution the answer?

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

Anne Thompson’s recent post on ‘changing tactics’ for independent film distribution shows how tenuous things are in the game these days and how much digital is becoming a part of all distribution strategies. She proposes that self-distribution is becoming increasingly attractive and/or viable, with films like BOTTLE SHOCK and GOOD DICK entering into service deals rather than going the straight distribution route.

But the idea that “filmmakers don’t have to give away the store with DVD deals anymore” seems a little premature, at best.  Especially for independents, revenue on digital download and streaming is not even in the ballpark with DVD yet.  This is partly because the independent audience skews a bit older and slower to pick up on tech (obviously, some indie films do have very young demographics). Partly it is because the majority of sales right now are on iTunes, and iTunes are basically like Blockbuster in terms of what sells and what they offer.  Mostly it is because way more people rent and buy DVDs, even still, than have the means or desire to watch them on a download.

It may seem like a coup to retain digital rights if you do a DVD deal but you may be shooting yourself in the foot.  A good distributor will manage your digital rights in concert with the DVD to make sure you see the maximum revenue on the balance sheet.

The film business has always been a high-risk venture, but now at the onset of a deal, the willingness to give is at an all-time low. Filmmakers want to hold on to whatever they can, in hopes they can parcel off rights for some benefit in case one or another distribution partner fails.  Distributors want every right, so that they can consolidate their campaigns and also have different avenues to fall back on if one strategy fails.  The only protection you have as a filmmaker ultimately is to know who you’re getting in bed with and their track record- or to do it yourself, but armed with a lot of knowledge and some good consultants.

iTunes and Indie Films – Meet the Middleman

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

In a nifty bit of synergy, Scott Kirsner over at CinemaTech has taken on the question “How to get your indie film on iTunes?” (a somewhat similar query to the very first post in the Infinicine discussion forum). Getting your film on iTunes does seem like a bit of an apex at this stage in the digital distribution evolution, not only because iTunes sales are so commanding relative to other download services so far but also because they charge a relatively high price and share it with the rightsholder. (As with any customer, terms will vary).

The challenge, as Scott pointed out, is that iTunes, much like oldmedia sellers Barnes & Noble or Borders, does not buy directly from individual filmmakers. This means that there are a number of ‘aggregators’ vying to become the wholesalers of the digital realm, and one must deal with them in order to place films on iTunes.

In contrast, Amazon, which has made its name on having just about everything available to customers looking for obscure items, has had a system in place long before streaming to work with independent vendors. As long as filmmakers adhere to terms of service, they can put their product on Amazon, albeit on the terms established for this type of product.

There are different ways to look at this situation as an independent filmmaker. First of all you need to evaluate whether iTunes would be a significant market for your film. Some might think that ANY market with the higher sales of iTunes would be a great place to put ANY film. But realistically, placing your film on ITunes will mean working with an aggregator, who in some cases will want to represent all digital rights and take as much as 50% of your net revenues. You might also think of doing a service deal with a distributor, who could deal with an aggregator on your behalf- increasing your layers of percentage-takers, but perhaps getting a better deal or being able to leverage some kind of promotion on the iTunes site.

As for iTunes, it is somewhat mysterious why they are being so cautious. They wouldn’t seem to lack for bandwidth or the technical know-how to implement such a system. On the other hand, the money to be made from indies is low, the risks are far more than with music- as Scott puts it:

By open, what I’d like to see is an aggregator accepting any finished film where the filmmaker can guarantee that there are no rights issues that will result in lawsuits… or at the very least any finished film that has played at least one festival.

In my experience, the former is a much smaller field than the latter, and a Venn diagram of the two would narrow things down significantly. Trying to sort out legals is something that probably does require more than just a ‘guarantee’- especially when you are in a much more highly trafficked space like iTunes.

That said, it would be great if iTunes would make the system more transparent and open so that filmmakers aren’t at the mercy of “aggregators” to offer them whatever marked-up deal they desire. And it would be great if iTunes made more of an effort to promote indie product on the site and build the market a bit, since it seems like their demographic is ideal for new indies.