I’ve written about the concept of film as a small business before, however it was through the lens of budgeting and production rather than distribution. Lately, some of you may have noticed my recent takes (or rants) regarding streaming and/or other day & date distribution concepts. The reason for this has to do with both my fascination with modern distribution techniques as well as research into opportunities that I can exploit in the future when it comes time to make my next film available to the masses.

Film distribution is somewhat a dark art -or at least that’s what those in film distribution and/or acquisitions want you to believe. Those who acquire films -i.e. distributors etc. -purposely make the transaction as convoluted and complicated as possible. It’s done this way to ensure that the distributor, not the filmmakers, are rewarded for their “hard work” despite many doing little to nothing to justify their “demands”. It’s not uncommon for distribution deals, at least at the indie level, to come with little, if any, upfront money or guarantees. Moreover, distribution deals are often rife with items such as marketing allowances and/or outright expense accounts; meaning the distributor has the right to spend and thus recoup “expenses” as they see fit before paying one dime to the filmmaker whose work it is they’re using to generate income. Obviously I advocate for clauses such as these to be stricken from any deal or at the very least capped at a reasonable amount, but more often than not filmmakers still get “suckered” into such bad deals. Why? The allure of being able to say your film is distributed is often too great for many first timers or starving filmmakers to overcome. Then there is theatrical exhibition, which not unlike traditional consumer sales, is filled with middle men all of whom take a percentage; a percentage that is paid to everyone else but the filmmaker first. It’s not uncommon, when the dust settles, for the filmmaker(s) to net but 30-percent of every dollar earned of their hard work. In many instances it’s actually much less.

Now, if your film turns out to be the sleeper hit of the year or its generation 30-percent doesn’t seem like such a bad deal. Especially if your film’s budget was say a million bucks or two. A film that costs but a few million but manages to gross say 10 based on the hard work of a dedicated team of distributors and sales agents etc. is the dream. Via that scenario the filmmakers stand to make a cool $3,000,000 or a million dollars profit if everything goes according to plan. Not a bad business. But then again, we’re talking about a dream scenario. Reality often more closely resembles that of a nightmare.

The reason streaming is such an important outlet going forward, not only for consumers but also for filmmakers, is it levels the playing field so to speak by giving content creators -i.e. filmmakers -a more direct line to the viewer. While not all streaming or download services are the same, many still operate based on old models or ways of thinking, more and more are rising to the surface that are more favorable to the filmmaker than ever before. For example, Vimeo’s new on demand service.

Vimeo has long been a sort of upscale or videophile’s YouTube. While not responsible for viral hits such as Psy’s “Gangnam Style” or “The Harlem Shake”, Vimeo has earned a reputation for being the go-to spot for quality video and higher-end user generated content. They recently announced a new on demand service that will allow existing Pro users to upload full-length feature films to Vimeo and charge a nominal fee in order for others to watch. While this isn’t wholly unlike services offered by a few others, it’s the cleanest I’ve seen with the most money going back to the filmmaker -90 percent. Plus, the filmmaker gets to set the terms as well as the price, where as others are often dictated by the respective services. For example; if you can get your film on iTunes (typically you have to go through an aggregate) they will often dictate the price as well as the ownership terms and your percentage (think 30-percent). What’s more exciting, is that Vimeo is quickly being adopted by third parties such as display manufacturers and streaming devices. If the viewer has a smart HDTV or streaming box, chances are they have access to Vimeo, which means films can now be enjoyed via a proper screen, accompanied (hopefully) by better sound.

Granted, Vimeo’s model puts all the responsibility of success or failure on the filmmaker, but I argue so does any independent distribution deal. In truth, at the indie level, the filmmaker is always going to be the one most responsible for their film’s respective success or failure. Let me rephrase that, they’ll always be responsible for its failure(s) but only marginally so for its successes if a traditional distributor is involved. With Vimeo and services like it, it’s all on the filmmaker. But if you’re at all savvy and have built a good brand and/or network around your film why shouldn’t you be able to monetize it and reap the rewards? Moreover if you’ve created such a community prior to needing and/or having distribution in place, who’s to say that someone coming aboard in the 11th hour knows better than you? Of course there are always pros and cons to any deal and/or plan. I’m merely suggesting that for the first time, that I can recall, there seem to be equal number of both pros and cons in front of the filmmaker rather than buckets of just cons (pun intended).

Bringing it back to the viewer, streaming is a way for the general public to support filmmakers much in the same way they would a local small business. Many, even those who love big budget films, complain about Hollywood’s wasteful spending and/or money grubbing tactics. Supporting streaming and services such as Vimeo is a way of voicing your opinion and telling the studios to knock it off, all the while helping local artists gain some traction and potentially make a living on their terms. We seek out farmers markets, local hardware stores and the like, so why can’t we do the same for film? Streaming affords many, viewers and filmmakers alike, the same opportunity as those who run and/or advocate for shopping local. This is why I plead with folks not to discount streaming and/or on-line video distribution platforms, for there’s simply more to it and more at stake than whether or not you believe it’s AV quality to be better or worse than mass produced discs.

As always I thank you so much for reading. Until next time, take care and stay tuned…

Andrew