What a difference a year makes. Independent film distribution has continued its blink-of-an-eye evolution into 2015 with Video on Demand (VOD) at the forefront.
The former straight-to-video wasteland is now a place for exploration and experimentation, so crucial to a distribution plan that it’s no longer a question of “if VOD,” but “when.”
MovieMaker hereby offers up our fourth annual Guide to DIY Digital Distribution. Last year, we cried out for more transparency and discovered that moviemakers have an incredible, and often confusing, array of digital choices. While that fact remains, this year has seen a winnowing down of platforms that offer everything to ones that fill a niche need under one roof.
Uncertainty is still a given as one enters distribution, DIY or not, but other advice remains constant, as well: Know your film. Know your goals. Be realistic. Talk to other filmmakers. Case studies can assist but there is no single right answer, because your film is unique. The only thing you can do is begin.
For most finished independent films, the festival circuit is still the best way to inaugurate distribution, according to representatives from A24, Factory 25, Magnolia and Magnet Releasing, Oscilloscope Laboratories and Vimeo. During a panel at the New Hampshire Film Festival in October, these reps agreed that the press, audience and professional relationships developed at festivals are key building blocks when strategizing for VOD.
Because of festival build-up, films typically have become available on VOD after a festival and, possibly, theatrical run. But these days nearly any sequence of releases occurs. Chris White, Magnolia’s director of business affairs and delivery, pointed out that Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies opened on VOD, gained audience buzz, and then headed to the big screen in 2013. Another plausible plan could be to release day-and-date (the same day in theaters and at home) in a handful of cities and on a subscription-VOD (SVOD) platform for an exclusive, time-limited window. Factory 25’s founder Matt Grady did that with Homemakers, for example.
“There’s no exact science to this. We all just keep saying that,” said Amanda Salazar, film acquisition director for SVOD service Fandor, which partnered with Factory 25 on Homemakersand other titles. The pair announced a seven-film day-and-date joint agreement this June, including Lynn Shelton’s We Go Way Back from 2006. To mark the occasion, Shelton’s first film had a “VOD IRL” (i.e. available both on demand and “in real life”) event with Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum (NWFF) on September 26.
Major theaters chains such as AMC, Regal, Cinemark and Carmike have refused day-and-date releases; some art house theaters are also wary. But NWFF’s artistic director, Courtney Sheehan, thinks “VOD IRL” rides the exodus to digital. “So many theaters are trying to fight against it or ignore it, and I’m interested in playing with it,” she said. Instead of having a film limp along for a week-long run, Sheehan packs the house with one-night-only events; for We Go Way Back that meant a Periscoped Q&A with Shelton via Twitter.
Was it a VOD success? Salazar says, “It was one of our most watched films of the last couple of weeks.” Fandor, and others in similar shoes, use an array of non-numerical criteria to measure a film’s success. Providing a platform for films people otherwise couldn’t see and garnering press from major outlets are some example markers. She also credits VOD IRL for creating a “fabricated window of scarcity,” something that all filmmakers need to do.
If “transparency” was the buzzword of 2014, then “windows” are the talk of 2015. Mia Bruno, producer of marketing and distribution for crowdfunding platform-come-distributor Seed&Spark, breaks a film’s typical VOD lifespan into three successive windows: 1) transactional window for pay-per-view sites such as iTunes (sometimes called transactional VOD, TVOD); 2) subscription window for sites like Netflix where viewers pay one fee for catalogue access; and 3) ad-supported window for sites like Hulu where viewers watch with breaks for ads. (We followed this chronology when organizing this year’s guide.) For viewers, that feeling of scarcity decreases with each window…