I have been writing about independent film, music and theater for a long time. I have spent a lot of time in clubs and at film festivals and in tiny makeshift theaters in Brooklyn and Manhattan and in the Midwest and on the West Coast. I have gotten to know hundreds of artists and become friends with many and from that perspective have participated in their efforts to carve a niche for themselves in the entertainment industry. The internet has opened the door to opportunity like never before and the only thing holding you back today may be the limits of your own creativity and ambition.
Would it really be possible for someone to bypass all of the traditional channels of film distribution and still make it into a blockbuster (with the expected financial return)? I have seen too many really talented people with top notch material fail to make even a ripple in the larger market. A couple hundred hits for a film trailer on YouTube and mentions on 5 or 10 indie film blogs is better than nothing but it isn’t going to pay the bills. So I decided to take it a step further and do a little research and see what would really be possible on a limited budget in today’s world and, after doing so, I believe the answer is yes, a web based film with the right promotion and distribution approach could rival a Hollywood film in terms of income.
Exposure is the biggest challenge that is faced by indies in both film and music. Everything else comes after that. I mean what does it matter how much it costs you to produce a CD or DVD if no one ever buys them. What does it matter if you are on a pay per view channel if no one ever notices you from among the tens of thousands of other films on the site? So then the most fundamental challenge to being successful is then how to promote your product effectively to your most likely customer. Hand in hand with that goes distribution and income. After all, indies don’t have the kind of budget to work with that major studios do and just as important they usually can’t afford to lose what they do spend so the closer you can come to being sure of a return on investment the better.
The research I did on the way to the conclusions I have come to will illustrate the challenges that exist and some viable ways to overcome some of them. I focused primarily on the internet because that is where an indie can still get the most bang for their buck and where nearly all of the new tools for video distribution are being created. Only there can you self distribute to a world market on a variety of platforms and in several formats (DVD, HD stream, Blue Ray, etc). That being the case you still have to invest a lot of effort and ideally some money in order to make the most of it. There is no easy way out, sorry. There just isn’t.
I am not going to talk about basic promotional necessities in this story. If you want my tips on things like when to start your social networking program for a film and such I wrote this blog for that purpose: “A DIY Promotional Timeline For Filmmakers”. Here I will assume that a filmmaker has done all of that and is ready to distribute the film. Social networking is great but it usually only goes so far. An exception is when you have something like a documentary or politically oriented film that can build or take advantage of established grassroots groups.
One of the first things that becomes obvious when you try to experiment with web based promotion is that you need content to do your experiments on. I started off by creating some of my own content, I developed a web based talk show that focused on interviews with indie filmmakers and musicians. It was called “The Indie Media Show” and you can click on that link if you want to check out some episodes.
My goal in putting the show together was to see how much I could do with very inexpensive or free resources. At the same time I wanted to put together a program with as high a level of quality as I could muster. I wanted to incorporate artist interviews along with music videos and film trailers. I did the whole show from my laptop. I used a HD webcam from Microsoft, a video interview plugin for Skype to shoot the interviews and AVS free video editing software. I was fortunate that I knew quite a few artists and so had a ready supply of guests.
In the available show episodes there are a variety of formats and content. In some there is an interview, in others there is live footage from a performance that I shot and in others I just put up a video. I wanted to see audience response for each format. One of the first things I realized was that even doing a small show like mine costs money and time. To get the footage from live performances I had to travel to the shows and most of the ones I went to were in NYC so there is a hefty cost for gas and tolls and parking. Even with the shows I did from my house there was a lot of time to invest to put each show together and that is a cost too.
Over time I got better with the editing software but it still took a while to do the show each week. I knew when I started the show that just putting a piece of content on the web does very little. I learned this as a writer. Amid all the talk of bloggers making 6 figure incomes there was the other 99% of us who would probably never see a dime for what we were doing without some kind of outside promotional assistance. This was an investment I wanted to make though so I could write with authority on the subject and it is the same dilemma faced by indie artists every day.
The same is true with a film. Yes, it is a good idea to have the film on as many sites as possible. There are more and more pay per view sites popping up each day with varied ways to pay content owners. You will have to examine each one individually and see if you like their terms. The advantage of being on many sites is that you are being exposed to the established audience of each site. The downside is that few sites give your work special consideration and so you will be just one more piece of content in their “catalog”.
Consider Youtube as a case in point. There are currently 72 hours of video uploaded to Youtube every MINUTE of every day. How are you going to stand out and be featured on a site like that? Simple, you aren’t. I am not saying Youtube is bad just pointing out that simply having your work on a site is probably not going to be enough. You will need promotion and a way to make an income.
I made a show page on blip.tv and also distributed each show to probably 10 or more other destinations. This helps with search engine ranking for the show and at the same time each video destination has their own audience and so you are exposing you content to a wider variety of people by doing that. All in all my show usually got 5-10 thousand views per episode across all channels it was on and that wasn’t too bad but it was not enough to pay the bills.
Most video hosting sites don’t pay the content owner anything and those that do take a hefty percentage for themselves. Unless you have millions of views you aren’t going to get a decent return that way either. One alternative might be to host your content yourself and run ads. The immediate downside to this is that bandwidth costs money. Even service providers who offer “unlimited” bandwidth to users reserve the right to define “unlimited” and charge you for usage beyond hat point. This can get very expensive very fast. Yet it is something to consider.
This led to my next project; “The Inde Channel”. The Inde Channel is a site that I created to explore the potential of self hosted media. While I was in the process of developing the site smart TV became a new avenue for distribution. Whether it was through Yahoo Connected TV, Roku, Boxee or Apple TV it was obvious that the next big revolution in media distribution was going to be web based TV viewing and I saw it as part of a great opportunity for independent media. I wanted to create a site, initially to be home to my show, which would allow the show episodes to be viewed across all platforms (PC, laptop, tablet, smartphone, game systems and TV).
I found a lot of new challenges. In order to appear on all of the devices listed I would have had to either make specific site designs for each or create apps for many devices and this was more than I wanted to do and more than I thought the average filmmaker would have the time or inclination to do so I left is the way it was and started looking at it like a host site and exploring ways to monetize content for the owners. More challenges came to light right off the bat. Even if it would be a site that was hosting only one film those same challenges exist.
There are basically two ways to monetize content on the web. One is advertising and the second is pay per view. There are others such as a corporate sponsorship or a virtual donation box but those are, in the first case, not very easy to come by or, in the second case, don’t offer enough of a guaranteed amount per viewer to make it worthwhile.
Pay Per View is probably the easiest to work with and definitely should be a choice offered to viewers. The content owner gets a specific amount per viewer and even though the owner of the site almost always takes a hefty percentage you still know exactly how much you are making per viewer. This knowledge would allow you to formulate a marketing plan using advertising to drive viewers to the film just like the major studios do. You could put the film trailer on Youtube and run a Promoted Video campaign on Youtube and on Google Parther Sites around the web that focus on movies. That would allow you to rise above all of the other content and bring viewers to you.
The major downside to that is simply the fact that you are an indie. Hollywood spends millions on advertising a big budget film in order to bring viewers to the theater to spend money and now to PPV sites. That even though they have the advantage of A List star power in the film. In order to compete in PPV you have to get past that and convince potential viewers that your film will be worth their investment. Plus, you have to find the price point where you achieve a return on investment; how many people have to see my trailer in order to get one person who is willing to pay me to watch my film? If the promotional campaign is costing you ten cents per view on your trailer and you are making a dollar fifty per paid view on the film that means you need one person to pay to watch the film out of every 15 people you promote to. Not great odds are they?
The remaining option is using advertising in the same way that TV did for decades (and some channels still do). The content is free to view to everyone and the station and content owners are paid through ad revenue. This is the point where film and music videos part ways as far as what is possible. You can run one commercial per music video and that is about it because of the length of the video and one commercial will pay you almost what it costs you to run a promotional ad to bring the viewer to your video one time, so even if everyone who sees the ads watches the music video you still lose money or at best break even. There just isn’t any way to easily get around that roadblock.
Movies on the other hand CAN profit from this model. If you would do it like it is done on TV and run say, 3 ads every 12 minutes plus a few (such as film trailers) at the start you could have a total of 24 ads in a 2 hour film. If each ad paid 20 cents per view in the US that is $4.80 per viewer who watches the entire film. Plus, you would get paid for each commercial watched so even if the viewer leaves after the opening credits you still made back what it cost you to get them there! If you split that 50/50 with the site owner you have a guaranteed $2.40 per viewer to use on further promoting the film and to keep as a profit.
That sounds just like pay per view right? Yes, except that it is much easier to get someone to watch an indie film if they can do it for free. Yes advertising is unpopular on the web but it is unpopular on TV too and yet millions of people watch TV every day. The ideal movie viewing site would have options ready for the viewer. There would be the free to view, ad supported version, the pay per view, commercial free version and DVD/Blue Ray purchase as well. That way, once you get an interested party to the site they can watch the film in the way that best suits them.
This is possible to do right now although I don’t know of any site that is combining it all in the right way. Maybe the closest is Amazon with their Create Space program where your movie is included in the amazon store as a (made on demand) DVD and in their movie site which can be viewed on Roku, Smart TV, game consoles, tablets and smart phones. Now if they would just include the free to view ad supported model I think that an independent filmmaker could challenge Hollywood.
Getting a million video views on the web is really pretty commonplace these days on Youtube. Based on my own experience I can deliver a million views to a video I am promoting for a penny per view (promoting to a worldwide audience). So a million views costs $10,000.00 (specific geographic areas cost more per view. The US is around 5-15 cents per view depending on whether we are talking the whole country or specific, high demand city markets). If that million people all watched your film on the free to view, ad supported site your gross would be $4,800,000 dollars (split with the site owner so net would be 2.40 million to you).
Sure that is a best case scenario and doesn’t take into account how many views of the promoted video trailer it actually takes to get that million views of the film. But, as long as you can limit your promotional costs to less than $2.40 million dollars you have a profit. That is the world of the very near future for independent film. Are you ready?