Congratulations. Count yourself among the generation of moviemakers for whom Video on Demand (VOD) has progressed from novelty act to main attraction—an essential component to every film’s release. But if you’re still scratching your head over the best way to release your film digitally, you’re not alone. The VOD landscape has persisted in being perplexingly difficult to navigate. This far into the game, and it’s still the Wild West.
Despite the call from Cinetic Media and FilmBuff founder John Sloss and others for VOD box office transparency late last year and earlier this year, the lack of data available to moviemakers remains, to put it bluntly, appalling. It’s nearly impossible to find basic metrics for overall VOD sales per company, let alone individual film sales, or the range of licensing fees offered by a particular distributor.
For example, all Netflix’s Investor Relations page specifies is, “We generally license content for a fixed fee and a defined time period with payment terms varying by agreement.” Even experienced indie producers can be reluctant to show their cards, protecting their own interests by playing it coy. (That said, some companies have mission statements to empower filmmakers, and, like iTunes, Google Play and Quiver, provide forms and downloadable contracts that spell out how revenue shares work—an important source of data for our research.)
“The online video field is still too new,” said Chris Woolsey of Pivotshare publisher relations. Woolsey is optimistic that transparency will improve across the board eventually: “Once the industry matures, companies in the market will probably be more open to talking about those things.”
As we watch VOD come into its own, we witness the industry grappling more and more with uncomfortable realities like piracy—and vice versa, with peer-to-peer protocol developer BitTorrent’s recent announcement that it, too, is stepping into paywalled distribution. Content creators on BitTorrent have previously made their “bundles” of material (e.g. behind-the-scenes footage from 2013’s The Act of Killing) downloadable in exchange for just email addresses. As of September, though, BitTorrent will allow artists to charge a fee for downloads, part of which goes to the platform itself. The company has also been experimenting with crowdfunding-type pay models, and we’re curious to see how their initiatives shape up.
At any rate, the contemporary moviemaker’s approach to digital distribution accounts for non-traditional models of getting films to eyeballs, savvily mixing revenue-based and free viewership. Take Brian Knappenberger and his documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, as a case study. (Fittingly enough, Swartz was an Internet activist and one of the architects of Creative Commons licensing.) On June 27, 2014, the film was made simultaneously available in theaters, through pay platforms like Vudu, and for free on the digital library Internet Archive—attached, of course, to a Creative Commons license to allow sharing.
Honoring Swartz’s legacy as an advocate of an open Internet was Knappenberger’s utmost goal, even though that meant leaving some money on the table. While the relative success of the experiment remains to be seen, he makes a case for prioritizing accessibility: “If you take the top 10 or 20 things that are challenges for indie documentary filmmakers, piracy is not in that list, but obscurity is number one. I am a lot more interested in getting people into the tent than making sure everyone in the tent has a ticket. It’s weird to make a film about some part of our world that’s important, then lock it up forever.”
Luke Moody, film and distribution manager of nonprofit foundation BritDoc, shares a similar perspective. “The main problem we find with docs anywhere on any digital platform is discovering them and discovering the good ones. You’re among thousands, unless your platform has its own kind of curators.” The same can be said of shorts and, yes, narrative features.
That’s precisely why we should cheer about the increasing flexibility a platform like Vimeo now offers users. “Sales have exceeded my expectations,” said Griffin Hammond, director of the documentary Sriracha, available on Vimeo on Demand. “It’s been seven months since I released the film, and half the revenue it’s earned was generated in the first month. I still get a persistent stream of daily purchases. I’ve made much more money through VOD sales than DVDs and Blu-rays, for example. It’s proven to me that indie moviemaking can be a sustainable enterprise.”
In that spirit, MovieMaker offers up our third annual Guide to DIY Digital Distribution, for pathfinders seeking their way through VOD’s labyrinth of opportunity (read last year’s here). While the line-up has changed, we continue our aim to represent only platforms that are useful and friendly to independent film. We’ve kept last year’s classifications intact (with one notable example, Vimeo, jumping the fence from one category to another this year). And, while industry opacity makes anecdotal sources necessary for our research, the central themes of our findings remain the same: Destination platforms are going strong in their unparalleled ubiquity, but traveling players are personalized, and many boast upgraded services or streamlined user interfaces this year. As always, use this list according to the unique distribution needs of your particular film.
A Key to our VOD Terminology
Ad-supported: A platform inserts short ads before or during feature content. Viewers watch the ads (often begrudgingly) with the understanding that ads enable free programming.
Device-friendly: The range of devices that a player may be available on are computers or laptops, tablets, iOS and Android smartphones, Roku, Xbox 360, Playstation’s PS3, Nintendo’s Wii, Boxee, and different televisions.
DRM: Digital Rights Management, a set of access control technologies. Purportedly to protect intellectual property rights, but can inconvenience creators and customers. Some VOD platforms tout DRM and some tout themselves as DRM-free.
Geo-blocking: Control over the world-wide territories where digital content can be distributed. In general, limits profit and reach, but is sometimes necessary when different distributors own different geographical rights.
Multi-Screen Gross: A term coined by Cinetic’s John Sloss, through his VOD distribution company, FilmBuff, in its attempt to forward industry transparency on VOD box office sales figures.
Multichannel Video Programming Distributor: A government term that broadly includes cable and satellite. The subject of recent Federal Communications Commission debates on whether or not online distributors should be included.
Pay-per-stream/Download to Rent/Download to Own: Different options in paying for content, either purchasing or renting – basically, rental indicates a finite amount of time that a viewer can buy access to a video.
Price-setting: Control over the pricing of your own content.
Subscription: A viewer pays a certain monthly or annual amount for unlimited access to a platform’s database of titles.
While this list is by no means homogenous or exhaustive, the following destination platforms trade on the power of their brand names to drive viewers toward a single source of a film. Putting your film in the hands of such a brand places it before an in-built audience—one that, like Fandor’s, might pride itself on enjoying a tastefully curated library. At the same time, a one-time licensing fee can be the death knell on your film—or as Ed Brown, director of the documentary Unacceptable Levels, put it, “They send you a check and then they bury the body,” with many erstwhile indies getting lost in the crowd of options. Independent moviemakers should be aware of the trade-offs involved in seeking entry to these virtual picture palaces.
Viewing Model: Subscription (an Amazon Prime membership is $99 per year), rental or purchase (for non-Prime members) // Download or streaming
Creator Revenue: Revenue split (50 percent Amazon, 50 percent creator)
Pros: Exposure // No intermediaries or set-up costs // Device-friendly (except Android devices, though an app is reportedly in development) // Eligible for an IMDb listing // Viewer can sync content and watch across multiple devices
Cons: No price-setting control // U.S. only; no international availability // Lower revenue share // Content must be at least six minutes long
Use with: A tight budget; the no-cost model staves off risk, reducing liability
Viewing Model: Subscription ($10 per month or $90 per year) // streaming only
Creator Revenue: 50 percent of subscription revenue goes into filmmaker pot, doled out based on percentage of viewers who watch a title and the amount of time watched of a title
Pros: Art-house prestige and curatorial chops // No set-up fees // Non-exclusive licensing agreement // Device-friendly // Gifting options // Robust social media promotion of titles // Diverse, growing film roster (5,000 titles)
Cons: No revenue per view // No pricing control // Lower revenue share // Company branding still-in-progress // U.S. and Canada availability only (so far) // Limited online information for filmmakers
Use with: Films with high rewatchability, or films that could benefit from curatorial groupings like the showcase features Spotlight and Journey into Film. Fandor boasts a sharp selection of noteworthy films that pre-date the digital era, such as many Werner Herzog titles.
Viewing Model: Ad-supported (Hulu) or Subscription (Hulu Plus, $7.99 per month) // Streaming Only
Creator Revenue: Upfront licensing fee, Ad-share (50 percent Hulu, 50 percent creator); $0.185 per stream for ad-restricted films
Pros: Exposure and prestige // Upfront licensing fee reportedly higher than Netflix’s // Ad-share revenue per view // Device-friendly
Cons: Intermediary (distributor or aggregator) necessary // Alternative platform marketability damaged // U.S. and Japan availability only // Opaque licensing and selection process
Use with: An already sizeable theatrical/festival success nets a better licensing fee.
Viewing Model: Subscription ($5 per month or $50 per year) // Streaming only
Creator Revenue: Royalty Pool Minutes, whereby creators are paid a fluctuating amount per minute ($0.07 in July), calculated via number of subscribers and total minutes viewed of the film library. “Seasonality has an effect on the RPM,” CEO Scilla Andreen told us. “Summer is slightly lower in overall minutes watched and sign-ups as people are outside more enjoying the sunshine.”
Pros: Revenue per view // No intermediaries necessary // Referral program (filmmakers are paid a small amount for every subscriber they introduce to IndieFlix) // Geo-blocking // Device-friendly // Acts as an intermediary to bigger platforms (with additional associated costs) // International availability, including in public libraries worldwide
Cons: Relatively small subscriber count, though growing (about 85,000) // Films have to be screened at a festival to qualify for submission (though exceptions occur)
Use with: A vigorous social media marketing campaign, or a film with high re-watchability—to chalk up those minutes. Shorts compose more than half their library. “We are a non-exclusive global platform. Our goal is to make your movie accessible on as many devices as possible,” said Andreen. “We play nice in the sandbox… It takes a village to distribute a film.”
Viewing Model: Rental or Purchase // Download or streaming
Creator Revenue: Revenue split (tiered system that depends on territory; generally 30 percent iTunes, 70 percent creator), after encoding fee
Pros: Exposure and prestige (over 800 million active user accounts) // Revenue per view // Wider international availability
Cons: Encoding fee charged to adapt films to iTunes player // Intermediary (distributor or aggregator) necessary // Steep 30 percent revenue spoils to iTunes // No control over promotion within the system // DRM prevents easy accessibility on non-Apple devices
Use with: Films with recognizable names—otherwise, standing out from the crowd can be difficult.
Viewing Model: Subscription (starts at $7.99 per month) // Streaming Only
Creator Revenue: Upfront licensing fee for fixed amount of time; multi-territory licensing deal options for some. Moving toward increasingly exclusive deals.
Pros: Exposure and prestige (50 million members) // Device-friendly // Growing international availability (Britain, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Latin America, with France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg this year)
Cons: No revenue per view // Intermediary (distributor or aggregator) necessary // Alternative platform marketability damaged // One-time licensing fee varies based on estimated viewership, or “queue demand” // Streaming speeds variable (due in part to a notable feud with Verizon)
Use with: An already sizeable theatrical/festival success nets a better licensing fee.
Viewing Model: Ad-supported, rental, purchase, or subscription // Download or streaming
Creator Revenue: Ad-share via YouTube’s Partner Program, rental or purchase revenue split as a rental partner, or subscription revenue split as a subscription channel (split is reportedly 45 percent YouTube, 55 percent creator)
Pros: Exposure and ubiquity // No set-up fees // Rental price and viewing window control // Limited international availability // Embeddable rental video player
Cons: Low partner revenue returns // Users typically need 10,000 views or subscribers to qualify for partnership // YouTube’s demographic unaccustomed to paying for content
Use with: Low-stakes experimental projects or independent serial content that is already something of a brand on YouTube.
Traveling platforms use players that are embeddable into all manner of sites, bringing films to audiences instead of the other way around. Unlike flashy destination sites, this approach is about making a film unobtrusively ubiquitous—“Your customers will hardly know Pivotshare exists, and that’s the way it should be,” promises that company’s website. With controls like geo-blocking, price-setting, and promotional affiliates, this means more flexibility, more freedom… and more work for creators in the marketing arena. (Ed Brown, who chose to distribute Unacceptable Levels with Yekra, is counting on at least two years of diligence to see his documentary’s distribution through.)
Creator Revenue: Revenue split (30 percent Distrify, 70 percent creator), Affiliate hosting (10 percent affiliate, 25 percent Distrify, 65 percent creator)
Pros: No set-up costs // Wide embedding capability (including social networking sites) // Device-friendly// Affiliate hosting // Brick-and-mortar-friendly: player displays upcoming theatrical or festival screenings by area, and sells tickets // Multiple languages and currencies // Extras (multiple trailers, marketing consultancy, etc) offered for upgraded membership // Ability to sell DVDs and other merchandise // No limits on film length or format
Cons: “Indie” membership option (free) allows only about 3GB or one film; unlimited content output requires paid membership ranging from $21 to $528 per month // Download-to-own options not part of “indie” plan // No gifting options
Use with: Films with identifiable, passionate audiences.
Creator Revenue: Revenue split (30 percent Pivotshare, 70 percent creator)
Pros: No set-up costs // Very flexible payment options: rental, purchase, subscription and tip jar // “Network Publishing” feature allows multiple content creators to publish on the same channel, calculating fair revenue based on statistics // iOS and Android apps available // New dashboard and marketing tools soon to be released
Cons: Revenue split less favorable // Network Publishing, while fostering collaboration, does not disclose its allocation of revenue to different parties // USD $ only; does not accept PayPal
Use with: Projects that combine the efforts of different contributors under one product, so revenue can automatically be delivered to the right people. A wide variety of content is welcome, including instructional videos.
Creator Revenue: Revenue split (10 percent Reelhouse plus $0.50 per transaction, remainder to creator)
Pros: Flexible payment options: free, paid, or “pay what you want,” which allows viewers to contribute to causes as they watch a film // Official distribution partner with Sundance // Integrated storefront available for merchandise sales // Transcoding costs subtracted from their cut // Geo-blocking available // Elegant viewer interface with lots of room for filmmaker “extras” // Wide embedding capability (including social networking sites)
Cons: Filmmaker payment through PayPal only
Use with: Content that has connection to a cause (like a documentary) or that will otherwise inspire its audience to pay for more than just a viewing.
Creator Revenue: Revenue split (10 percent, plus $0.50 per sale, VHX; remainder to creator)
Pros: No set-up costs // Purchase, rental, or subscription options // International availability // Device-friendly // Gifting and coupon options // Robust statistics page // Bundling of other digital products like soundtracks in integrated store // Wide embedding capability (including social networking sites) // Watermarked press screeners available // Provides free crowdfunding reward fulfillment streaming, used by such films as Steve James’ Life Itself
Cons: Physical merchandise sold through third party // No rental options at present
Use with: VHX states that 50 percent of sales are made internationally, so if you want to sell outside the US, consider VHX.
Creator Revenue: Revenue split (10 percent, plus approximately $0.25 per sale, Vimeo; 90 percent creator)
Pros: Brand familiarity // High revenue split for creators // Price-setting, geo-blocking control // New promo code option for discounts // Device-friendly // International availability // Bonus materials like trailers and behind-the-scenes segments // Audience Development Program offers additional financial support to eligible films // High-quality player (“I uploaded the same high-bitrate version of my film to both Vimeo and another player,” said Sriracha’s Hammond. “[There was] much more artifacting and skipping of frames on the other player.”)
Cons: $199 annual Vimeo Pro account needed to upload On Demand content // Limited to 20GB of upload space per week per Pro account // VOD viewers must register with Vimeo (Hammond: “You lose customers during every chain in the checkout process, so I wish my audience could simply plug in a credit card and watch the film without creating a username and password. This also means you can’t purchase a film as a gift.”)
Use with: With the Vimeo on Demand player being fully embeddable as of 2014, Vimeo is a traveling player, anchored by a familiar destination site. “We’re a two-way open platform,” said a representative. With funding for upcoming episodes of the web series High Maintenance underway, Vimeo also has plans to develop a subscription option: “We think subscription services can migrate to a true open web proposition, and plan to launch a creator-focused version.”
Creator Revenue: Revenue split (10 percent Yekra, 90 percent creator if sale is directly to filmmakers’ site; 10 percent Yekra, 5 percent affiliate, 85 percent creator for affiliate sales).
Pros: No set-up costs // Wide embedding capability (including social networking sites) // Ability to go DRM or DRM-free // Affiliate hosting (via “AffiliateConnect”) // High revenue split // Geo-blocking, with multiple languages and currencies // Gifting rental available at a 20 percent discount // A new online theater initiative // Fulfill DVD, Blu-ray, and merchandise purchases
Cons: No shorts, feature-length only
Use with: Films with identifiable, passionate audiences.
Aggregators are companies that negotiate the placement of films onto major destination platforms on behalf of moviemakers who otherwise have no access to these databases. Most also handle delivery and encoding of a film for the appropriate formats.
Transaction Model: Upfront fees ($150 for Amazon, $964 for Netflix, $995 for Hulu, $1,395 for Redbox, $1,560 for iTunes, $7,000 for cable VOD)
Platforms: Amazon, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix, U.S. cable; deals with Redbox, Redbox Instant, Walmart, Vudu, and BestBuy reportedly underway
Pros: Existing relationships with big platforms // No revenue split // Money back if platform denies film // Basic marketing efforts // clear, informative website
Cons: No guarantee of acceptance on platforms // Limited international reach (primarily U.S. and Canadian sales) // No shorts (as yet)
Transaction Model: Upfront licensing or revenue split (limited information available)
Platforms: Amazon Instant, Best Buy CinemaNow, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Movies OnDemand, Netflix, Nook, Vudu, Xbox Video
Pros: Full service VOD distribution // In-house encoding // Growing expertise in VOD-specific release strategy // Filmmaker dashboard with real-time sales reports
Cons: Still gaining name recognition // Unnecessary middleman on certain deals // Data remains opaque despite call for transparency
Transaction Model: Charges a 25 to 30 percent commission, which can decrease with multiple films
Platforms: Amazon, Hulu, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Playstation, Xbox
Pros: No set-up fees // In-house encoding and promotion // Multichannel network on YouTube // Comprehensive analytic dashboard
Cons: Holds exclusive digital rights // Marketing costs are recoupable // Platform acceptance limited on Playstation and Xbox
Transaction Model: Upfront fees starting at $1,125 per feature; $500 per short (under 45 minutes); additional fees possible
Platforms: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Hulu, Sony Entertainment
Pros: No revenue split // Access to major platforms // Non-exclusive (you can also go elsewhere) // Wide range of services: quality control, repair, transcoding and conformance of ancillary assets like audio and key art // Site promises global distribution
Cons: No guarantee platforms will accept content // Retailers may determine or change pricing // Relatively small (400 title) catalog MM
Erin Trahan was born in the same town as Madonna, grew up in the “Cherry Capital of the World,” and now lives in Marblehead, MA, the birthplace of the American Navy (though this last fact is hotly disputed). She edits The Independent and co-edited the second edition of The Independent’s Guide to Film Distribution, released earlier this year. She writes about movies for WBUR (Boston’s NPR News Station) and meets with a group of rigorous poets almost every Saturday. In November she’s teaching a class, open to film lovers and professionals, for Montserrat College of Art in conjunction with the RIDM Film Festival in Montreal. Learn more at erintrahan.com.
This article was first published in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2015 issue. All images courtesy of the companies. Top illustration by Juan Darien, courtesy of Shutterstock.
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