There is nothing more frustrating than feeling that no one will see your films,” says San Francisco-based moviemaker Caveh Zahedi. Zahedi expresses the angst of many of today’s independent moviemakers, who feel like they’re working in a vacuum. Zahedi’s films, like I Was Possessed By God and In the Bathtub of the World, usually defy mainstream appeal.
In his January, 2005 New York Times article, “The Sundance Odds Get Even Longer,” Adam Leipzig says that current technology makes it much easier to make a movie. But “the challenge, as it turns out, is actually getting your movie seen.” This year’s Sundance Film Festival, the de facto gatekeeper for domestic distribution, received 2,613 feature submissions—up 29 percent from last year—of which 120 were selected. Of these 120, 35 had distribution deals by festival’s end. So what happens to the rest of these films?
“For the most part, nothing,” says Leipzig. “You’ll never see them, not even at your local video store. Without the marketing push, awareness and word-of-mouth that are generated by a theatrical release, it’s not feasible for video chains to stock your picture.” With distributors focused on finding the next breakout hit, movies that do not have a brand-name director, high-profile cast or high concept often get shut out entirely. Sure, you can self-distribute, but for many, the thousands of dollars needed to produce and market a DVD is overwhelming. For many budding moviemakers, Leipzig’s article was like a bucket of cold water in the face.
But a solution is emerging for frustrated moviemakers. With little fanfare, video-on-demand (VOD) Internet movie services like Movielink, CinemaNow, MovieFlix and GreenCine are delivering movies—via streaming and download—to a mass audience. Dave Networks, which debuts this summer, will offer on-demand viewing through a computer as well as a TiVo-like set box. While all of these sites feature independent films, it is GreenCine, which launched its online service in 2003, that trumpets its collection of independent and international films. When Zahedi went to the San Francisco company to design the DVD jacket for In the Bathtub of the World, he found a fan of his work in Jonathan Marlow, the company’s director of content acquisitions and business development. Last May, GreenCine began distributing Zahedi’s films, marking the first time that any service had made films that were not released on DVD available online for on-demand viewing.
Marlow developed GreenCine’s VOD as a way to give exposure to a growing number of quality films that were unable to secure a theatrical release. “The opportunities for theatrical distribution—particularly for international and independent films—were getting worse every year. The number of screens were increasing, but the number devoted to non-traditional fare was decreasing,” he says. “So why not create new distribution avenues? Video-on-demand seemed to be a very good avenue to reach an audience without having to figure out the theatrical angle for filmmakers.”
Video-on-demand allows self-distributing moviemakers to show their work without coughing up the dough for a DVD release. If the moviemaker reaches a deal with the service, he or she must simply provide a copy of the film (even a VHS copy will do) and the company will then front the distribution costs, which are fixed and minimal, to make the movie available online. MovieFlix and CinemaNow offer streaming movies as part of a subscription service while GreenCine users pay for each film they watch. To prevent piracy, the user’s license is restricted to a certain timeframe or number of viewings. CinemaNow allows viewers to download films for purchase, while GreenCine provides a download option for on-demand viewing and will be introducing a sell-through option in the future.
While he acknowledges that he would still prefer to watch movies in a theater, Marlow says that VOD is often the only way to see “that wacky Ukranian film in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes” that is never released in the U.S. Zahedi, for one, finds it “liberating” to know that “anyone in the world can see my films.” Jared Goldsmith, CinemaNow’s spokesperson, says “for the indie filmmaker, this represents a tremendous opportunity to get their films seen by an audience that is constantly exploring for something new.” Furthermore, the Internet is more efficient than any other media at marketing to specialty audiences through e-mail, message boards, blogs and viral marketing. Still, Marlow says the films that tend to get the most viewings are those whose moviemakers take it upon themselves to get the word out about their projects. Moviemakers receive royalties based at least partly on the number of viewings, so they have motivation to shout from the rooftops—or at least send out some mass e-mails.
At present, neither the exposure nor the dollars of a VOD run rival those of even a limited art-house release. Despite his cult following, Zahedi says that to date he has only received a few hundred dollars in royalties from VOD. Marlow says that “the range of current revenues varies from under $100 to over $10,000, depending on the film.” But he predicts that GreenCine’s audience for a given film will soon be comparable to a small DVD release of 1,000 to 5,000 copies, without all of the production and warehousing costs. GreenCine’s deals are non-exclusive, too, meaning moviemakers are free to exhibit their work on other sites. Despite resistance from moviemakers who are apprehensive about this new medium, GreenCine has expanded their VOD library from 100 to 2,500 since its inception. Marlow hopes that, as on-demand grows, moviemakers will be freed from trying to make movies that fit the Sundance mold and make the movies they want, secure in the knowledge that there is a distribution avenue for their work.
Ted Bonnitt, whose quirky documentary, Mau Mau Sex Sex, was GreenCine’s first ever VOD title following a small theatrical release, believes that the service provides him with “access” to a larger audience and an economical way to create “awareness.” He compares what VOD can do on the distribution side to what the Canon XL1 and Final Cut Pro have done on the production side in creating a viable alternative for “the little guy.” Bonnitt argues that the offbeat nature of film is perfect for catering to niche audiences, allowing you to “define your market, define your uniqueness, then play that up.” He believes that moviemakers can even leverage a popular VOD release into a limited theatrical run. Glen Starchman, the head of NetMusic.com, which premiered the previously unreleased Dead Girl in March, says that “if exposure is significant, the money will follow from there.” By building an audience and creating buzz, he argues, a VOD release “can act as a bootstrap to get you into the major studios” for future projects.
They key question, of course, is whether or not these online services will thrive, or at least survive. Many entertainment Websites like Steven Spielberg’s Pop.com and Digital Entertainment Network were casualties of the dot-com crash five years ago. But the rebound in online advertising has allowed sites like AtomFilms and IFILM (both of which nearly went under in 2000) to become profitable. Mika Salmi, founder and CEO of AtomFilms, says that their efficiency in reaching audiences is approaching that of network TV. Salmi says that moviemakers can earn anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties through AtomFilms. JibJabMedia’s This Land, a political satire, has had 80 million viewings and Aardman Animation’s The Angry Kid claymation series has had over 20 million.
“It’s turning into real dollars for us,” says John Evershed, CEO of Mondo Media, whose site streams Happy Tree Friends, a raunchy animated series that has rapidly gained a following that rivals that of a successful cable TV show. “You can have a cult hit globally,” he says, “because word-of-mouth is so efficient.” Fans can e-mail their friends about the show and send them the link. He points out that having a cult following in several global territories adds up to a significant aggregate audience. As such, Evershed has expanded the reach of Happy Tree Friends by making the show’s digestible two- to three-minute segments available on mobile phones in Europe. Ironically, he uses centuries old references to describe his vision, saying that Internet distribution is still in “pioneer wagon days.” He plans to use the Internet to create a global following for serialized sequential programming and then release the whole series on DVD, comparing it to the way that Charles Dickens’ novels were published.
But is the Internet a viable avenue for feature moviemakers? Does anyone want to watch a full-length film on their computer—or cell phone? Marlow, for one, has no faith that people will have the patience to view longer-form content, with the exception of porn and possibly horror on their PCs. The key to success, he says, will be getting customers to embrace it as part of their home entertainment experience, the way that they have with online music vendors.
GreenCine uses DivX technology to allow users to download a film, burn it to a disc and watch it on their DVD player. CinemaNow instructs its viewers on how to hook up their PC to their TV. Marlow predicts that by the end of this year, people will be able to make this connection wirelessly. Salmi argues that this business is becoming more legitimate “as the Internet is migrating into the living room. This is starting to happen as either home entertainment centers are getting Internet features and/or people are making PCs the center of their home entertainment centers.”
Perhaps the best way to understand VOD is as a supplement to theatrical distribution, rather than a replacement. After all, as Goldsmith says, a theatrical release “provides a communal and visual experience that can never be replaced in the home.” Marlow envisions partnering with distributors to use VOD in concert with art-house movies, making them available via the Internet to audiences in cities where the films are not released in theaters. The online component could be used to take advantage of positive reviews in a way that a strictly theatrical release could not. If this multi-platform strategy takes hold, the result would be a national—even global—release that would rival the distribution scope of any Hollywood blockbuster. MM