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Will SVOD Kill Indie Films? Here’s Exactly How Much I Spent — and Made — on My Debut Film Regionrat

Will SVOD Kill Indie Films? Here’s Exactly How Much I Spent — and Made — on My Debut Film Regionrat

regionrat SVOD Javier Reyna

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Javier Reyna is an award-winning writer-director whose first film, Regionrat, was released by Gravitas Ventures. In this essay, he details the cost of the film, and why it and other indie films earn so little in SVOD release.   

Like every other indie movie, my film Regionrat was exciting, frustrating, disappointing, gratifying, highly emotional, and unpredictable to create. It’s a humble coming-of-age drama with no known actors, finished on a $50,000  budget, and missing 17 scenes that we could not shoot due to lack of time and money. A few times we were told we were dead on arrival. We did not make Sundance, SXSW, or Tribeca —  you know, festivals that buyers actually attend.

I wrote Regionrat in 2004, then spent a decade bouncing around talent agencies and trying to find the film a home. Finally we decided to do the film on our own with some investors and some money I earned driving an Uber. People sacrificed time away from other incomes and from their families in order to make Regionrat a reality. I cashed in many favors, and I put a gigantic dent on my family’s finances by submitting and attending film festivals on a credit card. My son was born and became a teenager while I pushed this unlikely film up the big hill.

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Unlike 99 percent of all indie films, Regionrat got a distributor. As a result, it was released last year on SVOD — subscription video on demand. That’s how almost all films have been released, in recent weeks, thanks to COVID-19 closing most theaters. I hope other filmmakers with SVOD releases have more success than I have.

My first problem with SVOD? Finding my film. Once Regionrat was released, I was eager to see it on iTunes. But I couldn’t find it in any category — not in New Releases, Coming of Age, Drama, Indies, or Comedies.

So I went to the search box and typed R-E-G-I-O-N-R-A-T. The film was there, but if you didn’t know the name of it, it would appear as if the film simply did not exist. I looked for films by other indie moviemakers I had met while on the festival circuit, like Miguel Duran’s Monsoon and Michael Curtis Johnson’s Savage Youth. Both were teen dramas, and both were hard to find unless you searched for them by name. No one was ever going to discover these truly indie films by just browsing.

I reached out to Apple and received the following message: “iTunes may not display all movies due to the amount of content available on the store.” That meant we were in need of an aggressive marketing campaign. But marketing is not free, and distribution companies will not promote your indie film unless it has played already in theaters or you have stars.

I was told by one of those Monday-morning quarterbacks that I should have allocated some of my budget for marketing. Sure, that sounds right. But we cut 17 scenes already and simply had no money for anything else.  In truly indie moviemaking style, you make a budget and include everything you need or want. Then reality hits and you find whatever funds you can get your hands on and try to make the best possible film with what you have. What could I have done differently? There are a lot of what ifs, but to be completely honest, if I had a DeLorean time machine and could travel back to give myself an extra $20,000.00, I would have used the cash to shoot the scenes I so badly needed. Because whenever I watch the film, all I see is a beautiful wall, full of enormous holes.

So how much money could we spend on marketing? DVD and Blu-Ray sales and rentals have largely disappeared, and Amazon’s Prime Subscription Access Rate Card, effective May 1, says I can earn as little as a penny and a maximum of 12 cents for each hour my film is viewed. This amount used to be more, even up to 25 cents, but then SVOD came up with CER (customer engagement ranking), in which the most-watched films — which tend to be the ones with film stars — get paid the higher amounts.  I would have to get about 2.5 million people to watch Regionrat in order to pay my investors back their $50,000, not including the distributor’s share.

Regional Javier Reyna

I had hoped to make up the lost revenue by selling the film’s foreign rights, but foreign-sales reps say I’m unlikely to do so because Regionrat doesn’t have any explosions, car chases, guns, martial arts, naked breasts, monsters, or slashers. (But wait, I said, there is a lot of weed smoking in Regionrat. Not good, I was told.  Weed use is banned, and even severely punished, in many countries. Interesting, I thought: So blood, murder and nudity are all good, but weed crosses the moral line. )

I learned that selling territories is also dying, because SVOD is now worldwide. I have received offers for foreign territories, but all offers are based on performance, per view on their SVOD platform, and zero cash upfront. The SVOD platforms want your film for free. Many moviemakers, eager to see their films available on platforms, have given their films away for nothing more than vague promises, and their actions have only helped lower the pay threshold for everyone. We have been our own worst enemies.

The bottom line is, after one year in release, Regionrat has grossed about $4,000. Since our distributor has a $10,000 delivery fee, we won’t see any revenue for a very long time. It could had been much worse. I could have paid money to one of the distribution companies that has screwed filmmakers by never paying them royalties and then suddenly vanishing.  I’ve heard horrific stories.

What was my biggest mistake? I made a film for the DVD and BluRay market and Netflix, but by the time Regionrat was done, SVOD was king and Netflix, which started this SVOD shit, had less interest in small indie films.

So the question for you is: If you plan your next indie film for an SVOD world, will we still be in an SVOD world when your film is released? Because I doubt SVOD is a sustainable model.  I doubt subscribers will be willing to pay ten bucks a month to all these companies. And I’m not sure filmmakers will be willing to work for pennies.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Jeremy W

    June 3, 2020 at 9:24 am

    Congrats on getting your film done and out in the world!
    I’ve been personally shocked that my own films on various streaming platforms don’t even make the pennies you mentioned. Sure, sometimes people will actually rent a film and we will get 50% of the rental rate, but typically most people will stream a movie because it is included/free and then those pennies become fractions of pennies. There are times when we even get up to TEN CENTS per view (for a film that took us 2 years to get made and out in the world). But more often than not, we are getting less. How much less? Try .0005 cents per view. How is that even a valid number? Is that somebody watching our title sequence and then bailing out? It cost more to calculate that number that to pay it out, but that’s what we earn for our creative endeavors. It is a sad state, and one that means after various productions, I’m less-than-eager to get involved on anybody else’s project unless it really truly sings in my heart. And sadly it also means that often times commercial work takes priority over purely artistic work, thereby depriving the world of something beautiful, insightful, touching, transformative. Works that we need more than ever.

  2. Avatar

    John

    June 5, 2020 at 9:03 am

    Indie filmmaking isn’t a profitable idea. $50,0000 on a film with no bankable stars is fine for a costly hobby, but irresponsible if expecting to make that kind of money back. Of course consumers will continue to pay $10 a month to see stars, IPs they know, and relevant documentaries, etc.

    But for the same reason everyone can now shoot a film, it costs very little, is the same reason the ocean is plenty full and what remains to payout is also, very little. Art is simultaneously worthless, and priceless. My uncles paintings don’t deserve thousands of dollars, in the same way I shouldn’t expect thousands for my art. Hollywood is an experienced business, practiced in exploiting their art (film). Indie filmmaking isn’t. Not to mention, supply is high.

    • Avatar

      Wallard

      June 7, 2020 at 8:41 pm

      Indie movies rarely had bankable stars. That’s what the studio and art house movies count on.

      If an indies with stars was usually before the fame and fortune.

      Most of world cinema is indie. Let’s break away from this 20th Century model that only stars make money.

      Youtube is full of hobbyists making money. So it’s about brand building and generating awareness. Musicians and bands have done that for years and filmmakers haven’t. It’s time they do.

  3. Avatar

    Erik

    June 13, 2020 at 7:23 am

    Put it on YouTube and monetize it. It’s generally a fairly inexpensive way to promote artistic vision.

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