To the new online film distribution outlets

October 17, 2011
posted by sheric

In the past year, the proliferation of online film distribution outlets has exploded. Almost every week there is a new website promoting themselves as the “new” way to get your films to an audience and make money. Often they send emails to me asking for a profile on this blog or others that I write. While I am all about innovation and entrepreneurship, I see very little difference in the sites. It is like they didn’t research the market at all and they believe their site is without competition. I have yet to see any new platforms that will compete with Netflix, iTunes, Amazon or Hulu for audience eyeballs. Yes, you can load your film up to all of these new sites, non exclusively and for no money down. But none, that I can see, have any presence in the consumer market, meaning no one knows they exist so the fact that your film is there means nothing revenue wise for you.

As there are now countless online outlets, not to mention a filmmaker’s own website, from which to digitally distribute a film, I wanted to offer some advice about how to make them valuable instead of only criticize these sites. This post was influenced by my hero Seth Godin’s recent post entitled What Talent Wants. Seth speaks to book publishers in his post. He calls his solution the four letter acronym MUSE

-M is for money. Most new platforms are offering a no money up front, 70/30 split of revenue. Since these outlets aren’t taking rights over the work, they don’t offer upfront fees to the rights holder (the filmmaker most likely) to host the film on the site. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is leading to mediocre to bad content to rule these sites. No money risk for anyone leads to a glut of content that no one will pay to see. Even though Netflix isn’t paying indies much in upfront fees, it does offer some cash and it doesn’t take every film. In fact it is becoming increasingly more particular in the films it chooses. This is a good thing for consumers who come to the site to find quality content and protects the filmmakers who have quality films from being completely drowned out from excessive, low quality content. Does some debatable quality  exist on Netflix? Of course, but have you checked out the films on most of these no name sites?

To start an online distribution site that will get any traction in the consumer market, large amounts of money (like tens of millions)will need to be spent, both on advertising them to start with and in buying quality content. Most these new sites are starting with near zero to spend and won’t succeed. Filmmakers with well respected content, don’t put your films here.

-U is for ubiquity. In keeping with the money theme, only sites that can attract large amounts of attention from consumers will attract the best content and survive. This means they must saturate the market with messaging, through advertising, publicity, live events sponsorship on outlets that reach consumers, not filmmakers. Yes,  having films to start with will be needed, but paying for quality content that will attract consumers is where efforts need to be focused. An online distribution outlet can’t hope to be successful by throwing up a site, getting a lot of low quality, no name films from any filmmaker it can attract and hope consumers will find it. Equally, these sites can’t be totally dependent on having filmmakers do this work for them. Yes, filmmakers need to drive traffic to THEIR film on your site, but you must make the site reach the public consciousness in the first place.

-S is for Standards. Godin refers to great book editors as the ones who attract talent to them. I am going to stretch this to consumers will be attracted to these sites if they feel like there is something for their interest. Stop trying to attract everyone. You won’t. Decide what your brand (your site) will be and stick with only that. Be the premiere site for uplifting films for children with disabilities. The site for films featuring sumo wrestling. The site for films on the artistic development process. Really narrow down your audience so that you can present them with a high quality channel of content devoted only to their interest.  Films they can’t find anywhere else. Be prepared to cut the filmmaker a good deal for their content so that they wouldn’t think of putting it elsewhere because your site reaches exactly who they need to reach. Also instead of only presenting films on the channel, think of other things that could be sold to this audience and partner with companies who sell those things. Lots of revenue streams instead of total dependence on one.

-E is for ego.  Rather than offering a pat on the head and a plea to more filmmakers to bring content, think about investing in great talent by cultivating it. Push this talent to better work. Ideally your site will start to attract a bevy of talented artists and the ego of artists is very competitive, each trying to outdo another with creative work and more attention. Your site should be the outlet where they all want their work shown. Your site will attract the very best talent for the most discerning audiences, instead of being easily accessible to all. There is no prestige in being easily accessible.

Making money

I would wager a guess that few of these sites and the films that show on them are making any money. No one knows about the site, no one’s heard of the films and no one is driving traffic at all. Most of them won’t survive their first 2 years. First comes attention (money spending), then comes money making. I think revenue will come from subscription sales, partnerships and affiliations with companies offering alternate products, advertising and sponsorship and possibly live event ticket sales for the subscribers. I think only those sites that successfully establish some brand (specialized identification by an audience) will continue and grow. I look forward to hearing from companies committed to doing this.

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