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New Media, Same Problems

Amazon VOD, Hulu, Netflix, iTunes. There are so many options these days for filmmakers to have their work beamed directly into viewers homes via the streaming media revolution.

Unfortunately, the majority of filmmakers are still left out in the cold. For all the talk we hear about “freeing” media in the digital world, it’s still abundantly clear that nothing in this world is free.

The Internet is not free. It is fueled by two very powerful economic forces: Server space and bandwidth.

“Scalability” is a term one encounters frequently in tech-speak conversations, but not one heard very frequently in discussions on the creative end of the online spectrum. It’s a term that refers to the ability for a website to keep up with increasing demand. Too much demand too quickly and any website not ready for it will crash, which is deadly for any online business.

A successful online streaming business, such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, is going to be based around serving the most popular movies directly to the most viewers. While we’re all accustomed these days to feature-length movies taking up smaller and smaller space digitally, they do still take up “space” — on a business’s servers and over the wires, i.e. bandwidth.

In that regard, a streaming video business has pretty much the same considerations as a theater screening films: Gotta fill up the seats to pay the rent. Therefore, they had better provide the kind of movies that the most amount of people want to see.

These economic considerations were readily apparent when Amazon launched its “free” VOD service to its Prime subscribers.

For years previous, Amazon has also offered their CreateSpace DVD on demand service. Filmmakers upload their movies to Amazon’s servers, then manufacture and ship discs upon purchase.

Recently, Amazon began offering CreateSpace movies via a pay-per-stream option. However, none of these films were offered with the new Prime annual subscription offerings even though these films are already taking up space on Amazon’s servers.

But was that purely for economic reasons? Or were there perceptual reasons as well?

As soon as Amazon launched Prime streaming, critics were out comparing whether Prime, Hulu or Netflix had the best, newest, most well-known titles. It probably wouldn’t have been in Amazon’s best interest to proudly launch Prime with a bunch of shit hardly anybody has heard of.

Much of the online video streaming “wars” is based around who can make the best deals with Hollywood studios and Indiewood distributors.

But there are still even smaller distributors and product brokers who supply fairly unknown non-theatrically released films to streaming services.

Regardless, filmmakers are still stuck going through a middleman to get their movies to appear on a screen, although that screen may be an iPod instead of a TV or a theater screen. And they can get rejections from such middlemen for old-fashioned reasons such their films being in black-and-white, as one filmmaker told me personally.

Granted, filmmakers locked out of the solidifying online distribution system can always encode their films in the proper formats and sell their work on their own websites. However, trying to get an audience to buy a film that’s not offered on a major service and not written about on major film websites is a Sisyphean task.

The other option filmmakers are given is to offer their films for free via a BitTorrent service because it’s better to be seen than to get paid, as that weak argument goes.

Most committed indie and underground filmmakers do keep producing work on the off chance audiences will stumble onto it, either online or at the few microcinemas, festivals, galleries and art houses that screen it.

Particularly with undergrounds, a wide majority of the mainstream audience won’t like or feel as though they “get” films with an off-kilter, quirky style. But, it’s a shame those who might have an affinity for more challenging media still aren’t being exposed to it despite the theoretical ability for it to be streamed directly to them.


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