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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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  • Ben says:

    Glad to read this from you Mike, as it is something I have been thinking about lately… It certainly confirms what I’ve noticed the past several months as an instant watch user on Netflix: an abundance of new streaming content has shifted to more safe mainstream “fluff”. As a writer at Twitchfilm I recently championed the Slamdance feature “Without”. I do wonder where a film like “Without” will end up, if it will have a home beyond the fest circuit.

    • Films do get out, but the same problems persist. The other issue I didn’t get to in the article, but should have is Netflix basing whether or not they’ll accept an indie/underground film based on a ridiculous amount of subscriber requests.

  • Mike says:

    you just wrote what i’ve been thinking. great article!

  • Ben says:

    Mmm I’ve known filmmakers in the past that have had to deal with Netflix’s subscriber requests. It seems rather asinine and as they ramp up the streaming service as their main feature still readily in place. Enough reasons to do a part two, Mike? Or might that be t close to a rant?

  • Brian says:

    Interesting points. And this is only for features or do shorts have the option to upload to Amazon, Hulu and Netflix as well? I always wonder about what’s possible for shorts and distribution. I always wind up just not dealing with it and have the videos online for free for people to see. My goal is not to earn money back for my short films and bumpers, but instead create a body of work and then sell the idea our style to potential clients and eventually become a full fledged production company that can be commissioned for commercials, music videos, etc.

    I may of course have a completely different mind set when I tackle a feature film.

    • There are some shorts on Hulu and I know of short film compilations on Amazon.

      Also, to me it isn’t that I think filmmakers will make money to recoup production costs, but I find it insulting to you guy that it’s assumed your first option is to not make money. It’s becoming the standard and I think it’s wrong.

      But, what do I know as I don’t have any solutions.

  • Rupert says:

    I gave a talk on this subject to the SPAA in Sydney …


    It was mostly an overview on what is out there, but the aim of presentation was to encourage media creators to develop Online distribution plans, and I guess these must be properly mapped out to be rewarded by any turn-around, monetary or otherwise. I really think that without a plan, the system of distribution is top heavy, and content will always be king or queen, we’ve seen proof of that time and time again. So in summary I see that the culture of creativity within the form needs a revision not just the mapping process of spawning the same content that would work with other modes of delivery.

  • Nathan Wrann says:

    I think this: “As soon as Amazon launched Prime streaming, critics were out comparing whether Prime, Hulu or Netflix had the best, newest, most well-known titles.” is the wrong mindset for these services. First, all of the free-ish services are going to get the same shit. None of them got 127 Hours this week, instead they all get “new” movies 28 days late. So the real competition should be who can offer the most Underground or rare stuff. Guess what, the first one that offers El Topo is the first one that I’ll watch it on. In that regard, these services should be scrambling to sign up the craziest shit out there, but they’re not. BURNING INSIDE was rejected by Netflix and, as far as I know so far, it was rejected by the Amazon Prime service, although it has been available for Amazon VOD for almost a year now.

    These Free-ish services should be trying to sign up out of print (like The Keep, which I KNOW people subscribed to Netflix specifically for) or rare films. That’s when they will see their subscriptions rise. Not through the films that everyone knows will be there in 28 days.

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