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The Indie Filmmaker Streaming Media Conundrum

Swirling binary code

Thanks to the streaming media revolution of the past few years, independent filmmakers have the greatest opportunity to deliver their work to the largest audiences ever in cinema history. Filmmakers also have the greatest opportunity to make money directly from their work without giving up a portion to middlemen distributors.

So, why is it that so few, if any, indie filmmakers are able to make a viable income from streaming media services? Yes, Virginia, there still is an “underground.”

The heart of the issue … Well, the real heart is, as always, about money. But, financial concerns lead to the other heart of the issue, which is the same issue that has always plagued underground filmmakers: Crappy discovery mechanisms.

In the streaming world, though, hardly a week goes by without news of one of the major delivery services, i.e. Amazon, iTunes and Netflix, making some sort of exclusive distribution deal with a Hollywood studio. And, since streaming delivery is a flat playing field, these deals include TV shows, movies and, increasingly, web series. That is a lot of streaming media! And all these deals involve a ton of money changing hands. Money that streaming services need to recoup.

So, clearly, on their front pages, these delivery services are going to aggressively promote the movies they’ve paid the most to acquire, which in turn are the movies that studios and smaller theatrical distributors have promoted the most and are the movies that consumers are most tuned into because it’s increasingly difficult to avoid hearing about them in our media saturated world.

Filmmakers represented by way smaller non-theatrical distributors get shafted to the very bottom or completely out of the “Hot New Releases” and “You Might Like Based on Previous Purchases” types of lists. And the self-distributing filmmaker? They’re lucky if they can even upload their work to most streaming services. Amazon, who jumped in early on the “cloud computing” phenomenon, seems to be the only service that allows an uploading free-for-all.

The “You Might Also Like” lists are the most pernicious enemy that should act as a helpful tool.

The main problem with these lists is that they are programmed to primarily display the most mainstream of selections, even if the user has previously watched out of the mainstream fare. “Oh, you enjoyed Paul Campion’s WWII demonic horror flick, The Devil’s Rock? Then you are sure to also enjoy Paramount’s Friday the 13th remake.” And you can be sure that viewers of the Friday the 13th remake are not being suggested to watch The Devil’s Rock. (Though they should because it’s great.) (Also, this was a real example pulled from the Underground Film Journal’s experience.)

Another problem in this area is the difficult classification of challenging material. Metadata tagging of media is a hot topic these days, but is it currently being utilized properly by the gatekeepers? Especially if the gatekeepers are not familiar with the content?

Painted cover for Altamont Now DVD

For example, it isn’t inherently obvious that a fan of Joshua Brown’s cult comedy Altamont Now might probably also like Bob Ray’s female roller derby documentary Hell on Wheels unless one realizes that both films are terrific examples of outsider culture.

But, what service is looking to appeal to fans of outsider culture? Not ones trying to grab the largest streaming market share.

And what streaming service is looking to hire film experts to properly and thoroughly meta-tag movies? None. That’s what interns are for: To shove films into their broadest categories. Altamont Now? Comedy. Hell on Wheels? Documentary. And never the twain shall be joined.

Also, so far, the great streaming indie film online discovery mechanism has yet to be built. Although there are still tentative stabs such as the Underground Film Journal’s own Streaming Guide, Filmmaker Magazine’s monthly VOD calendar and James Kreul’s Instant View Film Festival blog.

Therein lies the conundrum! Filmmakers make work accessible to potentially millions, but there are only puny methods of discovery for those millions to find that work.

But what’s a filmmaker to do except upload a film and pray some fortunate soul — or, more hopefully, souls — successfully navigate the discovery maze to land on it.

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  • Rups says:

    This is so very, very true, and also to be remembered that in periods of time when classics/cult films of today were finding their audiences, niche rags and periodicals helped circulate good press. I’ve looked at Netflix, what a void, tried some essential favourite filmmakers like Russell and Greenaway, how many films popped up? About one each. Not only that but I then checked out some of the other competing distribution channels, with little more to offer. If an independent channel did open its doors and offer VOD, the companies backing these channels would deem it too ineffective to run alongside their major package ‘sell points’ like Netflix. That problem aside, there are going to be rating issues, classification issues, essentially any independent artist with a product is holding a ‘red tape’ cassette in their hands when approaching these major distributors – however, the hope is that there may be a handful of independent filmmakers, tired of pushing their work from door to door, who may just very well champion an independent channel for distribution – I’ve seen many come and go, particularly on the net. Hardcopy, not so much, fortunately many fans of independent cinema are proud collectors of DVDs and VHS tapes, so there is some non-digitised hope there for the underground artist.

    Personally I think free-to-air television is the way to go for underground filmmakers. Television has had to change due to cable and now VOD digital T.V. – so this leaves an area free which sort of has that early days radio kind of freedom attached to it. However, it needs a grand plan, it needs to have a channel guide and lots of content. In Australia there used to be a show on SBS called Eat Carpet, late night television which was all experimental work – it was excellent, its audience were usually students or youngsters up late on whatever chosen vice they partook of, but the programming was continuous, underground and available by simply changing the channel on the box. This same sort of simplicity I think needs to happen again. The underground market needs to converge somehow with a really simple solution, and the net may not be it. However it does come down to that golden ticket i.e. Money.

    This is a complicated problem, unlike music and literature, which seem to have a different but similar problem, the main difference is that film is quite different beast to music and literature – you can listen to a song whilst you are doing something else, you can stop a book anywhere and come back to it in several days – a film however is best watched in its entirety as a whole – and that is why cinemas were the preferred place of viewing, a space where you were locked in to absorbing the whole article. So film needs a specific platform that works best with it. Will this change the way underground filmmaker’s make movies? Will it change the way those films are structured?

    All this said and done – I really do think that the process needs to be open and easily accessible for everyone, and as pirate radio stations in the past provided alternative avenues for music, something needs to be done with television – an example I may give, a personal one, a friend dumped a whole lot of interesting documentaries onto my computer for me to watch, I haven’t gotten around to watching it yet, but I’ve found myself watching free to air television as I drift off to sleep at night – so if I could switch to an independent film channel on T.V. I may be more exposed to content I may not necessarily come across in the information battle being had across the net, the all encompassing control for attention that aggregators use in order to channel and filter the user’s experience of media on the net – and so too with channels like Netflix.