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Web Distribution For Underground Films

Andy Warhol style movie poster featuring Jesus and another messiah

Finding a distributor sucks. Especially if you’re an underground filmmaker. Unless your movie has some sort of “hook,” e.g. tits and/or gore, that fits into an established company’s business plans, then you’re probably just shit outta luck.

The good news is that in today’s web-centric world, there are more options than ever in distributing your film yourself without too much fuss and muss. The bad news is that the payoff for these options kinda blow. But are they still worth it for the struggling filmmaker? Hey, unless you want your film to sit on your closet shelf for the rest of eternity and only brought out when people look at you skeptically when you say, “No, seriously, I directed a movie,” then why the hell not?

In the future, I predict that “Download to DVD” software will be as ubiquitous as the DVD burners that come with all new computers. Right now, CinemaNow and Movielink offer this technology for mainstream Hollywood films, and it’s assumed Netflix will be launching the same kind of service in the near future. So, it’ll only be a matter of time someone develops some freeware that allows the DIY filmmaker the same options. But what to do in the meantime?

First, there’s really nothing stopping a filmmaker from making his own DVDs, set up a PayPal shopping cart and selling them through his own website. All you need is the money and confidence to shell out for your own DVD duplication. However, to make people aware that your film exists, also be prepared to do relentless self-promotion all over the web like super-huckster Christopher Folino (that’s a compliment) who’s everywhere and anywhere it seems selling Gamers: The Movie. Hell, his movie’s URL is www.BuyGamers.com. For a brief intro to online promo opportunities, please see my previous article “10 Ways to Market Your Underground Film Online for (Mostly) Free.”

Second, although a commercial version of “Download to DVD” software doesn’t exist yet, there’s the pseudo two-step process that achieves the same result. The problem with sending feature films over the Internet, though, is that the files are so damn big that it’s not really worth it. A few years ago, a new technology popped up that was all the rage called BitTorrent that allowed for quicker transfer of video files by spreading out the download amongst several users. That’s how I understand it anyway. I’m not a tech guy.

The problem with BitTorrent is that it uses strange software and requires you to visit oddball download repositories. BitTorrent has never really caught on in the mainstream, partially due to it’s immediate association with people using it to illegally download movies and TV shows, despite it seeming like a great, legitimate way for filmmakers to distribute their work.

That’s why the Automatic Vaudville production company in Montreal have determined that BitTorrent is the best way for them to distribute their “near-feature” The Recommendations. While this sucker won’t go directly to your DVD player, you can download a 500MB AVI file (the film is just under an hour long) and burn it to a disc yourself. All you have to do is download the BitTorrent software, visit one of three download repositories where Automatic Vaudville have uploaded their file, download the film and promise that you’ll never, ever show The Recommendations as a profit for yourself (via the Creative Commons license attached with the film). But, show it to as many people as you like for free. Automatic Vaudville just doesn’t care, as long as somebody is watching. If this sounds like it floats your boat, visit their blog post with full directions, links and whatnot.

The final option for web distribution (that I’m exploring here anyway) are “DVD on Demand” companies. These are internet sites that filmmakers can advertise their films on and the “distributor” will burn a DVD-R whenever somebody orders a film and mail it out to the customer. Right now, I know of two main companies doing this, CustomFlix and IndieFlix, and I happen to know filmmakers using both services who were very gracious in explaining how the process works, which is basically the same for both of them.

There are two ways to submit films to them: 1) Master your own DVD first, complete with menus and such; or 2) Just send them your DV tape with the film on it and they will author a master DVD for you, but will slap on their own generic menus. As for the box art, CustomFlix accepts the filmmaker’s own cover layout or you can hire their team of graphic designers to build one for you and at $75 bucks an hour, it’s probably cheaper to buy a photo editing program and do it yourself. But at IndieFlix, they send out all DVDs with their generic box art with their logo and graphics, with just a small still from the film inserted into it. But after you send them all your crap, the process seems to take about a month or less for them to begin selling your film.

The big difference between the two companies it seems is that IndieFlix is devoted to keeping their services free to the filmmakers, while CustomFlix has a temporary “free” period (until the end of Feb. 2007), but after that they’ll charge a small fee to get set up with them.

And unlike traditional distributors, neither IndieFlix nor CustomFlix do much to promote your film. Plus, these are still relatively unknown companies to the DVD buying public, so filmmakers are going to have to do as much hustling in the PR department as the filmmaker who sells his DVDs on his own. So why sign up with them? To take away the potential hassle of having crates of unsold DVDs filling up your home or public storage locker; and the filmmaker doesn’t have to shell out a ton of dough upfront for DVD duplication. Even if CustomFlix charges a fee, it’s small compared to a filmmaker producing his own copies. And CustomFlix is owned by Amazon.com, so films can be sold through that site (although Amazon keeps a larger share of the sales pie than CustomFlix on it’s own).

If you look at the two sites, too, IndieFlix at least promotes it’s films right on its homepage and they have several other features, including an indie film news blog, to drive DVD sales. At CustomFlix, their homepage exists only to hawk their services, but if you dig you can find their online “store.” And one thing that seems really good, both companies seem agreeable to filmmakers withdrawing their films immediately if other, better distribution deals comes up.

As I mentioned earlier, all the info above about CustomFlix and IndieFlix came from two really great guys, which I’m going to encourage you to check out their respective film pages at both sites — and, of course, recommend you buy all of their films. First, is Christopher Hansen’s hilarious The Proper Care & Feeding of an American Messiah at CustomFlix. (UPDATE: Actually, now on Amazon.) And then there’s Zeb Haradon who sells both his brilliant films, Elevator Movie and Waiting for NESARA, on IndieFlix. (UPDATE: Both now on Amazon, if you click those links.) Both guys also seem happy with their choice to sign up with them and I thank them for their invaluable insights.

I’m sure I’ve also missed a ton of other ideas and possibilities for web distribution, so if anybody has any other great ideas, please leave a comment or send me an email, and I’ll write up a sequel. (Which I did here.)


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  • Hi Mike!

    Mark from Automatic Vaudeville here. Thanks so much for mentioning our movie and our experiment in distribution.

    I just wanted to mention that we have added a direct-download link to our page that allows you to get The Recommendations without fooling around with all that BitTorrent business. The movie’s hosted at archive.org and all you have to do is right-click (or control-click on a Mac) on the link to save it to your hard drive. The BT options are still there (I think they’ll still get you a faster download speed), but the other option may be useful for the less technologically-inclined.

    Thanks again!

    Mark