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The Indie Filmmaker Streaming Media Conundrum

By Mike Everleth ⋅ December 2, 2013

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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