In Tim Burton's Ed Wood, the overly confident director of the title said, after an assistant questioned a goof, "Nobody will ever notice that. Filmmaking is not about the tiny details. It's about the big picture." If only this were true. And, as any independent filmmaker will tell you, the tiny details in the making of a film are nothing compared to the details and trials of getting the film actually seen by the public.
Filmmaker Jonathan Holbrook feels depressed every time he walks into his local Blockbuster and sees "the same mindless, could-care-less mainsteam stuff on the shelves." Customer 152, his dark comedy/thriller about a mysterious credit card, played theatrically in Seattle to positive response as well as at the New York International Independent Film Festival. But after that, with no distributor signing on, Holbrook's had to go the route all too common for the independent filmmaker: self-distribution. For Holbrook, this now also includes Video-on-Demand (VOD): the film is available for download or streaming on GreenCine.
Holbrook says that the additional prospects of VOD have given him another method and with it more hope. "It's great for marketing the film to be able to say, 'it's available at this URL, any time,'" Holbrook said. The Washington state-based filmmaker heard about the VOD option from distributors at the NYIIF's distribution seminar and, like a lot of filmmakers present, hadn't thought much about it before then. In fact, the closest the majority of the filmmakers informally polled for this article had come to using Video-on-Demand was having a free sample clip of their film up on their independent company's, or their own personal, web site. The idea of having an entire feature film available for download seemed foreign to most of them, as did the idea of making any money off of it.
What the distributors at NYIFF told Holbrook was: "Everybody's going the way of VOD."
This is the new target: "many-to-many," a way to get films in front of interested viewers who want to broaden their horizons, and who may not have otherwise had an opportunity to view these works, whether due to geographic isolation, economic factors, or lack of accessibility to information about independent filmmakers.
Michael Weiss General Counsel & Senior VP of Business Affairs at ei Independent Cinema, an independent, B, horror and soft-erotica feature film production and distribution company, agrees that VOD can be the great equalizer. "It permits that kid from Des Moines to get his short seen on the web," he said. "It's become a 24/7 film festival showcasing the efforts of aspiring filmmakers who otherwise may not have had the opportunity to get into Sundance or South by Southwest."
Filmmakers can now leapfrog over distributors and studios and get their masterpiece to interested viewers, broadening their cinema experiences without anyone having to cough up the funds for a trip to Sundance. Although Sundance is now accepting DVD submissions, which potentially saves filmmakers on the order of $35,000 in film processing charges, getting in to that super-sized festival is now more challenging than ever. As National Geographic Films' Adam Leipzig recently wrote in a mostly discouraging piece in the New York Times, the odds aren't good: even with 2,500 film festivals worldwide, the number of films produced each year still makes the chances of breaking into a major festival, let alone receiving distribution, tough going. "The numbers are even tougher than they look, because roughly 90 percent of the box-office receipts will be sucked up by the studio releases, leaving about 225 to compete for the remaining sales," wrote Leipzig. "When you realize that there will be only a few independent movies that genuinely captivate the popular imagination every year you'll see what a thin sliver of pie is left for everyone else."
Which is where Video-on-Demand comes in. VOD - which basically means you can either stream or download a movie on your computer, to either watch then and there, there and later, or later on a DVD - is already making an impact.
How much you've already checked out VOD depends in large part on how fast your connection is, how much time you spend online, and how patient you are. But VOD has come a long way in a very short span of time, with the compression, frame rates and overall quality night and day compared with how it looked a few years ago. If you're like most people, what you know about VOD is probably from on-demand television - in which cable or satellite owners can purchase a film for a fee to watch directly on their television. This version has been around longer than its computer counterpart and continues to morph - now users have more control over when they watch a film, rather than being at the whim of the pre-scheduled, theater-like show times, they can make a one-time purchase and watch a film any time within a predetermined period (usually 24 hours).
But given that television is still under the thumbs of major media conglomerates and their agreements with studios (some of whom are owned by the same company that runs the media outlet), to independent filmmakers, the Internet is a more level playing field, a better place to market and distribute their work. The movie industry suddenly has the potential to go the route of the music world, which has been moving away from "hard" media with the emergence of the MP3 player. That trend will continue with video. "Pure content services such as GreenCine are obviously where the future of film to the home market is going," says Alex Afterman, a producer with Heretic Films (I'll Bury You Tomorrow). "Those in early can become the iTunes of the video space, while those late in seeing the importance of this trend will end up as so many record labels have, bleeding money and seeking legal restraint on the fair trade of competitors - competitors who were quicker to see where the future was taking the industry."