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A PRODUCERS' GUIDE TO Prepared by
California Newsreel November, 2009, Revised August. 2010
Prepared by California Newsreel November, 2009, Revised August. 2010
I. Audience-Centered Production: Reversing the Paradigm 1.1 From Text to Context. Against Text-centricity 1.2 Audience
> Distribution > Production Not
Production > Distribution > Audience 1.3 The
Who of Your Film: Defining, Locating and Quantifying Your Audience. 1.4 The
What of Your Film: Defining Your Objective for that Audience 1.5 The
How of Your Film: Audience and Message Determine the Platform.
1.1 From Text to Context. Against Text-centricity
> Distribution > Production Not
Production > Distribution > Audience
Who of Your Film: Defining, Locating and Quantifying Your Audience.
What of Your Film: Defining Your Objective for that Audience
How of Your Film: Audience and Message Determine the Platform.
Changing Distribution Landscape: Digital Delusions and Realities 2.2 Four
Digital Delusions - Debunked 2.3 Niche
Markets: High Market Pentration = Intensive Promotion = Time and Money 2.4 The
Role of a Distributor 2.5 A
Fifth Digital Delusion: Viral Marketing
Digital Delusions - Debunked
Markets: High Market Pentration = Intensive Promotion = Time and Money
Role of a Distributor
Fifth Digital Delusion: Viral Marketing
3. Opportunities and Hazards: A Cross-Platform Survey 3.2 Festivals:
Sundance as Fetish 3.3 Theatrical:
The Lure of the Big Screen 3.4 Home
Video: The Great Chimera 3.7 Digital
Convergence - The Great Rights Robbery
Sundance as Fetish
The Lure of the Big Screen
Video: The Great Chimera
Convergence - The Great Rights Robbery
4. Distributors and the Distribution Contract: Confessions
of a Distributor 4.2 The
Right Distributor for Your Film 4.3 The
Contract: Exclusive vs. Non-Exclusive Rights 4.4 The
Contract: Term of the Agreement 4.5 The
Contract: Royalties - Net vs. Gross Deals 4.6 The
Contract: Advances and Performance Guarantees 4.7 Outreach
vs. Distribution: A False Dichotomy 4.8 When
Self-Distributon Makes Sense 4.9 Direct-to-Digital:
DIY, the Distributor of Last Resort
Right Distributor for Your Film
Contract: Exclusive vs. Non-Exclusive Rights
Contract: Term of the Agreement
Contract: Royalties - Net vs. Gross Deals
Contract: Advances and Performance Guarantees
vs. Distribution: A False Dichotomy
Self-Distributon Makes Sense
DIY, the Distributor of Last Resort
5. Integrating Distribution with Production: Constructing an
On-Line Database 5.2 Constructiong
a Multi-Media Documentary Database 5.3 Repurposing
and Multi-Versioning Your Content 5.3 A
Return to the Audience
a Multi-Media Documentary Database
and Multi-Versioning Your Content
Return to the Audience
A Glossary of Terms Used in Digital Distribution
Introduction to the Revised Edition
This change is perhaps best summed up by the substitution of the generic "moving image content" for the heretofore sacrosanct, "film" or "cinema." It connotes that film is increasingly regarded as just one format in an array of interchangeable, multi-media content available on this new interactive platform. Documentary is losing its authority to document "reality;" it is becoming, instead, a resource for constructing or realizing the "real."<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Accordingly, Newsreel has begun to think of its films not just as texts to be read or viewed but as tools to be used. Similarly, we no longer conceive our public as passive viewers or social spectators but active participants and citizens in shaping their own meanings and potentially society.
We already see the profound impact of digital technology is having on social, entertainment and educational media. We have, in fact, entered an era in media distribution when the only constant is change itself. While we believe this guide offers an accurate picture of distribution opportunities in the summer of 2010, we are equally confident this will not be true two years from now. Anyone, like Newsreel, engaged in day-to-day film distribution, realizes that there are simply too many imponderables to predict the future of digital media; anyone who pretends to such clairvoyance is either a fool or a charlatan.
What then can producers and distributors do in the face of such systemic uncertainty? Newsreel has found that today distribution needs to be rethought as closely coordinated, dynamic digital rights management. Therefore, this guide describes practical guidelines for deploying digital rights across an increasingly fragmented marketplace in order to maximize audience and revenues. The key to success in digital rights management remains customizing a strategy to each film's specific intended audiences; no two launches can ever be the same. This means filmmakers and distributors need to overcome the artificial barriers which have traditionally divided production from outreach, marketing, sales and delivery. In practical terms, this means a producer and his or her chosen digital rights partner needs to collaborate from before production begins to long after a film is released.
This guide begins by describing an audience-centered paradigm for producing content, then scrutinizes several common misconceptions about digital media, followed by a clear-eyed assessment of the different delivery options presently available to producers. It then analyzes the new issues raised in digital distribution contracts and concludes with an overview of emerging forms of moving image content. The table of contents links directly to chapters and sections. A number of technical terms which may be unfamiliar to producers are defined in a glossary at the end of this guide. Theoretical digressions and polemics are mercifully confined to footnotes.
Some final disclaimers: the opinions expressed in this guide necessarily reflect the experiences of just one non-profit distributor,
1. Audience-Centered Production: Reversing the Paradigm
1.1 From Text to Context. Newsreel employs what may seem like a counter-intuitive sequence in producing our films: we start with our audience, next choose our distribution strategy for reaching that audience and only then design the actual content we will produce. We call this approach "audience-centered" as opposed to "film-" or "text-centered" production.
In this paradigm, content is seen as a strategic intervention into a pre-existing discursive context; in other words, content flows out of and back into a film's before, after and around.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Analogously, we conceive its audience as embedded in history and society, not disembodied in a black box or theatre, but situated in a specific place and time, the here and now. Also, we "think" them as social actors, not spectators, who will leave the screening to resume their incrementally empowered social roles.
For a film to effect even such a modest behavioral transformation, producers must know who and where their audience is. They should not assume an audience exists for their film or that their film will magically call an audience into existence. Rather the audience must be meticulously researched and empathetically understood. This isn't the same as Nielsen ratings, focus groups or market analysis; it is not about pleasing or attracting the largest audience or making the most money. Independent producers are independent precisely because they want to be independent of the expectations of the mass market. It's fine if a film reaches just ten people, if they are the right ten people; what is not fine is making this same film believing and claiming, it will reach ten million people.
It's ironic that in 42 years of distributing social change documentaries, Newsreel has not once acquired a title based on even a cursory environmental scan or needs assessment of the audience it set out to change. Audiences have simply been assumed to exist; tabula rasa on which the filmmaker could inscribe his or her ideology. In contrast, Newsreel's current early childhood development project is being designed around a detailed on-line survey, telephone interviews and resource scan involving more than 250 stakeholder groups.
1.2 Audience > Distribution > Production Not
Production > Distribution > Exhibition .
.The conventional sequence has always been: a film is produced; a distributor is found, the distributor tries to find exhibitors for it and the exhibitors try to find an audience. As a distributor, Newsreel can testify that this often requires creativity not to say an element of deception; the battle is too often lost before it is waged. Of course, sometimes through intuition or simple serendipity, a film finds an audience. Newsreel thinks this sequence is strikingly illogical. We suggest reversing it: first defining the audience and the intended impact, next selecting the optimal format and delivery platform and only then developing the treatment or script which might achieve that impact through that distribution channel for that audience. You might think of this as "reverse-engineering" a film.
From this perspective, it is not surprising that the most disastrous and expensive decisions filmmakers make happen during their first five minutes thinking about it. They then become attracted to this idιe fixe like a moth to a flame. In their solipsism, filmmakers decide what they want to say, what they think people ought to hear, without first asking if anyone will listen, let alone how they might be able to translate this film into meaningful social action.
The following sections pose a few of the questions producers might want to consider during those crucial first five minutes: the who, what, where and how of social change filmmaking. These questions, however, cannot substitute for an exacting, statistically significant, formal needs assessment. The question is not what film the target audience wants but what media (if any) would help them pursue or redefine their present objectives by removing the obstacles, conceptual or otherwise, which are standing in their way. The audience cannot be expected to think for the filmmaker, anymore than the filmmaker should presume to think for the audience. They need to think together in a collaborative process, bringing their individual expertise to the project through workshops, fellowships, residencies and other "content incubators."
1.3 The Who of Your Film. The first question a filmmaker should ask is who is my audience? Not, who should they be, but who are they likely to be? The fact that most filmmakers are convinced that everybody should see their films is quite irrelevant. Filmmakers typically exaggerate how large their audience will be to justify the insane expense of time (their own) and money (someone else's) required by most independent productions. Unhappily, in film as in life, pessimism is usually more accurate and certainly more prudent than optimism. Therefore, feign humility and try to make a realistic assessment of who your audience will be. Make your film for them rather than some putative audience or that amorphous monster, the "general public" or "mass market." It's better to serve a small audience well than a large one poorly.
How can producers know where and how large that audience will be? Never trust your intuition alone; research the distribution history of a film on a subject similar to your own; we realize no film could possibly be like yours but try to find a rough approximation. Form an estimate of how many people actually saw that film and where they saw it (in theatres, on television, in classrooms, at community meetings, at home on a DVD or on-line.) A producer or distributor might be willing to share these figures with you or at least their impressions; box office figures and on-line visitors are, of course, readily available data. Google Adwords is a valuable resource; it can tell you, for example, that in July 2010, there were 11,000,000 keyword searches for "maternity," 165,000 for "post-partum depression" and 90,500 for "early childhood development. How you interpret such data will depend on how well you understand the community you're researching. But there can no longer be an excuse for over- estimating the size of your audience; if the metrics aren't there, neither will the audience.
Another less empirical way to ask the question of audience is to define whom you are addressing or "interpellating," that is calling out to and, by so doing, calling into existence? This is never a simple matter of demographics. All of us are made up of multiple over-lapping identities and interests. Which of these potential selves do you want to evoke in your viewers through your film? Do you envision your audience as primetime television viewers, art film connoisseurs, concerned citizens, inhabitants of the earth's ecology, residents of a particular region or neighborhood, members of a specific ethnic, religious or civic group, a citizen or a private individual, someone already committed to a type of music, genre of film, hobby or social issue?
1.4 The What of Your Film. Once you have chosen your audience, you must decide what you're trying to accomplish for, through or with them. What effect do you want your film to have on them and hence the world. Try to be as concrete and realistic as possible. Few films ever changed the world; at best they inflect how people speak, think and, maybe, act in that world. Once you have selected an audience, that audience has, in a sense, selected you. You must join that community, put yourself in its position and its mind-set.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>.Ask yourself what does your audience know; what do you want them to know; what action or change, if any, do you hope they will take as a result of watching your film? Remember, cognition, learning, even following a plot or an argument is, like the brain, architectonic; that is, built up brick by brick and only as strong as its conceptual foundation. In other words, don't expect your audience to go from a to c without passing b; if you do, your argument or dramatic arch will collapse. Often the most important task is first to clear away the debris, the pre- or mis-conceptions and disinformation which will prevent your audience from moving forward to a changed point of view.
1.5. The How of Your Film. McLuhan, as everyone knows, said "the medium is the message;" in other words, the platform or format pre-determines or frames the content mediated through it. He also said "the medium is the massage," that is, it relaxes or seduces its viewers into taking its conventions and presuppositions for granted.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Like a massage, it renders its viewers passive; it takes over the work of a critical construction of consciousness. In this respect, television could be described as the greatest labor-saving device ever invented and commercial entertainment as processed and packaged junk food for the brain. By the way, McLuhan later changed this epigram to "the audience is the content," that is, the film is nothing more than what the audience makes of it - how it understands it and what it does with it.
Therefore, audience and message should determine your choice of medium, not the reverse. Ask yourself what medium is the "appropriate technology" for your message? Why make a $500,000 film, if a four-page pamphlet could convey 80% of the information? You don't need an 86 minute film to make the same point as a 30 second PSA or a 30 minute educational film. Never assume film is the most effective medium for every message just because you're a filmmaker. The moving image is a clumsy medium for complex or nuanced thought and ideas. As noted above, it is a fundamentally passive medium; if you want to activate your audience, interactive media or games might be a better choice. Locative media (mobile devices) are a good way to distribute site-specific, time-valued content but an i-Phone is a poor place to view a 3-D feature. The optimal way to convey many messages is usually through a combination of media. We live in a hybrid, multi-media environment which is converging on a common digital platform. Therefore don't define your project simply as a long-form film; think about it more as an ensemble of related multi-media content. (See section 5.2 below.)
The message and its audience will also determine the genre and style of your content. Cinema veritι conveys immediacy but forefronts the surface, obscuring the systemic forces beneath it. Character-driven documentaries are dramatic but emphasize individual initiative over collective action. Narrative offers a coherent account of events with a clear, Aristotelian beginning, middle and end, but at the risk of premature closure, simplistic causality and the sub-alterning of equally valid points of view. Dramatic arcs encourage empathetic identification with a character at the same time alienating viewers from their real world options and responsibilities. Catharsis provides an audience emotional release which can too often substitute for concrete action. Choice is inevitable in making any film and inevitably requires the rejection of certain equally valid alternatives, but those choices should be conscious and unconcealed to the audience.
Audience should also determine the length of your film. If you intend your film to be used in a classroom, it should be shorter than a 50 minute class period. If it's going to be shown at a community meeting, it should be under 30 minutes to allow time for discussion and organizing local action. If it's going to be seen on mobile devices, make a PSA or ten five- minute installments rather than a 50 minute, long-form documentary. Series work well on television but they are virtually useless anywhere else.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Always conceive your audience in a specific place, with a specific before and after.
2. The Changing Distribution Landscape: Digital Delusions and Reality
2.1 Proliferating Delivery Options. Today it's not enough to decide on your audience, your message and the form it will take, you also need to explore the best ways of reaching it - in other words, distribution. When Newsreel started in this business 42 years ago, distribution was boring and predictable, a backwater; production was where the action was. (That no doubt accounts for Newsreel's surprising longevity: it attracted unambitious drudges who never left.). Distribution is still boring but by means predictable. In 1968, the market for 16mm and 35mm film was simple - theatres and schools and it hadn't changed for 70 years.
Today, distribution has become the center of innovation and content is trying to catch up to it. Most on-line content still mimics the genres of the "legacy technologies," much as early television adapted radio formats. Conventional forms will decline though not disappear, while new ones will emerge more attuned to a digital platform and its culture. Media makers, especially documentary filmmakers, will need to expand their horizons beyond innovative content to innovative form. The formats which will dominate the emerging digital platform are still germinating in the hormone-riddled minds of teenagers. The greatest opportunities for innovation, jobs and social impact won't be found in the legacy technologies.
Digital convergence has not resulted in the consolidation of a single mass market but its fragmentation into dozens of micro or niche markets. As a result, today's producers face an often bewildering array of delivery options and audiences. These include theatrical film; traditional ( "appointment") television; cable, satellite and video-on-demand channels; institutional DVD sale; home DVD ( rental and sell-through); institutional streaming (remote and local); digital rental (pay-per-view) and digital sale (download-to-own); ad-supported (often incorrectly called "free"); paid streaming, un-monetized streaming, digital subscription services and no doubt more in Beta testing. Each of these is further subdivided or segmented along thematic or audience lines. (For the pros and cons of each of these delivery options, see sections 3.1 3.9.) While the proliferation of distribution options has made distribution a lot more interesting, it has also made it a lot more complicated for producers and distributors alike. An old Chinese proverb seems apt: "Cursed, the man who lives in interesting times."
On top of this market fragmentation, the pace of technological change has accelerated. In such a volatile situation, the only sensible distribution strategy is one which knows it will have to bend, be ductile not rigid. Linear planning will need to be replaced by recursive planning, planning which evolves incrementally through a continuous feedback loop. Therefore anyone distributing a film today needs to be in a position to take the day-to-day pulse of all these volatile markets. Instead of platform-specific distribution it is more useful to think of overall digital rights management. This implies that distribution contracts need to be both more flexible and more inclusive than in the past. Producers and distributors need to become partners in exploring all the distribution opportunities and challenges facing a film today. (For a discussion of flexible distribution agreements see sections 4.1 4.9)
2.2 Four Digital Delusions. Before going further, we should probably dispose of four seductive, therefore widely-believed, but also largely erroneous assumptions about this new digital marketplace.
The Myth of Increased Demand. The first of these digital delusions is that an increase in the number of markets means an increase in the aggregate size of the market. This would only be true if there were a corresponding increase in the hours of the day since there is an upper limit to the time people can waste on-line or in front of a television set and it seems to have been reached. In fact, markets have merely splintered into shards, each with fewer dollars to recoup the costs of production and promotion. Less promotion means fewer sales which translates into lower royalties for the producer. In this case, the sum of the parts has become less than the whole.
The Myth of Increased Access. A second myth is that increased access automatically results in increased demand for a film. In fact, there is abundant evidence that the market for most films remains relatively constant regardless of delivery technology. The market for a given title will expand only if the social interest in the subject of that film expands. For example, interest in social change documentaries will increase only when more Americans become interested in social change. This might well be termed a vicious cycle but, in the absence of profound cultural shifts, a finite market simply gets sliced up differently between delivery platforms.
The Myth of Decreased Price. A third common error is assuming that decreased unit price will automatically be compensated by increased unit volume; what economists call complete "price elasticity." Caviar is price elastic but is independent film? Fortunately, we can look to the past for a fairly conclusive answer. You need to be as old as Newsreel to remember that twenty years ago at the start of what was widely heralded as the "Home Video Revolution," the Rockefeller Foundation, ever-credulous of the latest philanthropic fad, confidently asserted that the volume of documentary purchases would increase ten-fold, if their greedy producers and distributors would simply cut their prices from the standard institutional rate of $200 to the home video price of $20. In point of fact, volume merely doubled. Distributors unwise enough to follow the foundation's uninformed advice promptly went out of business, most notably PBS Home Video, owing their producers millions. The same sort of siren's screech is heard today from the avatars of the digital revolution consultants like Peter Broderick (who incidentally headed the Rockefeller study two decades ago), Randy Keiser, Brian Newman and Chris Anderson.
The Myth of Urgency. A fourth myth is that producers who resist the technological imperative of digital distribution will miss out on a significant revenue stream. Exaggerated claims, as we have seen, are the predictable companions of each new wave of telecommunications innovation. The current crop of "digirati" earn their inflated consulting fees by posing as the prophets of a technotopia, the proselytes of a literal deus ex machina, the internet. They offer the beguiling promise that information can become democratized without attacking the telecommunication conglomerates who exercise a monopoly over the resources for cultural production and circulation. These hucksters prey on the desperation and gullibility of producers faced with diminished foundation funding and sales revenues. They are, however, notably reticent about specific sales figures to back up their rosy predictions. While they trumpet the few success stories, they don't divulge the average digital revenues of films in on-line distribution. But rational people (including even independent producers) don't assume they'll be the one to win the lottery; they don't oppose taxes on the super-rich because they think they'll become billionaires.
What we do know is that You Tube is hemorrhaging a half billion dollars a year and that iTunes has yet to turn a profit on their video sales. Indeed, the vast majority of independent productions have earned less than $2,000 in digital release. As they say in the industry, producers are exchanging "analog dollars for digital pennies." It may make sense for Apple to get into the digital marketplace on the ground floor - but why should we bankroll them by letting them sell our films for pennies? Any idiot knows that within five years DVD and broadcast television will go the way of the dinosaur and that most content will be delivered digitally. The pertinent question is how to "monetize" that content to support the same quantity and quality of production presently supported by the soi-disante legacy technologies - film, television, cable and DVD. What is clear is that digital distribution decimates DVD revenues and that DVD revenues still constitute 75% of post-theatrical and broadcast revenues.
2.3 Niche Markets.
Most independent documentaries don't appeal to the broad mass market
but highly motivated niche (specialty or boutique) markets. If, as the
above examples suggest, the size of the audience for most independent
documentaries will remain relatively small and constant, then a producer's
or distributor's objective must be to reach as high a percentage
of that audience as possible (what is known as high "market penetration")
at the highest sustainable unit price. The only way Newsreel has found
to achieve this is through dogged, diligent promotion or marketing.
Promotion is doubly important for independent productions because they
rarely enjoy national theatrical breaks or repeated broadcast exposure
.2.4 The Role of a Distributor. This is when a producer has to decide to engage a distributor or to attempt to self-distribute. The job of a distributor is not to take and ship orders. That's called "fulfillment" and for DVDs it's done in a warehouse in some remote, low-wage state. In the case of digital delivery, it's nothing more than an on-line "shopping cart" with e-commerce functionality hitched to a megaserver, (scatologically referred to as the "back-end."). A producer has no need to pay a distributor to do this; you can out-source your "fulfillment" to any number of inexpensive vendors.
A distributor is only of any use insofar as it promotes your film better than you could yourself. In this sense, distribution could be thought of as out-sourcing your community engagement, outreach and marketing. Promotion requires capital, time, a certain degree of expertise (or at least cunning) and a high tolerance for boredom. Over the past 42 years, Newsreel has come up with a general rule of thumb: we must invest $70,000 in promotion and overheads to generate $100,000 in gross revenues. That leaves $30,000 or a 30% royalty for the producer. (As a non-profit, Newsreel can give its entire operating surplus to its producers.) If your film has a small, highly concentrated market, you can probably self-distribute, if it appeals to several niche markets with a comparatively large number of potential purchasers you might need to engage a distributor. (For more on self-distribution, see section 4.8)
2.5 A Fifth Digital Delusion: Viral Marketing. We might add to the above list of four digital delusions, a fifth: that "viral marketing" can substitute for the hard work and expense of a professionally conducted marketing campaign. If you are convinced you are Justin Bieber (and who would want to be convinced of that) viral marketing is the thing for you. The rest of us will have to do some promotion. While the internet has definitely changed promotional tactics, it has not appreciably lowered their cost. In fact, there is so much cacophony in cyberspace that it's harder than ever to get your message heard above the din. A distributor used to mail perhaps 200,000 catalogs a year, exhibit at a dozen mind-numbing conventions, cajole critics into reviewing new releases in a dozen publications and make pandering sales calls to a few hundred Midwestern librarians. Not fun and not especially cheap but finite. Today, a distributor has to do all that plus build and maintain a website with dozens of pages of purportedly "unique" content, dream up daily marketing angles for its blog, keep posting on multiple Facebook pages, plant supposedly spontaneous plugs on list-serves, harvest names for an e-mail list to evade spam filters, send out e-mail e-newsletters and e-postcards and generate traffic and links to its site in pursuit of the holy grail of search engine optimization (SEO). The internet is not nearly as spontaneous as it seems; almost any savvy business has one or more people on staff to manipulate and manufacture viral marketing.
3. Opportunities and Hazards: A Cross-Platform Survey
3.1 Digital Rights Management Defined. Distributors, confronted with this bewildering array of delivery options and markets, have had to transform themselves into digital rights managers. This simply means designing a coordinated strategy for exploiting a film's rights across platforms in such a way as to maximize, rather than undercut, all these possible revenue streams. Such a strategy can't be planned after the "horse is out of the barn"; rather it needs to be fully in place well before your film is completed. The core of digital rights management is not signing over rights; as in any other distribution, it is planning a promotional campaign so your audience will know your film is out there. A film's launch or roll-out must be coordinated across platforms because promotion is cumulative, cascading in a ordered sequence from market to market. Therefore, distributors like Newsreel now offer cross-platform digital rights management services.
At first glance, digital
rights management might seem obvious: simply assign rights to the largest
number of distributors willing to take them. This strategy is called
"hyper-syndication" or "going-wide" and it is the
strategy of choice of the
Newsreel has distributed films across most of the existing delivery platforms and has found that each comes with its own opportunities and hazards which producers and distributors need to evaluate together. In the following sections, we sketch the risks and benefits of: festivals, theatrical, home DVD, institutional DVD, television (including cable, satellite and video-on-demand), digital delivery (to both the consumer and institutional markets), self-distribution and "free" streaming. The optimal distribution strategy will obviously depend on each film's intended audience and combine multiple delivery options.
3.2 Festivals: Sundance as Fetish. Festivals survive on the submission fees of producers and the tickets they sell for screening these producers' films without paying them a rental. In other words, festivals make money off producers not the other way around. The justification for this free lunch is that festivals promote films by giving them visibility prior to general release, what we have previously called pre-sale. This is rarely the case in practice. One screening to a hundred people in Podunk won't generate the publicity necessary for the high volume of home DVD sales required to generate any cash. Since festivals squeeze a large number of films into just a few days, they generate even less press coverage or "ink" per title than a normal theatrical opening. Festivals may offer producers glamour, applause and frequent flyer miles, but not exposure or sales. The few prestigious, North American festivals which attract national press coverage and might be worth attending, notably Toronto, New York, Full Frame (because sponsored by the New York Times), Sundance, SXSW, Telluride and Tribeca are highly competitive and usual choose films on the basis of their directors' previous reputation.
It is often asserted
that festivals attract the attention of distributors; this is said to
be especially true of Sundance. Let's look more closely at Sundance
since it has become a yearly ritual in the independent
producer community; like any religion it offers the hope of salvation
in the absence of any empirical evidence. Last year 7100 films were
submitted, 125 were selected and only 10 left
with distributors. In other words, they offer better odds in
3.3. Theatrical: The Lure of the Big Screen. Theatrical exhibition is closely allied to festival exhibition and suffers from a similar fault it doesn't provide the exposure most independent films need. There is a massive glut in the number of new films, so it's a buyer's market. As a result, only the most commercially promising titles stand a chance of turning up in theatres. Independent productions can expect short runs in just a few markets with declining local press coverage, lose Brobdingnatian amounts of money in return for Lilliputian visibility. Theatrical distributors characteristically receive only 35% to 40% of box office receipts and the producer only 60% of the producer's net revenues. Net revenues are calculated by subtracting the "direct costs" of theatrical distribution (prints, press kits, publicists, display advertising, etc) from the gross theatrical revenues received by the distributor. Since this is almost invariably a negative number, the producer ends up with nothing, actually less than nothing. This is because the distributor has the right to recoup its theatrical losses from subsequent DVD and digital revenues, a practice called cross-collateralization.
3.4 Home Video: The Great Chimera. Why then would any
distributor bother with theatrical distribution? Because they hope the
exposure resulting from it will generate enough home DVD and digital
sales to recoup their theatrical losses and eventually turn a profit.
In retail terms, theatrical release is a "loss leader." A
Distribution has been compared to a pyramid with theatrical exhibition at the apex and DVD and digital sales constituting its base; the larger the size of this apex, the larger the size of the base. Hence, your home video market will be directly proportional to your theatrical market. Volume is everything in the home/ consumer video market because unit margins are paper thin. A home video distributor characteristically gives producers a 25% royalty on its gross revenues (and sometimes, only its net after recovering up-front expenses.). But home video distributors, in contrast to institutional distributors, don't usually sell directly to the end-users; rather they act as wholesalers or middlemen for on- and off-line retailers ("storefronts") such as Blockbuster, Red Box, Netflix, Amazon or iTunes. These retailers take on average a 50% cut of the list price (which they have often the right to set') if the list price of your DVD is $19.99 (supposedly, the upper limit of "discretionary expenditures"), your home video distributor will receive only $10.00 from Amazon and you will receive only 25% of that or just $2.50 of each $19.99 DVD sale. Thus you need to sell 400 DVDs to earn a royalty of only $1000. Since, as mentioned above, 5,000 units is regarded as successful for an independent production, the upper limit of your home video revenues would equal a pathetic
3.5 The Institutional Market: Sizing It Up. This is better than nothing, you might say. But home DVD sales will severely undercut any higher priced sales you might make in the institutional or educational market, the universities, colleges, government agencies and businesses, where many documentaries generate the majority of their revenues. This market pays between $200 and $300 for a DVD and twice that for a license to stream your film to their students. Thus one sale of a DVD with a streaming license might generate $500 in gross revenues of which you would characteristically receive 30% or $150. Thus only 6 institutional sales would generate nearly the same royalty as 400 home DVD sales.
At present, a well-made documentary on an event, person or idea covered in the core university curriculum would expect to gross at least $100,000 in the educational market; its producer would then receive $30,000; four of Newsreel's current titles have grossed over $1.5 million in institutional sales alone; no home video. Therefore producers and their distributors need to weigh carefully the institutional against the home video potential of their films. Over-simplifying, they need to convince themselves that their film will sell 76 times more home DVDs than educational DVDs and streaming licenses before offering DVDs at home video prices. Remember, in the age of Google search, no institution is going to pay $250 for a DVD if it can buy the same DVD for $20 from Amazon and there is nothing illegal about doing so.
How can a producer or distributor estimate the size of the institutional market for a film? Actually, it's quite a simple and remarkably reliable calculation. Educators don't in general show films based on their cinematic quality so much as on their content; more specifically, on whether that content illustrates or explains a major point in the subject area they're teaching. (In high schools, these points are called "learning objects" and spelled out in mandatory state frameworks.) For colleges, there are lists of how many faculty members are teaching a particular subject each term compiled by list brokers like MDR (www.schooldata.com.) All you need do is ask yourself: how many teachers teach classes relevant to my film's subject and how many of these could be persuaded to devote an hour of class time to my film. Another obvious test is to select a comparable title and ask the producer or distributor how well it actually sold in the institutional market. An experienced educational distributor would probably welcome the opportunity to help since it is in the distributors' interest that producers make film which will have maximum curricular uses. At the same time, you need to take into account that your film may do better or worse considering the financial state of the institutional market and the promotional effort made by your distributor.
3.6 Plumbing: Price Seepage and How to Stop It. You may be able to avoid the difficult call between institutional and home video markets by using several prophylactic techniques Newsreel has developed to minimize "seepage," the unfortunate term for institutional purchases of low-priced home video sales. Such expedients, none elegant or fool-proof, include a) making purchasers of home DVDs check off on a license prohibiting in institutions, b) overprinting home DVDs at certain points with the same prohibition, c) disabling the remote to prevent viewing the film without first viewing this prohibition and d) offering a "special educational version" which might, in fact, differ by including a few inexpensive "DVD extras" such as transcript, study guide, producer's interview, some outs, etc. With digital delivery, it is much easier to control access and illicit use: the beginning of any stream can be preceded by the prohibition. Access to a stream is authenticated (password protected) such that home video streams to edu suffixes can be blocked; home video streams can be low res (400 kbps) preventing their digital projection. Such measures are required because of the wide-spread impunity, even sense of entitlement, within the academic community when it comes to pirating moving image content. <![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
3.7. TV/Cable/Satellite: The Great Rights Robbery. Television and cable pre-sales remain a major source of production funding for many independent productions. In the past, networks (such as PBS and HBO) were content asking for broadcast and cablecast rights alone; producers usually retained the so-called "ancillary" rights - theatrical, international, DVD and digital. "Digital convergence," the confluence of the previously discrete, "legacy" distribution channels on a single digital platform, the internet, means that "appointment television" as well as DVD rental and sales will increasingly be replaced by some form of either advertiser-supported or paid video-on-demand service. As a result, time-shifting and on-line viewing via services such as Hulu and iTunes have already eaten up a measurable segment of the broadcast audience. Internet/television connectivity is becoming more seamless; as many people viewed the 2009 Olympics on computers and mobile devices as television. In response, the network backers of independent work are not without reason demanding more or all of these digital rights.
Broadcast and cable networks front-load their promotion to aggregate new and repeat viewers around their weekly or monthly schedules, especially around on-going series. They depend on this "brand" or "franchise loyalty" to sell DVDs and digital rentals later on. This mass market, series-oriented mentality rarely works to the advantage of one-off, independently produced films since these programs lack the pre-sale these large "digital content aggregators" take for granted.
For example, the recognized PBS strands such as Nova, American Experience or Ken Burns' mega-series attract mass audiences and consequently large numbers of home DVD purchasers and digital renters; they have huge pre-sale by virtue of their brand, longevity and corporately underwritten publicity. In contrast, a one-off, independent documentary, even with decent carriage (increasingly more the exception than the rule) won't generate the visibility necessary for significant post-broadcast sales. For example, POV and Independent Lens normally generate only 300 post-broadcast DVD sales; in contrast, 75,000 units is the benchmark for the networks. Hence, a mass marketer like PBS has no incentive to do the sort of intensive, targeted, long-term promotion necessary to gain the high penetration of smaller niche markets independent productions require.
3.8 Unbundling Digital Rights: Monetizing the "Long-Tail". There may, however, be ways to unbundle these tangled digital rights so that independent films can realize their full economic and social potential. One-off, independent work will receive 90% of its mass market viewers during the first month after its initial broadcast; in the absence of "name recognition," there will be little after-market. This initial audience is therefore all that matters to advertisers/corporate underwriters and hence to the networks, including PBS and HBO. Independent films, however, generate the majority of their "ancillary" revenues during the so-called "long tail" after the initial bulge in a film's viewing curve. Therefore, it makes sense for producers to give the networks a few months, exclusive streaming window, after which the "long-tail" digital rights would revert to the producer. The networks could capture the eye-balls they crave during their window and producers could get the "long-tail" niche market revenues they depend on year after year.
As PBS has demonstrated abundantly over the years, it will haggle over rights it has no idea what to do with. It has never been the cutting-edge of distribution innovation, tied as it is to the anachronism of 300 terrestrial stations. Nonetheless, producers should remember that contract negotiations, even with public television entities, need not result in unconditional surrender. If producers stand firm on unbundling these digital rights so they get what they need, networks may not be willing to lose a show to hold onto rights they don't need. Two caveats: non-exclusive digital rights are no answer; they are worthless since the network's low or no-price distribution will effectively undercut whatever market is developed through independent distribution. Second, any video downloading during the broadcast window will decimate "long-tail revenues" as a result of file sharing; during the broadcast window only RTMP streaming should be permitted; thereafter, any access to the content must be through the producer of his or her designated distribution agent.
3.9 Digital Distribution: The Consumer Market. Assuming you still have any digital rights, you will probably want to monetize them in the consumer and/or institutional markets. Both these markets are in their infancy or, at least, rambunctious adolescence, so they both still present an unsettled, not to say unsettling, picture. This volatility only makes well-informed, carefully coordinated digital rights management more essential.
Today the dominant model for monetizing on-line content in the consumer market is advertiser supported, as it has been for television; examples would include Hulu or You Tube. This model would prove disastrous for most independent films since they have a limited, special interest audience, while ad rates are set at mass market rates; that is, in the millions of eye-balls. Google is notoriously secretive about how much of its You Tube ad revenues end up in the hands of producers but anecdotal evidence suggests it is under $.01 per unique viewer. To put this in perspective: 20,000 You Tube views would return the same revenue as just one institutional DVD sale. Ad rates will probably improve as viewer-profiling allows more targeted advertising but not by a comparable factor.
This development should not be interpreted as meaning pay-per-view will disappear; co-existence of different models, for example, broadcast, basic and premier cable, is a more likely outcome. The frequent assertion that "people" (which people?) won't pay for on-line content is, like most internet truisms, demonstrably false. In fact, there is no one internet, just as there is no one kind of social network, but a multiplicity of ways and reasons for using on-line content. If a producer makes a unique film responsive to the needs of motivated buyers, they will be willing to pay for that content, just as they pay for everything else they value in their vocational and avocational lives. Only couch potatoes and tweaked site surfers won't pay for content.
In fact, paid content
is increasingly the norm for anything more substantial than old
No standard pricing model has emerged in the consumer digital market place. Digital rentals (streaming) can cost between $.99 and $9.99 and digital sales (downloads) between 4.99 and 19.99. Unhappily, that's not what a producer would receive. For example, for a $2.99 iTunes rental, iTunes pays a middleman (a content aggregator like Docurama) $2.10 or 70%; Docurama retains 15% of this, and pays the film's distributor $1.80 or 59% of the retail price; the distributor then returns $.72. or 40% of its gross to the producer. That still equals 72 times what you would receive from a You Tube view. On-line subscription services such as Snag Films is now promoting areturn between $.10 and $.01 per view. Experienced producers will tell you that the average documentary can't expect to make more than a few thousand dollars from iTunes distribution. Since we're not talking about mass market titles marketed through the mass media, digital rentals and sales require the same sort of intensive, focused marketing as special interest DVD.
As noted above, no one has yet to make a sustainable business from digital distribution in the consumer market. As an experiment, Newsreel placed five feature length films, all of which had enjoyed limited theatrical releases, with three, widely heralded digital content aggregators: Indiepix, Jaman and Voodoo (since sold to Wal-Mart as an HD channel.) After two years, the combined revenues for all five titles from all three of these distributors came to under $1200. So much for the digital delusion of a vast, new on-line market. How, a producer must ask, can these start-ups remain in business and, more pertinently, why should our films pay the operating costs of somebody's else's get-rich-quick scheme? Eventually, even their venture capitalist backers will wise up and turn off the flow of money keeping these misbegotten enterprises afloat.
3.10 Digital Distribution: The Institutional Market. Like the consumer market, the future of the institutional market
remains blurred. Most universities are still wedded to the idea of buying
a hard copy like a book or DVD
so that it can gather dust on their library's shelves. Hence, their
preference is to license perpetual rights to stream a title either from
their own (local) server or from the distributor's (remote) server.
A distributor can, of course, only agree to stream
a film for the life of its contract with the producer so streaming licenses
have a fixed term, usually one, three or five years. At the moment,
a long-term streaming license generally costs the same price as a DVD,
that is between $200 and $300; since a streaming license usually also
requires DVD purchase, the total cost would come to $400 to $600 in all. Films Media Group, with
over 12,000 educational titles, sells three-year streaming subscriptions
to its titles for the bargain basement price of $125, the same price
as their DVDs .
Ambrose Digital, another large educational distributor, has divided its collection into roughly three minute clips or "learning objects" which it sells to universities for $10 a year. Newsreel believes this tends to undercut the integrity of a film, as well as reduce the likely revenues for its producer. The movement toward using excerpts rather than complete works seems inexorable; there is nothing a distributor can or perhaps should do to prevent teachers from using clips but we don't need to encourage them. Both Films Media Group and Ambrose Digital also sell multiple titles at deep discounts; for example, Ambrose Digital offers unlimited access to 50 hours of films for only $850 a year, well below Newsreel's prices
A parallel or supplemental, but by no means mutually exclusive, model for delivering films to the institutional market is the on-line digital database. Here an entire collection of thematically-related print or moving image content is made available for annual or long-term subscription (sale.) The database platform provider transcribes all this content to make it keyword searchable and provides users with a "cut and paste" functionality, so they can embed the corresponding footage in standard course management software (CMS) such as Blackboard. The leader in this field, Alexander Street Press, bases its subscription prices on an institution's full time enrollment (FTE).This, Newsreel believes, is a long-overdue, first-step towards a more equitable correlation between a film's price and its actual use. This becomes especially important now that distributors must absorb a "usage charge" for each time a student views a stream. Alexander Street Press charges between $3,000 and $30,000 for long-term subscriptions based on FTE. Producers receive 25% of this revenue based on the number of hours of content they contribute to a database.
Newsreel has been approached to compile 50 hours of its older (backlist) titles into an African American Documentary Database; we would, at the same time, continue to distribute the films as individual titles from our own digital delivery platform. This raises several key issues for Newsreel and its producers. Can royalties be divided based not on the hours of content in the database but the hours of content used? Shouldn't the royalty for finished films be higher than the 25% for unedited footage? Most importantly, who will pay for the digital clearances necessary for any digital distribution of these classic titles, most pre-dating the digital era?
A third form of digital delivery to the institutional market is individual student digital rental, characteristically access to a digital stream for a week on two or three digital devices for a fixed number of plays. Some instructors, confronted with the Draconian cuts in school budgets occasioned by the present economic climate have resorted to requiring their students to rent films themselves from an on-line distributor. Students have always had to buy their own books; institutional purchase of moving image instructional resources is merely a technological artifact from the era of 16mm projection. It could be argued that a $2.99 or $3.99 rental is an affordable student expense compared with a $100 textbook, a $30 anthology, to say nothing of a $15 ticket to "Avatar." If students did have to rent their "audiovisual texts" at a low, consumer price, say $2.99 a week, producers would receive 40% of that revenue or $1.20 per rental. Thus, only 50 digital rentals would equal the $60 royalty a producer earns from a $200 institutional DVD purchase and 100 rentals would double the present return to the producer. And, since such rentals would be exclusively available from a distributor's own digital streaming site, the rake-off by middlemen would be eliminated. Of course, the distributor would still need to convince instructors (not their students) to assign a particular film which would require the same labor-intensive promotion required for an educational DVD. Unfortunately from a producer's point of view, this model is not in wide-spread use but universities have never scrupled before to pass costs onto students and their families.
An added advantage to digital rentals is that they can accommodate home consumers at the same time as individual students with no fear of "seepage" since the price of a single rental would be the same. Over-printing, a licensing agreement and/or low-resolution rental scans could prevent the use of rentals in class using digital projection. Thus RTMP digital streaming actually give producers more control over their films than is possible with downloads or DVDs.
3.11 One Last Digital Delusion: "Free!" We want to end this
over-long survey with a final example of digital hypsterism which has
to be admired if only for its sheer audacity. It's called "Free!"
with an exclamation point and it argues that the best way to monetize
on-line content is not to monetize it at all. It's the latest, best-selling
"high-concept" from celebrated Wired
magazine publisher and futurologist, Chris Anderson. <![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The idea,
if it can be dignified as such, is to give your film away free on-line
as bait to reel in suckers to buy spin-off products, paraphrasing Clausewitz,
to "monetize" content by other means.
Newsreel, never averse to an innovative fund-raising strategy, decided to test this "patronage" model. During the 2009 healthcare debate, we mounted a nation-wide "Watch-In! For America's Health," a free month-long streaming of a new, 90 minute documentary on healthcare reform by Academy Award winning producer, Alex Gibney, entitled Money-Driven Medicine. We even established a stand-alone website with resources, a link to Congress and a donate option next to the streaming window. During the month only 4,300 people viewed the film, donating all of $600 - a little more than $.13 per view. So much for viral marketing and the generosity of on-line viewers.
4. Distributors and Their Contracts: Confessions of a Distributor
4.1 Distributors: Supermarket or Boutique? Let's assume that you do want to receive some sort of compensation for your work. How do you find a distributor or distributors who can help you do that or how can you do it for yourself? Again, this goes back to audience, who your film was designed to reach and how best to reach them. And today that means how best to manage your digital rights. If you feel confident in your understanding of this new digital marketplace, you can design your own digital rights management strategy. If not, you should ask for help and not from some consultant who has never sold a DVD in his or her life but from someone involved on a daily basis in the distribution of moving image content.
If your film will appeal to the mass, consumer market (as we've said, few independent films do) then you'll need a mainstream home video wholesaler who can get your film into Blockbuster, Walmart, Hulu and iTunes, the bricks-and-mortar retailers and on-line storefronts. Unless you have had a 1000 screen theatrical release, these behemoths won't return your phone calls. As a result, most independent films end up with small, specialized "boutique" or "niche" distributors with expertise in reaching their target audiences.
Lorber, Docurama, Kino and Facets focus on the special interest (documentaries, foreign films) consumer market while distributors like Newsreel specialize in the institutional market.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> No digital rights manager will be equally adept in all your film's markets but they also can't afford to split markets among themselves. The market for these films simply isn't big enough to support two separate marketing efforts. Fortunately, the special interest consumer and institutional markets tend to overlap, so a competent niche distributor should be able to reach most of your potential audiences. Therefore, you need to look for a distributor with demonstrated expertise marketing films on your type of subject to your type of audience(s.) Don't expect a distributor to master a whole new market just for your film; it takes years and dozens of film to build an extensive promotion network, strong buyer base and established credibility among your intended customers.
4.2 The Right Distributor for Your FIlm. How can you find the right distributor to manage your digital rights? The good/bad news is that you don't have a lot of choices, especially if you limit yourself to distributors who have survived for more than five years. If they haven't, how much could they have learned? Do you want to pay for their learning curve? You spent months researching your film, so it's worth spending a month or two finding the right distributor and building a digital rights strategy with them.
First, find out who already distributes titles similar to yours. Ask prospective buyers of your film where they'd look to find films on your subject and whom they have bought films from in the past? It goes without saying that a distributor's website will tell you most of what you need to know about what and how it does. Don't be impressed by frills; ask if the point of the site is clearly to drive sales of individual titles similar to your own. The strengths of a distributor's existing library will tell you where its strength in marketing lies. Ask for examples of past print and web promotion; what a distributor has done in the past is the best indication of what it will do in the future, not blue skies promises. Each distributor should have a distinct style which will appeal to your audience. Finally, make the extra effort of speaking with a producer who has worked with that distributor. Even if you don't know them, most producers will be happy to share their opinions about their distributors. Since producers are congenitally disgruntled with their distributors, you'll probably have to decide who is the least unhappy.
The following four sections are an attempt to walk producers through the most important contractual issue you'll want to negotiate with any digital rights management firm. It will also give you an inside look at what distributors are looking for in a contract and, not coincidentally, the things you should look out for. Although you and your distributor share a common objective of maximizing audience and hence revenue from your film, it's important to work closely at the outset to clearly define what your priorities will be in term of audience and to set realistic objectives for your film's success. This will forestall recriminations later on. While disagreements over what these should be are perfectly legitimate, a cordial and constructive relationship must be grounded in consensus. As in a marriage, don't expect your distributor will become what you want it to be; it won't, it will continue to be what it already is.
4.3 The Contract: Exclusive vs. Non-Exclusive Rights. Since most conscientious and experienced distributors now think of themselves as digital rights management firms, they'll usually need exclusive DVD and digital rights so they can effectively "manage" them to maximize their (and hence your) income across the different markets and platforms discussed above. Digital rights managers sell both direct to end-users and through selected retailers who can reach a market more effectively than they can. It is reasonable to believe that a distributor knows more about the sales potential of your film than you or a "distribution consultant." You know more about filmmaking than your distributor; so the opposite should also be true. If you don't think it is, there's no reason to engage a distributor in the first place.
Many digital rights management firms will, however, accept non-exclusive deals which divide the digital markets among several distributors; the broadcast window discussed above is a relatively innocuous example. But the smaller the market you give a distributor, the smaller the income it can count on and the less money it can safely spend promoting your film. For example, sub-distributors (digital content aggregators) depend largely on the effort of other distributors to establish a films' visibility. Since all the other sub-distributors will have the same thought, no one will have an incentive to do a thorough marketing campaign. Thus in the non-exclusive or hyper-syndication model, your film could be available everywhere, yet no one would know it was there, let alone worth buying.
There is one significant exception to this principle concerning exclusivity. Many distributors will agree to let producers retain the right to distribute their film themselves at personal appearances or from their own website or in a clearly circumscribed special interest market. Over the years, Newsreel, for example, has carved out rights for producers to distribute their films to "faith-based" groups, labor unions, public libraries or in a particular state. We recognize that producers usually have better ties to the immediate communities in which their films were shot and can reach these audiences better than we could. The one thing no sane distributor will allow a producer to do is assign (grant) his or her retained rights to some low-price, mass market sub-distributor like Netflix, Blockbuster, iTunes or Amazon.
4.4 The Contract: Term of the Agreement. Because of the "long-tail" phenomenon and the need to be able to sell up to five year streaming licenses, the term or duration of contracts has lengthened from five years to seven or ten; some international content aggregators are even demanding up to twenty-five years. These "life sentences" can be mitigated somewhat, by setting a "performance guarantee"; that is, a minimum amount of gross revenues which must be generated by a given date or the producer has the right to terminate or alter the agreement. Also, contracts can become non-exclusive after a number of years, giving a distributor sufficient time to recoup its promotional expenditures and then giving other distributors a chance to see if they can squeeze additional revenue from a film.
4.5 The Contract: Gross vs. Net Deals. In return for your assignment of rights, you will receive
a royalty or percentage of either the gross or net revenues earned by
the distributor. Net royalty percentages are usually higher than those
for gross but more susceptible to manipulation. This is because net
income is calculated by subtracting specified distribution-related expenses
from gross income, as discussed in section 3.2 above.
Net deals provide distributors an almost irresistible temptation to
shift "indirect costs" (salaries, overheads, convention exhibition,
catalogs, etc) onto the "direct costs" of a title. It is no
A gross, as opposed to net, deal is much more straightforward. It pays the producer a royalty as a fixed percentage of all gross income the distributor derives from your film - from the first dollar earned with no deductions. Current industry standards for gross royalties, staunchly defended by distributors as based on their historic costs, are:25% to 35% of gross institutional DVD sales, 20% to 30% of gross home DVD sales and 40% of digital rentals and sales. The reason for these differences is that the manufacturing, "transaction" and promotion costs of a $24.95 home DVD and $195 institutional DVD are roughly the same but those costs' percentage of the sale price is markedly different; 72% for home DVD; versus 33% for institutional and 50% for digital rental (including the producer's royalty.)
Be wary of any distributor who offers you an unusually high royalty. The only way they can afford to do this is by spending virtually nothing promoting your film in which case that high percentage isn't worth much, 100% of nothing still is nothing. Some digital start-ups offer unrealistic royalties either because they don't know what they're doing or are desperate for any content to generate an immediate cash flow to pay themselves. Inexperience and inadequate working capital are not desirable qualities in a distributor. Candor requires us to note that it is not altogether unheard of for distributors to defer royalties for years on end, regardless of their contracts, essentially bankrolling their business out of producer's unpaid royalties. You should never forget that nine out of ten start-up businesses fail their creditors with worthless paper. There are still plenty of Bernie Madoffs out there in the brave new world of digital delivery. If an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is.
4.6. The Contract: Advances and Performance Guarantees. Producers should always bear in mind that it costs a distributor nothing to sign a contract; all the expense comes later in the promotion. Therefore, as the producer you deserve some assurance the distributor will work for its 70% percent of the gross. The most reliable test, again, is past performance. A producer should be willing to share its track record with you; ask to see how well a film similar to yours performed; discuss the results; claims of confidentiality are usually a cover-up; redaction is always possible.
Producers often request a one-time, non-refundable advance against future royalties; this could be regarded as a "good faith guarantee" that the distributor will do enough to promote the film so that it will at least recoup the advance. You should not expect this advance to equal your total royalty income over the life of the contract, only for the first year or two. For example, If a distributor won't advance $3,000 for a title, it either isn't sure the film will gross more than $10,000 soon or its cash flow is so tight it can't free-up a few thousand dollars for an advance. Neither augurs well for the future success of your film.
It is unreasonable to expect an advance for a non-exclusive deal, a contract renewal, a re-release or release in a different format since in these instances, because at this point in the "long tail" is too reduced to predict with any certainty. Producers could think of an advance as a zero interest loan or an increase in the royalty percentage until repaid. As such it entails, an "opportunity cost," the foregone income the distributor could derive from investing these same funds in stocks, bonds or simply promoting its existing films more effectively.
Producers can also ask that some concrete promotional guarantees are included in the contract. This could take the form of a commitment to print and mail a certain number of flyers or postcards promoting your film or to screen your film at some conferences you thought especially important for your title. Distributors are understandably reluctant to surrender some of their prerogative over their promotion budgets and should, in theory, know better than producers how most efficiently to spend those funds. Nonetheless, if they don't agree with your ideas, they should be prepared to commit themselves to alternatives which make sense to you.
4.7 Outreach vs. Distribution: A False Dichotomy. Of late, foundations who "don't fund production," have not hesitated to squander hundreds of thousands of dollars on extravagant, ill-considered "community engagement campaigns" and "outreach consultants."<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Most of this money would have been better spent funding the production of films which wouldn't need such a hard-sell because communities would immediately recognize they wanted them. If a production is truly "audience-centered," it will have been made in such close contact with its intended audience that much of the "outreach" will be done before its completed and the community itself will eagerly promote the film through its own indigenous networks.
In actuality, the distinction between "outreach" and "distribution" is largely artificial; the two are or should be inextricably linked and self-reinforcing. The whole outreach fad simply interposes unnecessary middlemen between producers, distributors and end users. Most of what passes for "outreach," any good distributor already does as part of its normal costs of doing business. Today, distribution and outreach should be subsumed in an overall digital rights management strategy for establishing a film's public profile and bringing it to the audiences who most urgently need it. Activists are a film's most effective advocates and the core of any successful viral marketing drive. They are, in effect, a highly motivated, unpaid sales force whose influence reaches beyond their immediate constituency to a film's peripheral audiences.
For these reasons, distributors regard advocacy and community groups as the indispensable marketing base both for institutional and home video sales. One of the cardinal rules of distribution and, we would suggest social change organizing in general, is "don't reinvent the wheel;" don't colonize a community by creating your own parallel outreach network; work through the existing networks in that community; they know it better than you and if they don't embrace your film, it's probably because they have no real use for it. One of the most time-consuming tasks at Newsreel is forming outreach partnerships with activist organizations to explore ways the film can be used to strengthen their on-going programs and objectives. It will then be an idiomatic part of their website, newsletter, trainings and annual meetings. Throughout this process, Newsreel tries to remain as inconspicuous as possible; we aim for a "transparent interface" between the film and its audience.
Organizing should always drive filmmaking; the idea that films can drive organizing is as arrogant as it is preposterous, a vanity of filmmakers and their funders. Too often, money for a film would have been better spent first building the organizations necessary to use that film. Therefore rather than hiring an outreach specialist, a producer needs to find a distributor who knows enough not to make the false distinction between outreach and distribution because it already has deep roots in the communities and organizations you want to reach.
<![if !supportLists]>4.8 <![endif]>When Self-Distribution Makes Sense. So far, this guide has deliberately ignored the possibility of self-distribution. This is not just because we, as life-long distributors, can't imagine anyone who would voluntarily enter this business. It's also been our experience that most producers would rather spend two years of their life making their next film rather than flogging their last; filmmaking is all what they do. Having said that, there are many producers whose dedication to their subject matter is so deep that they want to assume sole responsibility for seeing their film reaches its intended public. Frederick Wiseman, Bill Greaves, Ellen Bruno and the Kartemquin Film collective have self-distributed their films with great success for many years. There is even a hybrid, self-distribution cooperative, the venerable and highly regarded New Day Films group. The important thing is to go into self-distribution with your "eyes wide open."
Everything we've said about the importance of marketing obviously remains true for self-distribution. So the question a filmmaker must ask is: am I prepared to invest the time and money my film needs and deserves? Self-distribution has the obvious advantage that producers get to keep 100% of gross revenues not just 30%. On the other hand, they get to pay 100% of the promotional expenses instead of 0%. And there is no guarantee that a distributor, amateur or professional, will actually recoup all these expenses from revenues, let alone that they will generate surplus for themselves. In fact, we know most films don't cover these expenses, only so-called "tent-pole" titles. We know one filmmaker who was very pleased with the income her film had generated, until we pointed out to her that she hadn't paid herself for two years. Never value your time as worthless; it is, in the end, your most precious commodity.
One thing is certain: no one will promote a film with more conviction of its importance than its producer. Even if that conviction smacks of self-aggrandizement, it can be a powerful marketing tool. With self-distribution, the producer retains ultimate control over the success or failure of his or her film; that can be a powerful incentive and an abiding source of satisfaction. In addition, self-distributors enjoy several cost advantages; they can distribute out of their homes, writing off a part of their rent or mortgage as a business expense. They can also do it in their spare time, as a kind of second job, though no one would ever regard distribution as a leisure-time activity. It's no secret to independent producers that between productions, they often have an excess of free time.
A second question a self-distributor needs to ask is: do I have the funds a professional promotional effort demands? At the end of a production, a self-distributor needs not only to pay off post-production costs and rights clearances but to have reserved a substantial amount of capital because marketing is, by its nature, frontend-loaded. Newsreel estimates that promotion costs between a minimum of $25,000 and a maximum of $100,000 to do a film justice. One hopes this money will come back eventually in sales but, as they say, "you have to spend money to make money."
Distributing just your one title also means producers can't benefit from "economies of scale" which is one reason New Day Films was formed. Labs quote you a lower price if you duplicate 100,000 DVDs a year rather than just 1,000; a booth at a convention costs $1500 whether you have one film or one hundred to exhibit. It is no secret that outreach grants are frequently diverted to pay production costs the foundation wouldn't fund; but this ruse means those funds won't be there to promote the film. In addition, a self-distributor will be starting at the top of the learning curve, while a more experienced distributor will be at the bottom and it can be a bumpy ride down. At the same time, other independent producers usually are eager to share their advice and experience. Finally, a self-distributor can't rely on an existing buyer base or immediate credibility with purchasers; habit shapes behavior; people are more likely to order films from a vendor they know and trust than an unknown source.
As a general rule, the larger the potential market for a film, the more it needs the expertise and resources only a distributor can provide. On the other hand, if a film has a small, narrowly focused but highly-motivated audience, a producer can probably distribute the film with a minimum expenditure of time and money and a maximum return. For example, a film was produced on vintage Harley Davidson motorcycles, certainly a specialized interest, it was self-distributed and sold over 25,000 home video copies. The producer promoted it simply by attending a national rally and taking out ads in one or two motorcycle magazines. Because its content was unique, it was a "must buy" for anyone interested in its subject.
Finally, there are undoubted satisfactions in bringing a film to the people for whom you made it, watching their reactions, helping them recognize its value. In a sense, the "politics" of a film is never inside the film but only in its distribution; if a film is not seen and used effectively, a film has no politics. So, whether you self-distribute or select a distributor, a producer's responsibility for its political impact doesn't stop in the editing suite.
4.9 Direct-to Video: DIY, the Distributor of Last Resort. One of the most positive consequences of low cost digital production and delivery is that it has allowed many more films to be made and simultaneously provided the means for their distribution. It is axiomatic that the higher the number of films, the lower the percentage of them which will receive significant festival, theatrical or television release. Many of these films also won't fill a core curricular need or appeal to a special interest audience. As a result, the vast majority of films will never find a distributor. As a result, most producers will have no choice but to self-distribute whether they want to or not.
Here the web has made a tremendous contribution to media accessibility and diversity. A. "direct-to-digital" strategy allows any content producer to make his or her film instantly available to everyone on the web for next to nothing. Services like Fliqz allow you up to 50,000, 1 gigabyte streams for $200 a month. There are many simple, open-source software applications which allow you to construct your own website and e-commerce functionality that are readily and cheaply available. But at this level of distribution, the revenue you're likely to earn will be negligible and even counter-productive since it will scare off many potential viewers. In addition, there is an increasing number of You Tube like services which aggregate and stream free content, usually focusing on a specific type of content, for example, experimental video (eg Ubiweb, Tank TV, Vimeo).
As already pointed out, access doesn't automatically translate into audience. The information glut currently on the web and the preference given by search engines to the most frequently visited sites, the chance that someone will stumble across a lone film lost in cyberspace is infinitesimal. Perhaps your film will be the one in a million which spreads like Ebola virus across the web but these tend to feature fuzzy mammals and depraved celebrities. Your chances of a digital hit may be very slim and your public not terribly discriminating but before the internet, you didn't have a chance. In the end, it may not matter how many people your film touches, providing it touches you.
If your ambitions are for an audience wider than friends and family, you'll have to invest a little time into promotion without the prospect of a return. This is where "viral marketing" has a valid, indeed invaluable role to play. The key is aggregating a core of fans around your film and then motivating, even training them, to act as viral publicists. Provide them with a widget (video clip or trailer), an e-poster or e-postcard, anything which will encourage them to post something about your film on all the social networks they belong to. Ignore all the blather about daily blogging and posting new content on your site. Most people subscribe to fewer than ten blogs and rss feeds. Why would one just about your film be among them? A far better use of your time, would be to get mentioned in a few of the most influential blogs your target audience already visits. There are numerous techniques which purport to attract the attention of bloggers. We've found that the most important are pertinence and persistence. Focus on only the most relevant blogs. This isn't a matter of just one e-mail but a multi-pronged attack; they don't call publicists "flaks" for nothing.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is another digital panacea foisted on unsuspecting producers. Basically, it's a set of tricks for increasing your ranking in Google searches (Google has already figured how to circumvent most of them.) Newsreel has found that fewer than 15% of the visitors to our site result from keyword searches as opposed to film title or Newsreel searches and 86% of keyword searches are "bounces," that is the visitor spent less than 30 seconds on the site, a strong indication they didn't want to be there in the first place. Rank depends largely on how many visitors and links are attached to the site where the keyword exists. Thus any film distributed by Amazon will list Amazon ahead of the film's own website. The most popular search terms are naturally those with the longest list of results and the largest sites are. Let's say your film is number 150,000 under the keyword "human rights;" even if SEO can double your rank you're still only number 75,000; what difference will that make. Self-distributors can always find a more efficient way to promote their films than SEO.
5. Integrating Production and Distribution: From Documentary to Database
5.1 Building Your On-Line Presence. This producer's guide began by saying that an audience and distribution strategy should precede production. But they both also need to be integrated into production, from before a frame of film is shot to long after the film's release. This is a consequence of the discursive drift, we've noted from "film" to "moving image content," a shift, or even paradigmatic rupture, which marks a new reciprocity and interactivity between on-line viewers - or better users - and on-line content.
It could be argued, the first step of any production has nothing to do with a camera or even a script. It should be putting up a bare-bones website and Facebook page. This is the grain of sand around which your entire project will pearl, both your content and its distribution. You should begin your production with more questions than answers. Ask visitors to your site for their reactions and critiques of your nascent ideas. Solicit story ideas and home movie footage and post them on your website; such "user generated content" or "crowd-sourcing"<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> is not intended so much for inclusion in your films as to generate a sense of inclusion around your film. You could sponsor a contest to name your film and you shouldn't be surprised if your entry wins. As production progresses, post stills, some dailies, a trailer, even the rough-cut of a chapter and ask for feedback; there's no obligation to use it. Keep an on-line diary and post relevant news clippings to keep interest strong. You can even ask for donations on your site or through sites like Kick-starters or Indiegogo; don't expect to raise more than a couple thousand dollars; your donors will be more useful as fervent advocates with an investment in your film's success. Remember: at this stage the point of your site is not to attract the masses, who, in any event, won't come, but to accrete a core of activists, fans, groupies, zealots, call them what you will, who will become the evangelists for your film, the flying wedge of your viral marketing and sales offensive.
If your film has a particular constituency or social change objective, form a circle of organizational "outreach partners" from the very beginning. An environmental scan will identify the key organizations for your film and a needs assessment of these groups will not only know what these organizations are doing but make them feel that your project is responding to their needs not your whimsy, thus adding to the projects credibility. Turn the results of your scan into a resource database of stakeholders in your subject and report the results of your assessment as a "media agenda" for that field. Your film should figure prominently on that agenda. Post both the resource database and assessment results on your proto-website and circulate press-releases to the leading organization and foundations in that field. This will attract still more opinion makers to your site and lend your project a legitimacy, even a kind of inevitability. Use your growing authority, to assemble a prestigious "advisory board" by using "pyramiding endorsements." This means first approaching widely respected researchers and practitioners and then using their endorsements to attract the support of relevasnt national figures, politicians, celebrities and philanthropists for your project.
Since your website, outreach partners and advisors will form the core of your project's marketing campaign, your digital rights management partner needs to be fully involved from the start of your production. In fact, producers should ask their future distributor to contribute its long-term knowledge of your field to every aspect of your production.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Conceive your own website as eventually a satellite to your distributor's, since it will eventually lead to the distributor's shopping cart, just as purchasers will be lead back to your site for background and resource materials. The interface between the two sites needs to be as transparent as possible.
5.2 Constructing a Documentary Database. As your film is produced, your website will imperceptibly morph into a multi-media "documentary database," offering a robust, on-line context for using your film. Here your audience can study its subject in depth, interact with it at will, discuss its implications with each other and translate its insights into action. It may be necessary to "think" a film, or rather films, not just or even primarily as a single long-form, linear documentary but as the backbone of a total on-line learning experience. In other words, producers in the future may conceive their project and its ultimate "deliverable," as a web-based "ensemble" of multi-media content and applications targeted to a particular audience's needs. What we're used to thinking of as a film's web-site might better be described as a professional development or organizing platform with moving image content, in other words, a documentary database.
What this means concretely is that your long-form documentary also needs to be considered as the building blocks of a number of different films, framing your subject for different audiences and different needs. This moving image content will be nested within print, film, graphic and database materials, for example, transcripts, complete versions of interviews, related articles, discussion guides, a comments log and user-generated clips, playlists, even remixes. This vertical stacking of enrichment material around a horizontal documentary core, the narrative of your film, resembles the footnotes, references, sources, glosses and marginalia of a book and has been termed "hypertext" because it adds new dimensions to a one-dimensional, linear text. Such a database can be compiled with surprising ease out of many of the materials you will use in making your film, as well as content contributed by its users. The key is having a site architecture where documents can be easily stored and linked during and after the production process. Such a documentary hypertext would therefore not be a fixed text but an open-ended, accretive, living conversation.
One can easily become intoxicated with the possibilities of such a database. Sober reflection will reveal that most people are experiencing information overload on the internet; they don't want more content, they want better content, selectively curated, unique content which adds real value to the viewing experience. Perhaps there needs to be more editors on the internet (the too-often vilified gatekeepers) and fewer content producers. Interestingly, blogs began as trusted referral services to noteworthy content elsewhere on the web. Today their compilers have transformed themselves into the content itself. It's hardly surprising though distressing that, given the chance, people would rather hear their own opinions than listen to the carefully considered opinions of others. The internet illustrates the fatal weakness of populism.
5.3 Repurposing and Multi-Versioning Your Film. A digital database allows both producers and users to "repurpose" or "multi-version" their films and contextual materials, customizing them to particular audiences and uses. Thus, one film can spawn three, thirty or three hundred different films. For example, Newsreel's release of Alex Gibney's 86 minute documentary on healthcare (mentioned above) proved too long for some users, especially activists working on passage of the health care bill. Accordingly, Newsreel broke the film into nineteen, five minute thematic chapters ("conceptual units" or "learning objects") which we then rearranged into: a 50minute educator's version focused on healthcare economics; a 38 minute physician's version concentrating on the doctor-patient relationship; an 18 minute advocate's version for use in public briefings and as a discussion-starter at meetings, and a 3 minute trailer. A four-hour series Newsreel itself produced on health equity, "Unnatural Causes," has been excerpted into ten "learning modules," each with its own user's guide. The award-winning website, www.unnaturalcauses.org, is regularly updated with breaking news by the American Public Health Association.
Some documentary producers have begun to "serialize" their films, releasing one chapter and then fundraising around it to pay for the next. Serialization has a long tradition; Dickens' novels were released in this form. By the end of such a serialized film, additional chapters and epilogs, up-dates, etc. will probably have suggested themselves so what started as a linear film could be transformed into an on-going, e-journal offering a steady stream of topical, multi-media content. There are already several on-line video journals on subjects where video works better than print and where content can be produced inexpensively, often by the researchers and practitioners themselves, including orthopedics, psychotherapy, anthropological field studies, experimental biology and soon Newsreel's own American Birthright early childhood development project.
This new digital platform not only increases filmmakers' freedom to offer enriched multi-media content targeted to specific audiences, it also allows users themselves, in effect, to produce their own "films." They can explore the contents of a documentary database in any sequence they choose: the entire documentary start-to-finish, chapter-by-chapter, rearranging chapters, stopping to read more detailed print material, adding their own commentary and notes to the film; in short, individualizing their experience of the database to their own interests and goals. A documentary database should also support simple editing software enabling its users to compose their own multi-media presentations - power-points, courseware and training modules, which can then be added to the site. Such applications do not restrict users to the content on just one database site but can render the boundaries between sites and formats invisible.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
One intriguing use of these interactive, documentary databases is the "database documentary," an emerging, documentary form composed of "significant narrative units" deliberately designed to be arranged by each "viewer," allowing multiple pathways through the database and giving rise to hundreds of permutations of the original documentary content<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. The database documentary, like the documentary database, adds a performative dimension to what has heretofore been a purely passive viewing experience.
5.4 Return to the Audience. With this new, interactive on-line interface, this guide comes full circle back to the audience where it began, no longer passive viewers but active users of a media tool, real-time participants and actors in the individual and collective creation of meaning. The fact that most people presently use the internet for meretricious ends merely confirms the truth that any technology will only be as good as the society using it, incorporating, replicating and reinforcing its values, good and bad. Just as technotopian hype betrays a profound naivety about the relation between a technical idiom and its implementation, so too, contemporary Luddites blame technology for its abuses, thus diverting attention from the real perpetrators global capitalism and its accomplices and victims, the denizens of the internet, us. It is ultimately our responsibility for how a technology, like any other resource including human resources, is deployed.
As we have tried to suggest, distribution, now reconceived as digital rights management, can no longer be limited to simply promoting and delivering a DVD or even a digital stream. Today, the key is how usefully that content can be integrated into its larger context, the audience's context, the only context where it can ever live and have a social impact. This returns us to McLuhan's seeming paradox that "the audience is the content". A film, actively interpreted or performed by its audience, can reframe how that public perceives and hence interacts with its world. In this way, the film returns itself and its viewer to the present and re-enters history.
A GLOSSARY OF TERMS USED IN DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION
Audience-Centered Production A production designed by first determining its intended audience and goals, next the appropriate formats and distribution channels for reaching that audience and only then the actual production(s) which will achieve those goals through those formats and channels.
Digital Content Aggregator A distributor (usually non-exclusive) of a library of digital content (eg. iTunes, Hulu, Netflix).
Digital Rental - (pay-per-view) paid access to on-line content either by real time or progressive streaming or by downloading a file with DRM wrap defining the rental period, number of permitted plays and digital devices where it can be played.
Digital Rights Management (DRM) 1) A coordinated strategy for assigning digital rights across markets to maximize revenue and/or audience 2) A distributor specializing in designing and implementing such a strategy 3) Software "wrapping" or "encrypting" digital content to restrict its use to those licensed by its purchasers.
Digital Sale (download-to-own) downloading a digital file to a hard drive or disk, usually with DRM wrap limiting its use to a fixed number of digital devices thereby preventing file sharing and copying but permitting unlimited plays.
Documentary Database an on-line, linked assemblage of thematically-related, multi-media documents, produced and designed to function as a scholarly resource, professional development site or organizing tool, accessible interactively and non-linearly.
Fair Use a provision of U.S. copyright law allowing for the use of copyrighted material without permission of the owner subject to certain limiting conditions, notably that the use is "transformative," that is does not duplicate or substitute for the purchase of the original; a remix, mash-up or parody would qualify; use of stock footage, musical background or illustration would not.
In a gross deal, the producer receives a percentage of all gross revenues
received from the distribution of the film with no deductions whatsoever
(See also net deal) .
Hyper-syndication Assigning distribution rights to multiple distribution outlets (points of sale) in the same or over-lapping markets; granting non-exclusive rights.
Hypertext - A linear text (print or moving image) surrounded
by a critical apparatus containing source material, authorial gloss,
amplification and user commentary .
A document search based on the appearance, density and position of a
word or phrase (keyword.) Most Web 2.0 content is keyword searchable.
Moving image content is not, requiring a transcript, captioning file,
or metadata (See also semantic search) .
The modest but consistent, cumulative revenue stream after the initial
spike in sales or viewers consequent to a film's theatrical release
or telecast .
Metadata Tags attached (marked up) to a document readable by search engines but not users, containing information about that document; for example, name, document type, source, topics, etc.
Monetize An ugly neologism (or perhaps euphemism ) for "make money from" or "sell," usually followed by the even more opaque, "content," heretofore films, books, etc.
Multi-Platform/ Multi-Media Production Production and/or delivery of content in multiple media formats
eg, print, on-line, DVD, podcast .
Multi-Versioning/ Re-purposing The rearrangement of a fixed body of content into a number of related but discrete modules customized to particular user needs.
Needs Assessment/ Environmental Scan A statistically significant survey of a potential audience's media resources and needs with reference to issues, objectives, genre, length and delivery platform.
In a net deal the producer receives a percentage of the gross revenues
deriving from the distribution of the film less specified costs ("direct
costs") associated with that film (eg prints, mastering, display
advertising, publicist, etc. See also "gross deal") .
Password Protected/ Authenticated Restricts access to specified on-line content to authenticated users, ie persons in possession of a password or key. Institutional servers and proxy servers can be authenticated to give access to the content to anyone with access to those servers.
Pre-Sale 1) A catch-all phrase for any promotion prior to the release of a DVD, similar to "name recognition" or "visibility,." Including theatrical release, telecast, topicality and/or celebrity tie-in. 2) A payment made to a producer by a distributor (usually a television or cable network) prior to completion of a film in return for certain rights.
Remix/Mash-up the re-use of copyrighted material to critique, comment on, parody, collage or digitally manipulate the original; a transformative and hence "fair use."
Rip the (illegal)
breaking of DRM wrap (encryption) in order to pirate copyrighted content .
RTMP Real Time Media Protocol, a DRM wrap which, in contrast to "progressive streaming," does not stream video data in packets which can be buffered and then downloaded to a hard drive or burned in a DVD; a prophylaxis against file sharing and other piracy.
Document search based on meaning rather than keyword; a distinguishing
feature of Web 3.0 applications. Meaning is inferred by mapping metadata
onto relational diagrams (ontologies) describing particular knowledge
domains (See also keyword search) .
Server - a large data storage unit, usually located off-site in the computing "cloud," on which institutions, including film distributors, lease space which they "populate" with files which can then be queried and delivered.
Shopping Cart that part of a website which contains the ordering, e-commerce (on-line credit card payment), authentication/authorization and fulfillment functionality; also known as the "back end."
Streaming, Remote and Local A continuous, real time, flow of moving image data which cannot be assembled into a file and stored (cached) on a digital device (hard drive or disk) without the use of illegal software. Streams can be delivered from a remote (off-site, distributor-owned) server or a local (on-site, institution-owned) server.
User Generated Content (UGC) Content produced by users in response to pre-existing content or a specific call for content (crowd sourcing).
Video-on-Demand Once restricted to cable, now applied to the asynchronous (not at a single time) viewing of broadcast, cable or digital content.It can be pay-per-view (rental), download-to-own (sale), subscription (time-delimited), ad-supported or "free" (not monetized).
Video Boutique/ Video Supermarket A video boutique sells related content to a special interest
(niche) market or markets; a video supermarket sells heterogeneous content
across all markets .
Window A period of
time within a longer contract during which certain rights are suspended
or added, eg a "broadcast window."
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Post-modern epistemologies (or anti-epistemologies) hold that reality or, better, realities are constructed, fictions, albeit "necessary fictions." Godard was making this point with his epigram, "documentary is the highest form of fiction." The idea of a reality or a world is the ultimate example of "reification," making a thought into a thing, the conscious into the non-conscious. Kant demonstrated that the "thing-in-itself" was not available to consciousness, indeed, if "things" exist outside of reification. These fabrications of a historically contingent subject are "naturalized," that is, become accepted as immutable "Nature," because they are embedded in socially sanctioned discourses which conceal their purely metaphysical (mental) foundations. Narrative cinema or neoclassical economics would be examples of such discourses. The current dichotomy between actual and virtual "realities," hence, obscures the virtual aspect of all perception, whether generated by the eye or a computer; the so-called actual is nothing more than the act of making the virtual.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The traditional screening situation, the cinematic apparatus in its most material sense, is designed to conceal the fact that film viewing is always situated in its larger social context. It creates a darkened non-space where the present, and our sense of presence, shifts from the audience itself to the images on the screen, literally dis-placing them. Post-modern theory would say that the cinematic dispositif occludes, the diegesis (narrative space/time) of the audience, in favor of the diegesis of the film; thus cinematic time becomes diachronic. The present absence of the image is not just the event documented on the screen but also the audience in front of that screen.
The larger cinematic apparatus comprises the discourses (signifying practices, conventions, master narratives) of cinema. These discourses, in turn, exist within multiple social discourses (systems of differentiation and selection) of which race, gender and class are privileged in contemporary film criticism. Finally, as every filmmaker is painfully aware, film is of necessity produced within the over-arching economic apparatus of global capitalism. In a sense, the task of social change media might be thought of as revealing or "performing" its apparatus in order to suggest alternatives.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> It needs to be emphasized that the community of a film is not the community it ostensibly portrays, unless that is its intended audience. There is a sense in which the location of every film is where it is screened not where it is shot; in other words, in " the mind of the beholder," the viewer. Similarly, the subject of any film is not its nominal subject but the viewing subject, the subject it is trying to engage and persuade.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> In semiotic theory, this is called "suture;" it sews the viewer's gaze to the image, just as it sews the images together invisibly into a narrative; such "seamless editing" is a criterion of commercial film; it conceals the film's fictiveness by giving its carefully constructed reality the appearance of inevitability, thereby "naturalizing" its ideological content.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Newsreel was
once invited to
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> "Ideas
want to be free" these academic pundits often tell us; if so,
we should reply, you'll get what we paid for. Why should intellectual
and artistic production be free when we have no such expectations
The Center for Social Media at
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> There remain a small but highly experienced group of reputable educational distributors. For niche markets, consider Bullfrog Films (environmental), Women Make Movies (women's issues), Icarus Films (world documentary and Media Education Foundation (media). Films Media Group is the nation's educational film supermarket with over 12,000 titles and a state-of- the-art digital platform. Alexander Street Press has taken the lead in compiling moving image digital databases (We apologize to any competent distributors we may have inadvertently omitted).
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The current outreach "bubble" has predictably spawned
a small industry of sub-prime non-profits. It
illustrates foundations' perennial preference for funding
their own "creatures," however inept and redundant, over existing
organizations with the experience, expertise and community roots to
spend their money responsibly and accountably. One of the more egregious
recent examples of such profligacy was the MacArthur Foundation's
mutant spore offspring, Reframe, a digital content aggregator, so
misbegotten it never lived without philanthropic life-support. Rashly
acquired by Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Film Institute with the expectation
of snaring even more grants, they fired its founding director after
a few months upon discovering they'd been deceived about Reframe's
grim financial prospects. At last report, Tribeca was trying, discretely,
to pull the plug on its hydrocephalic brainchild.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> An intriguing example of "crowd-sourcing" or "participative filmmaking" is Perry Bard's Man With a Movie Camera: The Global Remake which invites videographers to contribute to a shot-by-shot updating of Vertov's classic. Visit dziga.perrybard.net. An article in Jump Cut 52, devoted to experimental documentary, Seth Feldman's, "On the Internet Nobody Knows You're a Constructivist," discusses this project http://www.ejumpcut.org/currentissue/FeldmanVertov/.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Digital rights management can even save you money in designing your website. Distributors have seen the actual metrics on their own and their satellite sites and can tell you which features are worth investing in and which are needless frills. Newsreel has seen sites consume over $100,000, where 90% of the actual hits led to pages which could have been built for 10% of that budget. Just because foundations insist on squandering their money on futile outreach gimmicks and high tech glitz, doesn't mean you have to.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The emerging digital platform challenges conventional, long-form, story- and character-driven documentary as the pre-eminent non-fiction form. For better or worse, the majority of 60 and 90 minute documentaries are no longer being screened in their entirety, rather teachers, trainers and activists are chopping them into 5 to 10 minute chunks. Linear, character-driven documentaries, still privileged by ITVS, POV, HBO and foundations won't become extinct but will no longer be normative, confined primarily to theatres and museums. Their digital replacements are still in the experimental stage.
Documentary narrative, with its origins in theatrical film and enshrined at festivals like Sundance and Silverdocs has always been problematic as a tool for education and activism. Beyond its unwieldy length, they tend to sacrifice socio-economic background and analysis for dramatic effect and self-indulgent catharsis for concrete action. Adorno privileged radical form over radical content, surprisingly finding Beckett more political than Brecht. Narrative, he argued, could too easily be assimilated into abstract social discourses rather than reveal the audience's own political situation and stance. Along the same lines, Dziga Vertov, paraphrasing Marx on religion, criticized Eisenstein's film dramas as "the opiate of the masses."
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Korsakow, the leading, open-source, database documentary software is demonstrated and available at korsakow.org/. There is a detailed description of an Australian database documentary in Jump Cut 52, Janet Marles, "Memoradic Narrative in The Shoebox." http://www.ejumpcut.org/currentissue/marlesShoebox/
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