Indie Films and Digital Distribution

The announcement about Google TV has provoked some discussion about the tool’s potential for making it easier for independent filmmakers to find a wider audience for their films.  Google has promoted this new tool as the ultimate merger between computers and television.  You can use Google’s search tool to find any TV shows or videos (including those on YouTube and other video sharing sites) and watch them on your TV set.  And your TV becomes more like a computer, allowing you to go onto sites such as Facebook (oddly the video emphasizes that you can “update your status”).  But a number of indie filmmakers have begun to ask about the potential implications of Google TV for movie distribution.

Ryan Koo at No Film School has the most optimistic take on this potential, arguing that Google TV “is going to make it a lot easier to get independently-produced content onto the big (home) screen.”  Koo adds that, unlike Apple, Google TV is essentially an “open” platform that will not place restrictions on what content gets pulled from the web to your TV set.  For example, Google TV might provide a boost for the struggling YouTube Rentals program by making it easier to get movies from YouTube to your TV set.  Essentially, Koo concludes that Google TV will be essentially democratizing, though he adds one significant caveat: the problem of search engine optimization.  Although Google’s search algorithms may make it easier to get films to your TV set, it’s not quite as clear whether people will be able to find them.

Ted Hope also emphasizes the potential for Google TV to democratize distribution, while adding the need for continued efforts toward search engine optimization, arguing that “I just wish that people would offer more filters. It’s one thing to be able to find what we are looking for, but we still need to know what it is that we want — particularly if we want to make other work that that which is justified by a huge marketing spend.”  I’ve been trying to think through the “filtering question” for a while–I talked about it at length in this Second Cinema interview last year–and I’m still unsure whether these filters will ever match the diversity of content out there with the diverse interests of a wide range of audiences that might be seeking alternative forms of content.  Some of these challenges seem to be reflected in the somewhat bizarre genre categories found on sites like Netflix (what is a “heartfelt, fighting-the-system documentary?”), not to mention Netflix recommendation algorithms that push us toward some films and away from others.  But I’m a little skeptical about what it means to “solve” these filtering questions.

Scott Macauley of Filmmaker Magazine echoes many of Koo’s arguments while expressing a little more skepticism. Worth noting, Macauley cites an interview with YouTube’s Sarah Pollack, who argues that the YouTube rental program helped to raise the profile of a number of the Sundance films it offered for rent.  Pollack goes on to acknowledge that YouTube will need to work to convince viewers to pay for some of its rental content, especially when YouTube is primarily known as a site offering free videos.  But even here I think the questions about how viewers find or learn about this content remains unclear. Macauley does point out that many of the writers polled at Endgadget expressed concern that Google TV would likely require yet another set-top box until the platform became something that was built into TVs.  And like a number of the people interviewed by Endgagdet, I think there are a number of complications Google will need to address before their approach to revolutionizing TV will take hold.

The LA Times expresses a similar concern, noting that the cost of another set-top box might be prohibitive for budget-conscious web video users, although they also cite Best Buy Chief Executive Brian Dunn who argues that Google TV pushes us even further towards a “platform agnostic” model, in which the source or medium of the content matters less than the ability to access that content easily.

The unstated assumption in all of these arguments is that more choice (available in even more platforms), even if those choices are more expensive, is necessarily what everyone wants.  Given the popularity of services such as Redbox, which offers relatively little choice, I’m not entirely sure that’s the case.  To be sure, I’ve truly appreciated the expansion of choice offered by digital media–living in a town such as Fayetteville, NC was much more bearable thanks to Netflix and VOD–but I’m not sure that everyone is looking for the “deeper cuts” rather than the “top hits.”  But as I’ve suggested in my previous post, many of the questions addressed in the debates over Google TV (and other tools like it) aren’t over what the hardware can do as much as they are about what cinema as a social activity can be.

With that in mind, I am intrigued by discussions such as the one taking place at The Workbook Project right now, where Mike Ambs, responding to a blog post by Ted Hope, has invited filmmakers and audiences to “brainstorm the future of film.”  Ambs has created a fascinating flowchart (to which anyone can contribute) that seeks to define what makes film, and independent film in particular, something of value for all of us.  I’ll be returning to Ambs’s chart in a couple of upcoming posts because the chart raises a number of interesting questions about how independent filmmakers can create cultures of engagement around the movies they make.


  1. Underground Film Links: May 30, 2010 | Bad Lit Said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 8:08 am

    […] Is Google TV the future of underground film distribution? Chuck Tryon weighs the pros and cons. […]

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    […] Is Google TV the future of underground film distribution? Chuck Tryon weighs the pros and cons. […]

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