Streaming Independents

A few days ago, to celebrate their 15th anniversary, indieWire held a symposium on the state of independent film distribution at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. The panel included a number of heavy hitters from the world of indie film including Richard Abramowitz from Abramorama, Amy Heller from Milestone, Bingham Ray (SnagFilms and FSLC), Ira Deutchman (Emerging Pictures), Bob and Jeanne Berney from FilmDistrict, Mark Urman (Paladin) and Arianna Bocco (IFC Films/Sundance Selects). And for those of us who live outside the New York metropolitan area, indieWire was kind enough to post a video of the entire panel (which runs for over an hour). For those of you who are interested in the changing models of film distribution, it’s well worth watching and helped me to develop a slightly better framing for some of my own research on digital delivery. Some quick highlights:

  • Urman and Deutchman, in particular, emphasized that the “speed” of distribution has changed considerably in the last decade. Indie films fifteen years ago could often expect to be in theaters for up to a year, whereas now, even a successful film might be in and out of theaters in 90-120 days, meaning that “everything has to be done at an accelerated pace,” as Urman put it.
  • On a related note, Deutchman observed that new delivery models work against the “sense of urgency” formerly associated with moviegoing. Given the accelerated distribution process, moviegoers can now anticipate that a film they want to see will be on VOD or DVD just a few weeks after its theatrical debut, making it more difficult to sell viewers on seeing movies in theaters (or on any other platform for that matter).
  • The “speed” of audience response has also changed, with one panelist noting that his daughter texted him within ten minutes of the start of a movie to complain about how bad it is.
  • There was some interesting debate about how Netflix was affecting the indie film industry, in particular. For most of the panelists, Netflix seemed to be a virtual monopsony, the only significant buyer of streaming/DVD content (“the only game in town”), which would result in driving down prices. Others were more sanguine, suggesting that Netflix could put indies on an even keel with other studios.
  • Most of the panelists seemed to agree that Netflix was working hard to get out of the DVD business as quickly as possible, a desire that is likely a major (though not the only) motivation for their recent price hike.
  • Deutchman (I believe) also noted that Netflix and HBO were becoming more alike, especially given Netflix’s move toward distributing original content, such as the U.S. remake of the British mini-series, House of Cards, while HBO was increasingly turning toward on-demand distribution.
  • Bocco and Urman discussed the problems of VOD interfaces and the difficulty of crating massive amounts of content. Bocco, if I remember correctly, acknowledged that the alphabetical listing of titles might even bias browsing consumers toward titles beginning with letters earlier in the alphabet. One panelist also mentioned that a VOD description of Shutter Island failed to mention that Leonard DiCaprio was in the movie, suggesting that descriptions of VOD films are often horribly incomplete, making it difficult for people to find movies they’d want to see.
  • Dana Harris, the host of the event, pointed out the lack of data on VOD purchases, especially compared to theatrical box office and even DVD sales, an issue that I’ve been confronting in my own research. Bingham Ray confirmed that there has been much great transparency regarding DVD sales and rentals than VOD rentals. Bocco (who works for IFC, a significant VOD player) pointed out, however, that it is a little more difficult to interpret VOD numbers.
  • Amy Heller raised some important concerns about foreign language films, noting that the viewing conditions for DVDs and especially for streaming video may not be beneficial for international films, especially for multitasking viewers who may be doing chores or surfing the net while they watch a movie, making it more difficult to follow subtitles, asking rhetorically, “Am I going to read subtitles on my phone?”
  • There was some discussion of the role of piracy, with Bocco asserting that “young people don’t want to pay to watch.”
  • Finally, there was quite a bit of discussion of “eventizing” the moviegoing experience in order to get people to attend film screenings. A number of directors, including Robert Greenwald, Franny Armstrong, and Gary Hustwit (and, in a different way, Kevin Smith), have been very successful at creating events around film screenings, but it’s far from easy to create and sustain these kinds of experiences.

It’s difficult to summarize all of the details of such a wide-ranging event, especially given the occasional lack of consensus from the panelists, but one of the strengths of the discussion was the historical memory of the participants, the recognition of how things have changed over the last decade or so. There’s lots to think about here, especially given the fact that the digital delivery models are still being developed.

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