There is More to Direct Distribution Than Moving Bits

After Innocente won an Academy Award, I wrote that one of the big barriers that Indy Filmmakers still face is distributing their work.

This challenge can be broadly be broken down into two components; creating awareness of your film so that people know it exists, and the logistics of getting your film into people's hands (thanks to @TWEAK for commenting on our blog about this).

As I'll examine in more detail below, the logistics are getting easier, but real challenge for most is going to be marketing and generating awareness.

Why Direct Distribution

The traditional route of working with distributors, can take care of both marketing and distribution. When it works, it can work very well. They will craft a PR and marketing strategy, and will also take care of distributing to theaters, broadcasters / cable networks, iTunes, Netflix, or wherever else makes sense through the life-cycle of the film.

Unfortunately, it doesn't always work. Not every release is going to get the same promotional push. Resources are scarce and will be allocated where there seems to be the most promise. This means that many great productions that are picked up by distributors don't get the attention they deserve. It also means that many others don't even get picked up. The net effect is that many people don't see an economic return for their creative efforts. A flawed distribution system is one reason for growing interest and innovation in the area of direct distribution. However, the more interesting driver is that there is a new breed of filmmakers that want to maintain control the entire process.

With direct distribution, there is more potential to create and nurture a relationship with the target audience. Over the long-term this could produce more value and a more certain return on investment than a flurry of PR and marketing.

The Good News - There are Platforms to Help You

The good news for those who are interested in direct distribution, is that there is a growing number of platforms to help make it easier to sell direct downloads online.

Vimeo

Vimeo launched Vimeo On Demand earlier this year. The service lets Vimeo Pro customers ($199/year) sell their work directly to their audience. Creators get to keep 90% of the revenue (after transaction costs). Videos work on computers, tablets, mobile phones, and connected televisions.

Aside from the pretty generous terms (compared to Apple/iTunes who takes a 30% cut), the biggest advantage that Vimeo has over other distribution services is that it comes with a built in audience. Vimeo looks to be positioning vimeo.com/ondemand as a destination where people can discover and purchase great independent film. This is good for audiences, and it's good for filmmakers as it helps solve the discovery problem.

The biggest downside to Vimeo's solution is that people need a Vimeo account to purchase a download. This creates a degree of transactional friction that could cause people to abandon their shopping carts (especially when they discover the film outside of the Vimeo universe).

The other downside is that Vimeo doesn't provide creators the same community building tools that some of the competing services do. You don't get a platform to sell merchandise to your audience, create mailing lists, do Q&A's, etc. I'm also not sure what you get in terms of data on your customers and back-end reporting.

Reelhouse

Reelhouse is a startup that is offering creators a video platform where they can distribute their content directly to viewers. There are flexible models for selling (rent, buy, tip-jar, support). Videos currently work on dektops, tablets, mobile phones, and there are plans to bring content to the television with custom apps for media centers. There are no upfront fees for using the platform and creators get to keep 94% of revenue (after payment transaction fees).

Reelhouse's main differentiator is that it offers a full featured platform for creators to engage with their audience in an immersive environment. You can customize the look of your page (ex. background images & colors) and communicate with your audience through a blog, comments, and FAQs. You can also offer photos and other behind the scenes material that will engage viewers. You can sell merchandise like posters, shirts and DVDs. Reelhouse also offers a Kickstarter type support model where your fans can contribute to your project in exchange for different rewards.

The concept is simple, the more deeply you connect with your audience and the more value that you offer, the more likely they will be to spread the word and come back to support other projects you do. To this end, Reelhouse offers analytics to look at what's working, and email address for your audience so that you can engage with them through email newsletters.

The downside of the service is that it's not a well known destination. Right now, people aren't going to stumble on your work through Reelhouse's site. You are going to have to build your audience through other channels like your Kickstarter campaign, social media, and embedding their player on other sites.

Having recently signed a deal with Sundance, it looks like Reelhouse is off to a great start.

Other platforms

Other direct download services include VHX.tv, and Distrify. You can also use a service like Distribber to submit your film to various online stores and service (iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and Cable VOD), you can submit your film to Indieflix's subscription service, and someday soon you may be able to use BitTorrent to distribute it.

The good news is that getting your work to your audience, is getting easier by the day.

The Bad News - You Are Running a Business (and it's hard)

The bad news is that there isn't a button that you can simply click to market and promote your work. If you are going to distribute your film, you will be running a complex business.

You'll need a team to work on social media, public relations, designing promotional materials, marketing your film, engaging with your audience, managing your Kickstarter campaign, etc.

Since things don't run on auto-pilot, you'll also need to be tracking what's working and what isn't so that you can adjust your strategy and allocate your precious resources accordingly. You'll also have to take care of the financial and accounting side of things.

Running this type of business is hard work. Based on my own experience running ScreenLight, developing the product has come along quicker than running the business. We underestimated the resources required to market the business and create awareness, in spite of our well defined target market.

The upside to all this work is that you and your team will have the opportunity to build a direct relationship with your audience. As a filmmaker, you are uniquely positioned to connect with the audience and communicate your enthusiasm and vision of your work. This is powerful stuff if you can create a good team and harness their energy.

Unlike spending on PR and marketing, these relationships aren't a one-time shot. If you really connect with your fans, the relationships will live much longer than a single work. You can build a brand and an audience that will follow you from production to production.

What's It Gonna Be

The purpose of this post isn't to say you should do one thing or the other.

Rather you should chose between the different alternatives with your eyes wide open, and pick the one that suits your needs and circumstances. Regardless of which option you chose, planning your distribution strategy is something that you should be doing in the earliest stages of your production.

In the coming weeks I'll be looking in more detail at the different self-distribution options and I'll be speaking with people who have used them to get an early read on how it's working for them. I'll also be taking a look at DogFish Accelerator, which is an accelerator program that helps film producers build their production companies, and Bond360, "a new initiative that provides filmmakers with strategic consultation, marketing, public relations, financing, and technical support to help connect their films and related products directly with fans."

Exciting times in the world of distribution. I look forward to learning more about it along with you.