Reelhouse Interview: Helping Filmmakers Self-Distribute Video and Connect With Audiences

The traditional film distribution model is inaccessible to many independent filmmakers. Many of those who are "lucky" enough to sign a deal don't receive the type of support they need to get their films in front of their intended audience.

A new generation of filmmakers is looking for distribution options that provide them with more control and a direct connection with their audience. Startups like Reelhouse, established video players like Vimeo, and longshots like BitTorrent are lining up to disrupt the established model and serve the needs of these filmmakers.

Here we speak with the team behind Reelhouse, which signed a distribution partnership with Sundance earlier this year, and was recently selected by Warner Bros. to join its inaugural Media Camp class in Burbank.

Can you briefly describe Reelhouse and your Mission?

Reelhouse fans

Reelhouse is an online video platform that provides filmmakers complete control to self-distribute content directly to their viewers. Filmmakers access the latest monetization, social and showcasing features which in turn engage viewers in what Reelhouse is setting as the new standard for online viewing experiences.

Where did the idea for Reelhouse come from? What prompted you to launch?

We were consistently meeting more and more talented filmmakers that were creating some incredible stories. Sadly, we saw so many of them either not able to get a distribution deal or got one that really wasn’t fair to them. Again, these were really great stories we knew there was an audience for. So we really set out to give those talented people who truly put a lot of effort and passion into a film a means to get their stories heard.

On the flip side, we as viewers also wanted a much better experience, from discovery to interaction. We constantly found ourselves wanting to either know more, connect with the creator, learn about the process or even purchase something related to the content. As such we found that the Direct-to-consumer model allowed for that intimate connection between creator and filmmaker, resulting in a terrific experience.

You offer creators the choice between a paywall, a tip-jar, and rewards that function a bit like Kickstarter. How are customers using these different models?

Reelhouse sell

We’ve seen great successes with our Rental and Buy models for filmmakers, since these are conventional models that consumers and filmmakers are most familiar with.

What we’re most excited about is our alternative revenue models for filmmakers, including a store interface for digital/physical products, where filmmakers are selling screening tickets, autographed merchandise, digital prints, etc.

Another product we’re testing out is a ‘pay what you want’ model, allowing viewers to slide a price indicator higher or lower depending how inspired they feel to contribute. So far viewers have been incredibly generous in this model, but it’ll be an educational process to get this caught up to the conventional rent/buy.

You place a big emphasis on offering exclusive content, bundled content, and other merchandise? How important is this to successful self-distribution and connecting with your audience?

Reelhouse sell

We believe stories live beyond the initial video pillar of the project. After a viewer is inspired by the primary video content, we allow them to dive deeper within the story, to become more immersed and connected within each project. This can turn a stumble-upon viewer into a loyal, evangelist fan, by simply providing a value added space, flush with content that the filmmaker already has on deck to share. Another thing that bundles allow is the driving the value of digital ownership up. It gives the viewer or purchaser a feeling of receiving something definitely worth the purchase price rather than just a delivery of a movie file.

Do you have any metrics on how this additional bundled content helps in terms of generating revenue or nurturing the relationship with the audience?

We will release that shortly in the near future once we have a good spread across all the type of projects that use these features in a variety of combinations.

I think one of the biggest benefits of direct distribution is the opportunity it provides filmmakers to build a direct relationship with their audience. What tools do you provide to help nurture the relationship and build community?

We do too! There’s so much value in each viewer that visits your page, that’s why we continue to add fanbase building tools for filmmakers to leverage from early on, when their trailer releases, continuing well past the release of the film. For example, on Reelhouse filmmakers can turn viewers into loyal fans by offering exclusive content only to subscribers, or offering free digital giveaways to new fans who share the page socially.

How do you help your customers market and promote their work?

The best marketing support we offer is in the tools that we’ve designed for filmmakers to leverage. Great projects on Reelhouse can become rich, value added, viral successes, when used effectively with the toolset available. That being said, we love to share our favourite stories on the Reelhouse curated home page, and often pass along great stories to our friends at IndieWire, Devour and Sundance. Feature-wise we’ve got social tools such as the ability to push/pull social network updates like Facebook/Twitter (more coming soon) all from your Reelhouse page to reduce the overhead of reaching out. We’ve also got a great Kickstarter Friendly feature-set we hope to roll out shortly, that will enable a seamless Kickstarter fulfillment function so that successful Kickstarter backed filmmakers can leverage their existing fanbase from that platform easily.

Backend data and analytics are important in terms of figuring out what’s working, who is buying, where people are coming from, not to mention keeping in touch with your fans. What tools do you have for this?

Reelhouse analytics

We’ve spent a lot of work on designing a user intuitive, analytical, and data rich dashboard for creators. These back end tools provides insight to what websites & regions viewers are directed from, subscriber information, viewing statistics over time, dropoff rates and purchasing fulfilment information. Unlike iTunes, Netflix and broadcast deals, filmmakers get to keep this information on Reelhouse, and establish long term, intimate relationships with their audience that they can leverage for their next production. We’ll also be rolling out a tiered system of reporting along with the announcement of our Pro subscription package coming soon.

I like that producers retain all of their rights and that your relationships are non-exclusive. How important is this to helping artists succeed?

Artists need the freedom to control their distribution. They know their audience best, what blogs they read, how they consume films, what merchandise they’d like, and how their film was made to be shown. This freedom means they have the flexibility of accepting a major distribution deal, editing their content, choosing their distribution window, deactivating the page as they feel, etc.

Love your take on being DRM free. It makes the customer experience much better. Have you had any pushback or concerns from artists about this?

Quite frankly yes. Just because this a very ‘early adopter’ type mentality. Of course, when we talk to filmmakers that are attempting to weave in their own DTC distribution outlet with a traditional distribution deal, it can be pretty challenging. Having said that, it’s important to understand what DRM is- we think there’s a lot of confusion out there about that. Do we want a complicated series of checks that ruin the user experience and ultimately don’t really prevent piracy? No. But for those filmmakers and viewers that are interested in buying and owning a copy of a film, we will provide a way for both parties to feel that they have transacted into something unique of value, is convenient and will allow filmmakers to talk to as many potential distribution deals as they so should desire to.

One thing that sets you apart from competitors like or Distrify is that you are working on creating a destination site where audiences can go to discover great stories. Can you talk about the importance of this to your strategy?

Reelhouse curation

Curation is becoming a crucial factor in the online video space. Our commitment to exclusively high quality, story based content, allows a viewer to comfortably visit Reelhouse daily for a selection of entertaining stories with rich, immersive experiences for the viewer to dive deeper into. We’ve also collected similar stories in our library, and sorted them into discovery playlist tiles. Here, depending on what a viewer is in the mood to watch, they can select from different curated playlists, including Comedy, Sundance Films, or videos to get your adrenaline running, to discover new filmmakers. We firmly believe that a strong community of curators, viewers, filmmakers provide the best all round experience for a film platform and provide a huge list of ancillary benefits of which we can build features to.

Do you have any advice on what people can do to increase their chances of success with direct distribution?

Involve your fans in the project from the earliest point possible. They’re excited about your film as much as you are, get them engaged and hooked with juicy updates and media as soon as it becomes available. Our unique player lets creators release their trailer on one embed code on multiple websites/blogs/social networks, once the paywall is activated, that same embedded player is turned into a point-of-sale purchase point for anyone to buy or rent your films, once released. This increases conversions, and widespread automatic release on your launch day.

Are your customers getting out of the house to self-organize tours of cities or harnessing fans to organize screenings?

Absolutely, the most successful types of films and filmmakers on our platforms are those that know how to ‘hustle’ and don’t expect people to come to their footsteps, but rather actively get out there and drum up interest and awareness about their terrific films. It’s fantastic to see.

There is a misconception that self distribution only works for people who are already successful and have built a name for themselves. Any case studies or examples (either with Reelhouse customers or otherwise) that help dispel this?

We currently have a talented filmmaker that began selling his passion projects filming his friends and their extreme sports trips. Through self distribution and building his own brand, he’s sold hundreds of thousands of films, and releasing a brand new title on Reelhouse this month! This requires a lot of effort, and connections with the right influencers, but with the average web and social savviness that we’re seeing among users, large successes like Seb’s are happening more and more frequently.

Any big changes coming down the pipe that you can share with us?

We’re releasing new features weekly, but are especially excited about our new mobile site, and media center application. Mobile should be launching by the end of summer.

What’s success look like for you?

Success is us creating a new video distribution standard and experience that both viewers and filmmakers love and genuinely works for both their needs. We’d love to see our community to grow exponentially and even see us one day work with the studios to adopt this model.