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How to fix independent feature distribution

Kent Nichols If I Were In Charge Of Sundance post started me thinking about independent feature distribution and media distribution in general.

sundanceKent proposes that Sundance run all films on VOD, DVD or on the Internet immediately after the show in order to get maximum exposure at the peak of attention, figuring that few would make money from a distribution deal so the work might as well be seen. (Those deals being done at Sundance are also much lower than in previous years.)

The problem is that the distribution channels for features have been restricted by access gatekeepers. The major studios had this perfectly under control when they owned production and distribution, but that cosy relationship was less profitable after being broken up over antitrust concerns.

What remained are just smaller cartels. Unless a film producer is prepared to hire “dry walls” a theater at their own expense and handle all promotion and ticketing, getting access to “film distribution” is as hard as ever, and the deals are getting worse, not better.

The chance of an independent feature ever getting distribution and making money for the producer and director is almost nil. Enough do to keep the dream alive, but right now, for the majority of films, distribution is broken for the producers and audience. If you can’t find a movie and view it, there’s no profit potential for the producer even if there is supposedly a “distribution deal” in place.

Kent in the article talks of the difficulty of finding a suitable way of viewing a movie that had caught his attention last Sundance, and had done a distribution deal. He ultimately resorted to “other means” to view the movie.

One of the things I learnt at The Conversation conference back in October, is that alternate methods of promoting a movie – with online and DVD distribution can work very well. There is a group of documentary producers who do not even seek “traditional” distribution deals because they know how to create demand for local screenings, driving DVD sales and helping causes related to their documentary.

insideiraqOther independent features create interest in their project from the time of first conception. They build a base of “true fans” who care about the project and help spread the word.

It’s a brave new world of digital distribution, including DVD which will be viable source of income for independents for a long time. But what is needed is a way of getting all those movies out when they’re hot, and giving people who might be interested in watching them, easier and better ways to find the movies.

Revenue could come from branded sponsorship, but personally I’d prefer a method, like my own Open TV Network, where the producers could receive a reasonable payment from viewers but continue to control their own copyright and distribution across other channels. Remember this is not a blockbuster nor known quantity so I’ll be less likely to take the risk if you want to charge studio-level prices.

All Sundance needs to do is to implement Kent’s suggestion, and tack on the convenience of RSS drive feeds. Sundance could provide curated feeds with common themes or fans could build curated feeds of their own and share them.

Filmmakers make some money; Sundance gets affiliate fees and audiences get to watch more interesting fair than the 200 or so formulaic movies that make it into local cinemas.