Death of the DVD Part Two: Filmmakers' Reflections

Posted on November 21, 2012

ITVS's Rebecca Huval discusses research, news, and trends that come out of ITVS’s IndiesLab.


While DVDs fade in importance and profitability, how do filmmakers manage? Two ITVS directors offered their perspectives: Isaac Solotaroff, director of Wham! Bam! Islam!, and Anne Makepeace, We Still Live Here - Âs Nutayuneânhave used different coping mechanisms. Both directors agree that educational DVDs make up a large chunk of their profits. Each educational disc is sold for as much as $500, and libraries will require physical objects for the foreseeable future. But consumer DVDs? “I’ve absolutely given up on making money selling my project to individuals,” Solotaroff said. “If I make money on the back end, it’s selling to screening and educational institutions.” He half-jokingly added: “When you finish a film, you have DVDs made, and they sit on your shelf, you give them away as a souvenir, and use them for coasters.” 

A better option is directing individual viewers to online streams, Solotaroff said. As a self-distributor, it can be prohibitively expensive to mail DVDs. But online streaming to consumers pays a fraction of what DVD or educational sales do. In total, Solotaroff estimates he’s sold 1,000-1,500 online streams and 30 DVDs to educational distributors. Still, the two have earned him about the same revenue. In contrast, Anne Makepeace said she has sold more DVDs (including educational and consumer) than online streams for Rain in a Dry Land and We Still Live Here. “I haven’t really promoted the digital streams,” Makepeace said. “It’s more in my interest to sell DVDs, frankly, especially until I run out of DVDs of my oldest films.”

What’s more, her latest ITVS-funded film, We Still Live Here, about the revival of the Wampanoag language in southeastern Massachusetts, appeals to audiences particularly interested in DVDs. “In a lot of Native American communities, there’s a lot of community outreach,” Makepeace said. “They aren’t going to show it as a download, but a DVD they can pop in the DVD player when they have events.” Makepeace’s advice to future filmmakers: Hire a full-time social media coordinator. “I’ve done a lot [of online promotion] with We Still Live Here, but I feel like I’ve just done the tip of the iceberg with what I could be doing. I just don’t have time...That’s one thing filmmakers have to figure out: Are we distributors or filmmakers?” 

Solotaroff noted that these dilemmas plague any “content provider” today, whether it be a musician or documentarian. “There’s less and less money to make,” he said. “It used to be you would sell DVDs and make $20-30 dollars [each sale], and now people are doing higher volume sales but it doesn’t make up for the smaller profit margin. In the same way, musicians have had to hustle to do concerts and do more live shows to make ends meet, I feel like that is where documentary filmmakers need to put their distribution energies that allow them to create events around the film and do larger public screenings.” Solotaroff ended on a positive note: After all, he’s also a consumer. “I’m very grateful for the fact that, when I want to see a film, I don’t need to order a DVD and wait for it to be delivered. It’s a significant upside for the consumer, but it forces the content provider to be more creative. I think it’s great that media is more accessible than it ever has been. I think overall, it’s a benefit.”


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