DIY Distribution

Posted on June 6, 2012

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


If you have yet to reach the halls of filmmaking immortality (i.e., you aren’t a brand like Ken Burns), it might feel impossible to approach Netflix or iTunes on your own. Both companies receive a deluge of distribution requests from indies, and only the rare applicant rises above the masses. Doug Hawes-Davis, co-founder of High Plains Films and director most recently of Facing the Storm, has made overtures to both platforms to stream his films online. Despite his extensive library of feature-length and short documentaries, Netflix sent an automated rejection letter to his production company. iTunes declines to return calls, even though High Plains Films meets its extensive requirements.

“They won’t respond,” Hawes-Davis said. “For visual media, it’s not possible.”Given the volume of independent filmmakers, it is understandable that Netflix and highly curated iTunes prefer to let middlemen handle the nitty-gritty details of meeting technical specifications and copyright clearances. “They have to avoid being YouTube,” Hawes-Davis said. “You can’t just accept anyone’s home movie.” To approach the Streaming Kings, most independent filmmakers need an ambassador. Distribution companies might approach Netflix or iTunes — for a fee. They might also approach you and offer to pay for the new media rights to your film. Hawes-Davis said he gets multiple offers every year. But beware: “If you’re going with an online distributor, choose carefully and figure out who they are,” Hawes-Davis said. “If somebody is not offering me money, I’m not turning [the film] over to them. They’re not taking risks on your movie. If they believe in it, they’ll pay, and you should be compensated for the fact that you’ve already finished the movie.” 

To ensure that your distributor isn’t shady, ask a few people in the industry if they’ve heard of the company, he said. Also, pay attention to the way the distributor talks about your film: “Did they actually watch your movie, or are they blowing smoke because they want you to sign on the dotted line?” High Plains Films started distributing its DVDs through Music Video Distributors after the CEO received a copy of a High Plains documentary for Christmas. The CEO raved about the film to Hawes-Davis, and the two have kept up a non-exclusive contract ever since. If you are willing to pay, there are a number of distributors who can place a film on high-traffic sites, including Distribber, owned by the crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo. For a flat fee, Distribber places your video on Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, or other hubs, and you keep the revenue. For example, it would cost a filmmaker $1,374 to place their movie on iTunes in the first year, and at $7 per play, you would need 196 iTunes plays to recoup that expense. For filmmakers with marketing savvy, other services can establish paid streaming on the filmmakers’ own website, though the filmmaker would be responsible for directing viewers there. A few of those companies, including Dynamo Player and Distrify, are profiled by our friends at POV

At ITVS, we try to tailor online distribution rollouts to meet the needs of individual films. The IndiesLab grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has allowed us to act as a middleman, with the ability to pay for copyright clearances, E&O insurance, digitization, encoding, and content delivery when approaching giants such as Netflix and iTunes. In addition, we use tools any independent filmmaker can access to distribute and promote movies: social media, online social screenings, and limited-time-frame online film festivals. With so many paths, you’re bound to find your way through the forest of online distribution. If you get lost, just ask a fellow traveler. Good luck!


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