Public Launch of the Independent Digital Distribution Lab

Posted on April 6, 2009

In honor of our new “Independent Digital Distribution Lab,” which we’re publicly launching this week, here are three reasons the Internet is GREAT for filmmakers: 

1. Distribution: easy and cheap!
2. Niche markets and social networks at your fingertips!
3. Kiss the middlemen goodbye! 

And here are three reasons the Internet is TERRIBLE for filmmakers:
1. Hello, free. Goodbye, revenue.
2. 90 minutes? How about three?
3. If a film streams on the Internet and no one ever finds it, is it really streaming? 

It’s a lot more complicated than that, of course, but these are sample horns of the digital dilemma facing documentary filmmakers and all of us in public media. And the simple fact is that nobody knows how the business and audience models are ultimately going to shake out online, which makes the universe complicated for filmmakers, broadcasters and traditional home video and educational distributors. 

We do know public media needs to find new ways to bring its mission online. No commercial entity is going to do that for us, not in the long run certainly, not through thick and thin. We know that independents need income and exposure. And we know that both independents and public media want to reach and serve the public; this shared goal is the basis of their long-standing partnership. ITVS was founded to support independent producers’ access to public broadcasting and to ensure that Americans would hear and see stories about those most underrepresented. 

Our mandate was to create a service that in part provides funding in exchange for domestic public television licensing. When the world was only about television broadcast, that left producers free to distribute their programs beyond broadcast to earn revenue. Today, as definitions shift and broadcast merges with digital, PBS, like all broadcasters, is considering what it must do to serve American audiences and reach more people in more ways. For ITVS, it is a balancing act to manage the GREAT and the TERRIBLE with our two partners. We must help independent producers and public broadcasting gain a foothold with new digital and participatory audiences, while ensuring that producers garner the revenue they need to keep working. 

We know that independents and PBS must succeed together, and we’ve been working for several years to find ways to navigate the digital terrain to represent the public media mission, generate indie income, collaborate with traditional distributors, gain exposure, reach audiences, connect communities and serve the democratic commons—all at the same time. 

Over the last three years, that work has included a survey of 430 producers on how they use the Internet; eight commissioned case studies on indies’ digital activities; two co-published reports with the Center for Social Media on the new digital marketplace; a series of national meetings on digital rights in conjunction with the Paley Center; experimental partnerships with Jaman, SnagFilms and iThentic; and ongoing meetings with PBS Digital leadership. 

Now we’re teaming up with PBS on the Independent Digital Distribution Lab to build some working models for the PBS-Independent partnership online. For producers, that may mean exploring new kinds of content. Long-form content is still finding audiences online, but users increasingly view in segments on a wide variety of different devices. Others expect alternative versions: the full, the half, the short, the micro, the pre-, the post-, the making of. Funders are still supporting underrepresented voices, but there are new options competing with the 90-minute, $500k documentary. 

That’s why part of the new lab is providing ITVS-funded producers with additional support and partnerships to help independents experiment with audience development strategies. The other part of the Independent Digital Distribution Lab is focused on helping producers who want to experiment with online audiences gain access to PBS’s partnerships with commercial digital platforms. How do we carve out a place for public media on the Internet? How do we bring in much needed revenue for independents trying to pay the rent and fund their next projects? How can we balance these new opportunities with those presented by traditional home video and educational distributors, and how can these best work in tandem? How can we best position ourselves for the right revenue and audience models when this transitional phase—with its still limited audiences and even more limited profits—matures? 

These are challenges we will only have the opportunity to meet by getting in the game. Independents have a vision, an authenticity, an innovative spirit and a commitment to unique stories in service to the public. In a world where non-fiction as a genre is on the rise, independents increasingly are the ones who carry the banner of significance—the stuff that seeks more complicated truths and finds new ways to help us see the world anew. These qualities, and the hard-won craft of telling stories, will serve independents well in these exciting, discouraging, chaotic, utopian, terrible and great times. Nobody knows how this will all exactly shake out, but ITVS will continue to find opportunities for independents to tell their stories to the public—that is a given. 

-Sally Jo Fifer, President and CEO


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