BLOG: Digital Distribution Case Study of Spaces and Reservations

A couple of months ago I was approached by a grad student in Lisbon, Portugal, who was writing his MA thesis about the digital distribution of independent films. He wanted my reflections and musings in the light of my recent experience releasing Spaces and Reservations to the online market. I thought our exchange might prove interesting for some of y’all out there, so here it is. 

How has it been the experience of distributing “Spaces and Reservations” through streaming platforms like Vimeo On Demand, Hulu and Amazon?
It’s exciting to know that Spaces and Reservations is available for people to watch instantly at any moment. When you put yourself out there in an online environment, especially on high-traffic sites like Hulu and Amazon, there’s a certain sense of volatile potential that it’s easy to be intoxicated by. At any moment, the right person or set of people can stumble upon your film, and through a fortuitous set of circumstances, and thanks to the natural interconnectivity of these digital spaces, extraordinary things can happen. People can seize upon what you’ve made and make it resonate for others. The film’s very existence online creates opportunities that didn’t exist before, and it’s hard (even for a cynic like myself) not to be hopeful about that.

However, often it seems like the term “distribution” gets tied to the single act of making a film available on a particular platform, but in a more holistic sense distribution—especially digital distribution—is about an ongoing campaign for visibility, significance, and then sales. And, in that respect, Spaces is ultimately failing. It’s not enough to just make the film available and then see what happens, because in a busy cultural marketplace where people are inundated with content, being one of those options is a pretty minor victory. Ultimately, my goal is to motivate people to watch the film, which requires persistent marketing work that I don’t have the personal capacity for.

Also, timing is so important when you’re distributing your film. And, for reasons I won’t get into here, our timing was poor and our distribution online came very late. The energy and enthusiasm we generated during our theatrical tour had mostly dissipated by the time we were able to make Spaces and Reservations available via Amazon, Vimeo on Demand, and Hulu.

So, I guess overall I’d say that the digital distribution of the film has been an anticlimactic and somewhat bittersweet achievement. But, a step forward for me in my creative career nonetheless, and something I’m proud to have done.

What is the role of these streaming platforms in the distribution of independent films?
Streaming platforms mostly serve as popular, reliable points of access for online audiences. They provide hosting and monetization services, and make you available to their customers. In a sense, they’re a market where you can setup a table and hawk your wares—they just give you real estate in a place where people go to buy things. Some streaming platforms provide some element of curatorship to put you in front of the right audiences, and a few (like Fandor, Hulu, and Netflix) place your film in front of a very captive and loyal subscription audience, and in a sense are also acting a stamp of legitimacy and a signal of value.

Can streaming platforms be reliable services (in a cultural and economic way) for the distribution of independent films?
Streaming platforms answer the logistical question about how to deliver films to people in an online environment, and they’ve certainly proven reliable in that sense. Obviously people are willing to purchase and watch cinema in this way, but how reliable this revenue stream can be for different types of films, and how to market films in an online environment, is still something the industry is trying to figure out. But, on a more fundamental level, streaming platforms are only just beginning to answer the more difficult questions about monetization and curatorship of cinema in the digital age. Namely, how can we make the selling of films online lucrative enough to drive production, and how can we connect audiences with the films that will be the most resonant for them?

How do you feel about streaming platforms becoming the primary means of distribution for independent films?
For me, cinema is a social experience. It’s about connecting people with a shared emotional experience. And, although that social component can be a part of the streaming experience, I find that it rarely is. I don’t think that there are enough mechanisms to transform movies that are watched online into something more than a product to be consumed and quickly forgotten. And, in my experience, streaming video online is an activity that rarely takes someone’s full and undivided attention, which can completely undercut a person’s ability to appreciate and enjoy what they’re watching.

I feel strongly that seeing a movie in a theatre with other people is a far more intimate, intense, and social experience than streaming something online. And, I think that it’s terribly unfortunate independent films are increasingly less likely to be enjoyed this way. Streaming online is obviously a part of any successful distribution strategy, but I think it would be a mistake to see it as the primary means by which people will and should engage with your film.

Are streaming platforms redefining the traditional models of distribution of films like “Spaces and Reservations”?
The abundance of video content online has drastically altered the distribution models for movies of all kinds. Streaming platforms are an effort to meet audiences with content where and when they want it, but it’s a far busier and more fragmented market than the theatrical environment used to be, and it’s less risky—but also considerably less lucrative overall. It’s just a really different set of variables to contend with, and there is no conventional wisdom yet about what reliably works and what doesn’t.

With the success of streaming platforms, how do you see independent cinema going forward?
I think the future of independent film lies in reconfiguring production models to match the revenue potential of digital distribution. Mid and low-budget movies don’t stand to make the same amount of money they used to, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be sustainable—it means you have to re-imagine what your expenses look like. Until the industry really gets a good handle on how to make revenue projections for digital sales, and then how to reliably drive those sales, producers needs to be realistic about what the films themselves can and should look like.

Is the future of independent film distribution about the elimination of gatekeepers between filmmakers and audiences?
Ideally, yes. In actuality, I don’t think so. Initially we saw some filmmakers deploy some innovative and pretty successful do-it-yourself distribution strategies, as well as the development of some insurgent technology with a lot of promise to liberate filmmakers from traditional gatekeepers, but I think that’s mostly fizzling out. The amount of convergence and consolidation we’re seeing now, in terms of where users are going to discover and access content, is pretty discouraging, and it’s being exacerbated by the behaviour tracking tools of companies like Google and Facebook. The internet initially looked like a space for disruption, including in the realm of film distribution, but generally speaking I think it’s become a fairly corporatized space with it’s own set of gatekeepers and systems of exclusion.

Is theatrical distribution of independent films becoming increasingly outdated in favor of distribution through streaming platforms?
The analogue distribution of all kinds of media has been displaced by digital alternatives because it’s so much cheaper, and because the potential revenue on the analogue side has bottomed out in such spectacular fashion. However, theatrical distribution is still generally considered to be a significant and highly desirable outcome for filmmakers looking to share their work, and it’s a common benchmark for legitimacy among legacy cultural institutions and other industry power brokers like Telefilm Canada.

Are streaming platforms changing the ways audiences discover and watch independent films?
Streaming platforms are an increasingly popular way for people to watch independent cinema, but they don’t seem to be fundamentally transforming the ways that people discover content. People still mostly rely on social and curatorial channels to learn about films they’re interested in—from friends directly, on social networks, in the press, various forms of advertising, etc. Most people don’t randomly browse streaming platforms in search of stuff to watch because the platforms don’t have the functionality to make it a very intuitive process. But, Netflix and other subscription services have created new behaviours by virtue of how captive their audiences are. Hence, the new phenomenon of “binge-watching”.

Is it more difficult for independent films to make a strong presence on streaming platforms?
Yes, the abundance of content makes it extremely challenging to stand out and make an impact, which is why access is such a small part of a film’s distribution strategy. You have to build an audience for your work first, because you can’t rely on the “stumble upon” potential that hypothetically exists on a streaming platform. There’s just too much stuff out there.

Would you consider selling the distribution rights of your next film directly to a streaming platform?
It would really depend on the specifics of the agreement and the platform, but certainly it’s something that I’m open to. I want to connect my films with audiences, and I want to generate revenue streams that can help fund new projects. If a streaming platform offers an opportunity to do both of those things, I’d of course be interested.

In order for independent films to thrive, is there a need for smaller streaming platforms to exist to battle against the big ones?
It’s important that there are platforms in the market that are accessible—ones that accept films that aren’t necessarily delivered through a sales aggregator or distributor, like Indieflix. And, it is vital that platforms like Indieflix have the means to compete for users with the big boys, and to offer a sustainable, ongoing alternative to online audiences. The largest VOD platforms provide a superficial kind of diversity and choice to people, and I think audiences deserve the opportunity to choose cinema that is more meaningfully different. Smaller, more accessible VOD platforms certainly offer that possibility.

Are streaming platforms with curated catalogues an opportunity for independent films to find success on these services?
Generally speaking, the more carefully curated and inaccessible the platform, the greater the revenue potential is for the films that are on it. Users have fewer films to choose from, and are more likely to watch content they’re not familiar with because it’s been stamped with a certain value by virtue of it’s inclusion. So, yes, they are a tremendously valuable, but very allusive, opportunity for independent filmmakers.

What would you say are the most profound changes that independent filmmakers have experienced with the advent of streaming platforms?
Filmmakers are no longer just producers sending content out into the ether. They’re responsible for figuring out who their work is resonant to, reaching out to those people, communicating with them, and effectively building and maintaining and mobilizing an audience. I think that’s a pretty fundamental shift that filmmakers are scrambling to get accustomed to.

What do you think is the overall impact of streaming platforms on independent cinema?
There’s been some level of influence on the art itself, with filmmakers anticipating that the eventual means of presentation will be smaller and less likely the sole object of people’s attention. If that’s manifesting itself in some consistent way, I think it’s really hard to say. But, on the business side I’d say that the overall impact has been to exacerbate the economic stratification in the industry. While VOD revenue is temporarily buoying the mid and low budget feature—the independent film market generally—it’s doing so at a much lower waterline than theatrical/home video/broadcast did a couple of decades ago. It means that the middle-class of the movie business is a lot poorer than they used to be. But, I wouldn’t say that’s attributable directly to online video streaming. It’s more a symptom of a broader issue—people migrating en masse to the internet to enjoy content.

Do you think the use of streaming platforms attenuates the piracy of independent films?
I’d say so, yeah. A big part of digital content piracy, especially early on, was just about access. It wasn’t that people weren’t willing to pay for content online, it was that there weren’t enough opportunities to legally access the films or music that people wanted, or an intuitive way to pay for it, in the early days of the internet. Now that distributors have met audiences with the content where they want to consume it, via streaming platforms and other VOD outlets, there’s less of an imperative for people to illegally access stuff. Now, the rationalizations for piracy are quite different and more diverse— it may be about cost, it may be ideological, and it may be a form of commodity fetishism.

But, at the same time there’s also a fair bit of evidence that suggests people who pirate digital content are actually more voracious cultural consumers than other folks. So, even though they get a lot of content for free, they still spend more dollars than other consumers. So, it’s a bit more difficult to know for sure whether or not the ubiquity of streaming will curb their propensity to selectively pirate.

Do you think that distributing indie films through streaming platforms is a solution to the lack of visibility that some of these films may have?
Not in any meaningful sense, no.The “visibility” you get when you make your film accessible on a streaming platform is negligible in volume and mostly incidental, with some exceptions of course (Netflix, Hulu). Real audience building is about a much more robust campaign for eyeballs than the mere act of making your film available online for people to watch.

Still, do you think streaming platforms enable the public to have more access to independent films like yours?
No doubt. But, access is not visibility, visibility is not engagement, engagement is not views, and views are not necessarily sales. 

If you had to envision a streaming platform made to distribute independent films how would it look like?
That’s a question with a really complex answer, that many digital media tycoons and web development experts are still trying to answer. And, the platform isn’t the be-all-end-all. It’s an important part of a vibrant, sustainable digital ecosystem that can support the industry— but it’s not the only component. In the abstract though, what’s missing right now from VOD platforms are more sophisticated curatorial and browsing tools, and a way to have centralization without convergence.

Can you expand a bit on why do you think streaming platforms are enabling the public to have more access to independent films?
Not much to say, really. Companies that own streaming services obviously think it’s a smart business venture, a good way to make money. That’s why they offer the service, that’s why they acquire content, that’s why they court audiences to their platform, etc.

Do you think it’s viable for independent filmmakers like yourself to distribute their films through streaming platforms?
Absolutely. VOD definitely opens the door for filmmakers to carve out a sustainable path for their artistic practise, as long as they’re able to connect with audiences and find ways to make their work resonate with large enough groups of people. It’s difficult to realize all of the potential that’s there, but that initial opportunity is genuinely a reason to be optimistic.

Brendan Prost