How digital is making film more democratic

There’s no doubt it’s an exciting time to be a filmmaker with the democratisation that digital tools have brought to the field. But with that greater accessibility, the challenge of gaining an audience without taking a huge financial loss is very real.

“You’re fighting against studios who are throwing out tons of money on their advertising and you can’t,” said Brian Barnes, an independent filmmaker in the UK. “So life as an independent filmmaker is about de-risking your project as much as you can. You need to design your project so its financial success is not essential to your survival.”

Barnes’ short film “The Urge” did well at film festivals, winning various awards. He was then able to use that pedigree to sell it to the video-on-demand (VOD) platform IndieFlix. Since it launched January 2014, “The Urge” has been the eighth most watched horror film on the platform.

Alex Galvin, promoting Eternity in Cannes
Alex Galvin promoting Eternity in Cannes

For his part, New Zealand filmmaker Alex Galvin knows all too well the pressures involved in getting your film seen.

Galvin, whose sci-fi film “Eternity” was selected for the Cinema des Antipodes selection of Cannes Cinephiles in 2013 and competed for selection in the 14th Saint-Tropez Antipodes Film Festival, also secured digital distribution in the UK, New Zealand, China and Turkey. It’s now digitally available on iTunes in all territories except the United States.

Now seeking distribution and casting for his next film, Galvin said that digital distribution should be used with three primary goals in mind; recouping the money spent making the film, gaining a worldwide audience and setting up a filmmaker’s next movie. Galvin subsidises his filmmaking as a film lecturer at Wellington Institute of Technology.

“In a perfect world with the right names and right script, distribution would be secured before the film is even made,” Galvin said. “The best thing is to look at new forms of online distribution and there are a lot of names that are known internationally. While it’s a slow burn, a film can continually work for you for a number of years.“

Movie distribution expert Jerome Courshon said that relying solely on digital distribution was a mistake. “In today’s climate it’s necessary relying on digital revenues but it also depends on the level and genre of film,” Courshon said. “You make a movie and it’s not as simple as just making one distribution deal today unless it’s such a high level film. It’s really contingent to using all of the markets available, from theatrical, to DVD, to VOD and TV – basically all of it.”

Courshon, who noted that filmmakers were notorious for remaining ignorant about the business side of film, said that many ended up making bad distribution deals and were taken advantage of by producing reps acting as middle men to a shotgun list of distributors.

“It’s generally a horrible way to sell a film,” Courshon said. “There’s no producer representation – his life blood isn’t in one particular film. They’re looking to make any deal they can and move on to the next.”

He recommends getting educated and striving to be as first-hand as possible with digital platforms.

Courshon advocates implementing what he referred to as a “split rights strategy” when a filmmaker divides up the rights among several companies. “Very few are experts through all markets. This is endemic throughout Hollywood now. The market is so splintered – that’s why it’s so challenging.”

When it comes to the festival circuit, Courshon said it was still vital to many films. “Without films with a name, particularly for non-genre films – coming of age and comedy – they need festival exposure typically because they need to build a pedigree,” Courshon said.

“If films with American stars have distribution attached and they want international press, top film festivals can be a good launching point for them. If it’s an international film playing at a high profile international festival like Berlin or Venice, that can be a great starting point. And sometimes if they’re hoping to get distribution they can get a deal at a festival.”

Brian Barnes directing The Redeeming
Brian Barnes directing his debut feature The Redeeming

In Barnes’ case, having his film on IndieFlix hasn’t necessarily made him a big sum of money but it has no doubt benefitted him. Based in Seattle, in the US state of Washington, IndieFlix receives monthly subscriptions and shares the profits with filmmakers based on viewership of their film.

“If someone watches 10 minutes of my film, then I get paid 10 minutes worth,” Barnes said, noting that the value of viewing time changes month to month, which he said has ranged from three to nine cents per minute.

“Short films are not designed to make money because there is no real marketplace for them but with this model, IndieFlix gives you the ability to make money,” Barnes said. “I’m a convert to this VOD system. There’s not a great deal of money but there’s a lot of money potentially there.”

For his part, Galvin, who has taken out second and third mortgages on his home, feels encouraged by the current movie-making climate, although he said it’s not a hobby for those faint of heart. And he stressed the importance of making a really good movie.

“I’m very optimistic for the future,” Galvin said. “My film was chosen for its merits. It’s about having the quality – writing a good script. If you don’t have a good story, no one is going to be interested.”

“It’s a tricky business – the whole thing is very risky,” Barnes said. “You just have to make the best product of the film that you can.”