Independent Filmmakers Seizing Changing Distribution Landscape

A movie landscape once dominated by theatrical releases is now facing competition from an abundance of digital platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, Vimeo and YouTube. Netflix and Vimeo have given independent filmmakers more variety when it comes to distribution and one doesn’t necessarily have to release in a theatre. However revenue from these deals still needs to improve for the people who make independent films.

UBC Film Studies Professor Brian McIlroy sees the changes as good for independent filmmakers, but with room for improvement.

“It is true that the emergence, for example, of Vimeo as a platform for independent filmmakers has eased access to an audience. I am old enough to remember the highlight of a student film was to get one of the few spots on CBC’s Reflections program hosted by Adrienne Clarkson. That filtering (and “high culture”) selection process has diminished and the number of film festivals has exploded. The issue now is how to get noticed with so much product online, including YouTube, and actually make some money. So, yes, there are greater distribution opportunities and access to an audience, but the financial model seems to me to be precarious and haphazard.”

However there are curatorial distributors such as IFC/Magnolia that can secure a feature placement in a theatre. Of course here in Canada we have the National Film Board and Telefilm. The NFB has created over 13,000 productions and is in partnership with the world’s leading video portals. The NFB is a great place to pitch an idea and access their programming for emerging filmmakers. The International Women in Film Festival recently screened the award winning short “Rock the Box,” written and directed by Katherine Monk and funded by the NFB.

Once a filmmaker gets their foot in the door they will have access to their festival and worldwide distribution market. Telefilm is another great publicly funded organization that funds and promotes local production companies across Canada and individual filmmakers. They have a wide variety of resources for filmmakers including entry times for festivals, and a feature film distribution fund that makes lines of credit available for Canadian distributors. In 2013 they launched a micro-budget production program that supports filmmakers who want to distribute their film as a web based production. Both Telefilm and NFB have had their budgets cut over the past ten years, but are still robust and important resources for up and coming filmmakers.

Marketing offline is still crucial to getting the attention of audiences and distributors. Films such as “Exit Through the Gift Shop” a film by the elusive street artist “Banksy” got people excited in the real world because of the mysterious appearance of “Banksy” art across major cities. This word-of mouth hype was extremely helpful for the film and the public was buzzing with curiosity.

Amazon and Netflix are putting a lot of energy and resources behind original content, and DIY film culture is penetrating the once inaccessible film studio and challenging the dominance of the Hollywood blockbuster. McIlroy sees the current situation as still in flux.

“Kickstarter fundraising is wonderful but how many projects actually are able to pay back small investors? One suspects that the gold standard will become getting a deal with Netflix to develop a series or an original film. Is this substantively different (apart from size and budget) from filmmakers and producers pitching work to a Hollywood studio?

Nonetheless, the student film is a calling card that can lead to more professional work, so there’s an argument that it might pay off to post one’s film on Vimeo and other platforms for free…assuming you have exhausted the festival circuit and have few creditors.”

Now is an exciting time for independent filmmakers and for audiences who have a thirst for good storytelling, thrilling cinematography and international diverse faces. The established ways of distribution are being transformed and there are challenges. However because of the plethora of platforms, festivals like Sundance and TIFF and with the ability to garner the attention of a sophisticated global audience, there are many new opportunities for independent filmmakers.

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