David Averbach is Creative Director and Director of Digital Distribution Initiatives at The Film Collaborative.

When distributing your film, a lot of time is spent waiting for answers. Validation can come only intermittently, and the constant string of “no”s is an anxiety-ridden game of process of elimination. Which doors open for your film and which doors remain closed determines the trajectory of its distribution, whether it’s festival, theatrical, digital, education or home video (until that’s dead for good).

I work with filmmakers, way down-wind of this long and drawn-out process, who, after exhausting all other possibilities, have “chosen” DIY digital distribution as a last resort.

TFC’s DIY digital distribution program has helped almost 50 filmmakers go through the process of releasing their film digitally over the past 5 years and with most of them, I have often felt as though I were giving a pep-talk to the kid who got picked last for the dodgeball team. “Hang in there, just stick to it…you’ll show them all.”

Is DIY Digital Distribution anything more than a last resort? Perhaps not…

Since TFC was formed over six and a half years ago, we have optimistically used “DIY” as a term of empowerment, where access and transparency had finally reached a point where one could act as one’s own distributor. After all, we tell these (literally) poor, exhausted filmmakers, “no one knows your film better than you do”, so “no one can do a better job of marketing it.” With a little gumption, a few newsletters and handful of paid Facebook posts, you, too, might prove all the haters wrong and net even more earnings than Johnny next door who sold his film to what he thought was a reputable distributor but never saw a dime past the MG (minimum guarantee) in his distribution agreement. We even wrote two case study books about it.

It’s not that I’m being untruthful with these filmmakers. Nor is it the case that these films are necessarily of poor quality. What they have in common is a lack of visibility. Most had some sort of festival run, and only a handful were released theatrically, usually with one- or two-day engagements in a handful of cities. Occasionally, we’ll get a film that has four-walled in New York or Los Angeles for a week. Or sometimes ones that have played on local PBS affiliates or even on Showtime. But their films are not even close to being household brand names. So without the exposure or the marketing budget, they can do little more than to deliver their film to TVOD platforms like iTunes and hope for the best.

So what happens to these films? The news, as a whole, is not good. Based on what I’ve seen from these films in the aggregate, and all things being equal, if you DIY/dump your film onto only iTunes/Amazon/GooglePlay with moderate festival distribution but no real money left for marketing, you will be lucky to net more than $10K on TVOD platforms in your film’s digital life.

And the poorer the filmmaking quality of your film, or the less recognizable the cast, or the less “niche” your film is, the more likely it will be that you won’t even earn much more revenue than what is required to pay off the encoding and delivery fees to get your film onto these platforms in the first place (which is around $2-3K).

Which is why, as of late, I’ve been aggressively suggesting to filmmakers that holding off on high profile TVOD platforms and instead trying to drive traffic to their websites and offering sales and rentals of their film via Vimeo On Demand or VHX, two much cheaper options, might be a better use of their limited remaining funds.

But am I down on DIY? Not necessarily.

Granted, there are a lot of films out there for which The Film Collaborative can do very little for in the area of digital distribution other than hold filmmakers’ hands. But what about for films working at the “next level up” from last-resort-DIY? Films who have either gotten a no-MG or modest-MG distribution offer?

Many distributors and aggregators working at this level will informally promise some sort of marketing, but many times those marketing efforts are not specifically listed contractually in the agreement. So when filmmakers ask me whether going with a no-MG aggregator is better than doing DIY, this is my answer…

It’s important to remember that, once a film is on iTunes, no one will care how it got there. And by this I mean with no featured placement, just getting it on to the platform. So, if that’s all a distributor/aggregator is doing, this is not the kind of deal that a filmmaker can dump into someone else’s hands and move on to their next project. In fact, many aggregators will send you a welcome packet with tips and suggestions on how to market your film on social media, such as Facebook. In other words, they are literally expecting you to do your own marketing. Not just do but pay for. So, it is entirely possible that all that an aggregator or distributor is doing is fronting your encoding costs, which they will later recoup from your gross earnings, but only after they take their cut off the top. And if your distributor is offering you a modest MG, you must be prepared for the possibility that that MG may be all the earnings you are ever going to see. Certainly, we have seen many, many filmmakers in this position.

So the question remains: Is DIY still too risky for all but films that have run out of options?

It’s a hard question to answer, mostly because there is no ONE answer. Undoubtedly, some films will be helped with such an arrangement and some films will not.

Distributors, of course, will stick to the sunny side of the street. They will tell you that DIY is too risky for the vast majority of films, and remind you that distribution is more than getting a film on to one or two platforms.

When I asked Gravitas Ventures founder Nolan Gallagher, a veteran in distribution and whose co-execs have a combined 50+ years in distribution experience, about his feelings regarding DIY, he was quick to point out that the main difference between a proven distributor and DIY is that while much of the work in DIY happens in year 1, distributors can help in year 3 or year 5 or beyond. He believes that DIY individual filmmakers will be shut out from new revenue opportunities (i.e. the VOD platforms of the future) that will be launched by major media companies or venture capital backed entrepreneurs in the years to come because these platforms will turn to established companies with hundreds or thousands of titles on offer.

This is a fair point, in theory, but I honestly cannot recall a single instance of one of our filmmakers from 2010-2013 jumping for joy over that fact that his or her distributor had suddenly found a meaningful new VOD opportunity in years 3-5, nor have we heard of any specific efforts or successes down the line. But it’s good to know one can expect this if signing with a distributor.

He also mentioned that many of Gravitas’ documentarians receive multiple 5 figures in annual revenue over 5 years after a film first debuted.

That’s nice for those filmmakers…But what about the ones that don’t? It would be ludicrous to suggest that any decent film, with the proper marketing and industry connections, can become a respectable grosser on iTunes.

By no means am I singling out Gravitas in order to pick on them in any way. For many films, clearly they do a terrific job.

But does that mean that there aren’t a handful of filmmakers that have gone through aggregators like Gravitas or other smaller distributors that many TFC films have worked with, such as The Orchard, A24, Oscilloscope, Virgil, Wolfe, Freestyle Digital Media, Breaking Glass Pictures, Amplify, Wolfe, Zeitgeist Films, Dark Sky Films, Tribeca Films, Sundance Selects, who are not entirely convinced that they were well served by their distributor? Of course not.

The question I really wanted to know was more of a hypothetical one than one that assigns blame: if these so-called “borderline films” that went through aggregators/distributors had done DIY instead, how close could they have come netting the same amount of earnings in the end? Is it possible that they could have gotten more?

This is a hard question—or, should I say, a nearly impossible question—to answer, because no one has a crystal ball. But also because of the continued lack of transparency surrounding digital earnings, despite initiatives like Sundance Institute’s The Transparency Project, and because the landscape is continually evolving.

A recent article in Filmmaker Magazine, entitled “The Digital Lowdown,” discusses how independent filmmakers struggle to survive in an overcrowded digital marketplace and “admits” that niche-less festival films will only gross in the range of $100K-$200K, and that, in fact, talks about a “six-figure goal.” But in almost the same breath, there is a caveat. Sundance Artist Services warns that “…if a filmmaker spends about $100,000 in P&A to finance a theatrical run, they’re probably going to be making that much from digital sources.”

I have heard many stories of distributors and filmmakers alike, who put “X” dollars combined into P&A for both theatrical and digital only to make a similar amount back in the end. So what’s the point? If you look at distribution from the perspective of paying back investors, are a good portion of filmmakers netting close to nothing, no matter whether they do DIY or whether they gear up for a theatrical and digital distribution via a distributor? If a film does not succeed monetarily, is the consolation prize merely visibility and exposure? (Which is not nothing, but it’s not $$ either).

A few months ago, my colleague Bryan Glick posted a terrific piece on our blog that questioned the ROI of an Oscar®-qualifying run, given the unlikelihood of being shortlisted. Bryan implies that because filmmakers like hearing “yes,” and like having their egos stroked, when publicists, publications, screening series, cinemas, and private venues all lure filmmakers with a possibility of an Oscar®, something takes over and they lose perspective at the very moment they need it most.

Could the same be true for a distribution strategy? Are filmmakers so happy to be offered a distribution deal at all that they are unable to walk away from that distribution deal, even if they suspect that it undervalues their film? And could a viable DIY option change that?

Last fall, I began to think about what a “successful” DIY digital release could look like. On the low end, we’ve heard about a magical $10K figure that I discussed above…in the context of MGs paid to Toronto official selections via Vimeo on Demand, and Netflix offers to Sundance films via Sundance Artists Services. So it would have to be at least greater than $10K. And on the high end, it would have to be at least $100K that the filmmaker gets to net over a 10-year period.

Working backwards, how can this be achieved and is it possible to recreate that strategy via DIY?

One thing that gave me hope was when my colleague Orly Ravid, acting as sales agent, negotiated a licensing low-six-figure deal with Netflix for the film Game Face, about LGBTQ athletes coming out. The film won numerous audience awards at film festivals, but had no theatrical release. Timing, as well as the sports and LGBT niche, made this film perfect for a DIY release. The only catch was the Netflix insisted on a simultaneous SVOD & TVOD window, so Netflix and iTunes releases started within one day of each other. TFC serviced the deal through our flat-fee program via Premiere Digital Services.

This past Spring, TFC spearheaded the digital release of Tab Hunter Confidential, a film for which we also handled festival and theatrical distribution, as well as sales. Truth be told, this film almost went through a distributor. In the end, however, after a protracted period of negotiation, an offer was made, but knowing how much Netflix was willing to offer, Orly advised the filmmaker to walk away from the deal and try our hand at a DIY release. The filmmaker agreed, and we serviced the Netflix deal via Premiere. However, as Netflix wanted the film for June, which is Gay Pride Month, we had a limited amount of time in which to do iTunes, and I was determined to make the most of it.

So what were the goals? And how could we get there?

I had been trolling both the “Independent” and “Documentary” sections on iTunes for months in preparation for what has now become this article on DIY. I had been noticing that while it is easy to get a film into the “New & Noteworthy” section in “Documentaries,” which contains at hundreds of films, the similar section in “Independent” is limited to about 32. So how could one get there? And how could one’s film be featured in the top carousel in “Independent” or in any of the genre categories? Would it help to offer iTunes exclusivity? Would it help to do iTunes Extras? Could we contact Apple and try and schedule something? What else could be done? These are the questions that I set out figure out on my own, or to ask our aggregator, Premiere Digital Services.

How can I get my film to be one of the 30+ films in the “Independent” Section of iTunes? This section is populated at Apple’s discretion. Their iTunes division is based in L.A., not Silicon Valley, and they attend film festivals and are very up-to-date on the indie film landscape. It’s clear, however, that while they do speak with distributors and aggregators about what’s coming down the pipeline, most of the decisions about what is to receive placement in this section occur within a week or two of the release date in question, and are decided ultimately by iTunes. I informed Premiere Digital that we were very interested in being placed in Independent, and they told me that they have weekly calls with iTunes and that—closer to the date of release—they would mention the film to them. In the end—spoiler alert—we did manage to get Tab into this section. But there were no back room deals to get that to happen…so I can hereby confirm that it is possible to be featured on the iTunes store based solely on your film and the specifics of its release.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: Out of approximately 100 films that appeared from late November 2015 to early February 2016 (which I kept track of manually, so the following is not completely scientific), about 50 of those had a “fresh” rotten tomatoes score. About 40 of those 50 had RT scores over 80%, and many of those were Certified as Fresh. Of the remaining 50 films, about 20 had “rotten” RT scores, and about 30 had no score at all. Luckily, Tab Hunter Confidential has an RT score of 87%, so I knew I was safe from that perspective. But while I was investigating, I was particularly interested in those films without a score. I noticed that many of them had star power attached, and a few of them were holiday-themed. A few of them were Lionsgate titles. And a few sports-related and horror titles, which always seem to rise to the top. I glanced at the Independent section for this week (third week in August), and these numbers pretty much bear out, save the holiday ones. The takeaway here was that if your film did not have a theatrical (and therefore perhaps does not have a RT score), if it doesn’t have famous people in it, it’s not about sports or is not in the horror genre, your chances of appearing in this section as a DIY film going through an aggregator seem pretty slim.

Check in, check out dates. As many of you know, films always end up in one of Apple’s genre sections. They stay there a few weeks or even a few months until they are bumped out of that category by newer items. But those sections are very glutted. The “Independent” section is a second placement, one that is curated by Apple, of only three rows of films. One thing that I became acutely aware of was the high turnaround in this section. Films seemed to be refreshed twice a week: once on Tuesdays (release day), and then again on Fridays. This was more or less consistent, although I got the feeling that on a few occasions things were a bit early or a bit late.

At any rate, it was very clear that if films were not pulling their weight, they would be booted from the “Independent” section for something else. At least 1/3 of the films were gone after only a few days. After all, Apple is in the business of making money off these films too. What occurred to me is that if filmmakers are doing distribution deals to get placement, and their films only last 3 days in the “Independent” section, and that measly placement is what amounts to the big perk/payoff of going through a distributor, it’s a pretty sad day for either the filmmaker, the distributor, or both.

How can I get my film featured in the top carousel? It turned out to be the same answer as for the Independent section in general, but I can admit it now…I was a pest: I asked multiple people at Premiere this question. I was told over and over that Apple will make a request for layered artwork if they are interested in featuring the film. Two weeks before the release date I had not heard anything. But less than a week before, Premiere received the request for artwork from Apple. We ended up being featured in both the “Independent” and “Documentary” sections.

Why did they pick us? I am not completely sure, but here are my guesses: We had a great film festival run. The film was based on a bestselling book. We had a high RT score; we did a 40+ city theatrical; we had a lot of press, and we had a publicist; the film was apparently not doing terribly in the iTunes Pre-Order section, Tab Hunter did many interviews when the theatrical came out; Tab Hunter is freaking Tab Hunter; the film spans both LGBT genres and the genre of women of a certain age who came of age in the 1950s and still remember Tab’s poster on their bedroom walls; the artwork was classy; it was almost June; we gave them an exclusive (although I don’t think they ever advertised it as such); we did an international release on iTunes (we were told that Apple likes films to have more than one territory to be featured, which is kind of strange, because it wasn’t featured in any other iTunes store, like Canada or UK); and lastly, we did some iTunes custom artwork and iTunes Extras.

Walking the walk. Speaking of customization, one thing that I noticed about every film in the “Independent” section was that most detail pages contained customized promotion background artwork. Apple likes this. It gives the film branding, credibility. Apple has two different kinds of background art one for the iTunes store and one for AppleTV. We opted to do just the iTunes store art, which is an extra $75 conformance fee at Premiere. We also did iTunes Extras basic package, for about $700 extra, which offers a chance to include bonus features, such as outtakes and other exclusive video. Since we were planning on including bonus interviews on our DVD, we included that file, as well as 10 minutes of interviews for which iTunes is the only place that they are available. I’m not sure if Extras helped the featured placement, since we were literally down to the wire on having them appear on the store in time for the release. (At the last minute, we needed a looping background audio for iTunes, which we didn’t realize was mandatory, so if you go the Extras route, don’t forget that that audio file is needed).

Results. All in all, we did everything we could, and it paid off. We were featured in both the carousels of the “Independent” and “Documentary” genre sections, and stayed in the “Independent” carousel for a full week and in “Documentary” carousel for two weeks. We stayed in the “New & Noteworthy” part of “Independent” for several weeks. At its peak, we reached #2 in Documentaries, being surpassed only by Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next, which months later is still in the “New & Noteworthy” part of “Independent.” We made sure Tab Hunter Confidential shows up in both the iTunes Extras section and the “LGBT Movies” Collection section. The more places to find the film, after all, the more chance of it being rented or purchased.

After over 3 months, around the third week of August, Tab Hunter Confidential was the 12th All-Time Bestselling LGBT Doc in the iTunes store. As of the date of this blog, it has dipped down the 14th. It is still in the “New & Noteworthy” part of “Documentaries,” although to be fair that section contains hundreds of films.

Regrets? Could we have stayed longer in the iTunes carousels? Two things worked against us. First, although there was a social media push when the film was released, it was pretty limited, as we had only a small P&A budget. With more of a spend, we could have gotten more attention during the second week, and perhaps sales would have warranted the film sticking around for longer. Other films, such as Gravitas’ Requiem for the American Dream, for which TFC handled the Theatrical, featuring Noam Chomsky, have done a much better job surfing this wave. Fortuitous timing with Bernie Sanders, but that is a story for another day.

Although we offered TVOD exclusivity to Apple until June, it was unclear whether they really cared about that, as they never promoted it as such, and we probably should have released on Amazon, GooglePlay and Vudu on the same day as iTunes.

(Speaking of Amazon and GooglePlay, I once asked someone who used to work at Premiere how one gets featured on those other platforms’ stores. What they told me was shocking: Amazon and GooglePlay basically copy content ideas from the iTunes store. This was about a year ago, so who knows if this is still happening, or if it was even true at all. But I was kind of blown away by this.)

Conclusion. There are undoubtedly things one could immediately try and recreate from the steps that were taken with Tab Hunter Confidential. However, who is to know if they could work a second time, with a different film and different timeframe?

I am not suggesting in this article that distribution deals are unnecessary. Many companies have a ton of industry connections and experience that one might not be able to recreate with DIY.

But in this case, the filmmaker is thrilled, and my TFC team believes that dollar for dollar, the filmmaker walked away with a guaranteed net that is more than they would have received had they taken the distribution deal that was offered to them by a distributor.

So should DIY be considered a dirty word? Only you can decide if it is right for you film. As a whole, the jury might still be out, but, at the very least, I suspect that we’re going to get more filmmakers interested in iTunes background art.

Be sure to look out for Tab Hunter Confidential, on digital platforms, and now on DVD and Blu-Ray, which have recently been released by our friends at FilmRise.

September 6th, 2016

Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, case studies, Digital Distribution, Distribution, Distribution Platforms, DIY, education, iTunes, Marketing, Netflix

Guest blog post by Wendy Bernfeld

Logo TV Festival 2011 BLANC

The Cannes Film Festival starts today, and any Cannes season would not be complete without an update from our dear friend and colleague Wendy Bernfeld, Founder and Managing Director of Rights Stuff and co-author of our second case study book in 2014 Selling Your Film Outside the U.S. (free on Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks. Wendy specializes in Library and Original Content acquisition/distribution, international strategy / deal advice, for traditional media (film, TV, pay TV), digital media (Internet/IPTV, VOD, mobile, OTT/devices), and web/cross-platform/transmedia programming, and also active on various film festival / advisory boards, such as IDFA, Binger Film Institute, Seize the Night, Outdoor FilmFest, and others, including TFC! Follow her on Twitter: @wbernfeld.

Selling Your Film Outside the U.S.

What’s happened out there in the two years since TFC first published Selling Your Film Outside the U.S. (“The Book”)?

My introductory chapter to the book, entitle, “Digital Distribution in Europe” provided a snapshot of the evolving sector at that point in time. However, by now, the sector, particularly in the area of SVOD and AdVOD, has leaped even more forward, and includes more mature services as well as new niche and thematic services out there— as well as some services with an increased appetite for foreign language, art house and documentary films/series (finally).

A. Blurred Lines — Traditional vs. Digital — Hybrid Platforms

More recent trends 2015-16 include increasingly blurred dividing lines between so-called traditional vs digital players .

  • Traditionals: Many traditional players, internationally, (like telecoms, cable and free tv) have now become more digital, by either 1) bysetting up their own competing, or complementary, multi-window VOD offerings such as SVOD services (e.g. Channel 9’s STAN in Australia or Liberty Global’s MyPrime in both Switzerland and Netherlands); or 2) electing to instead “sleep with the enemy” by just hosting digital channels like Netflix, Spotify, etc. on their set-top box (e.g. Orange, ComHem Sweden, Virgin UK). Some traditionals opt to distinguish the brand identity of the VOD service from the main service, (different names); while others unite both services under one brand, such as CanalPlay (C+) or Viasat’s VIAPLAY. Recent developments include BBC announcing it will start SVOD internationally, after also migrating its Channel 3 to digital-only online offering; and ITV starting CURIO, a nonfiction SVOD in the UK.
  • Digitals: Correspondingly, the so-called formerly digital-only players like Netflix, Amazon (previously more complementary or second window) are now acting a great deal like the traditional players. Think: old-fashioned commissioning broadcasters who increasingly require first-window status and exclusivity, and who are funding “originals”, getting involved competitively commissioning films from development stage etc. and fashioning game-changing windows.

Despite the complexity, this is overall great news for creators/rights-holders since it allows even more opportunity to maximize revenues and audiences per successive window, platform and region, if one takes the time to do it right.

B. VODs Per Window:

Lets look at various platforms in each window today, from TVOD, DTO, through to SVOD, AdVOD, etc. Note that many deliberately offer MULTI-model consumer services – such as Orange, Canal Plus and BSKYB (TVOD/DTO, SVOD), Amazon (Instant and Prime, for TVOD/DTO and SVOD, respectively) and Wuaki – while others (Netflix and Curio) operate under just one consumer business model.

  1. TVOD/DTO:
    1. For the Big5 (Google, Amazon, iTunes, Xbox, PS), one still generally goes through a digital aggregator, like Juice, Cinedigm, Kinonation, and Syndicado in N.America. Outside N.America, EMEA counterparts in include one of Rights Stuff clients MOMEDIA (attractive multi-platform new biz model, lower cost for more platforms and combined with social media/marketing) – and others like DoCo/ODMedia (NL), MoviePartnership, and Under the MilkyWay.
      Shop around…these aggregators they have different models and price alone shouldn’t be the only indicator. Also look at their marketing/positioning: some take your IP, others (like Rights Stuff, TFC) do not.
    2. Going direct to the others in TVOD/DTO:
      Don’t stop at one or even all of the Big5. The play is to have multiple deals , non exclusive, staggered, in all the windows, in each region. Virtually every country has an active telecom and cable or DTH competitor in the region, as well as mobile and online /consumer electronics players who offer VOD, so licensing non-exclusive TVOD to them on top of others is a good first step in the chain.
      Beyond the utility companies, some other examples in TVOD/DTO include premium pay tv services or platforms like CanalPlus (France and other regions) and BSkyB, (UK, Germany, Italy, New Zealand). Also theatrical chains in some countries, such as Cineplex in Canada or Pathé in Holland, have VOD arms and thus can offer complementary marketing of films in theatrical window with the subsequent TVOD/DTO window. Also check out online VOD indie film specialist FilmDoo (well-curated indie/art house focused, now in UK/EIRE and soon expanding), and as earlier written, Curzon offers day-and-date theatrical combined with VOD in UK. Wuaki announced moves into 15 countries internationally by end of 2016, most are now TVOD/DTO but the Spain HQ is an SVOD OTT platform. The NFB in Canada started TVOD/DTO in N.America and recently in 2016 an SVOD service, and they now buy docs/films from other sources and regions, too.
    3. Deals: TVOD/DTO continues to be typically a rev share model and sometimes only a loss leader, but can help drive critical awareness, especially when accompanied by social media marketing and audience engagement strategies. Sometimes, film dependent (for eg if a very niche film) it saves money to skip the big5 (who require costly specs) and license direct to the other international tvod/dto platforms, as then at least one participates from day one in revenues, vs having to recoup expensive deliverables.
  2. SVOD/PAY – whether first and second windows:

    As predicted, this window has so far overall been most remunerative since it’s usually structured by a flat fee license fee (although smaller or niche thematic platforms in the larger USA market (such as Fandor or Indieflix) are still offering just a revenue share formula, which can make the returns lackluster). We generally favor licensing to platforms that pay even a modest flat fee, upfront. Or in some cases in the ‘’back end’’ i.e. rev share to start, then if the revenues at the end of a year (or the window) don’t reach, say, $1000, the platform pays the difference. That sort of model can be attractive for startup platforms who truly believe in the power of their SVOD service but are cash-strapped at the start. So one can license to a less remunerative platform, which does a great job of curation, editorial, placement, and also license other SVOD platforms who may be more remunerative for you.

    1. In the USA, you’ve finally seen growth since 2015 in the SVOD sector for documentaries, including the Curiosity Stream SVOD OTT platform (by former Discovery founder, John Hendricks), whose programs tend towards educational and traditional. They are usually on a rev-share only model, whereas competitor xive.tv (SVOD OTT) also buys docs features/series, but over a wider range of topics including more populist/reality content- and xive.com works on a flat fee and/or combo deal model. And a deal with well-curated xive.tv delivers an extra ‘lift’’ in reach by providing carriage on other platforms (Hulu, Roku, Amazon, etc.).
    2. In EMEA/beyond, some other SVOD OTT platforms for docs and arthouse have arisen such as CURIO in UK (via ITV), Filmin (Spain, Portugal, Mexico). Mobil has now transformed its model to a curated daily film+library, a lower price and is complete with hefty investment by Chinese backers/reach into China. They also started paying some flat fees, or MGs, for select higher-end indies, as opposed to the pure rev share SVOD model of earlier days.
    3. There’s been a surge of local SVOD players popping up to compete or complement as Netflix or Amazon/competitors rolls into each new region. Some present outright competition, engaging in bidding wars for similar mainstream content offerings and price points. For instance, MNET South Africa, a premium pay tv operator, launched ShowMax locally and soon after announced further expansion. Other examples include: Videoland Plus (owned by free tv RTL/& SBS channels in the Netherlands) and Maxdome (owned by Prosieben in Germany).
      Others are complementary SVOD services, offering older library services in general interest. And still others exist at lower price points in narrow verticals/themes, like kids, anime, arthouse, etc. Hopster (UK/USA) is a buyer of purely kids programming, recently launched also in Iceland on Vodafone platform; similar to MinBIO (Nordic kids), which buys from international producers as well as from studios or locals, and Kidoodle (Canada svod ott). Cirkus in Nordic focuses on best of British programming (SVOD OTT).
      Recently in 2016 there’s a raft of SVOD platforms in developing regions like the MidEast and South East Asia: such as multi-region IFLIX and ICFLIX. As before Australia has pay and svod services such as Foxtel’s Presto (Australia); Lightbox (New Zealand), and Stan (channel 9).
      SVOD Deals: Producers should usually seek flat fee, but some platforms perform well on rev share. Particularly if you license multiple platforms in the same window and cross-promote so consumers find you from whichever entry point. In the lucky case where you can play off one against the other (e.g. traditional pay tv vs SVOD first-run) a stronger case can be argued for the license fees, as the buyer is “not the only game in town” anymore. In other cases, non-exclusive, multiple-platforms deals in smaller amounts still add up the revenues and audience. Prices can range from €250-2000 for an indie doc of film if old library and yet also up to 5- and 6-figure sums if a higher-end indie/doc or original/first-run. Pricing is also obviously affected by volume of the films in a deal, the number of regions, the awareness (platform, audience), popularity, critical acclaim, and language and cultural portability.
  3. ADVOD:
    Although TubiTV/AdRise in USA and Hulu (multi-model in AdVOD and SVOD) are strong platforms offering solid returns to producers in the AdVOD sector, there aren’t many doing the same in EMEA. Here, again, it’s worthwhile to have your films spread on other free AdVOD platforms (vs pirate sites) so the returns are cumulative and there’s cross-promotion. Sometimes a film sampled on AdVOD can help to yield revenues from DTO (e.g. if a consumer discovers a lesser known film on an AdVOD platform and decides then to buy it on iTunes, while they’d not have bought it unknown before).
    Some updates on the AdVOD sector in EU: Viewster.com (27 countries in EMEA) has shifted focus (since our last reference in the book) from buying arthouse/festival films, to millennial content, including edgier, fast-paced docs, some originals and anime. In 2015 they had added an SVOD anime service, but in March 2016 shut it down, as others have become more aggressive in that space. DailyMotion, EU competitor to Youtube, were sometimes paying flat fees and sometimes commissioning series, but a recent sale by Orange to Vivendi may bring changes. Channel4 (UK) recently launched WalterPresents, an AdVOD site focused specifically on dramatic series and some films strictly from outside the UK.
  4. HOW TO REACH THE PLATFORMS:
    As before, one goes via aggregators for Big5, but your agent/representative, or distributor/sales agent, OR YOU YOURSELF can hit up the others direct.
    REPS: I highly recommend interviewing your potential sales agent/distributor, with new questions such as asking 1) if they’ve been active in digital lately vs just their traditional buyers; and 2) if so, then with which types of platforms—Big5-7 or also beyond to International? If not, it doesn’t have to be a barrier, if they’re willing to allow nonexclusivity in digital, and/or to allow you or digital agents to assist and collaborate alongside.
  5. FUNDING (including by SVODs):
    Although beyond the scope of this article, note In 2015-16 there’s been increased activity in 5-6 figure prebuying/funding of originals or premieres (film, series)—not just from English regions and not only via Netflix and Amazon, but also other international and EMEA services like OneNet Poland, IcFlix, Telenet, KPNPlay, Vimeo, Vivendi/Canal+, etc.
    On the Amazon front, aside from bigbudget originals via Ted Hope’s division such as ChiRaq at Berlinale and Woody Allen this Cannes, they also fund weboriginals, digital series, via prototyping schemes and audience involvement/feedback. Netflix has been intensely active in funding originals, including docs and nonfiction (while a few years ago that was a rarity); more deals in arthouse, docs and foreign will be announced at or after Cannes.
    In Canada there is a funding for coproduction in digital programs; And in France/EU, Vivendi (owner of Canal+ and DailyMotion) just in April 2016 launched its “Studio+” initiative &,dash; funding short-form original series for mobile and telecom operators.
  6. TAKEAWAYS
    As before in the 2014 Book, the following have intensified:
    • Act quickly and work collaboratively (filmmakers + agents/distributors) to seize timing opportunities, particularly around certain countries where (s)VOD activities and platforms or hotly competing.
    • Balance traditional and digital platforms, buyers and funders carefully in order to capture the cumulative and incremental revs in the nonexclusive deal sector, while also developing a longer term platform pipeline for future.
    • Don’t stop at just one deal, unless exclusivity or funding elements are in play and worth it.
    • Don’t be blocked per se by rights issues. Pragmatic business deals where others are “cut in” can help make those melt away
    • Hybrid distribution: We as consultants/agents, aside from working direct for producers and platforms, now increasingly are retained by sales agents, distributors and even aggregators – as although they have the IP, they don’t always know all the others to sell to after going beyond the Big 5-7; this type of collaboration with producers and other reps on distribution yields good results (although time consuming at first) with each stakeholder getting a smaller piece but of a bigger pie. At the end of the day, 100% of zero is still zero.
    • If not using a middleman at all, consider teaming up (especially if only selling a single film) with other producers to co-curate a mini-package of films around specific themes (e.g. eco, female, etc). This is particularly useful where the platforms don’t know you or your films, and it also helps program the service for their platform.
    • Don’t abdicate distribution entirely to third parties, as in traditional past; now it is increasingly key to be aware of (if not participating more in) distribution and marketing (e.g. via social media). Help audiences know where to find your film!

Looking forward to seeing your films over here in EMEA!

May 11th, 2016

Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, book, case studies, Digital Distribution, Distribution, education, International Sales, iTunes, Netflix

platforms

Always check with your lab or distributor to make sure their deliverable specs adhere to what is outlined below. Especially deliverables outside North America, which are sure to diverge from what is below. Much of this may apply to films who have sold to distributors, but this post is mostly aimed at those doing DIY distribution. The following also mostly applies to TVOD platforms, but may also apply to others. Again, check with your distributor/lab before you produce any deliverables.

  1. Know when not to do iTunes
    iTunes is expensive. It will cost at least $2K to do iTunes/Amazon/GooglePlay. Think of how many people will need to rent your film at $4 (and that’s before the platform’s cut) for you to recoup that money, and then think how many more will have to do so for you to recoup your investment. Are your 1500 Facebook fans going to come through for you? Most probably won’t. A better option might be to do VHX or Vimeo on Demand and spend that money on marketing to drive people to your site. We have handled almost 50 films in the past three years via our DIY Digital Distribution Program, and the bottom line is that if you expecing people to find your film simply because it’s on iTunes while you sit back and move on to your next project, you are probably going to be in for a rude awakening.
  2. Subtitles and Closed Captioning (part 1)
    Pretty much the only way to go nowadays is to submit a textless master, with external subtitles. This can get kind of tricky, so it’s important to understand what is needed and to not expect that the lab you are working with is impervious to mistakes.

    • Your film is in English and has no subtitles
      You will need to produce a Closed Captioning file
    • Your film is 100% not in English
      You will need to produce a subtitle file only (Closed Captioning is not required)
    • Your film is mostly in English but there are a few lines (or more) of dialogue that are not in English
      You will need to produce both a Closed Captioning file and what is called a Forced Narrative Subtitle file.
      This “Forced Narrative” subtitle file is rather a new concept, so when you work with your subtitle lab (if you need suggestions for labs to work with, check out the ‘Subtitling, Closed Captioning and Transcription Services and Solutions’ section on the ResourcePlace tab on our website), make sure they understand that an English language forced narrative file (unlike Closed Captioning or regular subtitles) does not need to be manually turned on for territories where English is the main language, and in fact cannot be turned off in those Territories. Hence, they are forced on the screen. Together with the closed captioning, they make up a complete dialogue of your film, but they should not overlap, or else you’ll be in a situation where the same lines of text are appearing twice on the screen, and your film will be rejected.

    TECH TIP: We recommend watcing your film through before you deliver with all subtitle and CC files. If your film is only in English and you only need to produce closed captioning, these files are pretty much gibberish. So ask the lab to ALSO provide you with a .srt subtitle file of the closed captioning (it’s an easy convert for them). Even though you won’t be submitting this file, you can watch it using, for example, VLC. Just make the filename of your .srt file the same as your .mov or .mp4 file, place it in the same folder, and the subs should automatically come on.
    If your film has a forced narrative, keep track of your non-English dialogue…easy to do especially if your film only has a few lines of non-English. Then change the file extension .srt or .stl temporaily to .txt. This file can then be opened in any text application and eyeballed to ensure that no lines of foreign dialogue are misplaced. If you ask for a .srt conversion of your Closed Captioning file, you can do the same thing with this file to verify that these non-English lines are not repeated in the Closed Captioning.

  3. Subtitles and Closed Captioning (part 2)
    Closed Captioning needs to be in .scc format. Subtitles need to be in either .srt or .stl format. But .srt file do not hold placement, so if you are making a documentary, for example, you will probably want to submit .stl. Because if you have any lower-thirds in your film, lines of closed captioning or subtitled dialogue needs to be moved to the top of the screen when lower thirds are on the screen. .srt files will appear on top of the lower thirds, and your film will be rejected.
    TECH TIP: Again, watch your film back with closed captioning / subtitling to make sure your lower thirds are not blocked.
  4. Dual Mono not allowed
    Make sure the audio in your feature and trailer is stereo. This does not merely mean that there is sound coming out the L & R speakers. It means that these two tracks need to be different…and not where one side gets all the dialogue and the other gets the M&E. Think of how annoying that would be if you were in a theater. L & R tracks need to be mixed properly and outputted as such.
    TECH TIP: Listen to your film before you submit, or at the very least make sure your film is not dual mono…download an applcation such as Audacity, a free program, and open your masters in that program. if the sound waves are identical for both L & R, you need to go back and redo. Don’t assume your sound guy is not infallable.
  5. 720p not allowed
    iTunes is no longer accepting 1280×720 films. In addition, they will not take a 1280×720 that has been up-rezed to 1920×1080. No one should be making movies in 720p and expect the world to cater to their film.

September 16th, 2015

Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, Digital Distribution, Distribution Platforms, iTunes, Vimeo

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Selling Your Film Outside the U.S.Last May, TFC released the second book in our series called Selling Your Film Outside the US. As with everything in the digital space, we are trying to keep track of a moving target. Netflix has now launched in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg. iTunes continues its transactional VOD domination by partnering with Middle East film distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment to give Arabic and Bollywood films a chance to have simultaneous releases in eight countries: UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait. Amazon has just launched several new original series in the US and UK, including critical darling Transparent, to a line up that includes returning series Alpha House and Betas.

But what does DIY Distribution mean in the context of European territories? The following is an excerpt included in the book:

Here are a few tips for any filmmaker who is thinking about doing digital distribution in general, but especially in multiple territories:

-If your film is showing at an international film festival, ask if they are producing subtitles, and, if so, negotiate that the produced file be part of your festival fee. It may need to be proofed again or adjusted at a subtitling and transcription lab later on, but as a first pass it could prove very valuable down the road. See more about the kind of file you need in this post;

-When you are producing your master, create a textless version of your feature. Apple and probably other platforms will not allow external subtitles on any films that already have burn-ins. If your film, for example, has a few non-English lines of dialogue, instead of burning-in English subtitles into your film, a better method would be to create an external English-language subtitle file (separate from closed captioning) in a proper format and submit it with your master. Different aggregators may require different formats, and if you are going to a Captioning/Transcription/Translation Lab to do your closed captioning and subtitling work, be smart about which questions you ask and negotiate a price for everything, including transcoding from one format to another because you may not know exactly what you will need for all your deals right away.

Subtitles need to be timed to masters, so make sure your time code is consistent. When choosing a lab, ascertain whether they are capable of fulfilling all your current and future closed captioning and subtitling needs by verifying that they can output in the major formats, including (but not limited to) SubRip (.srt), SubViewer 1 & 2 (.sub), SubStation Alpha (.ssa/.ass), Spruce (.stl), Scenarist (.scc) and iTunes Timed Text (.itt);

-You may want to band together with films that are similar in theme or audience and shop your products around as bundled packages. Many digital services, including cable VOD, have thematic channels and your bundle of films may be more attractive as a package rather than just one film;

-Put the time in toward building your brand and your fanbase. Marketing still is the missing piece of the puzzle here. As it gets easier and easier to get onto platforms, so too does it get more difficult for audiences to find the films that are perfectly suited to their interests. This is especially true when talking about marketing one’s film outside one’s home territory. If you are accessing platforms for your film on your own, YOU are the distributor and the responsibility of marketing the film falls entirely to you.

To download a FREE copy of the entire book, complete with case studies of films distributed in Europe, visit sellingyourfilm.com.

October 15th, 2014

Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, book, case studies, Digital Distribution, DIY, iTunes, Netflix

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Just prior to SXSW, I was contacted by a new digital distribution outfit called Devolver Digital Film who were launching during the festival. I rolled my eyes as I opened the email because frankly, digital distributors are becoming a dime a dozen and few offer anything that differentiates their services. Yes, they are all non exclusive, but most do not have much to offer in the way of audience recognition of the platform.

Film distribution in some fashion isn’t difficult to obtain anymore…but getting an audience to know a film is available, actively seek it out AND getting them to watch it is another story. So, I was intrigued to find out that Devolver is planning to help solve that problem. Devolver Digital Films is a company expansion out of video game publishing and distribution. Devolver is primarily known for the Serious Sam series of games and their success within the video game industry coupled with founder Mike Wilson’s filmmaking interests lead to a desire to use the same successful game marketing techniques for independent films.

The company’s first title, Cancerpants, is described as “a story about life, love, and a young woman’s journey with breast cancer.” Cancerpants is currently available on VOD networks Verizon and Frontier, and will reach Comcast, Cox, Cablevision, and Dish Online on June 4th. Local theatrical screenings are planned for May 30th in several cities including Grass Valley, CA (hosted by the filmmaker), Los Angeles, Austin, Houston, Oakland, and New York City.

Cancerpants film

I spoke with Andie Grace, VP of Acquisitions, and Mike Wilson, Partner and filmmaker, to hear what lead to Devolver’s foray into independent film distribution and what they plan to offer that other digital distributors don’t.

AG: “The experience that motivated the creation of Devolver Digital Films comes from the games space.  Mike is also a filmmaker and he knows what it is like to run up against the wall of getting distribution. After spending years of making the film, getting your own network together, hitting the festival circuit and landing a distributor and then they put it out, but do little to support it. Devolver Digital would never put out a game that way and now there are so many films on the digital shelves too, a small film that is great could do a lot better with a little help.

When a filmmaker’s own network is exhausted, they themselves are exhausted and ready to move on to another project, they just need a partner to be interested enough to work the title and we saw it as a niche to be filled.”

SC: “Speaking of a niche, does Devolver have a niche audience that they are serving with films? My main problem with film distributors is they don’t really have an audience for their company. They are used to speaking to other businesses (exhibitors, video stores, broadcasters), but not speaking directly to any audience for their titles. Their titles are so diverse that they don’t even really know who is watching. Will this be a unique aspect for Devolver? Is there a Devolver audience?”

AG: “Genre fans definitely stick with a label because of what the label brings them. This is definitely true in the games space. We now have many gamers saying ‘What is my favorite game label going to do with movies?’ So our aim is to keep that fanbase alive and choose films we think they will like.

A lot of counter culture films are coming our way and I definitely look at those films and say ‘I know where to find people who will like this, I know how to organize events around this.”

MW: “Our brand will be built on films that we believe we can make bigger than they would have been without our help. Decisions on films will be based purely on what we think we can do with the network we already have in place. It won’t be according to genr. Inevitably everyone wants us to do films that are considered ‘gamer’ fare.  But people who are outside of the gamer world don’t realize that gamers aren’t only into zombie movies or sci fi movies. The independent gamer tends to like lots of independent entertainment. Independent music, independent films, they tend to look a little further past the mainstream. More interesting, less predictable.  So that is what we will specialize in.”

SC: “Is there something that the filmmaker has to bring with the project? Do they have to have a certain mentality? Do you want the filmmaker to be an active participant in marketing his/her work, or are you fine with them leaving it with you to make it successful?”

MW: “There are 2 kinds of filmmakers. Those that are exhausted from making the film and just want someone to take care of the rest for them.  Some of those are very good films, but there is no promotional hook, and no niche we can tap easily. If they just want it out there, use our service to get it into the world, we’ll put it out for you and you can move on with your life.”

AG: “But we regard this as a partnership. We amplify what they have already started doing on their own. Anyone who wants to just turn tail and walk is probably not going to work well with us. Now, we do understand that by the time the film is ready for distribution, the filmmaker has already exhausted their network and they have done all they know how to do with their Facebook page or Twitter account and they need someone to help them, do it with them. It’s better for them to stay present, be there for the interviews, help craft the story, and use the opportunity to build their own brand as a filmmaker by working with us in a promotional partnership.”

SC: “What will be the range of services Devolver offers? I was thinking it was just digital distribution platforms, but you are working with Tugg to do events too?”

AG: “We will offer cable VOD and internet VOD right now. Being from the games world, we also have our eyes on gaming consoles. We will talk about the total distribution strategy based on the film. It may include using tools like Tugg to do some live event screenings rather than spending time exclusively on the festival circuit. Events can help power the VOD sales.  We also will talk about the marketing and publicity, some of the more traditional tactics. We will motivate our own networks to help with promoting screenings. By having the film on VOD when it is in theaters, we can get it highlighted in the ‘in theaters now’ sections of Amazon Instant and such.”

MW: “We are going to be direct to the platforms when that is possible, but until we build up our catalog, it isn’t realistic to think we will be big enough to negotiate direct deals with the bigger players.  With our zero overhead, we will be competitive with the percentages we take even when a third party is involved.  Plus, we’re going to help promote it which should make the revenue bigger than it would if you went through an aggregator who isn’t doing that.”

devolver logo

SC: “Do you take rights over the film or do those stay with the artist?”

MW: “We wouldn’t take all rights like broadcast network rights, or international rights at the moment. But to the extent that we do put time in to exploit on certain platforms, we want exclusivity on those. It is just bad business for everyone if you have several companies pitching the same film. As a filmmaker, I know there are distributors who want to take all rights just in case in future they want to do something with them. That is not the case with us. Our reason for existence is to avoid that scenario, we have all experienced it as filmmakers ourselves.”

“We do ask for a minimum of one year with options to extend. Most cable operators do want a 5 year minimum. We have found on the games side that there are opportunities for digital bundles and we will want to include our films in bundles without having to keep going back to ask permission. We aren’t going to be releasing 30 movies a month or anything. The films we do have are precious to us and we will be working harder to make the small amount work for us and for the filmmaker.”

SC:”Advertising and promotion aren’t free, they often make up the majority of any kind of film release. Is this a service deal agreement where the filmmaker fronts the money for Devolver to spend or is this more like a traditional distribution situation where Devolver will front the money and recoup from revenue before the filmmaker sees any profit?”

MW: “This won’t be a six figure M&A budget. It is more like soft dollars from us in our organization and network of already existing connections. This is what helps support our games as well.  Filmmakers will also be expected to help each other when they are on our label. So anything we provide from this network is just the cost of us doing business and we provide that.”

“Then, if there is an opportunity to buy into a promotional program or whatever, we’ll agree it with the filmmaker and write the check up front and share that cost. If the filmmaker gets a 60% split with us, we share the cost of the promotion.That’s the way we work in games too, it is purely situational. To the extent that they want to be involved, the filmmaker will sign off on any promotion we want to participate in and they will know the whole cost.”

“Another thing we feel is important is being completely transparent. If we do have to go through another distributor to get to a certain outlet,  I will forward every royalty statement we get from that distributor so that the filmmaker knows what the revenues were. There has just been too much damage done by ‘Hollywood accounting,’ I use that term to mean all entertainment. The games industry is as bad as any.  The little things we can do to remove any doubt about whether we are on the filmmakers team, we will do. The world may not need another VOD distributor, but one thing we will provide that others do not is transparency.  There is always room for that.”

SC: “When is the best time for a filmmaker to approach you? In preproduction? Production? Post?”

MW: “I would say in post. We’re not a production company and we aren’t trying to influence the outcome of a movie. We can’t really have a conversation about a film until we know the level of quality it will be.  Most of the people we are talking to are in fine cut or have a festival version that they still want to trim.”

AG: “We are having conversations now with people who are in post and it is pretty obvious who their audience is.  We are also talking to people who are not going on the festival circuit, they are launching straight into distribution.”

MW: “We have many dream producers coming to us who get this online promotion stuff. We want to network them all together and help to promote each other.”

SC: “How will you bring them together?”

MW: “Google Hangouts I envision. I want just these producers who all have great ideas and are on the same label to get together and brainstorm with each other. Their films are all coming out near the same timeframe so I think some great creativity and excitement will come from it. I don’t think they imagine for a minute that helping someone else will hurt their own projects. It just makes their own network bigger, by aggregating everyone’s together.These are all young, smart, tech savvy producers who want to learn from each other.”

SC: “Well, that is definitely a differentiator for Devolver! Most distributors don’t bother themselves with bring together the filmmakers  to help work with all the projects in the catalog. It means you really want to work with filmmakers who are giving, tech savvy and want to help make everyone’s work successful.”

MW: “The filmmaking process just sucks everything out of you, you are totally exhausted when finished and often you are the last man standing. The crew disappears after the wrap party. It will be great to have a company that knows this, pulls together a group of filmmakers in the same situation about to release their films and supports everyone.”

“It is really fun to be coming in at a time when we aren’t having to undo our skills. You go to industry panels where these veteran people are completely unsure of what is happening and frustrated at having to relearn everything because they are used to doing things in a certain way for many years. For us, it is exciting because it is wide open.”

I will be keeping an eye on this young and enthusiastic company. If you have a project you would like to approach Devolver Digital Films about, contact Andie Grace:

films [at] devolverdigital dot com

 

May 9th, 2013

Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, Digital Distribution, Distribution, iTunes, Netflix

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Recently I was invited to be on a panel at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) and participate in their mentoring sessions and the lab at Cinemart.  Great experience. I am always amazed by the difference between the US and Europe. The whole government funding of films and new media initiatives as our government is about to shut down.  Well, their policies and practices do take their own financial toll too but one I think is worth it.  For all my europhileness I have to note that the Europeans can be just as guilty of not wanting to watch subtitles in fact some countries dub films instead. And of course we know that Hollywood is big business in Europe too. But all in all, art house cinema seems to reach more broadly in Europe and even some parts of Asia than it does in the US.  Films in Cannes and other top fests can sell all over Europe and never in the US or success in opening theatrically only in NY and maybe LA and overall it seems to me box office is generally down for foreign language cinema.

International filmmakers want US distribution and it was painful for me to discuss their prospects at IFFR because for so many, the prospects are slim.  But this one’s for you! (Please note this blog is focused on digital distribution and not healthy categories for foreign language cinema such as Non Theatrical including Museums, Films Festival, Colleges, Educational / Institutional).

Cable VOD was 80% of the digital revenue in the US in 2009 but it’s now declining little by little, now estimated to be in the high 70’s (approx 77%) and may decline further still. The reason for this change, which is expected to continue, is that Internet based platforms are growing.  Regarding FOREIGN LANGUAGE ON CABLE VOD: Distributors and aggregators agree that foreign language cinema is very hard to get onto Cable VOD platforms and slots for non-English cinema are reserved generally for marquee driven films and/or films with a real hook (name cast/director, highly acclaimed, genre hook).   A big independent Cable VOD aggregator notes a real struggle in getting foreign language films to perform on Cable VOD and even Bollywood titles that had wide theatrical distribution and a box office of upwards of $1,000,000 still perform poorly (poorly means 4-figure revenue, 5-figure tops). They have had some success with foreign martial arts films and will continue with those in the foreseeable future. Time Warner Cable (TWC) remains more open to foreign language cinema though it plays the fewest films, a range between 190 – 246 at any given time (with a shelf life usually of 60 days and with 2/3rd of the content seeming to be bigger studio product, and the rest indie).  By comparison Charter and AT&T play about 1,000 and Verizon plays 2,000, and Comcast plays about 4,000.  [See below for the 2010 breakdown of Cable subscription numbers.] Hence, individual titles may perform better on Time Warner Cable for obvious reasons, Comcast may have more subscribers but there’s less competition and TWC is in New York, the best demographic for art house cinema.

Generally speaking, platforms overall are far more receptive to foreign films following the recent success of DRAGON TATTOO, TELL NO ONE, IP MAN, etc.  than they have ever been before.  However as one can see from the titles noted, foreign genre films are preferred because they have the opportunity to reach broader audiences than the usual foreign film.  Genres that reportedly work include:  sci-fi, thriller/crime, action, and sophisticated horror.  Dramas have had limited success, and comedies often don’t translate, nor does most children’s content. In regard to Cable VOD – foreign box office is becoming an important proxy, because the marketing and pr tend to build US awareness on the larger titles prior to being available here.  Many companies have built very successful VOD businesses pursuing a day and date theatrical or DVD strategy.  Again, genre films work best, with horror and sci fi being the top performers.  3 of the top 10 non-studio titles in 2010 were foreign language subtitled releases.  Small art house distributors say that at most it’s a small dependable revenue stream via services such as INDEMAND http://www.indemand.com (iN DEMAND’s owners are and it services Comcast iN DEMAND Holdings, Inc., Cox Communications Holdings, Inc., and Time Warner Entertainment – Advance/Newhouse Partnership.)  Distributors and aggregators all site Time Warner as being far more open to foreign language cinema than Comcast, because it’s urban focused (NY, LA, etc) not heartland focused as Comcast is.

In terms of these titles finding their audiences on Cable VOD, Comcast announced improved search functionality by being able to search by title and Cable VOD is aware of its deficiencies and is said to be improving in terms of marketing to consumers but Cable VOD is still infamous for its lack of recommendation engines and discovery tools. Key aggregators work to have films profiled in several categories and not just the A-Z listing.

Top 25 Multichannel Video Programming Distributors as of Sept. 2010 – Source NCTA (National Cable Television Association)

Rank MSO BasicVideoSubscribers
1 Comcast Corporation 22,937,000
2 DirecTV 18,934,000
3 Dish Network Corporation 14,289,000
4 Time Warner Cable, Inc. 12,551,000
5 Cox Communications, Inc.1 4,968,000
6 Charter Communications, Inc. 4,653,000
7 Verizon Communications, Inc. 3,290,000
8 Cablevision Systems Corporation 3,043,000
9 AT&T, Inc. 2,739,000
10 Bright House Networks LLC1 2,194,000
11 Suddenlink Communications1 1,228,000
12 Mediacom Communications Corporation 1,203,000
13 Insight Communications Company, Inc. 699,000
14 CableOne, Inc. 651,000
15 WideOpenWest Networks, LLC1 391,000
16 RCN Corp. 354,000
17 Bresnan Communications1 297,000
18 Atlantic Broadband Group, LLC 269,000
19 Armstrong Cable Services 245,000
20 Knology Holdings 231,000
21 Service Electric Cable TV Incorporated1 222,000
22 Midcontinent Communications 210,000
23 MetroCast Cablevision 186,000
24 Blue Ridge Communications1 172,000
25 General Communications 148,000

FOREIGN LANGUAGE CINEMA VIA OTHER DIGITAL PLATFORMS and REVENUE MODELS:

DTO (Digital Download to Own (such as Apple’s iTunes which rents and sells films digitally) – this space has been challenging for foreign films in the past, and most services do not have dedicated merchandise sections. Thus, the only promo placement available is on genre pages, so the films need to have compelling art and trailer assets to compete.  iTunes and Vudu (now owned by WALMART – see below) are really interested in upping the ante on foreign films over the next 12 months.  Special consideration will need to be made for the quality of technical materials, as distributors have encountered numerous problems making subtitled content work on these providers.

SVOD (Subscription VOD such as NETFLIX’s WATCH INSTANTLY) – this space is probably the best source of revenue for foreign content because the audience demos skew more sophisticated and also end users are more inclined to experiment with new content niches.  Content in this space should have great assets and superior international profile (awards, box office), and overall should evoke a “premium feel” for the right titles, license fees can be comparable to high end American indies.  Appetite for foreign titles will increase as the price for domestic studio content continues to accelerate.  Genres are a bit broader than VOD/DTO, but thrillers, sci fi and action still will command larger sums ($). Good Festival pedigree (especially Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Sundance, etc.) will also command higher prices.  Overall, it’s a great opportunity as long as platforms keep doing  exclusive deals.  NETFLIX has surpassed 20,000,000 subscribers and a strong stock price and is in a very competitive space and mood again. (See more below).  Hulu expects to soon reach 1,000,000 subscribers  “to approach” half a billion in total revenues (advertising and subscription combined) in 2011, up from $263 million in 2010. That’s from $108 million in 2009. (see more below)

AVOD (Advertising Supported VOD – such as SNAG and HULU) – Another great space for foreign content (as evidenced by the recent exclusive HULU – Criterion deal – (see below) although that deal is actually for HULU’s subscription service (Hulu Plus). These platforms are more willing to experiment with genres and content types and favor art films and documentaries over genre films. Depending on the film, annual revenues can approach low to mid four (4) figures in rev share.  SNAG recently was capitalized to the tune of $10,000,000 but seems to be spending that money on marketing and not on “acquiring” so a film’s revenue is likely to be dependent on performance and rev/share unless one strikes an exclusive deal with SNAG and manages to get an MG.  HULU’s revenues are covered above.  Films report low 4-figures but sometimes 5 and 6 figure revenues but up until now those higher performing films have been English language and appeal to younger males.

TELEVISION / BROADCAST SALES: For foreign language cinema unless one has an Oscar™ winner or nominee, or an output deal, the prospects of a meaningful license fee are slim. Even worse, if you do secure a deal, it will likely preclude participation in Cable VOD, Netflix and any of the ad-supported VOD platforms such as Hulu and Snag.

KEY SPECIFIC TOP SPECIFIC DIGITAL PLATFORMS / RETAILERS:

AMAZON reportedly is readying a service that would stream 5,000 movies and TV shows to members of its $79-per-year Prime free-shipping membership program. Amazon being corporately tied to extremely popular entertainment information service IMDB and the film festival submission service WITHOUTABOX gives it a potential edge in the market, one that has never been fully harvested but easily could be and seems to be looming. And since its inception, Amazon has let film content providers open up shop on their site directly without a middle-man. Middle man aggregators get slightly better terms. Amazon presently offers 75,000 films and television shows combined and plans to soon exceed 100,000. It should be noted Amazon VOD has been US-focused though recently bought Love Films in the UK.

FOCUS FEATURES’ NEW DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION INITIATIVE: There is not much information out on this yet but FOCUS/UNIVERSAL are launching a new digital distribution initiative that may or may not brand their own channel on iTunes etc., but does seem to be focused on niche cinema to some extent and this may speak to foreign language titles. An option to watch out for.

GOOGLE is working on encroaching into the content delivery market with its launch of GOOGLE TV, which unfortunately has not created quite the fanfare the company planned for.  It boasts: The web is now a channel. With Google Chrome and Adobe Flash Player 10.1, Google TV lets you access everything on the web. Watch your favorite web videos, view photos, play games, check fantasy scores, chat with friends, and do everything else you’re accustomed to doing online. GOOGLE TV does come with the Netflix App and others. Google partnered with some of the leading premium content providers to bring thousands of movie and TV titles, on-demand, directly to your television. Amazon Video On Demand offers access to over 75,000 titles for rental or purchase, and Netflix will offer the ability to instantly watch unlimited movies and TV shows, anytime, streaming directly to the TV.

HULU: Hulu’s numbers keep growing for certain films, which has to-date not been foreign language but that may change given the Criterion Collection announcement. Hulu is also now a subscription service (HULU PLUS) and announced the Criterion deal is for that. Criterion of course specializes in classic movies from the canon of great directors–Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, etc.–and has about 800 titles digitized so far, many of which are also available via Hulu competitor Netflix. It’s understood that this will be an exclusive deal, and that the Criterion titles that Netflix does offer will expire this year.  Hulu Plus subscribers will initially get access to 150 Criterion films, including “The 400 Blows,” “Rashomon” and “Breathless.” Hulu says the movies will run without ad interruptions, but may feature ads before the films start; the free Hulu.com service will offer a handful of Criterion titles, which will run with ads.  Hulu, owned by Comcast’s NBC, Disney’s ABC and News. Corp.’s Fox introduced the Hulu Plus pay service last year. Hulu CEO Jason Kilar says the $7.99-per-month offering is on track to reach one million subscribers in 2011. Competing for exclusive content seems to be on the rise as platforms compete for household recognition and top market share.

iTunes (APPLE): iTunes dominated consumer spending for movies in 2010 but that may not last long. One can get onto iTunes via one of its chosen aggregators such as New Video, IODA, Tune Core, Quiver…  Home Media Magazine reported the findings of an IHS Screen Digest report that showed that Apple was able to hold off challenges from competitors like Microsoft’s Zune Video (via XBOX Kinect), Sony PlayStation Store, Amazon VOD and Walmart’s VUDU.  Despite the new competition,  the electronic sellthrough and video on demand market rose more than 60% in 2010, Apple iTunes still came out on top, perhaps due in part to the release of the iPad last spring and Apple TV last fall.  Research director of digital media for IHS, Arash Amel, said, “The iTunes online store showed remarkable competitive resilience last year in the U.S. EST/VOD movie business, staving off a growing field of tough challengers while keeping pace with a dramatic expansion for the overall market.”  However, it’s important to note that although iTunes staved off competition, the overall iTunes consumer spending fell almost 10% in 2010 to 64.5%.  It was 74.4% in 2009.  Insiders predict it will not hold its market dominance for long.

Microsoft’s Zune Video was one of Apple’s biggest competitors last year, accounting for 9% of U.S. movie EST/iVOD consumer spending in 2010 but this does not seem a key platform for foreign language cinema.

MUBI:  www.Mubi.com having added Sony Playstation to its platforms reach, MUBI now has reportedly 1,200,000 members worldwide and is finally in a better position to generate revenue.  Still its own figures estimates amount to 4-figures of revenue and that’s for all its territories.  Mubi’s partnership with SONY does not extend into the US.

NETFLIX as reported in Multichannel News “as its subscriber base has swelled, Netflix has become a target for critics complaining that it is disrupting the economics of TV” is now a competitor to Cable and in fact Cable VOD companies won’t take a film if it’s already on NETFLIX’s Watch Instantly service. But Netflix is realizing it erred by losing focus on the independent and is now quietly offering bigger sums that compete with Broadcast offers and that are on par with the 5 and 6 figure revenues generated by Cable VOD for the stronger indie / art house films. Having films exclusively may be the driving force of future monetization in digital, or least in SVOD.  Regarding 2011 outlook, Netflix’s “business is so dynamic that we will be doing less calendar year guidance than in the past,” the execs said.  For the first three months of the year, Netflix expects domestic subscribers to increase to between 21.9 million and 22.8 million, with revenue between $684 million and $704 million and operating income between $98 million and $116 million. Internationally — meaning, for now, Canada — the company expects 750,000 to 900,000 subscribers with revenue of $10 million to $13 million and an operating loss between $10 million and $14 million.

REDBOX: Redbox, whose brick-red DVD vending machines are scattered across the country, is aiming to have a Netflix-like video streaming subscription service up and running by the end of 2011, company executives told investors mid February. Redbox is a wholly owned subsidiary of Coinstar. The Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.-based company claims to have rented more than 1 billion DVDs to date through vending machines at about 24,900 U.S. locations nationwide, including select McDonald’s, Wal-Mart Stores and Walgreens locations. It should be noted though that Redbox is very studio title focused and wide release focused but its streaming service will likely move beyond that.

WAL-MART bought VUDU and is expected to be a major player. Walmart is the world’s largest retailer with $405 billion in sales for the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 2010. In the U.S., Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. operates more than 4,300 facilities including Walmart supercenters, discount stores, Neighborhood Markets and Sam’s Club warehouses.   VUDU, is Walmart’s recently acquired online media source where consumers can rent or buy movies and TV shows for their internet-ready HDTV, Blu-ray Disc players or PlayStation 3 consoles.  Like iTunes, there are no monthly fees.  Consumers can buy and rent movies when they want, and 2-night rentals are only $2.  It will be interesting to see how VUDU will rise as a contender in 2011 and whether iTunes will suffer as a result of their success.  Wal-Mart advertises that regarding VUDU: “from Internet-ready HDTVs to WiFi enabled Blu-ray players, you’ll find all the VUDU ready electronics you’re looking for at Walmart.com. Whether adding a flat panel TV to your dorm room or upgrading your home entertainment center, our selection of VUDU ready HDTVs has you covered. You’ll also save money on our VUDU ready products when you select items with free shipping to your home. With VUDU, you’ll be able to stream HD movies directly from the Internet to your TV in dynamic surround sound for a great low price. Shop VUDU ready HDTVs and Blu-ray players at Walmart.com — and save. “ And the retail giant makes sure all relevant devices / electronics it carries are VUDU-enabled.  2011 and beyond will be telling.  Wal-Mart caters to the average American so it remains to be seen if there is an appetite for foreign language film via VUDU in the months and years to come. In its inception VUDU was catering to early adaptors of new technology and those eager to watch HD but now it seems to be becoming more generic. New Video is a preferred aggregator to VUDU, among others.

VODO (Free / monetized Torrent): www.VODO.net: This has not been tried in the US by most distributors if any and not for foreign language cinema but it has worked for several projects such as Pioneer One which generated $60,000 USD by having the content made available for free and then getting donations in return.

Other emerging retailers entering the digital space:

Sears and Kmart are the latest over-the-top threats to pay-TV providers’ video-on-demand businesses. Sears launched its online movie download service, Alphaline Entertainment, which will let Sears and Kmart customers rent or purchase movies, including on the same day they are released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc, provided through digital media services firm Sonic Solutions.  Titles currently available to rent or buy from Alphaline include studio and successful TV shows. Under Sonic’s multiyear agreement with Sears, the companies will provide access to Alphaline services through multiple devices including Blu-ray Disc players, HDTVs, portable media players and mobile phones. Sears and Kmart, said in a statement. “We’ll continue to increase the reach and flexibility of the Alphaline Entertainment service by providing consumers on-demand access to the latest entertainment from a range of home and mobile electronics.” Sears, which merged with Kmart in 2005, is the fourth largest retailer in the U.S. The company has about 3,900 department stores and specialty retail stores in the U.S. and Canada.  It remains to be seen if they take on foreign language cinema. New Video is also an aggregator to them.

That’s all she wrote folks. Until the next time.

March 10th, 2011

Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, Digital Distribution, Distribution, Distribution Platforms, Hulu, International Sales, iTunes, Netflix, Uncategorized

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I recently posted on our Facebook page a note about the fact that one has to be mindful about when to initiate a NETFLIX VOD window.  Sheri Candler asked to me blog about it.  I do everything she says.

We have heard consistently from Cable VOD operators and aggregators and Broadcasters such as Showtime that the Netflix VOD window is considered a cannibalizer of revenue for Cable VOD and TV so know that before licensing rights and resolving windows.  When it comes to Netflix they have gotten so successful that they are a more selective platform than Amazon. Amazon wants has recently passed the 80,000 titles mark and is racing to aggregate as many as possible. Netflix has over 100,000 titles on DVD and over 17,000 titles on its streaming service but is now getting more and more selective. Netflix SVOD rights are sold for a flat fee, at least for now. To get onto Netflix, first one has to get on their radar and into their system, and then get that demand up in their queue system to get a good fee offer.  One has to then resolve everything else before risking inadvertently killing any chances of a Broadcast sale or Cable VOD distribution. However, depending on the film, you may make more money from Netflix than by selling to let’s say EPIX which will want your Netflix SVOD rights anyway. And you may make more money distributing directly then doing a small Broadcast deal or going with a distributor or aggregator that will take all your digital rights anyway. Though it should be noted most filmmakers cannot get to Netflix directly.

As with anything in film distribution, there is no one rule that applies to all films. This is a case-by-case business. Some films are big enough that one can stagger windows and monetize them all. Some films are better served by being available on all platforms at once or close to it. Some films lend themselves more to rental or ad-supported free-on-demand and others can really generate the transactional (pay per download) business.

The point of this little missive though is just to note the conflation of TV and the Internet is happening. Google TV  is here and retailers, Television and device manufacturers, cable operators and telcos are all competing to aggregate and offer as much content as possible. Even print media companies are following suit wanting channels of content on their websites.  And soon enough it will be less a discussion of rights and more a discussion of PAYMENT METHODS or MONETIZING METHODS and I think that will always depend on the film and its demographic targets.  The options will always be: 1. Ad-Supported / Free on Demand, 2. Subscription 3. Pay Per View 4. Download to Rent, and / or 5. Download to Own. And now instead of focusing on packaged media the focus is is on whether one can play content back on as many devices as one wants and that aspect related to all the various payment methods options. The content providing industries are all racing to aggregate as much content as they can and for it to be playable across as many devices as possible and payment methods vary so far depending on service and distributor choices. Hulu (a platform backed by studios and that was once only ad-supported is now beta testing its Netflix imitation subscription model).

Brands will attract customers just like they always did when video stores were king and just like when you choose which cell phone provider to use or whom to get your Internet connection through, assuming you live in an area with choice.

The other day on a Digital Hollywood Conference panel, I learned a stat from Erik Opeka of New Video: iTunes has 130,000,000 credit cards on file. Some of you are thinking right now, “I’m in the wrong business”.

October 21st, 2010

Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, Digital Distribution, iTunes, Netflix, Uncategorized

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Unfortunately, a great number of key digital platforms must be accessed through the use of an aggregator. Of course there are always exceptions, but the general rule is that to get your films onto Cable VOD, iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, Sony Playstation and other device oriented options and retailer digital platforms , you will have to go through an aggregator or a distributor. We either directly or via partners offer both a commission or a flat fee option (range depends on platforms).

However, you can get onto Amazon directly. Also, you can access DIY oriented ones such as Mubi, Fans of Film and other platforms like them. To the best of our knowledge, more money is made on the key high trafficked platforms, if one can get on them.

Once again we remind you, MARKETING, MARKETING, MARKETING is key to your film’s success no matter what distribution outlet you use.

This concludes our series of tidbits for the time being. As always, if you have questions or need guidance to figure out your film’s distribution path, we would love to hear from you. No rights taken.

August 27th, 2010

Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, Digital Distribution, DIY, Hulu, iTunes, Marketing, Netflix

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Download-To-Own (DTO) is a transactional platform. iTunes, Playstation, Xbox, Amazon VOD are all DTO sites.  iTunes and Xbox account for the majority of the non-cable revenue in the digital space, for now.

Several Hollywood studios have announced that they are doing deals with a new download-to-own store from DivX  and the site FreshFilm.com such that their movies will be playable on millions of DivX enabled devices.

To keep up with all of our latest updates and news relevant to the world of digital distribution, check our Facebook business page.

July 7th, 2010

Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, Digital Distribution, Distribution Platforms, iTunes

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On Ted Hope’s website, there is a discussion brewing about the relevance and right pricing of panels and seminars and the degree to which filmmakers should be attentive to and responsible for the business side of their film’s release.

Film is a relatively new art form. It is the most expensive art medium in the world. My thinking is, if it’s your money it’s your decision. If it’s grant money, it’s really a non-issue. If investors are counting on their money back, it behooves you to either let them know up front what the realistic possibilities are, or commit yourself to supporting the return on their investment. TFC’s entire purpose and mission is to try to make up for the fact that the US does not have the same funding as Europe does that supports an industry of art film.

At Cannes I was invited to be part of the Cannes Producer’s Network networking breakfasts and through that I spoke to producers about The Film Collaborative. I have been and will continue to be invited to speak at panels and seminars and all of that industry stuff and seen as an “expert”. I think there’s good and bad that comes with all that. The good is that some great information is often shared, and often for free or for a lot less than one would pay for it if one had to reach out to each panelist individually. One makes connections one might not otherwise. The bad is that filmmakers sometimes think they now have the answers and that is not enough. AND, panels at festivals and markets are often put together by people who actually are not in the day-to-day world of distribution and/or sometimes festivals are swayed by other influences and panels are stacked with not-so-appropriate panelists. Sometimes panels are positioned as having all the information about a topic but are actually quite limited either because of time or the panel itself. The saying “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” can and does often apply. And in today’s new media world, intimate knowledge with the present space and all its ever-and-quickly-changing nuances is critical. It’s also important not to apply information that may not apply to your film.

The “expert” books are useful (Jon Reiss’ is one we’re fond of especially for docs that can be segmented and merchandized, and Scott Kirsner’s is good too for fan building, and of course Roberta Munroe’s for short films) but with regard to actual distribution details, books are quickly out-of-date for anything new media oriented or related to business opportunities. Whether one likes it or not, people handling lots of films tend to be ahead in knowing about distribution and marketing opportunities and the knowledge is more real and detailed and nuanced. I’m not advocating old world anything; I don’t even believe in rights licensing model but I do believe in the best distribution possible per film, and it’s different per film.

Lawyers love to charge by the hour or take a big commission for their “expertise” and I suggest that a lawyer who has no or little distribution background relating to your deal but doing a distribution contract will get you a great air tight contract perhaps, but a crap distribution deal and a big fat waste of time and money and rights into the film. It’s not black and white of course, I’m just making a point. Every “expert” has a limited perspective to his/her experience and an agenda, and of course that includes me too. So think for yourself, cross-reference, and keep up-to-date, or designate someone on your side to. The digital space is truly changing weekly. The MSOs behind the Cable VOD space are not letting go of their turf any time soon, whilst Google makes its play, and all the Telcos make theirs… CinemaNow is going to be working its Digital Locker at Best Buy (digital) and Blockbuster (digital) and we shall see what happens with iTunes, Hulu and Netflix etc etc. On the DIY digital distribution front — I always await the numbers intel regarding platforms such as FansofFilm, and to see if Amazon VOD can ever generate business for the DIY releases — and for some, 4 and 5 figures of revenue is as much as they could have hoped for or expected, but some it’s not. The dilemma is really evaluating the numbers when a licensing option is an option because there is a certain leverage in the marketplace that bigger distributors still have over the DIY model and unless you’re a brand like Banksy whereby you already have a built in following, your film may have just enough commercial potential to need the distribution and marketing muscle of a company that may be able to do more than you can do via DIY. And yet, for many films, there is no such company that will step forward and a lot one can do on one’s own.

But back to panels – I will say this, I don’t think Ostrow & Company is an appropriate company to be introduced to filmmakers in a panel or industry networking setting (and they have been) because they ask for more than $10,000 up front (I think it’s up to $11,000 or $14,000 on average) and I don’t know of too much good they have done for anyone. Neither do any of my ‘industry’ peers.

My last thought before I sign off… This past week it was announced that TFC brokered a deal with IFC for Made in China. We did and we’re very proud of our service and always impressed by the impeccable taste and service to films at IFC (even though I cannot say I am in love with their $$ waterfall). We charge a fraction of what sales agents charge and we don’t recoup for fancy dinners in Cannes. I want a world in which sales agents are used for what they do best, getting filmmakers deals they cannot get themselves, there are buyers around the world and I do believe there is a place for a company to get films to market and do business that otherwise would not be done, especially for theatrical films or where good TV deals are still viable. I do however wish for filmmakers to save themselves and their investors the waste of big fees and expenses being recouped out of a deal one could have done directly.

Film is the most expensive art medium in the world, it’s also presently the most powerful. If you’ve already made a film, you might as well stay committed to its exhibition and your end of the bargain with investors and above all, your ability to keep making your work, for your audience.

At your service,

– O/R for TFC

May 31st, 2010

Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, Best Buy, Blockbuster, Digital Distribution, Distribution Platforms, DIY, Hulu, Mobile / Wireless, Netflix, Uncategorized

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