Despite the rise of streaming, theatrical distribution remains the golden standard for movies. Everybody wants to show their films on the silver screen, from established filmmakers to neophytes peddling their debuts. That is the reason why Netflix bought the Paris Theater in New York City to premiere their blue-chip originals there - their tenure jump started with the opening of Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019) two weeks ahead of its streaming debut. It is a matter of status. Going straight to homebound flatscreens, no matter how large they can be, is still seen as a lesser experience, akin to going straight-to-video or cable TV back in the 80 and 90. You are not quite damaged goods, but there is a suspicion that you’re not good enough floating around.
Should it bother you? The democratization implicit in streaming is changing the game. A new generation of filmmakers doesn’t need to submit to the standard of the past. The pandemic shutdowns deepened the public’s reliance on home distribution, reaffirming changing trends in movie-watching. Even as studios are backing away from day-and-date theatrical and home video premiers, the writing is on the wall. Catching a new movie at home is, well, normal.
Technology allows you to theoretically bypass film festivals, markets, and distributors’ conventions and stream your work directly to viewers everywhere: Do-It-Yourself distribution. It can be as easy as uploading your video clip to your own branded website. Some online giants invest heavily in the game, settling down mechanisms that you can use.
Here’s an overview of the options in the arena:
1. YouTube: arguably the biggest name in online video, YouTube discontinued the Paid Content tools that allowed you to sell rentals or downloads of your movies through their platform. They rent and sell downloads from major studios and brand-name distributors, but if you are a true indie, you’re out of luck. By uploading your film to your YouTube channel, your source of income would be a percentage of the views of advertising placed along reproduction time of your content. The model favors prolific content creators. If you do weekly cooking videos, it may serve you well. But if you dedicate months and years to a single feature, the follower-and-views-based model may not work for you. It’s better to think of it as a promotional tool, to show trailers, making-off specials, and video supplements.
2. Vimeo: Vimeo is more than a convenient place to save copies of your works and share viewing links. Back in 2016, they bought VHX, and now, it’s the backbone of their ON DEMAND and VIMEO OTT services (OTT stands for “Over the Top”). The first one allows you to sell streams or downloads of your movies. The second one gives you the chance to create channels for streaming devices and a subscription model for periodically released content. Think of a series or episodic content instead of one-off sales of single pieces. Tech services fit for major content providers like The Criterion Channel are, in theory, available to you.
3. Amazon Video Direct: on August 18, 2021, Amazon killed off its Media on Demand platform. The service allowed filmmakers to sell made-to-order DVDs or Blu-Rays of their works. Amazon says they based their decision on content providers and users’ feedback, stating that they prefer streaming to physical media. The alternative they offer is Prime Video Direct, which promises access to millions of subscribers worldwide. Some well-established brands, like Funny or Die, vouch for the service. It’s not a free-for-all option, though. You must submit your production for licensing consideration in three modalities: rent, buy, or Free with Prime. They make no guarantees about approval. Amazon declares a preference for “professionally produced, feature-length movies and TV shows that have been theatrically released, broadcast on a major TV network, or selected by a major film festival.” Still, they may choose a limited number of titles that don’t fall within that range. Gee, thanks, Amazon.
4. IndieFlix: a boutique streaming service focused on educational entertainment. It may seem too specialized, but if your project fits, the business model offers worldwide reach and a revenue-sharing system that pays the filmmaker for every minute watched. If you get more views, you get more money. Even fickle viewers that hit “pause” and never look back leave something in your account. While they accept content in any genre and length, submissions go through a review process. There is a streaming service for the public at large. They book screenings in community centers and educational institutions and organize film festivals. And they don’t demand exclusivity. You may submit your movie to them and still shop around for other opportunities. Think of them as earnest, socially conscious all-purpose distributors.
5. Popflick: Ok yes we are a little biased, but our subscription video startup is growing and we are focused on becoming an affordable alternative while providing an ad-free experience. We believe that there are lots of films that deserve an audience and as we ramp up content with our unique revenue share model, we are super excited about the possibilities.
Bear in mind, being on a massive platform like YouTube or Amazon does not guarantee views. The abundance of content available can be overwhelming for audiences, who end up granting towards known products or the buzziest options. You must jump through hoops to make people aware of your existence and compete for their attention. We all have been there, pressing play on one of the first thumbnails at the top of the menu. We may kill time scrolling one notch or two before settling down for a familiar choice. You still have to deploy a promotional strategy and invest in advertising.
That’s why you have to carefully consider if you don’t want to give the festival circuit a sporting try. The exposure helps to tell the world your movie exists. Word-of-mouth starts to roll. You may get a positive review or two, and before you know it, distributors are knocking at your door.
The major festivals tend to demand fresh products. They want premiers, not the digital equivalent of sloppy seconds. Previous distribution, even on a personal website, might disqualify you from the get-go. Competitions and markets may expose you to distributors who would share the workload of selling your movie. By jumping straight to self-distribution, you could be closing the door to unsuspected revenue streams and opportunities.
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