Is web distribution the way forward for indie filmmakers?

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Following their passion… Chun (left) and Zan.

Following their passion… Chun (left) and Zan.

oon yeohBy Oon Yeoh

Even if the name Joss Whedon doesn’t ring a bell, you would be familiar with his work. I’m sure you’ve heard of The Avengers? Well, he’s the director. And he’s currently hard at work on the sequel, The Age of Ultron, which is bound to be a mega-blockbuster when it’s released next year.

Whedon may be a mainstream Hollywood director but he has indie film sensibilities too and has been known to do passion projects like his contemporary take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which is about as indie as you can get.

That movie played in cinemas. But for his latest indie project, a supernatural romance movie called In Your Eyes, he went straight to the audience via web distribution. The movie, which he wrote and served as executive producer, has been available for streaming on Vimeo for US$5 since it was released online in late April.

Getting Whedon to release his movie via Vimeo On Demand is a big public relations boost for Vimeo, which had just launched the on-demand service last year.

“This is the most high profile title we’ve had on the platform, definitely,” Vimeo General Manager of Audience Networks Greg Clayman told GigaOm. “The fact that people like Joss are starting to think about direct distribution and connecting directly with their fans is exciting for us, and a trend we think will continue.”

Vimeo on Demand is available for video makers with Vimeo Pro membership, which costs US$199 a year and is targetted at professionals (for normal video uploads, the service is free). Content creators can decide which geographical market they want their videos to be made available and whether the content is streaming-only or is downloadable.

Members determine how much to charge for their videos on demand but the price has to be at least US$0.99. The revenue share is very attractive for content creators at 90-10 (in the content creators’ favour).

Could this be a distribution model that Malaysian filmmakers can make work for them too? I spoke to local documentary filmmaker, Zan Azlee, and local cinematographer, Wan Chun Hung (popularly known only as “Chun”), for their views on this.

“On paper it sounds like a good, new way for video makers to generate some income but I feel it’s really only viable for very established filmmakers like Joss Whedon,” says Zan. Chun agrees: “At the moment I don’t think we have the mass acceptance level for paid video since people are so used to free content on YouTube and (regular) Vimeo.”

Chun, however, views Vimeo-on-Demand as a welcome development for the industry. “As it is, Vimeo is already a popular choice for filmmakers to showcase their work with its clean layout and good compression, although YouTube has a wider reach,” says Chun, who uses Vimeo to host clips of his work on his website. “It’s good that there’s now a pay option for those who want to try to distribute films directly to consumers.”

Over the years Zan has posted many of his documentaries online for the general public to view for free. Not surprisingly, since he wants to reach as broad a swathe of the viewing public as possible, he has a dedicated YouTube channel.

Despite this new development, Zan has no intention to start charging for his videos. Reiterating his earlier comments, he says that not many people in Malaysia would be willing to pay for local indie films, and notes that even famed local indie filmmaker, James Lee, does not charge for the films on his website.

Perhaps sponsorship would be a more realistic way for local filmmakers to generate some income if they were to go into web distribution of their films. “Getting sponsors like you would do for TV content may be the way to go,” says Chun. Zan concurs and adds that getting grants is another way to finance a movie. “There are many ways to skin a cat,” he says. “Charging customers for content is not the only or the best way.”

That doesn’t mean that Zan is completely closed to the idea though. “It’s still early days and although right now, I feel this kind of distribution might not necessarily make money for most indie filmmakers, who knows what lies ahead in the future,” he says.

Zan notes how some bloggers have managed to carve out a career for themselves blogging full-time and generating quite a decent income despite them not being celebrities to begin with (although many have now become celebrities in their own right). “Who would have thought that was possible before it actually happened?” Zan remarks.

 

Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant.

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