Online Distribution: Pros & Cons, Hopes & Dreams

A filmmaker can now upload her film to the Internet, and viewers can see the film anywhere, anytime—for almost zero cost.

Compare that to the old days when a finished movie had to be printed to 35 mm celluloid film, packed up and shipped to theaters. Online distribution is far less expensive and far more direct.


Online distribution has many advantages over physical distribution.

(1)  Cost: Replacing celluloid film with digital video and snail mail with online server space dramatically cuts the cost of distribution.

(2)  Connectivity: Filmmakers can now connect directly with viewers, instead of depending on distribution companies to get films in front of viewers.

(3)  Increased Access: Viewers can watch films online whenever and wherever they want to, instead of depending on what’s currently showing at the theater.


How Do You Get to an Audience?

Independent filmmakers have always been challenged when it comes to distribution. You might have made a beautiful film, but if no ones see it, no one cares. Consequently, “independent” filmmakers are in fact dependent on distribution companies—which is why film festivals are so important for independent filmmakers. Film festivals, especially the big ones like Cannes and Sundance, provide a meeting ground for distributors to make deals with filmmakers.

Online distribution could potentially render this whole system obsolete. Until now, the system has worked like this:

Filmmaker > Film > Festival > Distributor > Viewer


Online distribution makes the process more efficient and direct:

Filmmaker > Film > Viewer


Taking this all into account, we might conclude that with the dawn of online distribution, independent filmmakers can now become truly independent and distribution companies will become a thing of the past.

Not so fast—there’s a catch.


How Do You Generate Buzz?

Distributors provide one service that is not easily replicable online: Hype. In addition to getting films in theaters, distribution companies also advertise those films. It’s often said in the industry that a film is only as good as its advertisement. This might seem cynical to those of us who think story is paramount, but unfortunately, when it comes to generating ticket sales, the cynics are right.

If viewers are not aware that a film can be seen online, or even that the film exists, then the ease of online distribution means nothing. Online video streaming websites, like Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, Amazon Instant Watch and Vimeo On Demand are filled with thousands of independent films that can be seen with the click of a button—but in that vast sea of online content, how do viewers know what to watch?


How Do You Rise Above Them All?

Do you remember the days when your options for what film to see on a Friday night were limited by the number of screens at your local theater? You’d see what’s playing and decide accordingly. Now you go on Netflix and peruse the multitude of film posters for films you’ve never heard of, and if you’re like me, you become paralyzed by the plethora of options. I’m a film nerd, so I usually just go to the classics page and watch a John Ford movie I’ve already seen. Lame, right?

The challenge is to raise hype about films viewable online—to make them more than an image on a computer screen.

If you’re a forward-thinking filmmaker wanting to take advantage of the independence afforded by online distribution, you will have to face this question: How do I advertise my film?


We’re On It

At Indywood, this is the kind of question that keeps us up at night. It is our mission to find creative, innovative answers. And we have some ideas we would like to experiment with.

We’ve stated the problem. Stay tuned for coming posts in which we’ll pitch some solutions we’d like to try out.


PS: If you’re a filmmaker and you’d like to know more about what tricks we have up our sleeves, feel free to contact us for more information.