The Sheffield Doc/Fest is not only a strongly programmed showcase for international and UK documentary cinema, it also is filled with industry professionals and several panels for filmmakers and film industry professionals daily.
Today's panel on "The Business of VOD" was typical fare. The panelists, Vimeo's UK-based Senior Curator Jordan McGarry, Daily Motion's Head of Content Marc Eychenne, Syndicado Inc. President Greg Rubidge, and Distrify's Peter Gerard, were joined with moderator Edward Caffrey, head of Journeyman Pictures. Some smart things were said over the course of the 90 minutes, but many questions were left unanswered, especially about how audiences actually go after content. Unlike the traditional distributors, the revenue share deals are fairly open (Vimeo is proud that it only takes 10%). But like traditional distributors, it's hard to see the numbers of how many people are actually viewing this way.
There was one thing that became immediately apparent. There needed to be someone on the panel that didn't have a horse in the race. While the industry and filmmakers regularly chide traditional distributors for signing unfair deals with filmmakers and snagging up as many of the film's rights as possible, digital distributors, too, are out for themselves. These are reasonable people who have thoughtful things to say about their industry and good advice to give to filmmakers. But without a neutral voice or an outside observer on the panel, none of the panelists were encouraged to talk about the larger industry and their place in it. Instead, they understandably ended up pitching their platforms or services without really contextualizing them in the rough and tumble distribution world that they're a part of. If these kinds of panels are going to actually provide useful resources for filmmakers (and film viewers), a strong outside observer perspective needs to be present to help the audience figure out what this all means for filmmakers and film viewers. That being said, Rubidge should be commended for his ability to be frank and pragmatic.
Here are the five most insightful observations from the panel:
1. If you're serious about distributing your film online, make sure you have all of your assets ready.
"We all know that people really do judge a book by its cover," said Rubidge. "And the same goes for film. Have a nice poster." He reminded filmmakers that digital distributors, at least in the US, should provide the following: "1.) trailer, 2.) poster, 3.) digital master file (Apple Pro Res HQ 422.mov), 4.) for the USA, Closed captioned; 5.) multiple language tracks"
2. If you have a backlog of films not online, VOD is good for incremental income.
As Rubidge noted, "for your library, you could get a lunch check every quarter, or you could pay a lease payment every quarter." If you want to make more on a new title, you have to work hard to promote the film in traditional ways (e.g. theatrical engagements) to get attention. In the VOD world, according to Rubidge it's all about getting your title front and center on the iTunes New & Noteworthy section.
3. There are certain films that do well online but not theatrically or in festivals, certain films that are popular in festivals but not online, and some that have a hard time finding an audience at all.
Says Gerard, "The films that do best online are films with a niche audience. We had a short with a specific type of yoga...While the film was not broadcast quality, and it wasn't going to have a significant festival life, fans of that particular kind of yoga would jump on it. For other films, it's harder to identify the niche. A lot of people make film about their relationship with their father. That's difficult to sell online; it's harder to identify that community." Adds McGarry, "The films that are working so far [on Vimeo on Demand] are people who have been thinking about [distributing online] for a long time."
4. Learn from the best digital distributors, pirates.
Gerard explained that the idea for Distrify came from having films placed online without the filmmakers permission. "When people post about a film, they often embed the trailer and then put a Rapid Share or Pirate Bay link. We made it difficult for people to share our content legally." That's where the embeddable Distrify player came from.
5. If you like the distribution deal a broadcaster is giving you, you might need to give up some of your digital rights.
A question from the audience asked if filmmakers should be worried about giving distributors all of their digital rights to a broadcaster or traditional distributor. While the panel generally said that a filmmaker should fight to hold onto those rights and Gerard implied that pirates will steal anything that is available through free streaming platforms (but not his paid service?), Rubidge noted that as broadcasters like HBO need to keep up the value of their models, they need to have the rights to use the material on all of their platforms. "At the end of the day, if you like what they're offering you and they're not being egregious" then go for it. After all, he said, someone like HBO is "trying to protect the value of a subscription