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Digital Distribution: "Gigantic" Exposure? "Pathetic" Revenues"?

By Eugene Hernandez | Indiewire March 17, 2009 at 1:50AM

With limited theatrical options for getting their films in front of audiences today, numerous filmmakers have explored (or at least pondered) the Internet as an outlet. While most seem to covet a slot on iTunes -- the platform that generates the greatest revenues -- the need to work with an aggregator and the service's limited offerings have led filmmakers in other directions. Sites such as Hulu, Joost, and SnagFilms, among many others, as well as services ranging from iTunes and Amazon, are aiming to draw filmmakers.
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With limited theatrical options for getting their films in front of audiences today, numerous filmmakers have explored (or at least pondered) the Internet as an outlet. While most seem to covet a slot on iTunes -- the platform that generates the greatest revenues -- the need to work with an aggregator and the service's limited offerings have led filmmakers in other directions. Sites such as Hulu, Joost, and SnagFilms, among many others, as well as services ranging from iTunes and Amazon, are aiming to draw filmmakers.

The challenge, of course, is balancing the widespread awareness afforded by the Internet with still emerging revenue models.

"This isn't where we are going to be making money now," "Super Size Me" director Morgan Spurlock told a large crowd on Monday at SXSW. "If you are looking to pay your rent, not so much, if you're looking to pay your phone blll, you have a chance."

Later, when the discussion shifted to panelists' reluctance to talk about the hard traffic numbers, Spurlock offered a line that has already been picked up by media and bloggers: "The reason numbers aren't releaed is because the numbers are pathetic." He continued, "It's because the numbers are sadly low by what we would expect from film and television."

For all the talk, panelists showed signs of life. "Helvetica" filmmaker Gary Hustwit, here in Austin with his new doc, "Objecified," said that he earned as much as $60,000 in digital sales for "Helvetica." SnagFilms' CEO Rick Allen noted that his company's widgets are available on some 20,000 websites and social network pages. Cinetic Rights Management's Matt Dentler said that revenues from Hulu are showing promise.

Spurlock also noted, optimistically, "The fact that it continues to garner eyeballs is the most important thing...the exposure is gigantic." And he later predicted, "Down the road, [revenues] will grow."

"We are looking at a transitional business model that is broken," SnagFilms' CEO Rick Allen noted, "We are at the front end of this." The current revenues, however small, "are hundredfold, a thousandfold, the size of the checks that most independent documentarians have received from theatrical release," he reiterated.

"I agree that the traditional distribution model is broken," concurred Gary Hustwit, "But I feel that the way to fix it is to go directly to the audiences," he continued. "Why are we building other people's businesses when we could be building our own business." Seated in the audience, an industry insider answered the question aloud, "Because not all filmmakers want to be businessmen."

DISCLOSURE: indieWIRE is owned by SnagFilms.

This article is related to: Features, Festival Dispatch





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