By Eric Kohn | Indiewire August 15, 2008 at 8:59AM
Digital distribution keeps gaining momentum. While there are currently about 2,600 movies available for download on iTunes, including a number of independent movies and documentaries, that number will soon grow. New Video Digital confirmed this week that it has secured a whopping 1,600 titles for Apple's online store and other outlets. The independent video aggregator said that it has acquired the rights to over 5,000 hours of independent film and television content, with plans to double that number by the end of this year. The company will push that content out to iTunes and other online platforms in the coming months on a non-exclusive basis.
The films currently available on iTunes via New Video include a mixture of narratives and documentaries, with relatively popular releases, such as "Super Size Me" and "Jim Henson's Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal," combined with lesser known fare like "10 Questions for the Dalai Lama," "loudQUIETloud: a film about the Pixies," and "King Corn." In the coming months, New Video will release more titles from its library, including "The Corporation," Robert Greenwald's "Iraq for Sale" and "Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price," and "Flourish," starring Leighton Meester of "Gossip Girl" fame.
To date, nearly 200 of the company's films are currently available on iTunes, and New Video is working on supplying content to other paid digital outlets, including Xbox, Netflix and Amazon. "The role that we're playing in this phase of our industry is to make it easier on our store fronts to be able to get content," New Video's co-principal Steve Savage told indieWIRE yesterday. "Imagine if, every time you wanted to bring a product into a retail store, you had to negotiate the rights. We're eliminating that work for the rights holder and the store."
The company will continue to augment online digital platform offerings as films are digitized and delivered to stores such as iTunes, emphasizing to the industry and filmmakers that their advantage is being able to bring content to market quickly.
Savage started New Video in the early nineteen eighties as a video rental store in downtown Manhattan, then moved into the supply side of the business. Although the company still makes most of its revenue from DVD sales -- particularly its documentary label, Docurama -- it became involved with Apple as soon as iTunes began featuring video content, quickly coming to terms with the stringent encoding requirements demanded by the store. "We do a lot of documentaries that have mixed media, stock footage," said Erik Opeka, the senior manager of distribution for New Video. "We work closely with the technical teams to ensure those documentaries are able to make into the store."
Beyond the technical details, much of New Video's work involves grassroots marketing. Working with a diverse range of independent movies, the company reaches out to outlets with specific interests that match those of the films. For the release of the documentary "Helvetica," for example, New Video supplied various graphics blogs with typography from the movie. Similarly, the release of "Autism: The Musical" involved outreach to caregivers and families dealing with the condition.
Such tactics might play a small role in the success of large studio products, but they're essential for the niche audiences of many independent movies. "While digital is a down-the-road business for the studios, I think there's more to gain proportionately for independents for getting there now," Savage said. "We've seen statistics where films are getting 8 - 12 percent [of revenue from download sales]." In one outstanding situation, the digital release of Ralph Arlyck's Emmy-winning POV documentary "Following Sean," Savage said the director could end up making as much as twenty percent of his revenue from digital sales. "He has the shelf space and he's able to get the word out," Savage said, pointing out that the rush of sales wasn't immediate. "We see independent films come in very quietly. When you get all the stuff out there, it starts to get a following."
Although New Video has deals with the History Channel and A&E, it doesn't exclusively work with documentaries. Last year, the company brokered the deal to premiere Edward Burns' romantic comedy "Purple Violets" on iTunes, the first release of its kind. It also has several movies from Jim Henson Co. "Anyone is open to submit their film to us to get it on iTunes," Opeka said. "When you do a deal with us, you avoid having to do a deal with Apple directly. Doing a deal with an aggregator is always going to be faster."
That's why, in the near future, New Video will have to face competition. Several other companies, including Cinetic Media, have started getting into the online aggregation business. Savage said he believes New Video can retain an advantage over rival services since it has already endured the steep learning curve involved in digital delivery, and doesn't demand a large cut of filmmakers' revenues. While the company will not comment on specific deal terms, industry insiders peg New Video Digital's cut at about 15% for nonexclusive digital rights.
"We came up with an aggressive strategy that will inoculate us against some of our competitors," Savage said. "Some are taking giant fees. We're taking sliver fees." He analogizes the situation to his early days in the video business. "The was a time when we were the only video store in the Village," he said. "Then, somebody opened up a store eight blocks away. I was pissed. Eventually, there was a video store on every block. Having been in the video business since it was born, I get to see how the rules are written. We're in the thick of it now; we're having a blast, and astounded at how many people have joined us."
EDITORS NOTE: This story was updated on Friday to reflect that there are more than 2,600 movies currently available on iTunes, according to New Video Digital figures.