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Women to Watch: Ellen Pittleman on Online Self-Distribution Options

Women to Watch: Ellen Pittleman on Online Self-Distribution Options

Ellen Pittleman is a veteran studio executive based in Los Angeles. While at Paramount Pictures, she was SVP, International Co-Productions and Worldwide Acquisitions for Paramount Pictures. Along with acquiring for both U.S. and international territories, she created the International Co-Production business for the studio which was responsible for local language production. She also launched the DVD Premiere group there, with films including Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold and the sequel to the $100MM+ Save the Last Dance. Now as president and founder of Hybrid Entertainment, she consults on strategic planning, deal negotiation, acquisitions, film library valuation and feature development with clients from Rio to London to Beijing. She published a review of the 2009 Worldwide Box Office performance on a territory-by-territory basis for N.Y. Times’ international database, Screenline.

Her blog, The Latest Online Self-Distribution Options, on Baseline is very helpful to filmmakers and deserves repeating here.

What are the Latest Online Self-Distribution Options for Filmmakers?

Online film distribution is a subject that is often discussed now that the traditional distribution sector has contracted in a very dramatic way. Barriers to distribution have never been lower primarily as a result of online opportunities. One must first have an understanding of what one means by online distribution before going down this path, which includes (unfortunately for those of us non-techies) understanding a bit of the technology.

Certain sites download movies on to one’s hard drive or on to a physical device while other sites stream films, keeping the intellectual property on the licensor’s server so that it never rests with the consumer. The digital download of films, download to own or electronic sell through as it’s often called, is frequently defined as a home entertainment right and the kind of model that companies like Amazon and Apple initially used. Streaming of films is typically a VOD right so it’s important that a producer understand which rights they’re granting to a licensor if they’re splitting a grant of rights across platforms. VOD encompasses up to a dozen different forms, (Transactional (TVOD), Subscription (SVOD) like Netflix’s Watch Instantly plan, ad-supported (AVOD) like Snag and the basic HULU site, sell-thru (EST/DTO, etc.), and spans different distribution platforms (IPTV, web, mobile, handhelds etc.) each affecting rights and license potential.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the windowing or timing of each of these two right grants have historically also been different. VOD has been released to the market sooner than rental and sell-through DVDs of a particular film. This is one of the reasons why Netflix’s recent business shift from mail order to the streaming model upset the traditional film business and why, unconventional distributors like IFC and Magnolia who have played with this notion of timing have begun to make headway.

So how does the indie producer who’s not got access to theatrical exhibition or TV channels behind them like Magnolia and IFC take advantage of the new digital model? User generated services like You Tube provides a platform for this opportunity and embraced it last year by offering five Sundance films for $3.99 each, which unfortunately drew just over a thousand paying customers nationally. With Google’s purchase of You Tube, Google is pushing to secure content that plays well on big-screen TVs as part of a broader plan to make the site profitable. YouTube’s content strategy has three components: user-created content, Web original programming, and movies and TV shows.

With more than 600 million active users, Facebook could also become a serious competitor to film/TV-centric digital distribution companies such as Netflix and Hulu. Warner Bros. started delivering movies through Facebook enabling U.S. users to rent titles for $3. In this case, renting a movie gave users a 48-hour window to watch it through their Facebook account.

More than just having a place to upload content, making money off the digital delivery of content is what both studios and independent filmmakers have struggled with for the past several years as DVD revenues have declined. Baseline offers a new report for the bigger, more established online players in this area but recently there are several sites that now offer either platforms or toolkits for self-distribution, each with their own approach to monetization.

SnagFilm and Open Film for example, sell ad space and share the revenue with the licensee though a film needs to be seen hundreds of thousands of times before a filmmaker will see any real income from ad revenue. However, SnagFilm also allows the filmmakers to earn full revenue from any DVD sale.

Mopix is the newest addition to the self-distribution world and it’s currently in a beta stage. It’s an APP-based platform for content. Filmmakers or distributors can upload all content they would put on a deluxe DVD. One sets his/her own prices and makes the film available for viewing through the app and/or can use the APP merely as a marketing tool for the film.

Launched last year, Stonehenge Production’s FilmApps are also custom designed for each client and include such features as social media integration, social activism components, games and in-App purchase options, to name a few. The filmmaker or distributor retains 100% of revenue generated from a Stonehenge developed App and is charged a startup cost of $680. Keep in mind however that Apple keeps 30% of any sales through their platform. Stonehenge, like several of these distribution toolkits and platforms allows the filmmaker to retain ownership of their film.

Egg Up is online media distribution application that facilitates both film rentals and sales by enabling a filmmaker to distribute films on multiple platforms and websites with creation of what they’re calling an ‘egg’. The ‘egg’ is a secured film file that contains your film, images, trailers and extras just as the previous two do. Egg Up enables one to embed a “buy now” button in web sites and blogs. A filmmaker is able to distribute the film on one’s own website and other online retailers without any set-up fees. Their plans range from a free, 8 GB storage plan to a $99.99/mo. for 50 GB storage.

At the end of last year, YAWMA, an online community and marketplace for indie music and games, announced a new service, Groupees, that offers flash sales (12-, 24- and 48-hour). The Groupees service has extended the reach to films and uses variable promotional programs including Pay What You Want payments, charitable giving, cross-promotional bundles and custom virtual giveaways building upon its already established online store and Facebook application. The new service supports both video download and streaming.

Distrify charges a 30% transaction fee on all sales but there’s no up-front charges for uploading or hosting for a one-film account. Pricing is similarly structured for Dynamo Player.

It’s important to keep in mind that while these kinds of self-distribution opportunities remove the barrier to reaching a worldwide audience for pretty much anyone who wants to venture down this road, in order for one’s film to be successful whether measured in revenue or notoriety, the filmmaker must effectively market his or her film. In this case one’s own site probably will have the greatest margins, but getting traffic to that site is the pot of gold.

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