The Cannes Film Festival — impossibly glamorous, unapologetically auteurist — is the world’s most aspirational film festival. And this week, it’s hosting filmmakers like Bong Joon Ho and Noah Baumbach as they premiere films that will skip theaters entirely in favor of a Netflix premiere. So, for those up-and-coming filmmakers who aspire: Is it time to exchange dreams of the big screen in favor of the red logo?
It’s not a simple question; to pose it suggests cinephile disloyalty. However, the increasing artistic acceptance of Netflix, along with its overwhelming ubiquity, means that independent filmmakers owe it to themselves to consider the facts on all sides.
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Even if a filmmaker swears undying loyalty to theatrical distribution, subscription-based VOD like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu already control the game. While SVOD platforms may offer equal access, they increasingly favor the more mainstream titles; marginal movies are prone to being dropped. That means all-rights distributors are even more careful about the films they choose to bring out theatrically, and how much they’ll spend on them.
Furthermore, as outlets like Amazon become increasingly hungry for SVOD rights, that places other deals at a disadvantage. Foreign distributors don’t want films without SVOD rights. Neither do all-rights distributors; they want a nice SVOD deal in hand, ideally with bumps for overperforming in theatrical.
That’s created a new strata of indie-film haves and have nots. Money was flying at Sundance this year, but only for the most splashy titles. Many other films cost $1 million-$2 million to make and received good reviews, but were seen as too quiet or niche and received offers that kept producers well out of reach of recouping their investment.
We live in a world where Martin Scorsese has accepted the digital platform of Netflix as the cost of doing business; without it, he doesn’t have the financial means to make “The Irishman.” That said: A young filmmaker needs a theatrical release far more than Scorsese.
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The greatest value of a low-budget feature extends well beyond the film. It’s a vehicle that allows the director to publicize artistic visions as well as personal and production stories via post-screening Q&As, published profiles, and reviews. Even if the film finds only the smallest audience, it places a director on radar.
However, Netflix largely skips this step for fiction features, making little effort to publicize a film beyond promos on their platform. This isn’t a Scorsese problem; not only will Netflix spend on his ads, he’s also acknowledged as one of the greatest living American filmmakers. For those still looking to build a name and establish a brand as a filmmaker, it’s an issue.
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Supposedly, Netflix can skip the PR step because algorithms will bring a film to the right customers. For a young filmmaker who’s looking to build a career, that’s less helpful: Even if the algorithm does its job, it’s most concerned with getting the customer on the platform. This is why Netflix heavily promotes their high-profile lineup of major TV series, or runs an expensive Oscar campaign for their prestigious documentaries: They help distinguish their unique offerings to the public. But when it comes to promoting a small movie, the assumption is an indie that was well reviewed out of Sundance won’t be a deciding factor for a large swath of customers deciding if they want to pay $7.99 a month.
That said: Netflix and Amazon know a lot about what we watch, where you watch, and when. They’re greedy with their data, but one small distributor says it’s been able to gain some insight to their system. FilmRise CEO Danny Fisher represents some 7,500 titles, including recent Sundance premiere “Manifesto” starring Cate Blanchett. He’s been experimenting with Amazon Video Direct, a self-publishing program that helps independent filmmakers gain access to Amazon Prime.
Fisher has uploaded 1,000 titles to Prime, and because AVD is based on a revenue share model, he is able to see how his titles perform. His results show the algorithm rewards films when users positively interact with the films’ pages via reviews and viewership. That leads to a title becoming more prominently featured in Amazon’s curation, and suggesting the film to users who have watched similar titles. When a title clicks with the platform, Fisher said, there’s a snowball effect.
Certainly, Fisher’s data represents only one slim layer of the statistics available. What if a similar layer of tools could be open source, letting savvy filmmakers get their films seen on the platforms that stand to benefit? Innovative publicity campaigns could channel filmmakers’ core social media base to SVODs, creating the most efficient way to help a film find an audience and allowing filmmakers an organic way to build their brands. It’s in this sense a finely tuned algorithm on an enormous platform could be the best tool to take advantage of the small, but vigorous word of mouth many festival films rely upon.
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For now, Netflix remains a black box of information; there’s debate over AVD’s financial model. Recently, the Sundance Institute launched a distribution fellowship specifically designed to see how they can help well received festival films map out a viable financial path to finding an audience after receiving lowball distribution deals. They are experimenting to see if they can supply the infrastructure and resources needed to make self-distribution a real alternative – which includes negotiating blanket deals with Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix. This year, they’ll be testing the waters with Kogonada’s “Columbus” and Jennifer Brea’s “Unrest.”
Fingers crossed this could be the start of something. Meanwhile, the $1 million-$3 million films continue to flourish in Canada and Europe, where filmmakers received public funds. Here, smaller films may need to aim bigger, or become even cheaper.