Indie filmmakers are seeing the world of filmmaking change around them from how you learn the craft of storytelling to how films are funded, produced, edited, discovered, and distributed.
A recent article from Indiewire’s David Ehrlich, Netflix Keeps Buying Great Movies, So It’s a Shame They’re Getting Buried makes the claim that streaming giants, Netflix and Amazon, are killing the indie film scene. It’s a common argument that’s been popping up more and more across entertainment journalism as Netflix and Amazon’s ambitions (and investments) have grown. However, the core premise that these new tech platforms are outright bad for indie filmmakers is foolishly misguided.
Let’s take a look at the common arguments:
What they get wrong
They long for the nostalgia of the theatrical experience and ignore real audience desires. Throughout this argument, you can sense a twinge of wistful nostalgia for the 1990s golden era of indie filmmaking. There’s a paternalistic attitude that’s long plagued the part of the film industry that’s been stubborn to evolve with new changing technologies. with pointless discussions dating back to the “film must be watched on real film” debate.
…it could be said that movies — at least for the time being — are simply things that play in movie theaters. —David Ehrlich
The theater experience is amazing, but I’ve also had amazing experiences watching movies at home on my laptop and cried watching movies on a plane—filmmakers, you’ve got to know your medium. And I know I’m not alone. Netflix is nearing 100 million paid subscribers—Amazon has an estimated 66 million. Those who prop up this argument point to the theater’s superior immersive experience, yet they fail to recognize two of the most powerful consumer drivers—convenience and cost.
To his credit, The Ringer’s Editor-in-Chief, Sean Fennessey, in The End of Independent Film As We Know It, at least acknowledges it:
But in the year since it was announced, and right underneath its nose, Sarandos and his friendly competitors at Amazon have been subverting the very process by which movies are seen, giving people who are uninterested in the theatergoing experience a way to get their content quickly and easily.
As a filmmaker/producer, you need to decide what experience and exposure you want for your film. Getting your indie film into theaters is becoming the equivalent of playing a live music performance. It’s a great way for your hardcore fans to pay more for a better experience. But if you’re like most filmmakers, and you want to reach the world and share your story with as many people as possible, you go to where the audience is. And, as with music, that audience is increasingly on streaming platforms.
They don’t seem to understand the tech world. Ehrlich’s article misses big on the fundamentals that drive tech companies.
In fact, Netflix recently took steps to make it even more difficult for customers to find what they crave or stumble upon new delights, as the company made the myopic decision to replace its somewhat worthless star ratings with a completely worthless “thumbs up / thumbs down” approach.—David Ehrlich
If you’ve read any analysis or quarterly earnings report on Netflix, this should raise immediate alarms. You know that alongside subscriber numbers, the most important metric for Netflix is what they call “valued hours” (i.e. quality time spent on Netflix). Why would they intentionally hide content that they knew would keep you around? In fact, they have hundreds of engineers and millions of dollars spent on trying to get the content you most want to watch in front of you immediately. Quantifying taste and automating recommendations is an incredibly difficult task, but expect progress to be made toward it.
It will always be a duopoly.
Not everyone is so bullish on the future foretold by this brave new independent cinema. Despite the overwhelming opportunity Amazon and Netflix provide, a duopoly is not a democracy.—Sean Fennessey
Expect other players and platforms to jump in—Apple is producing it’s first show, and just bought the opening night film of the Tribeca Film Festival last night. Expect Google’s YouTube, Facebook, Snap, Microsoft, and others to increasingly involve themselves. The content wars are just beginning, and that competition will be a great thing for filmmakers.
What they fail to mention
Streaming distribution levels the playing field for audience reach. No longer is your indie film limited to a narrow release window at only a couple hundred theaters across the nation. With streaming, you have the same total addressable audience as the blockbuster next to you. And it’s global—which used to be a pain in the ass to negotiate. True, you will not get the same promotion as a big name film, but having it globally available to 100 million subscribers, at least makes it possible.
Filmmakers and producers aren’t being forced into deals with streaming companies. They have a choice. There’s no evidence of Netflix and Amazon crowding out traditional distribution.
Even without knowing specifics on the deals, we should only assume that they’re choosing streaming deals because they are indeed better deals that offer some combination of better compensation, broader reach, or future opportunities. Ehrlich in his article points this out early on comparing Adam Leon’s first feature (a theatrical release) with his second (sold to Netflix for a much greater sum):
“Gimme the Loot” grossed $104,000; “Tramps” was reportedly sold for $2 million.—David Ehrlich
Perhaps most perplexing is that while both writers frame a pessimistic (or at least highly skeptical) view of the streaming platforms, nearly every filmmaker quoted in the articles seems pleased with their deals.
“I set out for this movie to be seen in the theater, and then that changed in a way that I’m totally OK with — and the partnership with Netflix has been so successful and so strong and I really respect them and love what they’re doing, especially this year with original films,” —Charlie McDowell (Director of The Discovery)
But hold on—let’s not get too carried away with this party just yet. While Netflix and Amazon are largely bringing positive opportunities, they have policies and implications that do hurt filmmakers.
Discovery will increasingly become an issue on streaming platforms. Their libraries of content will grow but the homepage will always be the same size. Discovery has become a major issue with music on iTunes and Spotify, apps on the App Store, and now for films and series on Netflix and Amazon. Indie filmmakers will need to rely on the same grassroots marketing they always have. But that only works if you can measure the impact of your efforts. Which leads us to…
The lack of transparency in viewership metrics is a problem and it hurts filmmakers. Sean spells it out well here:
Much like the television showrunners, network executives, and agents who have expressed concern over Netflix’s refusal to share internal viewing metrics, filmmakers now have to trust that the corporate steward that has funded their vision and delivered it via a locked service is helping expand their careers, and not limiting them. This is unprecedented. How do we define a hit director in this environment? Will we know a Spielberg when we see one?
Algorithms will increasingly rule the development process. Ideas will be increasingly judged and deals offered based on algorithmic predictions of reach and impact. Let me be clear, this is an issue regardless of where it’s a tech platform, major studio, or small distributor behind it. Everyone will use the best future-predictor they can. However, the tech companies are definitely better at this and will accelerate it across the industry. Those creators who know how to work within this quantified world will go further.
Yes, indie film, as we know it, is ending. The term “indie” is slowly taking on a new meaning—less the exhausting struggle to get work produced and seen and more the scale and personal aspect of the stories they tell. The past decade has been a fire that cleared the forest, and now new opportunities are sprouting for filmmakers willing to try things a bit differently. With competition heating up for great content and the incredible power streaming platforms are providing to get your work out to a global audience of hundreds of millions in an instant, I think we’re nearing the edge of a new vista for indie filmmakers that looks mighty good.