At last March's South by Southwest Film Festival, Brian Knappenberger was living the dream of the struggling independent filmmaker. His documentary feature, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, was coming off of a buzzed-about premiere at Slamdance, and screenings at SXSW were helping him establish a momentum that could bring his film to the sort of audiences that documentarians fantasize about. "Without naming names, we had some really good offers, and a lot of interest in the film," Knappenberger recalls. "Big, traditional offers."
He turned them all down. Instead, Knappenberger took We Are Legion to the digital release company FilmBuff and opted to distribute the film online and via video-on-demand (VOD) services. It was a move that, just a few years earlier, wouldn't just have been seen as risky – it would have been impossible. FilmBuff, which helped pioneer the VOD business model, didn't even exist until 2007. "All of the bigger, more traditional offers that we had came with drawbacks that we didn't like," Knappenberger explains. "They were kind of painful to turn down, but there were restrictions on digital release. People wanted some kind of exclusivity there, or had a platform that didn't make sense. Those decisions sent us on a path of independent distribution."
The decision worked for Knappenberger. Steve Beckman, head of acquisitions at FilmBuff, gushes about how We Are Legion has done on the service. "That film's been working for a lot of reasons. The storytelling and narrative is really tremendous," Beckman says. "We've been having a lot of fun with it."
While it makes sense that a film like We Are Legion, which deals with the "hacktivist" collective Anonymous, would do well when distributed digitally – its target audience is pretty comfortable watching things on laptops and is likely to be savvy with television-based devices like Roku and Apple TV – it's not just niche, tech-oriented fare that's succeeding on VOD. There may be no more traditionalist an institution in the United States than the Dallas Cowboys, but America's Parking Lot, Austin filmmaker Jonny Mars' 2012 documentary about Cowboys fans, is finding its audience thanks to its deal with FilmBuff. And where Knappenberger decided to use digital distribution as a way to work outside of the industry, Mars has used it to attract its attention.
"VOD has allowed us to get in front of the industry," Mars says of America's Parking Lot, which was recently acquired for broadcast distribution by ESPN. "It's allowed independent cinema to court the industry in a much more valid way than they ever have before."
At a time when audiences are increasingly vocal about their boredom with the sequel/remake bent of Hollywood, the industry seems like it could use some independent spirit. VOD puts films like We Are Legion and America's Parking Lot right into people's homes, alongside the usual blockbusters they've seen before.
The terms "VOD" and "video-on-demand" are used as catchall phrases that describe something that's more significant – especially to independent filmmakers – than it might seem at initial blush. VOD is a marketplace for their work that has never existed before. It includes subscription-based services like Netflix, ad-supported sites like Hulu, and pay-per-rental/purchase models like iTunes, as well as the on-demand services offered by cable and satellite providers.
Before the existence of VOD, most independent filmmakers knew that most audiences would never see their film. (And, conversely, most audiences knew they'd never get a shot at seeing the vast majority of films playing at far-flung festivals.) The success that indie filmmakers could realistically hope for wasn't a theatrical release for their movie, but enough interest from the industry after a festival run that perhaps they'd be given the chance to make a second film with a little bit more money behind it.
VOD creates a marketplace for those films to live after their festival runs; anyone with an Internet connection can recreate the lineup of a lot of festivals from their couch. Some of the most talked-about films from last year's SXSW lineup – Iron Sky, Sleepwalk With Me, Compliance, John Dies at the End, King Kelly – are all available right now to watch on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Instant, or other services. The effect that can have on both filmmakers who are desperately seeking an audience and on fans – particularly in parts of the country that don't have access to films outside of the mainstream – can't really be overstated.
"VOD is a game-changer for independent filmmakers," FilmBuff's Beckman says. "You're instantly reaching everybody with an Internet connection. The potential audience for your film is tremendous, and the costs involved to reach a nationwide audience are far lower [than before]."
The game-changing nature of VOD is something that Jonny Mars recognizes, as well. While America's Parking Lot was his first feature as a director, his list of credits as a producer and actor is extensive, and Mars knew the depressing cycle for independent filmmakers after their festival debut well. "I feel like without VOD, you're kind of just hungover," Mars says. "You wake up in your room surrounded by boxes of DVDs, and you figure out what you're gonna do next. Probably go interview to be a postman. 'How am I gonna pay off these credit cards?' VOD drags that out. It gives you more of a chance to pay off those credit cards. More of a chance to generate more press. VOD is only extending the life of an independent film. Before, all we had was the festival circuit, or whatever four-walling we could do."
Four-walling – renting a theatre to screen your movie – has long been a part of being an independent filmmaker. But it makes less sense in an era where the big screen is no longer seen (at least by audiences) as essential to the movie-watching experience. "You have to listen to consumers," Mars says. "Apparently people want to watch movies at home on their television."
That seems to be true, and it raises a question: With a wider audience finally able to watch what they make, do independent filmmakers have an opportunity to take risks and make better movies than ever?
Berndt Mader spends a lot of time thinking about how to reach that audience these days. Mader, an Austin filmmaker whose feature debut, 5 Time Champion, premiered at SXSW 2011 and took home the Texas Filmmaker Award at that year's Dallas International Film Festival, has seen his film do well on VOD – and he recognizes that finding a way to innovate is the key to reaching the audience he's after.
"This has been a real education," he says. "The whole landscape is shifting, and instead of being bummed out about it, as filmmakers, if you want to keep making films, you have to embrace it. What's working out there right now? The crazier your movie seems on paper, it's usually an indication that people will pay attention. You don't have to have stars, you just have to do something wild." Mader cites Beasts of the Southern Wild and Bellflower as independent films that found their audience by impressing them with innovation, both of which saw theatrical distribution in addition to their success on VOD.
Mars agrees. "What's great about these lower-tier budgets for filmmaking is that this is where you take risks. Filmmakers are able to take risks now and still have the opportunity to find your audience, and still have the opportunity to pay back an investor." He suspects that costs will have to go down for that to be a viable model – "The sweet spot is $75,000," Mars says – but filmmakers are excited about the idea of innovation as a driving force in a stale industry. That's something that doesn't just benefit filmmakers, either – the real payoff there is for audiences. When a movie like We Are Legion, or America's Parking Lot, or 5 Time Champion is available to watch in your house alongside the Total Recalls and Red Dawns, people looking for a movie to watch might well pick the independent film on its merits alone.
"That's what we need," Knappenberger says of the VOD model, where the same button you push to watch a studio picture can also take you to a film like his. "We need independent filmmaking. We need independent journalism. The traditional landscape is broken. Hollywood is focused on blockbusters and sequels. We desperately need a middle-ground filmmaker who's able to sustain. Absolutely VOD is an exciting way for those filmmakers to make money, and then make more and more films, that hopefully are interesting and provocative and relevant to people."
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