Today, marketing and selling digital or digitised films online no longer poses any major technical problems, as filmmakers can draw on their experience with video and submission platforms. Tools for offering films via Internet protocol are widely available.
In the meantime, there are also companies that specialize in this field, and platforms that offer the various services required, while pursuing a range of different concepts. From do-it-yourself to full service, a variety of options now present themselves for self-distribution of short films on the Internet.
The first step: the digital portfolio
The simplest form of online marketing is setting up one’s own website. Many filmmakers are already taking advantage of this opportunity and have set up their own websites where they present themselves and their works. Typically, these web pages consist of a list of films with synopsis, crew, and photos or trailer – along with a biography and list of festival participations. Sometimes, reviews of the films are also included, along with awards received and other references.
This is basically a digital version of a model’s look book, or the portfolio artists use to present their work. The filmmaker shows his accumulated films and hopes that someone will be interested. Such a website is however only the first step to a sale. The filmmaker won’t want to offer the Internet public much more than a trailer or a low-resolution version of a film as teaser. If someone is interested, the author has to then be able to transmit his film to the buyer in good quality.
Putting a full-length film on one’s own homepage or even on YouTube might be a good promotional tool, but it is counterproductive to any professional sales and usually of unsatisfactory technical quality as well. A more elegant option for keeping a film at the ready for potential buyers is to save it on a remote cloud computing server. This takes the burden off the filmmaker’s own server and allows him to control access via encryption, granting it only as needed. Anyone who finds this too time-consuming or costly can outsource the transmission process completely: just like courier services in the real world, media express companies offer digital delivery and its management as service.
A more far-reaching option is offered by sales platforms such as CreateSpace, where films can be made available for download or as DVD-on-Demand at prices set by their authors. The platform operator takes care of delivery and invoicing – for a percentage-based commission. As CreateSpace is a subsidiary of Amazon, filmmakers using this platform also benefit from having their works automatically listed with the parent company and with affiliate IMDb.
This new kind of online sales platform skips the distribution or sales steps in the traditional commercialisation chain. The filmmaker can reach potential end-users directly without having to rely on a third party. The disadvantage is that films sold this way do not reach the industry. Furthermore, many filmmakers do not want to, or do not have the time to, work “˜on the side’ as their own marketing agency. But in this case as well, professional assistance can be had online.
An in-between stage between self-marketing and contract sales is offered by platforms without active sales, but which are well-networked with the film scene and film industry. These are often festival submission platforms, which are just beginning to discover this sector as a new field of business and are implementing film market functions.
This is the direction in which, for example, Withoutabox is headed, not on its own, but by forwarding films to the above-mentioned CreateSpace. Both companies are part of the Amazon Group. These industry giants – CreateSpace also sells eBooks for major publishers – are probably more of interest for direct sales of mainstream films on DVD. Whether independently produced and artistic short films can also profit from the long-tail effect of offerings by the Amazon Group companies remains to be seen.
Among the platforms specializing in short film, one option in Germany (but with an international reach) is Reelport. This submission platform offers a separate area for the film trade. For Reelport itself, this presents an opportunity to derive added value from the cost and effort of storing the steadily growing pool of thousands of festival preview prints. For buyers, the large selection and search functions provided by such platforms are a boon. And for filmmakers who already use Reelport to submit their films to festivals, it takes no additional effort to speak of to then also offer the film for sale in the virtual film market. As additional service, Reelport can negotiate film rights with the buyer on behalf of its author. One drawback on Reelport is that the presentation of a film or portfolio is limited by the platform’s own style guidelines.
Spotrights in Japan works in a similar way. Spotrights.jp is the only online film market in that country, having developed out of the film market at the Sapporo Short Film Festival. By now, the platform manages over 6,000 titles – far more than the number submitted to the festival in Sapporo. On this platform, filmmakers can manage their portfolio themselves with the aid of administration tools. Similar to Reelport, Spotrights also handles festival submissions. Buyers for their part can research and preview films online, find out about the rights and contact the authors. Moreover, Spotrights offers personal advice in negotiations with Japanese filmmakers. The platform specializes in films made in Japan and other Asian countries, but is also open to international films.
On the way to becoming a full-service sales platform
The latest trend involves specialized platforms that, unlike the database-like submission platforms, offer more refined and customized presentation options. A pioneer on this front is the Australian filmmaker Andrew Goode with his company Short Film Central. Already online for some time, the platform has evolved steadily over the years. Filmmakers can upload their portfolio and establish pricing, licensing terms and the distribution mode for their films as they see fit. The platform has contacts and interfaces with festivals, buyers, producers and distributors. Short Film Central also offers direct sale of DVDs. All sales are invoiced and monitored by Short Film Central, but the filmmaker himself is responsible for fulfilment.
Ouat Media takes things a step further still. Founded in 2006 in Toronto, Canada, the company describes itself as a multi-platform content aggregator. Already involved in sales for a long time as its main line of business, Ouat Media provides active support in the sale of films. As a content aggregator, the company avails itself not only of the “˜classic’ channels such as cinema and television, but also of the new markets in the Internet and mobile media sector. In contrast with most of the above-named platforms, however, filmmakers submit their film and Ouat Media then decides whether it is of interest for distribution. Once accepted, this selectivity can be advantageous for the film, seeing as buyers have more confidence in such enterprises than in platforms where every film is automatically accepted. Ouat Media thus works with the classic distribution model and is not a self-marketing platform. Among the whole spectrum of possibilities, this model is at the farthest remove from do-it-yourself distribution.
In many countries, not only businesses but also non-commercial initiatives and organizations are coming out with online distribution schemes. Many of these are still in their infancy, such as Marvin&Wayne in Spain. Other projects, some of them initiated by filmmakers and film groups, are just coming together as of this writing.
Instead of waiting in vain for the ideal online distribution platform for short films, one alternative is to combine the services of different platforms. Along these lines, there have already been many interesting initiatives that cover both technical and content-related needs and can be used in modular fashion for the online distribution of short films.
In Germany and Europe, for example, there are a few projects that make use of services offered by Onlinefilm AG. One of the projects launched with the help of Onlinefilm AG is Arabshorts.net (see our Report, March 2010). Also in development is a web page that will be embedded in the website of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen where films shown at the festival will be made available as video-on-demand selections.
Onlinefilm AG originally came about as an initiative of the German Arbeitsgemeinschaft Dokumentarfilm (Documentary Film Association), with the aim of supporting the spread of German documentaries. Onlinefilm AG cooperates with the German culture server, which, by the way, also offers a public, open, film database in its culture portal. Software modules (“CultureBase”) have been developed for the culture server in cooperation with Onlinefilm AG, among them modules that allow administration by the user himself. This means that open presentation platforms can be set up for projects with editorially defined content, or closed areas created for the B2B sector alone.
In many places, platforms are under development that specialize in other areas of film distribution. In Vienna, for example, the community platform Filmtiki is being created to specialize in online mediation between filmmakers and audience, as well as project financing and DIY marketing. At its core is an online diagnostic tool for determining the best online and offline marketing and distribution channels for a film.
More possibilities, but also more time and effort
One advantage of digitisation is the option it gives filmmakers and producers to override traditional distribution structures and exercise control over the distribution of their films – just as they have creative control over the films’ production. However, self-distribution is not easy, and it requires a great deal of work.
In view of the variety of distribution channels today, the diverse target groups and the constantly changing technical possibilities, individual producers and filmmakers are best advised to make use of a combination of different distribution channels and partners. A good starting point for developing a suitable strategy is to first look at the typical rights categories individually, which in turn correspond to specific sub-markets. A distinction is usually made between theatrical rights (commercial and non-commercial), television, DVD and VOD, and streaming. A separate, specialized sales partner could be chosen for each of these areas. The prerequisite is of course that exclusive territorial and sectoral rights are not granted to a single partner. Areas the filmmaker is less familiar with can then be entrusted to professional distributors.
There are also some technical hurdles to be overcome. Each of the above-named licensing areas has its specific technical norms and quality standards. For example, a resolution of 720 pixels is sufficient for distribution on DVD or via Internet streaming but not for Blu-Ray. And resolution is only one parameter among many when it comes to digitisation. Also to be considered are diverse demands with respect to compression codecs or bit depth. Technical advances are only helpful when one knows how to make optimal use of them.
Much more exacting specifications than with DVD or VOD are entailed by television and theatrical release. Even if a filmmaker uses one of the above-named professional servers or platforms, he should be at least sufficiently familiar with the technical parameters to be able to judge whether the bandwidth, digitisation quality, applied codecs etc. offered there are adequate and correspond with the technical state of the art. As one and the same film can be released in various formats, the effort required is considerable.
In the low-budget and short-film field, digital self-distribution – with technical support from the corresponding platforms – is likely to make the most sense for direct sales as electronic sell-through (download-to-burn or VOD), because in direct sales the margin is higher, i.e. a greater share of the revenues ends up in the filmmaker’s pocket than it would if a middleman were involved. In this channel, it is also possible for a filmmaker to market his films to a specific target group, hence avoiding wasted marketing efforts.
Structural change in classic sales as well
Do-it-yourself distribution is occasionally celebrated as the democratisation of film sales. Still, it is easy to forget that there are some good reasons for the hierarchical structure and division of labour in the traditional film business. After all, marketing films successfully calls for detailed market knowledge and good industry contacts, both of which not every filmmaker can acquire in passing.
But even if a filmmaker takes advantage of traditional distribution, it doesn’t mean he has to forego digital channels. Naturally, distributors that are not open to self-marketing and self-distribution also make use of digital technologies these days. The Hamburg Short Film Agency, for instance, has set up an online distribution database which offers in a public area films as download-to-burn, while in the distribution section cinemas are offered Digital Cinema Packages that can be sent to hard drives or downloaded (see also our report on the corresponding activities by the Agence du court-métrage in France).
The days when a film is finished once it has been delivered to the laboratory and is ready to be screened everywhere once it leaves their premises are over for good.
Some links on the theme (their naming here does not constitute a business recommendation 😉
- CultureBase Software-Suite
- Filmbuff (Cinetic)
- Kulturserver Videothek
- Onlinefilm AG
- Ouat! Media
- Short Film Central
This text is based on an article that was published in the AG Kurzfilm’s 2010 Short Report.