Documentary filmmakers often struggle for years doing whatever it takes to finish our labors of love, only to find one roadblock after another thrown up between the completed work and the audience we know is out there.
Now comes the Internet, with its extraordinary power to target and reach potential viewers, as well as broadband, e-commerce, digital video projection, and interactive content, all approaching like a gale-wind hurricane. It’s fascinating to speculate whether these represent real hope or just another pipedream for the long-suffering indie documentarian.
The largely web-based distribution of my personal documentary about the web, Home Page, doesn’t make me an expert, but it has given me the chance to gain firsthand knowledge of the astonishing changes that new technologies are opening up for us. So here’s my forecast on a few distribution trends to anticipate and strategies to consider in the coming years:
There will be less reliance on traditional distributors as filmmakers start to self-distribute through the Web. Now that people can go to your website, click a button, and link to a secure online transaction form to buy your video, why do you need a home video distributor (especially one who could never get your doc into Blockbuster anyway)? Some day broadened bandwidth will allow you to simply download the film to paying customers. Until then, your new distribution partner could be anything from Amazon.com to WeSellAnything.com (or, hopefully soon, ThePlaceForDocs.com), but you’ll be keeping at least 45-70% of all sales after your fulfillment costs. Or, if you don’t mind the hassle, you can sell it yourself and keep it all.
It will be harder than ever to get theatrical distribution for your doc. It’s not just a matter of a product glut, or a dearth of risk-taking indie distributors, or the death of 16mm as an exhibition medium. The simple hard truth is that audiences have never shown much inclination to plunk down their hard-earned money to see documentaries in a theater. In the convergence era, before you sign that seven-year deal with a smaller distributor, think long and hard about whether a week-long showing in a dozen cities to half-empty theaters is worth giving up your television, video, and broadband rights for.
Festivals will become more critical than ever. In the future, when everyone’s a mediamaker and everyone’s a self-distributor, the biggest challenge will be to somehow distinguish your masterpiece from the masses. With theatrical possibilities so scarce, the validation of certain prestigious festivals, and the reviews, articles, and industry attention they generate, will grow increasingly important. (But pity the poor, inundated festival programmers.)
Internet self-distribution will necessitate a return to grassroots marketing. What’s the most effective way for people to find out about your film? Try good, old-fashioned, grassroots audience-building. You’ll want to put up a web site early in the filmmaking process and use the web to search out and connect with your communities of interest. You can provide useful, compelling content on your website beyond just promotion for your film, such as complete transcripts of interviews and links to resources and information on your subject matter. I strongly suggest gathering every pertinent email you receive over the course of production and compiling an email list that you update regularly. (Sites like egroups.com and listbot.com offer powerful and free mailing list services that even allow for discussions between subscribers to your list.) Once the press starts writing about your film, you’ll want to post the articles. You get the idea. It all leads to that final, magical link on your site: "Click here to order the video or DVD."
You will have a much more interactive relationship with your audience. Within days of the Home Page broadcast on the French/ German channel Arte, I received hundreds of heartfelt emails from all over Europe. Most appreciated the film, but even more appreciated the fact that they could directly contact the director and main characters so easily ("I see you just in my TV!" proclaimed one of my favorites). Feedback won’t just be reserved for when the film is finished, however, but will be a by-product of making your entire filmmaking process more public and inclusive. You can allow visitors to stream clips or a trailer or your work-in-progress sample and solicit their reactions. If you need help or advice, you can put out a notice. When it’s time to let the world know about public exhibitions, you’ll turn to your mailing list to help spread the word.
Distribution in the digital era may not lead to greater riches or fame, but then that’s not why we became documentary filmmakers in the first place. For the savvy producer who is open to different distribution paradigms, open to lowering expectations for theatrical release, open to working very hard, and open to the possibilities of the Internet, new opportunities abound.
PBS will start an e-commerce site and demand exclusive Internet rights for the documentaries they fund. Filmmakers will howl in protest and run to their nearest congressperson. Just kidding! Or am I? Sometimes, the more things change . . . .