Choosing the Best Distribution Platform for Your Film

May 4, 2016

By Aimee Baldridge

So you’ve shot your film, spent countless hours in postproduction, and triumphantly screened your final cut. Now all you need to do is find out which streaming platform pays the most and you can get it up there so that the public can fall in love with your chef d’oeuvre, right?

Not exactly.

As with every aspect of filmmaking in our nascent digital age, there are more options than ever for distributing your film, but there’s also a complicated landscape to navigate and many pitfalls to avoid. “Back in the day, it was a lot easier because there were fewer filmmakers trying to get their films seen,” says filmmaker Ash Patiño. “Now you have the online world, which has brought a whole different ability for filmmakers to get their products seen, but it’s still extremely difficult.”

One of the most accessible and potentially lucrative ways of distributing an independent film these days is to get it accepted by an online video-on-demand (VOD) outlet like Amazon, Netflix or iTunes. But figuring out which ones will benefit your film the most isn’t just a matter of comparing their rates and sending your film off to the outlet with the highest numbers. “Sometimes different films do better on different platforms, so you can’t make that generalization,” explains Linda Nelson, co-founder of Indie Rights, a distributor that specializes in helping independent filmmakers get their films onto VOD platforms.

Factors that play into a film’s earning power on any given VOD platform can include not only how popular the outlet is and what rates it pays, but how large a fan base the film already has, whether popular actors appear in it, whether the film’s genre is of particular interest to the VOD outlet’s users, and whether the film has been released elsewhere. A film might garner a higher rate on a given VOD platform if it has had a limited theatrical release or a lower rate if it’s already available on DVD.

“If you already have a huge fan base that you can leverage, then you’d probably want to send that fan base to the place where you’d get the biggest margin,” says distribution consultant Jason Brubaker. “In that situation I might advise iTunes, which pays a pretty good margin, or I might advise Amazon.” The standard revenue sharing deal for iTunes is a 70 percent (for you) / 30 percent (for them) split for sales and 60/40 for rentals; Amazon offers a 60/40 split for its standard rentals.

Those rates, combined with the huge user bases of the platforms, make iTunes and Amazon two of the options with the most earning potential. Both are “transactional VOD” (TVOD) options, which means that viewers pay for each film rental or purchase separately instead of paying a subscription fee. “The most basic release strategy is to go transactional first, because you’ll maximize your revenue with transactional,” says Brubaker.

Subscription VOD (SVOD) platforms are usually less appealing for filmmakers, because they tend to pay less. One of the best options for independent filmmakers is Amazon Prime, which pays a few cents per stream and can add up to a significant revenue source for films that build an audience. Hulu Plus also pays per stream, although that service’s more curatorial approach means that films are often available for only a limited period.

Not all SVOD outlets are as attractive. “Netflix pay is horrible for independent films with no names in them,” says Nelson. “They’re the only ones that pay a low flat annual fee. If you have a no-name indie drama, they might offer you $1,200 a year.” What’s more, she says, having your film on Netflix cuts into revenue from other VODs and makes your film unattractive for other types of distribution. “You kill any chance of a broadcast deal,” she notes.

Ad-based VOD (AVOD) platforms offered by sites like YouTube and Hulu let viewers watch films for free with commercial breaks, and represent a third VOD option. While they’re not a distribution priority, they can potentially boost the revenues of movies that have been languishing on TVOD or SVOD platforms. The typical revenue sharing structure may pay content owners just a few cents according to the number of ads viewed, but that can add up on a site with a very large user base.

While the hierarchy of VOD types provides a useful rule of thumb to which pay the most, the rates they pay aren’t always written in stone. “Typically, if a platform wants your content, it becomes a conversation between human beings, and there are things you can probably negotiate for, depending on how much they want it,” says Brubaker.

There are also numerous VOD platforms with smaller user bases than the top contenders that might offer a lucrative deal for a film of special interest to their audience or give a film more prominent placement on their site. Some small, curated platforms offer attractive revenue sharing schemes, like IndieFlix’s 70/30 split, although even with a solid social media marketing effort, they don’t have the potential audience of the large sites. To earn the kind of revenue you need to help support your filmmaking, getting your work onto the major VOD platforms is more important.

But figuring out which VOD platforms you’d like to pursue is only half the battle. The share of revenues you receive also depends on the distributor or aggregator you hire to get your film onto the major platforms. While some small, curated VOD sites accept direct submissions from filmmakers, the big ones generally don’t.

Each of those platforms requires films to be encoded and delivered according to different specifications, and the most barebones aggregators will handle this task for a flat fee per platform, usually in the range of $1,000 to $1,600. The fee also typically covers some initial quality control measures to ensure that the film isn’t rejected for technical reasons, as well as ongoing quarterly reporting on film revenues. Distribber, Quiver Digital, and The Film Collaborative are among the most prominent examples of that type of aggregator.

For filmmakers who want more than barebones aggregation, it makes sense to pay for a reputable distributor. Those companies usually take a commission on revenues. Nelson’s company, Indie Rights, takes a 20 percent commission, doesn’t tack on expenses, and gives filmmakers the option to renew or cancel their contract after three years. For the money, filmmakers not only get their films delivered to platforms, but receive guidance on marketing and distribution strategies.

“We coach our filmmakers,” says Nelson. “We have a private group on Facebook that all our filmmakers belong to, and we help each other. We write reviews for each other, we share marketing best practices, and if you’re in LA, we sometimes have workshops in our office.” Indie Rights also pursues theatrical, DVD, and international distribution for clients in addition to VOD. Distributors deliver films to multiple VOD platforms and may sometimes be able to negotiate a more favorable deal than the standard rate.

Filmmakers should vet potential distributors carefully. “Go on IMDBPro and find the distributor you’re considering working with,” says Nelson. “Look at their list of films. Pick five that have been with that distributor for at least two years, because it takes a year to get stuff up on most platforms and another year to make sure you’re getting all the reporting.” Nelson recommends contacting those filmmakers to ask if their distributor reliably issues quarterly reports and payments and is easy to reach by phone or e-mail. Patiño also recommends digging up information on distributors in places where filmmakers gather. “I find that there’s a lot of good content on film forums and any film collective that you have in your area,” she says.

For those who take the term “independent” filmmaker seriously (or just can’t get their film accepted by other VOD platforms), there is a final, frugal option: DIY VOD. To put your film on do-it-yourself platforms like Vimeo On Demand and VHX, you don’t need a distributor, an aggregator, or even permission from the platform, and there’s nothing to pay beyond maybe a small membership fee. You can price your films however you like, and the revenue split is roughly 90/10.

Of course, there’s a catch: No quality control or big commercial films on DIY platforms means there are fewer viewers, and they won’t do much to get your film in front of an audience. “If you’re going to release a film on Vimeo,” says Brubaker, “you should be prepared to drive as much traffic as you possibly can from your own website.” But if your fans are restless and you just can’t wait, you probably won’t do your film’s prospects any harm by going DIY. Who knows: You might even make a few bucks.

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