Year after year, independent film is spurred forward by the vision, hope and hard work of thousands of creative artists. And, unlike the music and publishing industries, where indie content creators have embraced digital distribution avenues like iTunes, Amazon, BandCamp and SoundCloud, non-digital discovery still reigns supreme in the festival-centric world of independent film. Or does it?
A revolution (or, dare we say, web-olution) is steadily building momentum, one with the potential to spread financial sustainability to a much larger population of indie video and TV creators. The internet, long the domain of social networking, file-sharing and cute animal videos, is increasingly providing structured opportunities for filmmakers, screenwriters, actors/actresses and other content producers to capture legitimate money and exposure for their talents, particularly with shorts and made-for-web series.
One reason more aspiring filmmakers are focusing their energies on the web are the current economics of indie filmmaking. Although the motion picture industry is a $10 billion annual market, nine out of every ten of those dollars goes to Hollywood, leaving about $1 billion for the indies. Although this seems pretty positive on the surface, the reality is that typically 20-25% of that $1 billion yearly opportunity goes to projects like “Black Swan” and “Little Miss Sunshine” – perfectly legitimate indie films, but ones backed by big-name stars and multi-million dollar marketing budgets. Take what’s left over and if you divide that $800,000 by the number of submissions received by only Sundance, Tribeca and the Nashville, New York and Seattle film festivals, it amounts to less than $25,000 per film. In fact, statistically, the odds of an indie filmmaker breaking even on a feature investment through conventional distribution channels is roughly 0.1%. Despite the prestige a film festival short-listing can bring, it’s hard to like those odds no matter how visionary your work is.
Plus, if you compare 1.3 billion annual box office movie ticket sales against 10 billion yearly, unique YouTube views and 30 million Netflix subscribers, the web starts looking like an appealing Plan B – particularly when distribution barriers to entry are so much lower. Not only that, but while traditional TV viewing has flat-lined, watching digital entertainment through smart TV’s, video game consoles, computers, tablets and mobile phones is currently seeing circa-50% year-over-year growth rates.
So why hasn’t the vaunted Web-olution come even further? In part, it’s because old habits die hard. A second factor is the fact that the financial landscape for indie entertainment creators is still highly immature. If you’ve got a viral hit show or short on your hands, you might be able to cover your production budget solely on ad placements over your work. However, for most film professionals looking to transition into web shorts, it takes time and effort to build the fan-base and brand-relationships that enable filmmakers to earn a consistent living, a roadmap our company, ZoomTilt, has been working hard to lay groundwork for. There are already some great partnership networks out there for established YouTube video blog superstars with big followings, like Maker Studios and Fullscreen, but there are a lot less options for original web TV shows and aspiring indie entertainment creators. Third, the web is a different entertainment medium, one where audiences are fragmented, attention spans are typically shorter, it takes more differentiation to stand-out and the format biases certain genres and viewer demographics.
But that doesn’t mean the change isn’t coming. Mark Suster, a prominent California-based VC at GRP Partners, has famously proclaimed “the future of the internet is television.” Although ZoomTilt is only in its first year, based on the traction, momentum, feedback and market-research we’ve already been a part of, we couldn’t agree more, and are excited to be helping to lead the charge.