This Summer’s Cheapest Movies…

Posted August 26th, 2010 by Ben

The odd thing about the internet is people still treat it as if reverses normal logic, rather than magnifying it. This was one of the key problems behind the dotcom boom and, like radiation lingering long after the blast, echoes of this emotion are still with us today. That’s why I warned you at the outset that I wasn’t going to come any surprising or new revelations by examining the questions posed by online distribution. Putting films online doesn’t make unsaleable films suddenly appealing, nor does it change the way people approach art and entertainment.

People want to watch amazing films (shorts, features, fictions, documentary, animation, music video, unless otherwise stated from hereon I’m using films to mean the works). People are not only happy to pay for things they want, they prefer to. The things we need, like gas and pasta, that stuff we want as cheap as possible but the things we want, like strawberries and Inception, with that stuff we want to know we’re getting quality.

You don’t go to the cinema to see the cheapest movie. If you love a particular actor or genre or director (in that order) you may turn your attention to their budget price films but no one visits the bargain bin until they are seriously obsessed with cinema or shopping for presents for someone they hate. Films are entertainment and though we all find different things entertaining no one wants unentertaining entertainment. Some people are entertained by hilariously bad filmmaking, some people are entertained by examining an early film for faltering glimpses of future promise. Most people just want something well made that takes them out of themselves.

OK enough with the glaringly obvious, enough with the patronising finger wag. Well perhaps not quite because the entirely bankrupt model we have had for monetising film through the internet runs directly contrary to these obvious facts of life. Short films are a superlative example of this failure in operation but the British film industry as a whole seems half poised to head down the same crumbling path to futility and tedium and so whatever you are planning to make next I beg you to take a moment to think.

Lets look at shorts again. As I said yesterday, now that there finally is a perfect market place for the medium, the problem shorts face is that for years they’ve been made without a commercial purpose and consequently have grown up unmarketable. This hasn’t stopped them blossoming on the internet, but they’ve been handled as the toxic goods that they are and consequently remain the last chicken in the shop.

Films of all sizes have been online for a long time now but directly paying for them is a surprisingly new innovation. For an age it seemed like the only way to generate income through online distribution was to book end, or even break-up the film with advertising. This model seemed exciting because it suggested that revenue could be generated just by tempting people to click; it’d cost the viewer nothing but their passing interest would eventually translate into hard currency. This seemed perfect for shorts since it felt like a way of generating money out of something most people wouldn’t ever pay for. The lack of a groundswell of micro studios, self-supporting through the ad revenue generated by their million plus hits, suggests that short films aren’t even something most people want to casually click on to watch for free. Please do correct me with your own examples of break-even success but it seems to me that the Free Ad model has done nothing perpetuate the underlying problem – normal people think shorts suck.

By inherently accepting that shorts were not something people would pay for, this free-to-see model just encourages a viscous circle because stumbling upon a wealth of bad films always discourages anyone in their right mind from looking again. This is why I say long live iTunes for even bothering to put shorts in their shop. This is why I say all praise MiShorts for being one of the few places that recognises short films have a value. MiShorts is the best place on the internet for short films because rather than simply bombarding the visitor with shorts like penny sweets, their offering is intelligent, curated, detailed and encourages the visitor to fall in love with the films they can buy there.

This is important. For years filmmakers like have me have complained about the way the internet offered no distinction between the tiny slices of hand crafted joy that we’d created and wobbly videos of cats on skateboards. If great shorts – and there are many – are to reach the audience they deserve then we need to give them value. The first and simplest step in this process is not giving them away for free.

The harder, more important step is to think clearly about what the audience actually values – and what they don’t. Sadly these values tend to be the opposites of what directors and producers are proud of.

How often do you boast about how little your film was made for? How often do you talk about how new you are? How often do you talk about how hard you’ve struggled to make your film? How much do you talk about the struggle you’ve had in getting it put on anywhere? In the real world these are not especially powerful arguments for making people part with money, where what matters is cast and genre.

What the internet offers is a chance to sell direct to your audience – but it doesn’t change that audience. If I miss a film in the cinema I may catch it online rather than on DVD, some films I may happily let slip until they are online or on a disc, other films never reach a cinema near me and so I am only too excited to find them online and watch them… but these are all films I wanted to see. There aren’t films that I didn’t want to see that I’ll watch online because they’re cheap or well meaning.

The decision to axe the Film Council has created a healthy outpouring of talk about where our industry is heading. It’s clear that whoever is in charge of the money there is going to be less of it. It is also clear that with the rise and rise of affordable HD cameras with primes (I’m talking as much about the Red and the Alexa as the HD DSLRs from Canon and Nikon) this decline in budgets doesn’t necessarily force us into the ugly DV aesthetic of the last decade.

Online distribution, because it offers a way to reach an audience without fighting for space in cinemas, is always lurking in the back of these predictions as a way in which ultra-low budget indies can still fight their corner. I think there’s a lot of truth in this, it is a market with an amazing potential. But if you are forsaking the “calling-card” short film for the “calling-card” ultra-lowbudget first feature then think carefully about how you approach your audience. A slew of films that have nothing to recommend them save their cheapness and efficiency or the inexperience of their directors will sink without a trace whether they are released online or in every cinema in the world…

Short or long, fiction or documentary, if you want people to part with their money be proud of what you have created. Small budgets don’t have to mean small stories, it doesn’t have to be two men in a room moaning about films they’ve seen. The internet does not change the rules about what’s interesting – it magnifies them. If we are to take advantage of the opportunity that this moment brings then we have to be bold and unapologetic. Make films people want to watch, not films that merely feel affordable.

  1. Anonymous

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  2. zahra

    Nicely put, as always, my good man… We like cheap commodities, but certain things (like films) have a perceived quality and any old shit won’t do! That’s why Rule Number 1 is Don’t Suck! I think I wrote somewhere on Shooting People recently – that when you are talking to Joe or Jo Public – all they care about is that they have to pay the same to see a “risky” little British indie or to see shiny shiny Avatar!

    Now I don’t want to further belabour this point – but it’s a bit like McDonalds – no matter what anyone says about McDs… It doesn’t matter where you are in the world – what you see is what you get! I’m not for one second saying we should all make “McDonalds films” what I’m saying is – when customers or audiences buy anything (ie make a conscious decision to spend their money) they have an expectation of what they are buying – do we as filmmakers always fulfil that expectation with our projects? Now don’t bump your gums and say that Hollywood is often guilty of not meeting expectations, because that’s true – but it doesn’t make it relevant to us in indie world – for three reasons:

    1. Technically the Hollywood film will be 100% spot on (ie shiny shiny)
    2. They have a mega mega marketing budget and often are looking at a mega mega wide release over one weekend to make the bulk of their box office revenue.
    3. They have a production line of product and can absorb one or two flops – because shiny shiny Avatar is waiting to bail their asses out.

    So where does that leave us? The internet does allow us to connect with and sell directly to audiences – but as Charles pointed out, even with a clearly defined niche who are hungry for product, it can still be almost impossible to make ends meet. I think people will pay for content – I really don’t believe “We have a generation who want everything for free”… cause we never copied anything did we? Tape to tape decks anyone???

    The question is how to you monetise (and I know it’s a crass corporate word) but it’s true – how do you monetise content when there is no such thing as scarcity in the digital world?

    I don’t think anyone has all of the answers – the one given is “Don’t Suck” apart from that: read what people like Seth Godin, Clay Shirky and Gerd Leonhard are saying. Learn about the Long Tail and 1000 True Fans. Look up Ted Hope’s Truly Free Film (as in truly independent not “free”) and see that there is a ton of debate round this happening involving some very smart people. I DO believe you can make money online – I don’t think we will ever beat the pirates and DRM etc is definitely NOT the way to go – rather we should be aiming to compel our audiences to buy from us by offering something that the pirates can’t…

    Read “Think Outside The Box Office” and think about how you can connect your content with your audience – selling them a bunch of 1’s and 0’s via a download or DVD in an Amaray isn’t enough anymore!

  3. Jonathan Brind

    There used to be 20 cinemas where I live. Now there are none. When there were 20, one or two specialised in art house, or foreign language films. It is now harder to see these films in the cinema. The point about the internet is not that it turns the market upside down, simply that it removes distance. As a consequence the small market that used to be satisfied by one or two cinemas could now be transformed into an internet portal. Given the gargantuan size of the potential audience, even smaller niches can be profitably served. Of course, everyone realises that a lot of videos are made simply because people want to make films and video is cheap. But effectively removing the cost of distribution and making niche products available throughout most of the world, must change the nature of film watching and the economics of film making.

  4. Ben Blaine

    Hey Jonathan, thanks for taking the time to read my blog. Have you tried and Great online places to pay to see some of the best foreign, independent and art house feature film.

  5. Jonathan Brind

    Thanks Ben, I haven’t tried indiemoviesonline (and will give it a go) but joined theauteurs a while back. Had some technical problems. It gave up showing a film and then when I went back to it I had to start from the beginning again. Then it stopped again… Argh! Gave up. The BBC iPlayer seems to work much better (and it’s free).

    My main interest is documentaries, partly because I’m a news junkie and partly because that’s the sort of video I want to make. I’d like to see a video doc channel similar to these services. I appreciate there are lots of copyright problems but I can’t see why there couldn’t be a system whereby a percentage of the revenue is put aside to settle copyright claims (should there ever be any). If you want to see documentaries on the big screen you are mostly out of luck.

    The internet is the only way of satisfying demand for that sort of product since tv broadcasts only a very restricted type and style of doc and DVDs are too expensive (when you can get them) and too liable to go wrong.

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