Where should we put our films?
There’s no easy answer for what to do with your indie film when it’s done. Not even a decade ago, the only answer would have been to try to get aboard the indie film festival circuit. Otherwise, hope you’ve got a hit and the skill to promote your film to commercial film producers.
Since then, the internet has facilitated a lot more potential options. But, to the surprise of no one familiar with it, the internet is fast-moving and trends don’t stick. If I was writing this article in 2012, I’d be singing the praises of platforms like YouTube, Netflix and Amazon Video. Platforms where you can not only attract a large audience, but actually make a profit on!!
Unfortunately, it’s not 2012 anymore
The online market for video platforms has been a rapidly shifting game the past couple of years. Here, we’re taking a look at the players and assess where they’re standing in 2018.
YouTube: The Problems with being Ad-Supported
YouTube holds an impressively massive database of videos. It’s a brilliant resource for watching content for education, inspiration and of course, procrastination. That said, the time when a creative could look to YouTube as a platform where they could reach thousands, if not millions, of people and make money doing it, has long passed. The advertisers, that made YouTube what it was, have vanished.
Last year it came to light that groups were using the platform as a way to promote terrorism; and these videos were being monetised. Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, the biggest creator on the platform, also made a target of himself last year with a move away from PC-content. One video, in particular, drew backlash as it included men he had paid to hold a sign which read “Death to all Jews.” Felix, as a result, lost his partnership with Disney’s Maker Studios and his YouTube Red series (which viewers would have had to pay for) was cancelled.
YouTube advertisers have become aware that oftentimes their brand gets attached to videos which they don’t know or control the content of. February 2017 saw many advertisers pull out of YouTube entirely. As most YouTubers only get paid based on how many thousand ads get viewed, it followed that creators started reporting up to 99% revenue loses.
Even now, while most of the dust has cleared, creators are still reporting losses as high as 60%, compared to their revenue before the fallout.
Unfortunately, this has been delivered with its own caveats. There is no practical way that YouTube can employ humans to watch every video that’s uploaded to their site. 300 hours’ worth of videos get uploaded to YouTube every minute.
How do they attempt to moderate content now?
With robots, of course!
Keywords in dialogue or images shown in the video are now sourced as reason to pick out why a video should not receive monetisation. Anything to keep the advertisers happy. Filmmakers on YouTube now carefully have to consider how their content will do against the reaction, not from a target audience, but an automated machine.
As a creator, one of the last things you want is to be censored or stifled in a way that undermines your message. For a filmmaker, sure, there will always be issues with producers and budgeting that mean certain ideas fall to the cutting floor. But at that point, your project(s) is still being made. In all likelihood, if your film was picked up in the first place, the majority of the core values are going to be kept intact.
Jamie Byrne, director of creators and enterprise at YouTube, defended these new guidelines, saying: “For creators to flourish on our platform, we need an incredibly strong advertising community engaged on YouTube as well.” The reality that Byrne seems reluctant to admit, is that the freedom to express just about anything, and make money from doing so has hit incredibly rocky ground.
Don’t worry, it’s not like 1984; it’s far too capitalist for that!
One of YouTube’s new criteria is “sensitive material,” which can range from natural disasters to guns or self-harm. It’s hard to blame YouTube; they’re simply trying to keep afloat in all this. That said, it’s much easier to criticise their algorithms when YouTube lets its largest corporate content creators get away with the very thing that it criticises its independent creators for. On October 2nd, Casey Neistat posted a video titled “LET’S HELP THE VICTIMS OF THE LAS VEGAS ATTACK’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfZvSS_f254) which supplied a link to a fundraiser, also initially monetised with the intent to have the money donated to the cause as well.
The video, which only shows Casey, in his room, talking to the camera, was demonitised for having a topic about a tragedy. What might have been an annoying catch-22 situation then worsened when another creator, Philip DeFranco, pointed out how a video uploaded by the Jimmy Kimmel Live account was talking about the exact same issues but remained monetised. https://twitter.com/phillyd/status/916132444662751259?lang=e
Over the last 13 years since its founding, YouTube has transitioned from a platform which allowed anyone with a camera phone to upload their home videos to a platform that has become intrinsically linked to corporate media’s promotion of film trailers, music videos and talk-show segments. Animators on YouTube have already had to deal with the faults of YouTube’s revenue algorithm. For years now, they’ve been vocal about the algorithm favouring longer videos, of which they don’t have the time, money or workforce needed to produce.
Animators are part of a dying breed of YouTubers who still upload to the platform out of passion and a desire to share their work with the world. For the last couple years, money and YouTube have been synonymous in the minds of many young people. If you grew up in the generation when it’s only now you have the skills to produce professional content, you might find yourself feeling cheated.
The success of filmmaking on a non-traditional platform is over
It suddenly seems there’s no other option than to throw yourself into the industry that YouTube provided a momentary salvation from. The likes of corporate, commercial and ‘filmmaking by numbers’ in order to earn your keep – regardless of your ‘YouTuber Filmmaking Career’ you had planned back in school. Of course, it’s a good reminder that YouTube is not deleting these videos or refusing to promote the channels entirely. They’re simply not being monetised properly.
Although, recent events, expose that might be subject to change. Learning from the events of last year, YouTube has made clear their intent for stricter policing going forward. Ariel Bardin, Vice President of Production Management at YouTube, released a statement saying: “When one creator does something particularly blatant- like conducts a heinous prank where people are traumatized or sensationalizes the pain of others in an attempt to gain views or subscribers – it can cause lasting damage to the community, including viewers, creators and the outside world.”
This February, Logan Paul, returning from a very brief hiatus after his video in which he laughed at the body of a suicide victim earned him worldwide backlash, uploaded another video in which he tasered dead rats, among other acts of animal cruelty. Since then, Logan Paul’s channel has had its ability to serve ads suspended, for a short time. Currently, Logan’s channel is on a 90-day probation. For now, it doesn’t have the eligibility to be recommended on the site or appear in the “Trending” section.
It’s questionable how much of an effect this will have on the content produced by Logan but it sets a precedent for other creators. Both for good and ill. On the one hand, YouTube is showing some tough-love, at long last. On the other, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki made it clear at a Code Media Conference that Logan had not done enough wrong to have his account deleted.
As an aside, Logan Paul’s channel has over 17M subscribers and his videos average between 3-5M views each. Without much of a means for comparison, it’s hard to say if YouTube will be showing the same leniency to some of its less popular creators. With these new authoritarian powers, necessary or not, it sucks for the rest of us.
With the death of monetisation on this platform, aptly named the Adpocalypse, its biggest victims are its filmmakers. Where vloggers still have the ad-hoc edit control to their DIY content. Gamers may switch to platforms like Twitch – gaining revenue for broadcasting the playing of video games. And yet, still, indie filmmakers have no respite.
There are more platforms than just YouTube but perhaps none that fill the same void.
When speaking of alternatives for filmmakers, which have the same kind of mass appeal as YouTube, there isn’t really much choice of digital platforms, aside from those well-nestled within the gates of the corporate media. That is, if you want a global audience and not to use a location-limited service, such as New Zealand’s Neon. Which you do.
Vine, which became the largest platform supporting creative short-form videos, rather than the social media appendage it was designed to be, was shut down by its parent company Twitter last year, January 17th. Since then, Instagram has managed to pick up some of the slack but the majority of online content creators, which Vine helped to launch to success, retreated to YouTube to be almost immediately met with the Adpocalypse. Now, Instagram is looking to take them all and then some, capitalising on YouTube’s fall!
With the launch of Instagram’s new feature, IGTV, filmmakers may have another chance at grabbing at that same level of early YouTube success. The new feature, accessible from both Instagram and shortly from its own app, grants creators the ability to upload videos of a length anywhere between 60 seconds and 60 minutes. The feature launched 22nd June and will start off populated only by the “viral stars” that Instagram managed to wrangle together. It’s very likely that IGTV will cater to the rich and beautiful but nobody predicted how Vine would take off in the way it did, and this has all the potential to be a similar case. TechCrunch has reported that creators can expect revenue opportunities when ads are rolled out onto the platform. We can expect (or at least hope) that IGTV will be doing everything in its power to avoid the mistakes that have led to YouTube’s downfall. IGTV is like an untainted baby right now but it won’t stay that way for long. Jump onto it as soon as you can!
There is also iTunes, but the Apple service has never been able to lift itself off the ground and stand as a proper contender. It instead mainly hosts the apps of other streaming services. Like Neon.
But what about “real” streaming services? I can make my money there, right?
The benefits of streaming video, rather than presenting films to large studio distributors, are plentiful. The film won’t be restricted by a limited theatrical release, if that’s all the distributor felt fit to give it. The film is on a service already paid for, meaning audiences will be more likely to allow themselves to experiment, as it demands little investment from them. Most of all, however, these digital platforms place a door to your film which can be entered from any TV, all over the world. The opportunity for diversity, both culturally and narratively, is at its strongest with using digital platforms. They’re a tool that all filmmakers should consider. But where do they stand as a money-making platform? Well…
Netflix: Favouritism by any other name would be just as disheartening
Netflix is a Subscription Video on Demand platform (SVOD). At this point, it’s impossible to think about Netflix without considering all the great shows that it’s produced. It’s also distributed a ton of films, some of which, very successful indie films. Emphasis on how they were already successful before Netflix picked them up. As Linda Nelson, co-founder of Indie Rights says “Netflix pay is horrible for independent films with no names in them. 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.” Netflix often doesn’t offer any form of theatrical release, which has put it at end with many filmmakers and been a deciding factor in costing them deals. Movies without a theatrical release are not yet at a level where their presence puts producers and distributors in confidence about the filmmakers’ ability to create work with a theatrical appeal.
Et Tu, Amazon?
Amazon Video employ a tiered system for its royalty rates, based on the total number of streaming hours per year. Starting March 1st, they heavily cut down on the payout to the creators for the videos (film and TV) which get submitted to its platform. As shown in the table below, creators are paid $0.06 per hour for the first 100,000 hours that their video is watched.
This means the new payout system has led to a 60% drop in royalty revenue. It’s also an important point to note that when the video has been streamed for a million hours (or at the end of the year that it was published on the site) the streamed hours reset to zero and earnings begin again at the lowest tier.
But they still care about us…right?
At Sundance 2016, Amazon and Netflix both acquired 5 titles a piece. Amazon spent $10 million on getting the rights to the academy award-nominated Manchester By The Sea alone. Last year, Amazon acquired a further 5 titles, including The Big Sick for $12 million. Netflix went above that and acquired 10 titles, including Mudbound for $12.5 million. Both of these films went on to get nominated for their own academy awards. However, this year, neither Netflix nor Amazon made any acquisitions at Sundance. Although there are plenty of opportunities for the companies to pick up films as the year goes on, these decisions have sent a feeling of foreboding into the consciousness of every indie filmmaker.
A lot of you are too late…
If you’re looking to make money, the idea of using digital platforms to bypass the hassle of studio distribution looks like it’s passed. Tom Nunan, founder of Bull’s Eye Entertainment and a lecturer at UCLA’s school of theater, film and television believes, “It’s becoming more and more difficult to get independent films distributed whether that’s in traditional movie theaters or even on cable.” Tom raises a good point but it’s also never been easier to make a film. A filmmaker can use the internet to crowdfund their project, and more and more people are learning skills relevant to filmmaking. But, as a result, the market’s now flooded with indie filmmakers, which means all the platforms are becoming oversaturated. The digital platform giants know they need to start cutting the payouts to indie filmmakers because if they don’t, they won’t be making as much a profit on them with the sheer amount of films shown through their service.
…but perhaps that’s a good thing.
This brings us to services like Vimeo, wherein which you can upload your film, currently without the policing employed by YouTube. Of any of the platforms that have been discussed here, Vimeo easily pays the best, but that’s because Vimeo hasn’t reached a point of oversaturation… yet. It doesn’t have the audience that any of these other digital platforms have access to. Uploading your film to Vimeo is a fine idea but there’s not much on the site, alone, that will help it stand out. As a filmmaker, you cannot wait for your audience to come to you. That doesn’t happen. So, you need a way of promoting your film, whilst simultaneously growing its prestige and growing your network of people who can help you to promote your film.
We need a hero. Step forward the oldest form of film consumption!
Alright, forgive us, because we’re undoubtedly going to sound bias, but there isn’t a better place for the Indie filmmaker right now than in the film festival circuit. Film producer, Stephen Follows, recently reported that there are over 3,000 film festivals currently active worldwide. It’s a competitive market and you may have to submit your projects time and time again, reworking them until they finally get accepted. But every acceptance is a laurel that you can place onto your film’s images. Every win at a film festival brings your prestige up further. It grants an instant guarantee to everyone that will come across your film, on whatever platform you happen to be using, that yours is one worth watching.
Film festivals, though perhaps not at the level we’d currently like them to be, are growing in popularity. The films they produce, especially short form narratives, are in their best capable hands, with being shown at film festivals. It doesn’t always have to be Sundance or Cannes either. Recently, The Silent Child, which first showed with Lift-Off at our own film festival, was nominated for an Oscar.
It’s also, quite simply, a much friendlier place to be. None of the isolation of starting off in your room with YouTube or the offices in the midst of a sales pitch to Amazon or Netflix. At a film festival, you’re surrounded by people in the exact same position as you. Your contemporaries in the filmmaking world. Your competition, sure, but also your potential friends. There’s an idea that networking is all about knowing as many people as possible. That simply isn’t true. As our article on the matter will show you, which you can find here, http://liftoffnet.wpengine.com/how-to-network-in-the-film-industry/ networking has always really been about finding good friends who you resonate with on a creative level. You’re much more likely to find and connect with those people at the bar of a film festival than messaging someone whose work you like, who lives hundreds of miles away from you, but hope you can collaborate with.
Well, this has been a rollercoaster of emotions hasn’t it?
This hasn’t been a fun article to write. As a filmmaker, it’s depressing to admit that if you haven’t already made your money from the golden age of digital platforms, you’ll likely not have the option of getting rich quick and living off the royalties. It’s back to the grind, like the generations of filmmakers before us. But there is one great difference; where they had one option, we have many. Although the money may not be flowing, all the platforms mentioned in this article are strong and active. IGTV is definitely a promising opportunity (it’s on iOS now. Get it!) But once again, it’s a tool. Don’t worry about finding a “home” for your film. Home implies it’s going to stay in one spot but you want your film circulating as much as you can! If you want your film to be seen, you’ll consider each and every one a potential tool to use to promote your film. In today’s climate, that’s the best way to make a name for yourself as a filmmaker. It won’t come quick or easy but there’s now more opportunities for a break than there ever have been.
Written by Reece Mawhinney