Can the Internet Save Indie Film?

YouTube’s viral potential will no doubt help the fledgling online distribution of independent features

Last Updated: February 21, 2010 @ 10:10 PM

Editors Note: This blog post originally appeared on YouTube’s Biz Blog.

YouTube’s new rentals service, which launched by offering five Sundance films for $3.99 each, drew just over a thousand paying customers nationally – not enough to shift traditional film distribution paradigms or overshadow Steve Jobs – but this humble beginning masks the opportunity for YouTube and for today’s aspiring independent screenwriters, directors and producers. Just as text blogging gave unaffiliated writers new ways to connect to large audiences and even shape the national discourse, new avenues for distributing and consuming full-length independent films will now give anyone with the talent and drive to make movies, a viable and well-trafficked platform for getting their work in front of huge audiences and more importantly – sold. YouTube’s unrivaled ability to help content go viral will no doubt help the fledgling online distribution of independent feature films reach a tipping point. And if a few talented directors are discovered along the way by agents and studio executives looking for the next cool thing, all the better.

The opportunity for monetizable self-distribution on the Internet hasn’t come a moment too soon for indie filmmakers who are left with fewer options after the winnowing of leading specialized film distributors such as Miramax, Paramount Vantage, Warner Independent Pictures, Picturehouse, THINKfilm, and New Line, all of whom have recently shuttered offices in New York and Los Angeles. Over the past decade the economics of releasing a film theatrically have only gotten tougher. Competition forced distributors to pay more for marketing as increasingly-fragmented audiences turned to DVR’s, social media, video games, and other distractions. Tough economics and disappointing returns from several high-profile theatrical releases drove most of the major studios to re-evaluate their aggressive push into the specialized film market, and either retrench or close down their specialized banners altogether. However, the ensuing distribution vacuum presents a business opportunity for YouTube, and other video-sharing sites that allow filmmakers to sell their films alongside studio content available for online streaming. 

From now on, the Lee Daniels’ ("Precious") and Kathryn Bigelow’s ("The Hurt Locker") of tomorrow will be able to bypass traditional gatekeepers and monetize their hard work and creativity using only an HD camera, a fast laptop and a decent Internet connection. Indeed, the day when nearly everyone has made an independent film, in the same way that most people today have both an e-mail address and a Facebook page (and perhaps a blog and a Twitter account), may not be far off. What will never go out of style is the desire to tell stories and the need for people to express themselves in the most creative way possible. The big news is that the historically-pejorative idea of going “straight-to-video” (which often meant fighting for shelf space in struggling mom-and-pop video stores or accepting modest sell-through deals with big box retailers) will soon take on a positive meaning and present an exciting opportunity for filmmakers everywhere.

Reed Martin is a former Harvard Business School research associate and author of the film production guide, “The Reel Truth: Everything You Didn’t Know You Need to Know About Making an Independent Film.”