How to Distribute Your Indie Film in the Digital Age

The past, present, and future of getting your film seen.

“Indie film distribution today is a Rubik’s Cube of possibilities.”

I remember when I first heard the hype surrounding Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. My friends were excited for the spectacle, and I was excited because it was Burton’s latest outing… and because of its much-publicized release controversy.

The window between the film’s theatrical distribution and DVD distribution was going to be 12, not the usual 17, weeks, which meant that audiences could own the film sooner than they could have in the past.

This was a big deal because “It finally put the nail in the coffin of movie theater owners’ mindlessly stubborn resistance to shorter DVD windows”, The LA Times summarized.

From Alice in Wonderland | Walt Disney Studios, 2010

From Alice in Wonderland | Walt Disney Studios, 2010

1. The Past: Release Windows System

Theatre owners opposed the change because they were – and to some extent, still are – entrenched in the Release Windows System, a distribution model that has its roots in the film industry’s VHS era. It was devised in the 1980s to prevent different distributions of the same content – ie., in movie theatres, as home video rentals, on television networks, in other ancillary outlets – from cannibalizing each other, which (executives suspected) would sap profits.

But we’re no longer in the age of analog. Increasingly in our world of technological advancement and instant gratification, there is consumer demand for content not in 17 weeks, not in 12 weeks, but in no time at all. We want it now. The industry’s resistance to this fact, while not surprising because it is a traditionally conservative business, is (arguably) self-defeating.

It is inconvenient to wait, and inconvenience is the driving force behind online piracy. “Given the means, viewers will generally pay for a legitimate source, but only if they can get to it more easily than an illegal one,” Wired wrote. But shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones, the world’s most pirated television show, are kept behind the bars of an HBO subscription, when “in an age where a la carte viewership is becoming more of a norm, the idea of subscribing to an entire channel for one show seems ludicrous.”

Essentially, people pirate content when it is not readily accessible in a timely manner. This, many contend, saps profits more thirstily than shorter release windows. Indeed, it is interesting to note that, despite the rapid migration of Alice in Wonderland from theatres to DVDs, the film grossed $116.1 million in its opening weekend, making it (then) the biggest non sequel opening weekend of all time.

In other words: the film’s imminent home video release did not rob it of a successful theatrical run.

2. The Present: Digital Distribution and VOD Platforms

Four years later, the Release Windows System is further challenged by the growing popularity of Video on Demand, or VOD, platforms, which deliver content to audiences a la carte. This disruption has opened doors for today’s indie filmmakers, ushering in the era of digital distribution.

In the past, indie filmmakers had little choice but to play the festival game in hopes of meeting sales agents and distribution companies fishing for content. These middlemen held the keys to films’ theatrical runs, straight-to-DVD releases, and other high profile arrangements.

Competition was fierce and remains fierce today. Although these traditional distribution deals still exist, they are no longer the only hope for indie films. Instead, many indie films are capitalizing on the potential of VOD platforms.

The best way to understand VOD platforms is to divide them into categories:

How, precisely, can an indie filmmaker leverage one or all of these VOD platforms in getting his/her content out there?

Well, our article about how to get your film onto popular VOD platforms is a good conceptual primer. It discusses the advent of aggregation services like Shorts International, Distribber, and New Video, which select content according to their curation processes for distribution with companies like iTunes (TVOD) and Netflix (SVOD). Of course, these aggregators are the face of the middleman in the digital distribution era, offering their services with strings attached.

There is also the less “regulated” Do-It-Yourself approach. If you’re inclined to buck the middleman, you can post your film to platforms that do not have a content curation process. These platforms, including Distrify, Indiereign, ReelhousePivotshare, and Vimeo On Demand, enable you to distribute your content directly to your audience, usually on a TVOD basis. It’s quick, easy, and inexpensive to setup, but you may miss the exposure, prestige, and profits that can come from using more mainstream VOD platforms.

So what is the best approach? Should you crusade after a good old-fashioned distribution deal, or jump into the world of digital distribution? If you’re looking into digital distribution, should you work with an aggregator to land a listing on popular VOD platforms or cut out the middleman and do it yourself?

Generally, it’s not an “either/or” scenario. The International Documentary Association wisely cautions filmmakers against putting all of their eggs in one basket:

Oftentimes a filmmaker, in just trying to get the film out there, will release on one platform and pigeonhole the content. The goal is to release on as many platforms as possible in a timed manner – something the industry calls “windowing.”

Which brings us back to that most hallowed of industry systems, only the modern edition is adapted for life after analog. “Most distribution professionals agree that you should explore your [digital distribution] opportunities in the following order,” indie producer Jason Brubaker proposes:

  1. Transactional VOD
  2. Cable VOD
  3. Subscription VOD
  4. Ad-Supported VOD
  5. Free VOD

The reason for this VOD Release Windows sequence is pretty simple. If you make your movie available on Hulu and Netflix first, will anybody bother to actually pay for it?

It’s easy to follow Jason’s argument from the bottom of the list up: if you make your movie available for free, will people shell out for the iTunes version? Of course, there are exceptions to this sequence, but it’s a good place to start when brainstorming the beginning stages of your digital distribution strategy.

So. Imagine we are ready to digitally distribute our latest indie-smash-hit-to-be, Awesome Film. We would explore our TVOD options – turning to the DIY platforms and perhaps pursuing an aggregator to make it onto iTunes and other popular platforms – before looking into VOD programming with cable, satellite, and telephone companies (ie., Comcast, Verizon, HBO, Showtime, Starz, etc.).

Eventually, we’d turn our sights to SVOD platforms like Netflix (again with the support of an aggregator), then consider AVOD platforms like Hulu, before finally making the film available for free.

And lo, Awesome Film makes awesome profit.

Maybe.

If the stars align.

If we sway the stars by ensuring that people know about Awesome Film, thereby creating hype and directing traffic. If we the filmmakers, our communities, and our fans at large spread the word in person, in social media, through festival connections and press publications and whatever consulting and marketing teams are fighting for us.

And assuming, of course, that Awesome Film is actually awesome enough to snowball. Or that it at least has a big name attached and/or plenty of festival laurels.

But I digress. The point is that indie film distribution today is a Rubik’s Cube of possibilities. It’s our responsibility to match the colors by evaluating what twists and turns are most strategic for our particular film. No two solutions are the same.

What do you want out of distribution – Exposure? Profits? Both? Which means more to your career today? Determining where you are professionally can help you determine what to do next with your Awesome Film.

From Snowpiercer | CJ Entertainment and The Weinstein Company, 2013

From Snowpiercer | CJ Entertainment and The Weinstein Company, 2013

3. The Future: What About Hollywood?

The music industry adapted to the technology and consumer expectations of today. So, too, will the mainstream film industry… In time.

Alice in Wonderland was a historic chink in Hollywood’s 80s armor. More recently, the Kickstarter-funded Veronica Mars was distributed simultaneously in theatres and on digital platforms. Von Trier’s latest exploit(ation?), Nymphomaniac, was released on VOD before it was released in theatres; Joss Whedon’s In Your Eyes hit Vimeo On Demand after its world premiere at Tribeca; Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur went the way of Veronica with its simultaneous distribution strategy; Snowpiercer released on VOD after two weeks in theatres, described by Indiewire as “the most commercial movie to ever open in theaters and quickly go to VOD”…

Simply put, digital distribution is picking up steam, and as indie filmmakers, we’re in the vanguard.

Michael Koehler, with


For more details, explore the rest of our yearly series about how to distribute your indie film in the current industry landscape:

Part I – How to Distribute Your Indie Film in the Digital Age
Part II – 3 Trends You Need to Know for Distributing Your Film in 2015
Part III – 3 Trends You Need to Know for Distributing Your Film in 2016
Part IV – 3 Trends You Need to Know for Distributing Your Film in 2017

If you’ve yet to make a movie and are wondering where to start, then check out our online filmmaking course, designed to keep with your vision and schedule from concept through final cut – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.

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