We're approaching the end of the Sundance Film Festival here in Park City, Utah. The filmmakers in attendance this morning for a panel discussion about delivering movies over the Internet seemed alternately energized and terrified by the prospect. They acknowledged the Internet’s potential as a marketplace for movies that may not receive traditional distribution (via DVDs or theaters or television), but worried about who would pony up the millions required to support their more ambitious projects.
The panel's title ("Stay-at-Home Movies: The Home Theater Experience and the Future of Exhibition") doesn't really capture what it's about. Maybe that's a result of who is on the panel: Bill Alpert from Barron's is moderating, and sitting on the small stage with him are Kara Swisher from the Wall Street Journal; Jennifer Feikin, who runs video initiatives at Google; Laura Michalchyshyn, who programs for the Sundance Channel; and Chris Doer, who is building some sort of Internet-based content store for Sony. They're focused almost exclusively on the Internet as a distribution channel.
(An aside: Internet delivery doesn't just mean downloading a movie to a PC. Technology already exists, and it's getting better, to move video content from a PC to a television, or a handheld device like an iPod or Sony PlayStation Portable.)
Everyone’s jazzed about eliminating studio middlemen, and being able to deliver movies directly to an audience. Jennifer Feikin from Google says that "by hosting film content, we hope to let users find content that’s interesting to them, and help content owners find an audience." Content owners who put their stuff up at Google’s video site can decide how much to charge – or give it away for free. Feikin says Google takes a percentage of each download – they’re just covering the costs of hosting the files – and the majority of revenue goes to content owners.
She doesn’t think revenue from Internet delivery will supplant today’s revenue streams – but that it’ll be incremental to things like box office and TV licensing deals. "We’re really at the very beginning of this," she says.
Kara Swisher says that delivering content over IP (Internet Protocol) "is the way that everything is going to be distributed." She, too, believes that Internet delivery will let indie filmmakers like those who flock here each January for Sundance do an end-run around established media powers. "Cable companies, telephone companies, networks, and Hollywood studios have been screwing talent and consumers for years now, in any way they can," she says, lambasting big media companies (including newspapers) for their "top-down approach, telling you how you can see content." Now, she says, creative types can "distribute your stuff for almost no money – and find audiences."
But now to the scarier side. Feikin acknowledges that Google just wants to aggregate everything – and won’t necessarily promote one person’s film over another’s. They won’t fund video or movie projects (as Yahoo has started to experiment with.) They want to use filtering to bring good stuff to the surface – what’s popular, what do your friends like. (It’s hard to believe that if Robert Redford, say, put his next movie up on Google’s video store, they wouldn’t spotlight that in some way.) Actually getting your work noticed seems like it’ll remain a giant hurdle.
Michalchyshyn from the Sundance Channel observes that filmmakers like to get money up front to work on a project, at least once they’ve built a reputation. With Google, it seems like the filmmaker has to take the risk of funding a movie, and then hoping he can attract enough viewers, who’ll each pay $4.95 or so per download.
Today, studios take a risk on funding movies because they understand how they can monetize them: selling tickets, selling DVDs, selling TV and cable and airline rights, etc. As consumers adopt Internet delivery, some of those revenue streams may slow to a trickle, or dry up entirely. While the future looks bright for filmmakers making their first $10,000 movie, and trying to make some of that back –and also get noticed — using something like Google, it isn’t so clear for filmmakers who’re used to working on multi-million dollar projects, and being guaranteed substantial salaries up front.
Doer says, with a bit of understatement, "We’re getting into a very disruptive period for the next five years."
(I’ve got a few other posts from Sundance on my blog, CinemaTech.