Film Fund-amentals: Heaven’s Just a Click Away

Yes, the internet stampede is on. Like the Oklahoma Land Rush, everyone is racing into the vast wilderness of cyberspace. Netflix has already unveiled their system for downloadable movies. Now Blockbuster is entering the field while Warner Bros plans to release 150 titles from the archive via TiVo. Very soon, Casablanca will be ready to hog up your broadband connection (at $20 a pop).

So what does this mean, especially to independent filmmakers, and why should they care? It doesn’t mean much, though it could mean almost everything. But then, I always like to think that the half-full glass is really full and simply has a serious leak.

First of all, it means that the DVD rental market is about to go topsy-turvy. Blockbuster is not just looking to horn in on a new market. They are looking to unload a lot of stores. The local rental joint is dead (OK, it has been on life support for the past few years — but they are now preparing to pull the plug). Since the average small independent film earns most of its money from DVD rentals, this eliminates a large chunk of the market.

On the other hand, the downloadable venue will have a large appetite for titles. As often happens with anything on the internet, it promises to be a chaotic but leveled playing field, and a continual infusion of new items becomes essential to maintaining the clickable interest of the online marketplace. Once they deplete the so-called major titles (which should happen within the first few days), they have no choice but to start plowing through the small-budget fields. They may not want to, but who cares? Besides, the vast range of the internet is actually based upon niche marketing, which is what independent productions are all about.

However, the downloadable system is bound to run into problems. Why wouldn’t it? The music industry has practically destroyed itself in pursuit of the iPod and MP3 audience. The film industry thinks it knows better. They also once thought that Ben Affleck was an emerging superstar. So yes, once again, we can all quote William Goldman.

The first problem will be security. It doesn’t matter what steps they take, a teenager somewhere will discover a way to download a movie and bootleg copies till either the cows or the feds come home. Sure, the FBI can start raiding every dorm room on every college campus in the country, but so what? Where there is a kid, there is a way.

But the most seriously effected titles will be the biggies. Most hackers want a free copy of the next Star Wars film, not a half-a-million-dollar epic with Parker Posey. Most likely, the amount of bootlegging for small films will be, ironically, smaller. It could even be at a level we might just write off as advertising. The small budget movie has less to lose, and the thought that somebody might actually want to bootleg your film is almost a compliment.

The big battle will be between the for-pay systems and the freebie operations. offers lots of titles (some of which are even good), and it’s all for free. OK, you actually have to sit through a certain amount of ad interruptions from the sponsor, but it is less obtrusive than in the average TV program. Further, these operations satisfy a deeply held conviction of the internet world — EVERYTHING SHOULD BE FOR FREE. So why should I want to pay to download a movie as gawdawful as Starship Troopers when I can go to Hulu and watch the original stinker for free?

Of course, this also gets into the difference between a streaming video and a downloadable. What the big boys want is a direct sales model (the main model they understand), which is why it is all about downloadables. All you have to do is pick a film, pay the piper, and then wait for about an hour or so to burn the disc. Of course, this requires more advance planning than the average movie-goer is use to. Like, what are we suppose to do during the download time, watch an old VHS? Direct access via streaming video seems easier. Which takes us back to something like Hulu.

The beauty of it all is that the lower profits from the freebie systems can be pretty workable for small productions (as long as the filmmakers don’t get screwed in the negotiations). The system is almost a natural for independent filmmaking and, I suspect, will eventually prove itself. Sites like and are already moving in that direction. Eventually, even the Sundance Film Festival will figure it out. (It’s actually pretty straightforward — I don’t really get their problem.) This is not the near future. This is now.

— Dennis Toth