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The Home Video Experiment: Case Studies of Five Independent Distributors

By Debra Franco

A photo collage of stills from different documentaries.

In the mid-1980s, with the home video revolution in full swing, independent video makers and distributors watched carefully to see what the new format would mean for them. Some hoped low-priced, easily accessible VHS would lead the way to a great popularization of documentaries and independent work. They believed people would begin to buy videos—including independent videos—the way they buy books, collecting them and giving them as gifts.

Case Study #1: Fanlight Productions

Case Study #2: California Newsreel

Case Study #3: Direct Cinema Limited

Case Study #4: Women Make Movies

Case Study #5: Northeast Historic Film

Others in the field were less sanguine about the consumer market for independent work. But they hoped that the educational market, when offered low-priced, easy-to-use media, might grow to such an extent that the average independent video would sell thousands of units—thus creating a viable market for this work at home video prices. Still others believed that the popularity of home video would sound the death knell for independent video. They saw video going the way of publishing: domination by large conglomerates interested solely in feeding mass-market appetites. Small companies with alternative works that reach only small market niches would have a difficult time competing. Since then, both the use and the marketing of consumer and educational video have gone through radical changes. In the 1990s, home video rentals peaked, prices dropped: consumers began to buy great numbers of videos as well as rent them. However, consumer interest has remained predominantly in feature, special interest and children's titles.

Recently, the maturing of the home video business and increased competition from pay-per-view and other delivery systems have contributed to a conservatism on the part of home video publishers and retailers, who are less willing than in the past to take risks with non-mainstream work. During this time, the educational video market has also changed. Prices dropped and the number of educational video users grew, but never to the hoped-for extent. At the same time, budget cuts, increased marketing costs and competition with other formats and delivery systems created serious financial problems for traditional documentary distributors. As a result, many of them went out of business, were bought out or were restructured.

Today, two distinct markets for independent and documentary videos remain. The home video market buys mostly generic informational videos (exercise, how-tos, hobbies, etc.) and special­ interest tapes that appeal to large niche markets (military history, New Age, celebrity biographies, etc.). Although institutions often buy these titles, they are also sold through the consumer video channels of retail, catalogs and off-air broadcast (A&E's Biography and History series have had notable success at this).

The educational market, after its downturn , seems to have stabilized in a new form and remains the major audience for most independent work. Prices for documentaries for institutional use have dropped but remain substantially higher than home video prices. Although educational institutions also buy videos sold to the consumer market, they continue to acquire educational videos from traditional documentary distributors via direct mail. Those who buy videos for these institutions—especially at the university level—are often more wiIIing to pay higher prices for titles with content specific to their pedagogical needs.

Today, specialty home video distributors (those selling videos to special-interest niches within the consumer market) look for documentaries that will appeal to consumers enough to sell more than 5,000 units. These distributors generally consider the educational market to be an important ancillary to consumer sales. Occasionally a title or series (e.g., Eyes on the Prize) will sell that many units to the educational market alone—but this is rare. For these distributors , the line between the consumer and educational markets is blurred; they reach both markets the same way and at the same price.

For most independent and educational distributors, however, the line between the two markets remains distinct. By nature, titles that match the educational needs of institutions usually do not interest enough consumers to justify home video prices (currently institutional videos can hope to sell between 200 and 500 units). And the exigencies of consumer video marketing-glossy packaging, some form of mass exhibition or publicity, interest by retail outlets—often preclude educational distributors from launching these titles in home video. Consequently, when producers or distributors independent videos decide to test a title's consumer market potential today, they face a series of tough questions. They must determine which special interest groups would be interested enough to use the video, and whether networks (e.g., specialty catalogs) exist to reach them. They must also determine whether the title has retail potential, and assess the effort necessary to reach those outlets. If they plan to sell to video stores, they must assign a price—a higher "rental " price ($29.95-$89.95) if they think the video will primarily be rented, or a lower "sell-through" price ($ 14.99-$25.99) if they think the title can make consumer sales. They must also weigh the video's potential on the higher­ priced educational market and decide whether to saturate that market before attempting to enter the consumer marketplace.

This article looks at the recent experiences of five distributors who have marketed independent work in home video. The works range from African-made feature films to video documentaries on ice harvesting in Maine. These case studies follow the distributors' decisions and strategies in entering the home market and shed light on what they've learned about markets for independent work. Their experiences are unique to their titles, but they do provide insight into the realities of marketing independent work in home video today.

DEBRA FRANCO is a media consultant/educator and author of Alternative Visions: Distributing Independent Media in a Home Video World. Her company, Copperfield Associates, Inc., consults with nonprofits, foundations and media organizations on the programming , marketing and evaluation of pro-social media. Ms. Franco is a long-time member of New Day Films, a national distribution cooperative of independent filmmakers.

This article, with accompanying case studies and conclusions, originally appeared in NVR Reports , issue #21 (Winter 1998). ©1998 by National Video Resources; all rights reserved . Our thanks to NVR for the opportunity of offering this piece to readers of International Documentary. Any editorial additions are indicated by brackets. Information on NVR will be found at the conclusion of the article.