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The Internet as a Distribution Channel

By Ward Bauman

Screen capture of FILM,, ALWAYSi and

The Internet is defined and perpetuated by communities of interest, rather than by regional communities. Whereas broadcast stations reach audiences in a geographical area, Web sites cater to specific topics like health, social justice, etc. Documentary films, born out of a passion for a particular subject matter, are ideal vehicles for these communities of interest. What better place is there to present your documentary than to a community of the like-minded? So what if that community is only virtual?

Today streaming technologies have made it possible to reach your audience within these communities of interest. True, only a lucky few Internet users can watch full screen, full-motion media at one megabyte per second, but this market is growing quickly. Already, anyone with a standard 56K modem can watch credit card-sized video screens with uninterrupted FM-quality audio. What a great opportunity to reach your audience!

There are several ways to show your documentary on the Internet. The road you choose depends on your objective. Maybe your primary goal is to make your documentary available to anyone who would like to see it, or maybe you want to try to capitalize on your Internet rights. Maybe you still have the broadcasting rights to some broadcast territories like South America or some European countries. Or maybe you just never found the right distributor for your film.

First you need to get your film on the Internet. You can have an Internet film distributor do that for you, or you can do it yourself. If you decide to do it yourself, you would need to get the hardware and the software to capture and compress your documentary. Then you would rent space on a streaming Web service provider, build a Web site and register your film with all listing services and search engines. It is costly and time-intensive, but it can be done. For less money and time, you could submit your documentary to an Internet film distributor.

For this article, I looked at over 30 sites that do, or claim to do, something with film distribution. I divided them in three groups: portals, streaming portals and Internet film distributors.

Portals have a listing service, not unlike that of Yahoo!, that will list your film with a few lines of description. This is a very handy service for any film, film description or review on the Web. When people find your listing, they can click on it to go to the site that carries your film description, or even streams your film. A couple of examples are channelseek, and Just a film description or review is enough to be listed with these services; your film does not have to be available on the Internet to be listed here. Some portals like nbci (formally snap) and akoo will indicate if your film is available in streaming format like RealVideo™, Quicktime™, MP3, etc. Of course, in order to stream a film, you need either to put it on the Web yourself or place it with an Internet film distributor.

Streaming portals, like broadcaster and streamsearch, are like listing services, but directly stream the films to their portal from the Web site where it is stored. They only list films that are available for streaming; again, they will not put it on the Internet for you. They also only list descriptions of your film if it is available in streaming format. This format is very convenient for a visitor, who never has to leave the site of the streaming portal, as one would with a portal. The streaming portal streams the content with logos and ads visible, so it’s making money—or at least building brand recognition—from your film. You pay for the streaming from your Web site, where the streaming data is stored. While the streaming portals might have the better end of the deal in terms of earning revenue, you might benefit from very wide distribution.

Internet film distributors offer a wider variety of on- and off-line services than either the portals or streaming portals. The distributors will put your film on the Web for you at no cost. “It is all about a big audience and reaching distribution points,” says Robert Moskovits at movieflix, a company that looks at content value rather than production value of submitted materials. Its catalogue, like most Internet distributors, focuses mostly on fictional works in short format from unknown or upcoming directors. Howard Rosenberg of AlwaysI , a site that features mostly fictional works but are expanding to list documentaries as well, estimates that “of the thousand or so films, 90% are fictional works.” A few sites list a subcategory for documentaries, usually under “films” or “ Movie.” Some of these, like AlwaysI, Atomfilms, eveo and Ifilm feature mostly short documentaries (around 10-15 min.) The e screening room only carries documentaries and focuses on the one-hour format.

The Internet film distributors try to function as a submission system into the traditional media distribution channels. AlwaysI, and Movieflix approach directors of the highest rated films on their site for exclusive representation at film festivals. To the 20 percent of the submissions they receive, the e screening room offers video and broadcast sales directly from the site.

“The Internet offers a unique opportunity to reach your audience and even make a few dollars when doing so,” says Cyane Dandridge of e screening room. “If you carefully consider your objectives and choose the right distributor and distribution agreement, it could be a welcome addition to your distribution mix.” And since some companies like the e screening room and eveo pay per online screening, you may be able to capitalize on rights that you would otherwise have given away or shelved.

Today, audiences are just discovering video documentary films on the Internet. Thanks to DSL and cable modems, the audience is rapidly growing. Who knows? Five years from now the Internet might be a legitimate distribution channel on its own.

Ward Bouwman is President of the e screening room and documentary producer of Bittersweet and The People of Cape Girardeau.


What is the Value of Your Internet Rights vs. Your Broadcasting Rights?

As documentary filmmakers and distributors, we look at the world in terms of territories (US, South America, Europe, etc), license terms and number of runs. These terms have little meaning in the world of the Internet. The Internet does not have territories; its reach is worldwide and instantaneous. Your documentary film will not ‘run’ in the television sense; it can show anywhere, anytime—but often to only to one person at a time. So to compare the value of your documentary on the Internet with its broadcast value, we have to look how much you get paid per person per program view by a broadcaster.

Broadcasters get their money from advertisers. Advertisers pay based on how many people your program can reach in their target audience. If we know the audience size, we can calculate how much you, the producer, get paid per person per program view.

Lets look at an example: A cable station with 100% penetration in the US pays $30,000 for two years and three runs for your 50-minute program. Your film rates well—4.1 for the first run, 3.1 for the second and 2.1 for the third. Your audience size is thus

  • 4.1% of 100,801,720 hh (nielsen) x 2.1 people/hh (estimate) and
  • 3.1% of 100,801,720 hh x 2.1 people/hh and
  • 2.1% of 100,801,720 hh x 2.1 people/hh = 19,686,576 people.
  • On a per person basis you thus get paid $30,000 / 19,686,576 people = $0.15 per person per program view.

So if an Internet site offers you $0.50 cents per person per program view, they are in fact offering more than three times the cable station rate. If a Web site offers you a straight $500 for the Internet rights forever, you would have to evaluate your audience over the lifetime of your documentary to see if it is a good deal or not.



The Devil in the Details

Ah, the small print in the distribution contract: Do not wait until you are in the courtroom to read it. Internet companies love to put legal contracts in a small box with lots of paragraphs in small print and a big button that says “ I accept.” And guess what? That button is your electronic signature, according to Congress. Here are some questions that came to mind when I browsed through pages and pages of small print.

For how long is this contract binding? Many of these contracts require that you give the irrevocable Internet streaming rights forever. Is that what you want? What if a broadcast station wants your documentary for broadcast, but requires the Internet rights as well? Can you get or buy the Internet rights back? For how much?

Does the contract give the right to cut? Traditionally distributors have asked for this right for promotional clips and to fit television schedules. What happens when the contract does not give limitations on how the distributor can cut your documentary? Can they cut it and sell it as stock footage? Do you get a percentage of that?

Are we talking about Internet rights? Can the Internet companies make broadcasting deals as well? What would your cut be for a broadcasting deal?

When does the Web site start showing your film? What if they don’t show it? Would the rights revert back to you? When?

Payments—do you get paid? When and how much? A 50/50 deal for home video might be nice, but if the contract includes the right to sell your film to other media outlets, 50/50 might not be so sexy anymore. And when do you see a check? A month or a year after the deal, or at the end of the license term?

Finally, if you do not agree with clauses in the contract or if the contract is missing a clause, call the distributor and ask to change it. Everything is negotiable.



Streaming and Copy Protection

“What keeps someone from copying my documentary film from the Internet and then broadcasting it on television?” is a question we often hear. The answer is, technology and resolution.

There are three widely used systems for streaming video—RealVideo™, Microsoft’s Windows Media™, and Apple’s Quicktime™. Streaming is the process of sending media (video) over a network for viewing in real time. All manufactures provide some kind of mechanism to prohibit ‘saving’ (coping) the movie. Some streaming systems go as far as never writing the data to the browser’s cache memory (the hard drive) to protect from copying. Nevertheless, there will be hackers who find a way around it; they always do.

Even so, Web sites today stream video in credit card-size formats. This size video stream contains too little digital information to be blown up to fit an 13-inch TV set with any reasonable results.