Filmmaking and Distribution in the Information Age

Filmmaking before the Internet

The tasks that go into creating a film are still the same as they once were. Once a filmmaker has come up with an idea that he or she wants to turn into a film, they must write or otherwise acquire a script for it and then pitch the idea to raise the funds necessary for the production. Then, it’s time to begin the process of searching for cast and crew, location scouting, gear acquisition and a million other tasks before production can start.

These tasks were not easy in a time where the only ways of contacting someone for work were either in person or on the phone. Filmmakers had to go through many agencies and production houses before someone would consider the project, and this would often take months or even years to do, if they were successful at all. For filmmakers who were starting their careers, it was difficult to get their work seen because nobody knew their names. When it came to gaining popularity for a project, it was a long and difficult process. Most all beginning filmmakers did the same thing when it came to creating an audience and a name for themselves — they went to film festivals.

Festivals have always been the best place for a filmmaker to have his or her work seen and to network with other filmmakers and people who work in the industry. By attending festivals, filmmakers not only create contacts with professionals but also stand a chance of gaining funding for further productions, landing a distribution deal, or having the concept for their film bought from them to be turned it into a large scale production. Festivals are also often good places to find press contacts and agents. Through these connections, filmmakers try to market themselves and their work.

Film festivals were one of a few options for filmmakers when it came to gaining some recognition pre-Internet, both from a public audience and from within the filmmaking industry, but even before the Internet opened new doors for filmmakers, there were some other less obvious means to getting your work seen.

One of the best examples of an alternative method to gaining recognition would be Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who in a way went viral long before the creation of websites such as Youtube. Parker and Stone, for those unfamiliar, are the creators of the very popular and controversial animated series “South Park,” as well as the creators of films such as “Baseketball” (1998), and “Team America: World Police” (2004).

The two started as filmmakers while at university in Colorado and had several scripts rejected due to the fact that they were not well known and had not had any films made before then. However, they were soon commissioned by a studio executive to create a 5-minute animated Christmas card.

Parker and Stone worked together to create a short animated VHS “card” titled “The Spirit of Christmas.” Somehow, bootleg copies of the film got out and started spreading throughout production houses and underground film screenings, ending up on the desks of entertainment executives in Los Angeles, New York and London. Copies of it were being sold on high demand and soon everyone within the industry and even a large number of people out of it knew the names Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In an interview for “60 Minutes,” Parker says, “That became so huge, I mean it really was so viral before YouTube and all that. All of a sudden people wanted to meet us more.” Eventually, the two signed a contract to produce six episodes of an animated show based on the original short.

For some people the word recognition means success within the industry whereas for others it means having a large fanbase and following. Through simply creating a uniquely clever short and having it sold around on bootleg copies, Parker and Stone managed to achieve both, going viral long before the websites that are used to do so today even existed.

How the Internet Changed the Film Game

The internet has dramatically changed the ways that filmmakers can operate. The processes that were discussed earlier remain the same, but now with the help of the Internet, many filmmakers can achieve the same results without needing large investments or major connections within the industry. Instead of going through production companies in search of funding or support, filmmakers can now take to online sources. Crowd funding sites like Kickstarter and others involve a filmmaker’s base audience as they donate to projects or campaigns that interest them. Websites such as these have been the birthplace of many film projects, both short and feature length. Not only are they a place for filmmakers to seek funding for their projects, they are also a means of getting in contact with producers or investors from the film industry who could in turn help that filmmaker reach their desired goal.

screengrab of Distrify Website
screengrab of Distrify Website

Apart from funding being made easier by the Internet, distribution and advertising for films has been made much easier as well. Filmmakers can now use the internet to create a marketing or advertising campaign for their project. Now, an individual can use self-distribution platforms such as Distrify to create marketing campaigns for their work. They can control the markets to which their project is distributed to and they can deliver their content globally without having to leave the room they are sitting in.

This is an enormous change to the way in which distribution and marketing was once done for films. Now filmmakers can either choose to do the work themselves if they know how to do it, or have a very small team work on it instead of the large marketing machines that were necessary before.

Other than making the task easier and faster, these sites have also made distribution and marketing more affordable for filmmakers. Now a project can be distributed at a much lower cost, and many of these sites offer a form of payment planning where the person wishing to distribute their film can choose a price that they see fit for them. Lower prices will mean that the campaign for the film will be shorter than others, whereas higher prices mean a larger marketed audience and a campaign that will bring more attention. This has made it possible for many filmmakers to distribute their films in ways that they wouldn’t have been able to before. Many filmmakers today go along the road of independent filmmaking, in which they work with a relatively low budget and therefore will rely more on crowdfunding sites and self-distributing options.

Many filmmakers today go along the road of independent filmmaking, in which they work with a relatively low budget and therefore will rely more on crowdfunding sites and self-distributing options.

The Internet also offers a way for filmmakers to learn how to create and distribute their work. There are many online forums created where some of the world’s most well-known critics will write about films. In his book, ”Independent Film Distribution: How to make a successful end run around the big guys,” Phil Hall puts it this way, “Critics also tend to attract various marketing groups, so they could be a great resource to learn how other independent studios/filmmakers market their films.”

Self-distribution and promoting are not the only tasks that have simplified; the internet has also provided ways for filmmakers to display their work and build audiences for themselves. Before the development of the internet in relation to video and film, filmmakers would resort to film festivals or private screenings in order to have their work seen. Another method was mailing copies of their films to production houses or to producers in the hopes that they will view it and like it enough to take on that filmmaker as a client. However, since the development of websites such as YouTube, launched on February 14th, 2005, and Vimeo, created in November 2004, many filmmakers have had their work seen by millions and have therefore created a following and regular audience for themselves.

However, simply uploading a short film to the internet is not all that needs to be done in order to gain recognition and build an audience. Tribecca shorts programmer Sharon Badal shares her insight in her book “Swimming Upstream: A Lifesaving Guide to Short Film Distribution”: “It’s one thing to put it on the Internet. It’s another thing to get people to understand more about you and keep people coming back so you can build an audience.” Building an audience takes time and lots of effort, but these platforms allow for such audience building in a way that was not previously available to filmmakers looking to get their name out there.

Once a filmmaker has created an audience for themselves, it will be easier for them to market their work and have those in the industry see it. When something becomes popular and of a certain importance on the Internet, it usually finds itself in front of the more influential figures of the industry. Many filmmakers today will hope to gain popularity through online platforms in order to have their work seen by those in the higher levels of the industry, but there is a growing number of filmmakers who hope to gain a large following and popularity without the end goal of being involved with any established studios.

Ryan Connolly is one of the most popular and successful internet filmmakers around. His success came to him through YouTube, where he managed to create a following of a large audience and was given the opportunity to have his films seen by many people. In one interview, he gave his opinion on how the Internet has changed filmmaking. As Connolly puts it, “Sites like YouTube and Vimeo completely changed everything. Before, there really wasn’t a good platform to get your work seen by an audience. Now, it’s very easy to upload your stuff for an audience to see it immediately, without any kind of curator deciding what’s good and what’s not.”

Curating Online Video Through Festivals

Other than the ability to fund and distribute projects more easily, the Internet has provided another way for filmmakers to have their film recognized above the flood of videos posted to YouTube daily. This comes in the form of online film festivals. Festivals are no longer only limited to physical participation. Now filmmakers can find festivals that allow them to submit their film online without the need for them to physically send in copies. The introduction of such festivals has definitely had a positive impact for many low budget filmmakers, and they give opportunities for filmmakers from developing countries to take part in festivals and have their work seen by others.

Additionally, filmmakers can now submit their work to physical festivals without the need to make DVD copies and send them in. A filmmaker can simply upload the final version of their film to an online database or just send a URL link to their film if they have uploaded it to a website such as YouTube or Vimeo. The ability to do this means that the cost of entering a festival has lowered and more filmmakers get the chance to participate.

With the rapid development of online festivals, many bring up the argument of whether or not they will replace physical festivals. Does the ability to simply upload a film online and have it reviewed and awarded mean that people will no longer take part in physical festivals? In her book, “Film Festivals: Culture, People, and Power on the Global Screen,” Cindy .H. Wong argues that traditional film festivals are simply creating online variations instead of giving up space for physical participation. She says “Up to this point, traditional festivals are not sacrificing their concrete space and place, but only adding virtual dimensions to them.” In this assessment, the Internet is only adding to the festival experience. Creating marketing campaigns and promotional pages to get more people interested in their film and doing the legwork to keep people interested is a vital step in growing your audience. Events where a filmmaker can spread their work around in the form of press kits or briefs and pitches can help build intrigue from potential audiences, both on and offline.

Putting aside the possible threat to the physical festival event, such online submissions and festivals have opened doors for those who could not take part in festivals years ago. With people able to submit their work virtually, there will be a larger number of filmmakers taking part in these festivals and gaining recognition for their work, both within the industry and outside it.

What films are appropriate for online distribution?

Even though filmmakers can now upload films to the Internet and create audiences for themselves, there are still some restrictions and artistic boundaries that limit what they can upload. Not all films are appropriate for every online platform. Websites such as YouTube often forbid content that features nudity, strong sexual and explicit material, or any copyrighted material.

Restrictions such as these leave many filmmakers having to choose where they would rather display their work. Some will create two versions of their work, a censored and cut down version that can be hosted on YouTube and an original version that can be uploaded to Vimeo. Vimeo is often considered the more professional version of YouTube where users can expect fewer restrictions and more constructive feedback. Vimeo allows artistic and non-sexual nudity, for instance, but still restricts pornography, extreme violence and copyrighted material.

However, some films require a large amount of focus and intellectual attention in order to be understood, and finding an audience to view such a film through the Internet will not be as easy as finding an audience to watch an action or comedy that does not require as much thought from the viewer. Films like these are often left to film festivals or private screenings. Filmmakers who want to make a name for themselves through the Internet will have to carefully choose which films to upload. They need to be films that are appropriate for the audiences online and ones that are good enough to gain recognition.

One filmmaker who relies more on private screenings and film festivals is Manjeet Gill. His 2014 film, “Coffee in Winter,” is an example of a film that would demand more thought and concentration from the audience. When asked whether his success in the film world was due to online platforms or to festivals, he explained how his work is more complicated and requires specific audiences: “It’s more of a film that requires thought and with the Internet I can’t be sure that the audience will be the right one for it.”

Many also believe that the viewing of films should be held for festivals and private screenings for another reason. In his essay “Collective Viewing: The Cinema and Affective Audience Interrelations,” Julian Hanich says that the viewing of a film in a group creates a different environment and experience of that film. As he puts it: “Collective viewing is different from watching a film alone. Particularly when strong emotions and affects come into play, we often become conscious of what I call "affective audience interrelations" in the cinema.” He claims that collective viewing in the theater space allows the audience to reach a level of interconnection and experience that film differently from how they would watching it alone.

Specialized Platforms

On the other hand, many prefer to use the Internet to host their films and content because it allows them to control certain elements that go into the building of their fan base. One of the elements is the type of content they release. Some filmmakers can upload different types of content to different online locations, and in this way, they have a control over who can view their work and also how often new content is released. 

Although the current platforms are capable of supporting high definition films and are used by millions of people, they are not designed solely for film distribution. Many different forms of media can be uploaded to them, including review shows, tutorial and educational videos, and therefore the audiences using them are scattered into different categories. That is why there are many thoughts about the creation of a platform that is designed especially for filmmakers — a platform where only filmmakers can upload their work and have it viewed, whether they are at a professional or independent level.

One thought on this comes from Ryan Connolly, who says: “I think things are changing to become more of an easy access to them and becoming a place where a platform can be made for Indie companies to get their work out, and get quality work out for an audience that will want to receive that. So I think things are changing to where stages are being built for smaller bands who will be able to play to a much larger audience.” In this vein, narrative and feature focused streaming sites like Netflix, Mubi and Fandor have already become alternative avenues for indie filmmakers to distribute their films.

Conclusion

Have online platforms become a more popular way for filmmakers to get recognized? Although the internet certainly has made it easier to complete the tasks behind a film, and in some cases cheaper, gaining recognition for your work is still a challenge. Online platforms have been both a filmmaker’s way into Hollywood and a route to achieving a different kind of popular success.  With the new capabilities of online platforms and cost effective marketing opportunities, a filmmaker today has a higher chance of success than before the days of such platforms.

But, there are also thoughts and examples from those who managed to get into the film world and create names for themselves without the use of the internet at all, which raises another question: How relevant is the Internet to someone’s success? Are there just a few lucky individuals who get feature film deals from a short film they uploaded to the internet, or is this soon going to be the case for many others out there?

The internet will continue to develop to the point where it will have platforms designed for certain types of film where specific audiences will go to view those films, but the creation of online film festivals, awards and viewing platforms for film does not mean that physical analogues will stop existing. Festivals, movie theaters and in-person networking events are still important as means to making connections, building an audience and getting recognized for your work.

The creation of online tools and platforms has certainly made it an easier task for filmmakers to make a breakthrough and create a following and name for themselves, but even though they can create a name for themselves through the Internet, filmmakers should still make use of physical festivals, events and theater spaces as part of their production and distribution strategy.

Growing up in London, Antonio has always been used to a fast and busy lifestyle. By age twenty he had travelled half the world, exploring and filming along the way. Now with a Bachelors of Arts degree (with honours) in Video and Film Production, he has the knowledge and skills to help him succeed in the film world!

Antonio Pavlov
From freelance video work, to feature films, I aim to learn as much as I can about the industry and grow my skills as I go along.For the past 6 years I have been writing, shooting, editing, and even compositing visual effects as a freelancer, and now I have moved into the world of feature films with two major motion pictures under my belt.With every project I learn something new and I always look to share that knowledge and experience with as many people as I can!

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