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5 Reasons Independent Series are Better for Filmmakers than Independent Feature Films

by on May.14, 2012, under Internet Television

Yeah, I said it.

I think that independent feature film has had its day and the future of visual storytelling belongs to independent series.  I’ve been saying this for a while, and I still get the blank stares from my independent filmmaker pals, so this topic is probably a good way to kick off the new focus of my blog.

Why independent series?

Why do filmmakers make independent feature films?  Well, largely by definition we make independent films because we are filmmakers and—by choice or necessity—we’re not tied to a big studio.  But there’s another, more important reason: however long the odds, it is possible to get an independent feature film in front of an audience.  Between film festivals, art house theaters, small DVD labels, and the lottery-winner-rare big studio pick up there is a roadmap and precedent for independent films finding audiences and making money.  For independent television series, this is essentially impossible.  …or has been.

For most of the history of television, the mode of distribution—broadcast—was prohibitively expensive.  Networks did not take many chances on outside material, and generally like to own or control what they presented.  Broadcast TV just did not have room in their lineup for independent content.  Narrative filmmakers gravitated to independent feature films because that was where there was a possibility of showing your work and building a career.  Creating an independent serialized half-hour comedy or weekly hour-long drama was ridiculous.  Where the hell would you show it?

Obviously, the Internet and its expanding buffet of distribution channels have changed everything.  Suddenly, gaining distribution and building an audience is far simpler and less expensive for independent series than for independent films. Unfortunately, many filmmakers have not yet caught up to this paradigm shift.  I believe that as this truth becomes ever more apparent, filmmakers who used to slog from project to project, audience to audience, and one bad distribution deal after another will embrace the advantages that independent series offer.

1.  Your distribution is guaranteed – and controlled by you.

One of the biggest problems that truly independent films must struggle with is that they usually must be completed before they can find distribution.  There is always the risk that no distributors will pick up a film.  I’ve seen this happen to a lot of great independent films, and it’s always heartbreaking, but usually not avoidable.  To make matters worse, the films that do get distribution typically have to accept deals that grab entirely too many of their rights in too many territories for too long.  Distributors typically look at independent film acquisitions as “one-off deals” rather than ongoing relationships and treat the filmmakers accordingly.

With independent series, however, the filmmakers are guaranteed to at least be able to release their series on their own site, YouTube, or via one of the many Internet PPV services at the very least.  And in this scenario, the filmmakers keep the rights and can usually revise their strategies down the road if better routes become available.  With an independent film, premiering on YouTube, Hulu, or something similar would be seen as “dumping it” and may very likely be prohibited by some of the contracts involved.  With an independent series, this is just part of the release strategy.  Because…

2.  You can grow your audience directly.

What some creators may consider their fail-safe distribution method—releasing an independent series via YouTube—is actually a pretty solid approach.  It gives the creators a chance to start making money almost immediately if they can grow their audience.  The maker of an independent series can actually see money a lot sooner than even an independent filmmaker who scores a distribution deal because there are no market fees, undisclosed expenses, or other creative accounting to overcome.

But money aside, growing an audience directly for a series is great for filmmakers.  When the audience is online, the advertising and social networking is online as well, so costs are low and feedback is immediate.  Each new episode is a chance to reach more people and grow your audience.  Your audience will be yours—and if you do it right, they will love your show and feel vested in your success.

3.  Your economics are better.

Independent series on the Internet are just a better financial deal all around for content creators: Reaching your audience is cheaper—and fewer people are ahead of you in the money line.

Convincing someone to give up three hours of their time, drive to the theater, and shell over twelve bucks per ticket takes a lot of persuasion.  So does getting someone to go to Amazon and buy a DVD.  This persuasion typically comes in the form of expensive advertising.  On the other hand, you can get someone who likes your story concept and poster frame to click an Internet link pretty easily—especially if one of their friends recommends it.  (Sure, a filmmaker can probably get someone to add a DVD to their Netflix queue, but independent filmmakers typically don’t make any money off Netflix anyway—so that’s usually the last way you want people to watch your film.)

Advertising is cheaper and more immediate on the Internet and you need less of it because you’re not asking people to do as much.  A good social media campaign can create as many viewers for a free Internet series as a million dollar ad campaign for a theatrical film.

But the real economic selling point of a series showing over the Internet is how few people are ahead of you in the money line.  If you go the YouTube route, for example, the money line is: YouTube, then you.  Some venues might require you to go through an aggregator but even in these cases they are typically more transparent, take a smaller cut, and do not impose massive, difficult to overcome, marketing fees that are common with film distributors.

4.  Your series is always new to someone.

The bigger the marketing campaign a film has, the sooner it feels out of date.  If people caught any whiff of advertising for a film when it was first released, whether studio or independent, then they probably have an inkling of how long its been out there.  Old films tend to just look old in many people’s eyes.

On the other hand, people can discover independent series on the Internet months or years after their initial release without any stigma of a film that never went anywhere.  One reason for this is that there just aren’t a lot of expectations yet for Internet series.  Another is that new audiences are coming to this arena daily, and for as long as watching original series on the Internet is a new thing to them, few of the series they discover will feel old.

5.  You can keep telling your story.

When you complete your 90-120 minute story in a feature film, it’s done.  You’ve closed the circle.  Cut the cord.  Pick your metaphor for, “there ain’t nothin’ left to do.”  Hopefully you find an audience and make some good deals, but regardless, creatively, that film is all it can be.  And your audience will not automatically seek out the next film you make.

An independent series of the same length however, is just an opening salvo for a story you can keep on telling, characters you can explore further, situations and ramifications you can mine for as long as you and your audience care to.  Your audience will tend to keep on watching new episodes as long as you keep making them and making them good.  Creatively, that just kicks ass.

From a business standpoint, it just kicks ass even more.  Where a wildly successful independent film might garner a studio remake or perhaps a sequel, these are still whole new projects and products with no guarantee that you’ll recapture the same audience.  But with a series, your audience is yours to lose.

Make a series. Grow an audience. Continue

This ability to reach an audience and then keep telling your story is, to me the most compelling and attractive creative reason to make series rather than single feature films.  The fact that the economics and distribution realities are also so much better for independent series is also enormously important.

I’ve been working under this premise for quite a while now as my business partner Dan Southworth and I build a media company specifically to create independent series for distribution over the Internet.  We call the company Popular Uprising because we believe that we’re on the edge of a movement toward series being made directly for smaller, more passionate audiences than networks can satisfy.  Our first series, DIVERGENCE will be premiering in a few months.  You can see the DIVERGENCE trailer on Popular Uprising’s YouTube channel.


What do you think about the rise of the indie series?


22 Comments for this entry

  • Susan Matisi

    You make some wonderful points, Douglas. I’ve always preferred TV series to movies anyway. There’s something so utterly final about the end of a movie whereas a series has the ability to go off in different directions. I love the idea of an interactive web series–can’t wait to see the first offering from your production company!

  • Christy Ford

    I love web shows. All series and movies ought to be online these days.

  • James K.

    This was a great article. As someone who has a BFA in Sound Design i worked on a bunch of indie productions in college and love the creative freedom that the indie scene gives you. It feels like with big production companies they are more about the bottom line instead of creating an overall experience for the viewer. Its like the Joss Whedon effect, he is a great director/writer who knows how to tell a story line and drive the characters story and has that indie feel. How many of his great stories were cut short due to “Big budge companies”… many! Yet look at the following he has YEARS after the fact for those older shows that didn’t have a chance to last like “Firefly”. It just shows you the true power or creating something amazing and the lasting effect it has on its views even after big companies have written it off. Honestly i think web series like “Divergence” and others I watch online are the new wave of the future and eventually the only way we will be able to get creative free thinking stories to can captivate an audience.

  • Erika Moore

    Excellent points, Douglas. This article alone has made me appreciate the Indie scene even more. I look forward to seeing Divergence and many other web series from you and Dan Southworth.

  • Ralph Fontaine

    Thanks so much for writing these points so concisely! I’ve had SO MANY friends and acquaintances ask me the same question, “Why make a web series instead of a feature?” since starting with Causality over a year ago. I’ve said some of the same things, but you say them better, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to bookmark this page and send it to the next people who ask!

  • admin

    @Ralph Fontaine – Yes, I think people will come around to what’s obvious to you and me, but it may take a while. I’ve had a real mix of experiences with the feature films I’ve made–especially on the distribution end–so I am excited about a chance to make series that can reach their own audiences and keep on spinning stories as long as people care to watch.

    I look forward to watching Causality.

  • admin

    @ James K. – I agree. There are so many series that continue to resonate long after they’ve gone. Firefly, Pushing Daisies… I feel like losing series like this was a travesty because they still had very active fanbases–just not quite enough to make them economically viable on broadcast.

    I believe a series shouldn’t have to die as long as the fans and creators want it to continue.

  • Lucy O'Sullivan

    I love this article. I’m midway though setting up a new blog where I can free share fiction stories, promote my scripts and scriptwriting and I am also planning a series of articles about how social media, social networking and crowdfunding have freed artists from the traditional, tired and exclusive forms of media to free art, story telling and the distribution of these things. You have said something I’ve been thinking about for a while.
    I’m actually just started the fourth draft of a pilot script for an indie production company about indie group of film maker which to me seems to capture a growing feeling among creative types that this is a revolution of creativity. Almost like the shackles are off and now we’re free.
    Have you seen Amanda Palmers Kickstarter campaign? Her video says it all really. :D

    My blog will be up Saturday. Please stop by. :D

  • Tina Bradford

    Mr. Douglas those are excellent points about the value of producing a series instead of a film. I also like series better because they can tell the full story, instead of part of it ending up on the cutting room floor. I also like the freedom that exists in a series, where the storyline can adapt. I also like the point you made about control of the series. Its very disappointing to watch a series and get invested in the characters only to have it end in the middle of the storyline, which is something that is not a worry with independent series. Look forward to hearing more about this process though! Thank you!

  • admin

    @ Tina Bradford – I feel the same. With Popular Uprising we’re trying to set up the right balance of great content, audience connection, and realistic economics so that our series can continue as long as people want to watch them and we want to make them. Hopefully when a series has run its course it will have a graceful exit that ties up the story threads in a way that satisfies and respects our viewers.

  • Daniel Lee

    Wow, this was an inspiring article! I think that this needs to be seen by anyone who aspires to be a film maker. I think you have a solid perspective on the direction and future of independent series for the web. It’s actually very comforting to think that the means for producing and getting your project seen are realistically attainable. I look forward to enjoying your series Divergence. I’m going to send this link to all my friends in the industry.

  • Melanye Francisco

    Very nicely put. As someone that has watched several series, like Firefly, start off, get a person hooked and then vanish, something like an idie series is just the ticket.

    Being an avid YouTube user, I see a lot of people that have really creative ideas and can tell a story, but have tried without success to gain the attention of someone that can ‘bring their ideas into the big time’. It’s a shame because many of these people become disillusioned with the whole idea and turn from something that they are passionate about to a job that they don’t really like, but need in order to support themselves.

    Looking forward to seeing how Divergence, and future endeavors from Popular Uprising, develop. Hopefully good fortune will smile upon you and your business partner, Dan Southworth.

  • Katrina N.

    You make some very good points here. Something I will pass online to my friends.

    I am looking forward to Divergence and what Popular Uprising will develop.

  • Tom

    This is a great article, and one that I will probably guide my friends to when they ask me why I decided to make a series instead of a few indie shorts.
    Please let me know what you think of my web series ‘Ramblers’. Set in Manchester, U.K, it follows four comic and film geeks going through the motions of wondering what they are doing with their lives. The site is

  • Soon Hee R.

    I definitely think this is the logical progression and next step of entertainment for film and now TV. I have been a bit disappointed in the past with other web series but am very much excited and intrigued about your team. Interesting article and thoughts, I would love to see something well produced and captivating online.

  • admin

    Thanks Tom. I’m so glad to hear it. This is an exciting time.

  • Natalie Norment

    A very aspiring article for me to read! I really insisted on writing a scifi novel, but now…. I think I just want to write my own scifi web series, thanks to you.

  • Skyla G.

    Excellent points. I know I’m reading this a year after publication however this is what we are doing now. We are currently working on a 90 min pilot to distribute online.

  • Dimitrios Papagiannis

    I know it would be very sneaky and might turn people off but I was wondering if you made a series and left it so that they would have to pay for the last one if that would be a possible way to put this together with the freeview ideas you outlined in your other short film blog piece. Maybe if you even told people up font that they will probably have to pay a dollar for the last one they might think that it’s worth it and you would have built up your audience by then (hopefully) so you would have more people willing to hand over for the final episode. And hopefully be smart enough to make it worth it(that’s the hard part).

  • Brock Ulwelling

    Hi mate, I would like to inform you that your blog was really important for me. I had been capable of take the knowledge you actually so generously posted and apply it. Your blog article genuinely helped me and that i want to tell your committed visitors that they genuinely have some one who has their mind straight. Many thanks once more for the excellent write-up. I’ve saved it on my favored online book-marking site and I would suggest all others do the exact same.

  • Douglas

    I think with series you can start things off and see if you can get your audience engaged to keep it alive. This is probably how we will keep DIVERGENCE and our other series going. I personally like to have series available for free because otherwise new viewers wouldn’t find them. But things like digital downloads, bonus videos, behind-the-scenes, etc. can all be part of a paid supporters’ rewards without turning off anyone on the project.

  • Rick Allen

    I’m so glad you wrote this article. I thought doing a full web series was a unique and original idea of mine and then I brought it to my production crew and they basically thought I was from Mars. They all agreed an independent series broadcast on Youtube would never work because online viewers will only watch 3-5 minutes at a time, not a full episode.

    We are currently filming a feature, but I want to leave no avenues unexplored. I was glad to see that my idea was not so unique and original after all…but instead a potential lightly-tapped market that will give my company, Early Spring Productions, another way to reach audiences.

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