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?