Delivering Video on the Web
Sun, 04/01/2007 - 00:00
In a series of articles to appear over the next few months, filmmaker and media technologist David Tamés begins to unravel web media distribution and viewing for those of us who need a translator.By David Tames
Back in early February I was sent a link to the The Machine is Us/ing Us video on YouTube by Michael Wesch, an assistant professor of anthropology at Kansas State University. This video is among the most recent examples of the viral video phenomenon. It follows in the fine tradition of the Chronicles of Narnia Rap, which exploded on the scene in December of 2005, introducing millions of people to YouTube and viral video for the first time. And of course, who has not seen (or heard about) those Diet Coke and Mentos videos?
On January 31, 2007, Wesch posted his video (about web 2.0 technology) to YouTube and sent the link around to some friends and an anthropology mailing list. Within days, the video became a YouTube “Top Favorite” and as of March 26th it’s been viewed almost two million times and elicited over 4,000 comments. This is viral video at its best, and this time it was not Saturday Night Live comedians or clever performers, but an academic publishing a video about the socio-technical phenomenon of our time.
Just a few years ago, Wesch would have considered himself lucky to reach an audience of several hundred students over a period of years. Things have changed. The trade press is full of examples like this. Your short film could be next. Because one thing is clear: today as a media maker on the web, you have direct access to an audience. You can bypass the traditional gatekeepers. The industry rules have all changed. That said, whether or not you will be appropriately compensated is still up for grabs.
Why is that? We’ve reached an inflection point where several key technological and economic factors have combined to enable a media access revolution -- the likes we’ve never seen before. Tainted independent filmmakers who’ve been around the block might say they’ve heard this before. Remember when Hi-8 was going to democratize documentaries? Remember when DV was going to democratize features? Remember when Apple introduced Final Cut Pro and claimed that now everyone could afford to edit his or her independent film? The problem with all these “democratizing revolutions” is they may have democratized the tools of production and postproduction, but they failed to provide a means to connect with a mass audience in an economical manner.
Today the combination of the Internet and ubiquitous fast Internet connections in U.S. homes is providing the last link in the chain of media democratization. According to data from Nielsen/NetRatings, 70 percent of Americans are now connected to the Internet and broadband penetration among active Internet users has reached 73 percent. This represents a huge potential audience for your video. With video sharing sites like YouTube, Brightcove, blip.tv, Google Video, Metacafe, and so many others providing free video hosting, along with some savvy use of social networking tools like MySpace, you can find an audience for your film. And if you still prefer to deliver physical DVDs to your viewers, vendors like BuyIndies.com, CustomFlix, IndieFlix, and NeoFlix can help with the fulfillment and e-commerce end, each providing their own unique set of services depending on your needs.
The future of independent film marketing and distribution is on the web, especially for productions under $1 million. The extremely high cost of traditional distribution and marketing has forced independent film budgets up as producers strive to make films with broad audience appeal and the right mix of talent and production values that attracts the interest of investors and distributors. Therefore, very few producers are making little films under $1 million and it’s practically impossible to finance them. Why settle for a small return on a small feature when you can get larger returns on a more expensive feature? From my point of view as an independent filmmaker, the nail in the coffin was the recent news that InDigEnt, the trailblazing low-budget production company, closed its doors. They produced many worthy DV features like Tadpole, Pieces of April, Personal Velocity, and Chelsea Walls. The changing marketplace has made their business model obsolete. Now that everyone is making DV movies, producers have to swim upstream to differentiate their properties.
On the other hand, we have the much talked about success of Four Eyed Monsters by Susan Buice and Arin Crumley. This micro-budget film makes sense. With a self-distribution model built around the Internet, this endeavor bypassed the trappings of traditional film financing, marketing, and distribution. Buice and Crumley have effectively used MySpace, video podcasting, online community building, and strategic theatrical bookings to reach their audience after no distributor picked up their film when it was playing in festivals. Several years ago that would have been the end of the road: no distributor, no access to an audience. But Buice and Crumley, being young and net-savvy, took matters into their own hands. They are now selling their DVD online (my copy arrived in the mail today). Hopefully the DVD will do well and they will continue to produce video podcast episodes and start on a second feature. They offer hope for the endangered species of under $1 million independent films, where many talented directors have gotten their start over the years.
The video on the web phenomenon is not limited to short videos on YouTube and blip.tv. As we look to the future when television and Internet converge, a strong contender in this horse race is Joost, a company founded by Niklas Zennstrøm and Janus Friis, who co-founded KaZaA (peer-to-peer file sharing) and Skype (peer-to-peer Internet telephony, recently sold to eBay for $2.6 billion). Currently available in limited beta, Joost provides free access to thousands of programs and channels not currently available on the web.
Through Joost, you watch programming on your computers through a specialized interface with viewing features -- including links to more information and related websites -- along with a variety of on-screen widgets -- including instant messaging, show ratings, message boards, and RSS feeds -- all in the form of a “heads-up” display over the video that comes and goes as needed. The Joost experience combines the interactivity of the web with the continuous stream of television in a social web environment bringing together viewers and inevitably, delivering an audience to advertisers.
Joost is aggressively courting content providers. For example, Viacom Inc., while asking Google to remove Viacom content from YouTube, recently announced they would provide free programming to Joost, including content from MTV Networks, BET Networks, and Paramount Pictures. While Joost is neither the first nor last player in this space, the experience of their current beta provides an excellent glimpse at how the web and television will converge. Joost is not just a pretty interface; it’s a sophisticated platform that provides scalable distribution based on a state-of-the-art, secure, peer-to-peer streaming technology. What remains to be seen is how friendly they will be to independent filmmakers, and their beta phase is an excellent time to weigh in with them as both viewers and media makers.
While Joost is reinventing the television experience for the Internet age, Jaman is reinventing the cinema experience. For many filmmakers, including myself, seeing our films in a cinema on the big-screen has been an important goal. But for many movie viewers, especially net-savvy teens and 20-somethings, new technology affords the opportunity to watch movies anytime, anywhere, and on a wide range of devices: a laptop during air travel or in a café, a portable media player while riding the T, or a media center computer at home. Jaman was founded by Gaurav Dhillon based on an additional insight: that a majority of good films made around the world are never distributed outside of their domestic territories, and thus is striving to find an online audience for world cinema. This is a classic Long Tail play.
Jaman is still in a testing phase as they build an online community, pioneering what they call social cinema. Their goal is to provide a destination for cineastes to watch and discuss films from around the world. They are currently seeking submissions from filmmakers and studios as they assemble an online library of feature films and documentaries with the promise that Jaman will be a secure way to distribute and market films to a worldwide audience.
Jaman is entering what is becoming a crowded market of movie download plays, which includes players like Apple (currently leading the pack in overall downloads), MovieFlix, CinemaNow, Netflix, Amazon UnBoxed, Google Video, and many others. So far, the big studios have been treading carefully in movie download territory, but it’s inevitable.
What does the future hold? It’s hard to tell, because entrepreneurs, independent media makers, and viewers are driving so much of this transition, and thus the changes are chaotic, decentralized, and hard to predict. One thing’s for certain, the media distribution landscape two years from now will be very different, given the rapid pace of innovation and change. Just as nickelodeons were transformed into movie theaters as the technology of projection and the economics of the mass audience changed, broadcast television and cinemas might still hang around for a while, but digital downloads and the Internet will play an integral role in a process of change connecting producers to viewers in new ways as the distinctions between them continue to blur.
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