Diary of a Film Start-Up Part 5: A Crash Course in Film Distribution

By Roger Jackson

We now have more than 40 films in the Kinonation Private Beta, with more submissions arriving every day. Among them, a couple of documentary trailers immediately had me wanting more. And that’s exactly what KinoNation seeks to do -- make it super easy for independent films and docs to get video-on-demand distribution, so anyone “wanting more” can instantly rent or buy the movie from among dozens of global VoD outlets. Black Sun, a 2005 documentary by Brit filmmaker Gary Tarn, tells the tragic and inspiring story of Hugues de Montalembert, a New York City artist who was blinded for life during a vicious street mugging. On a lighter note, French filmmaker Pascal Cuenot submitted In The Tracks Of, her intimate look at the life and work of the late, great film composer Maurice Jarre. I watched this preview clip, frustrated that just as Jarre starts telling the story of his involvement with Lawrence of Arabia and his first meeting with the legendary producer Sam Spiegel...the clip ends! I desperately wanted to watch the full documentary, right away. That’s why we’re so passionate about KinoNation -- the promise of instant access for consumers to rent or buy movie gems like these. Keep submitting your films, please.


Distribution Deep-Dive

While Klaus and the technology team is busy building the KinoNation platform, I’ve taken a deep dive into the world of film distribution. Trying to make sense of the tangled system of windowing -- the sequential release of films for cinema, pay-per-view TV, DVD, airlines, broadcast TV -- all elaborately staged to maximize the revenue for a film, but increasingly anachronistic for an audience that wants 24/7 access. Above all, analyzing how the exploding market for video-on-demand is impacting this complex ecosystem, and making some educated guesses about how it’ll evolve in the next few years.


Five Lessons

So what have I learned so far, or at least what seems useful to understand for KinoNation? Five key lessons, some obvious perhaps, others less so. First, that video-on-demand now generates serious revenue, in the hundreds of millions annually in the US alone -- and growing exponentially. Unfortunately there’s an equally serious lack of hard numbers  -- unlike theatrical box office, there’s no mandate and little incentive for producers or VoD platforms to publish sales data. But when breakout indie hits like Margin Call and Melancholia can gross more online than in movie theaters, video-on-demand is rapidly overtaking DVD in the minds of Hollywood and indie producers alike. True, the per unit margin on DVD sales is still way higher, but VoD has the potential to make up for lower margins with much higher volume, driven by the lure of instant, convenient, multi-device and multi-language access.

Second, that indie studios like The Weinstein Company’s RADiUS have already embraced “Day & Date” simultaneous theatrical and VoD release. Some producers are even experimenting with the so-called “ultra” release, where the VoD live date comes before the theatrical release -- not so popular with movie theaters right now!

Third, that VoD really democratizes access to independent film for that massive but highly dispersed “heartland” audience who never before had such depth and breadth of access. Fourth, and perhaps less obviously, VoD provides -- or will provide -- hyper convenient access to features and docs in a way that now just fits into the lives of busy people. That alone is game-changing in the way it accelerates film consumption.

Finally, and most exciting, VoD means that the “other 48,000” of the approximately 50,000 features and docs made (globally) every year now have a real shot at distribution -- and not just in their home language, but in as many languages as the filmmaker can find translators for. So that one of the KinoNation team favorites -- the rousing A Barrel of Laughs -- can be distributed and enjoyed in Arabic, Japanese, Zulu...and every language in between. Just like my favorite commercial!


Next week:  Post # 6: Late Nights and Early Breakthroughs

Roger Jackson is a producer and co-founder of film distribution start-up KinoNation. He was Vice President, Content for digital film pioneer iFilm.com and has produced short films in LA, documentaries in Darfur, Palestine and Bangladesh, a reality series for VH1 and one rather bad movie for FuelTV. He is executive producer at Midnight Swim Productions.