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How to Get Your Indie Film onto iTunes & Netflix

Our last few blog posts have been inspired by questions we’ve received from students in our online filmmaking program. We were recently asked about the potential profits filmmakers could make from being included in the iTunes or Netflix catalogues. We thought we would post our thoughts on the topic below.

Accessing popular distribution channels as an indie filmmaker generally means that you’ll need to have a distribution deal in place. Otherwise, accessing these popular retail platforms will be near impossible for independent filmmakers.

However, as the self-distribution model is being adopted by more and more filmmakers, finding ways to access these large retail platforms with built-in audiences is becoming a pressing priority.

The self distribution model has become increasingly popular over the years amongst entrepreneurial-minded indie filmmakers who have the business acumen to effectively brand and promote their independently produced films or documentaries. These filmmakers also have the creative expertise necessary to tell engaging stories, and the technical expertise to be able to tell these stories while maintaining high production standards. Miraculously, they are able to do all of this within the many limitations that accompany all low budget productions.

Essentially, they have become small, independently run production houses, DIY distributors with their own small PR, management and artistic teams. Often, many of the people on the PR and management team are the same people on the artistic and distribution teams.  Directors are now moonlighting as their own publicists, producers find themselves heading location scouting teams and production designers find themselves managing the team’s twitter account during the day’s lunch break. These new independent film companies are becoming increasingly skilled at the many different elements of the production and distribution process and are finding effective ways to group film production jobs together to keep their team small, effective and affordable.

However, there is still one major obstacle in their way. The most popular retail platforms don’t want to enter into distribution contracts with individuals or small business that have one or two films in their catalogue, no matter how talented the filmmakers are. For these larger retail platforms it would be an administrative nightmare to enter into contracts with individual filmmakers. These large companies, such as iTunes, Netflix and Comcast want to deal with distributors because not only does it streamline administrative efforts but it also serves one other major task as well. Distributors help filter content.

Distributors Act as a Filter for the Audience

With the current over-saturation of the market it’s important that these companies protect themselves from poor quality content. For example, Netflix and iTunes have quickly built reputations where customers know that they can watch films and documentaries that will adhere to certain production standards.

This is in part because the selection of films we see on platforms like Netflix and iTunes have already been heavily filtered due to distributors being picky with their selections. Therefore, before a film has been submitted to Netflix or iTunes it’s already been filtered once. Now iTunes or Netflix will make a decision to host the film or not. By the time the audience sees the film, the film has been filtered generally no less than twice.

For the most part this benefits all parties involved. Distributors pick films that meet their creative and technical standards and films that they believe an audience will want to see. Next, retail platforms benefit from dealing with companies who have done their filtering for them and who have large catalogs of films and documentaries to choose from. This helps ensure places like iTunes and Netflix don’t become digital dumping grounds. Next, audiences benefit from looking through catalogs of curated films and documentaries. Lastly, the filmmaking community benefits because only the best quality work is picked up by distributors in the first place. So filmmakers who have invested the time perfecting their craft will be rewarded.

Seems like a pretty good model right? Except there is one major problem. Great indie films are still being ignored for a variety of reasons. For example, maybe the content is too risky, it’s not to the distributor’s taste, the filming style is too avant-guard or maybe there are no named stars. The list can go on, but the fact is that great films are being left to die or fend for themselves on the sidelines.

Indie films that do get picked up are often either shelved so the distributor can put their resources into a more market-friendly film, or not given the attention the filmmaker feels their film deserves. To make matters worse, these films are often picked up at a price around the cost to make them. Take for example the film Ballast by Lance Hammer. The film was made for between $25,000 and $50,000 and won prizes for both best director and best cinematography in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. IFC liked the film and offered Lance a ditribution deal. It was, after all, one of the most well respected films in the one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. The problem was that Lance invested too much time in his film to walk away from a deal to pretty much break even. You can see the trailer for the film below.

What message does that send to filmmakers working on art house films like Lance’s? Does it mean that indie filmmakers are expected to work for free (or to lose money) for the chance at giving their film an audience?

Should Filmmakers Pay for the Privilege of Having an Audience See Their Film?

Are we entering a time where filmmakers are required to pay for the privilege of having made their film? Let’s hope not.

Naturally, out of this problem arose many disgruntled filmmakers. Luckily, some companies saw an opportunity and a way to solve the problem. New companies called “aggregators” popped up allowing filmmakers to access some of the bigger retail platforms. Filmmakers were required to pay these aggregators for their services. Usually up front fees and a percentage of the film’s profit (usually between 15% – 50%). This provided a great option for filmmakers who still wanted to have the security of a distribution plan without the insult of working with a distributor.

However, aggregators are not as heavily invested in a film as a distributor is. So as filmmakers started taking this route, they started to feel that sharing 50% of their film’s profits with a company that wasn’t doing anything to help them promote their film seemed, to them, a little unfair. In fact, other than the front heavy work of getting the film ready for different retail platforms, (encoding the film, chapter breaking, tagging etc) and the yearly administrative expenses of having this film in their catalog, the aggregators were not doing much work on a monthly basis, or at least not enough work to warrant at 50% stake in a film.

Essentially, filmmakers were left back at square one. Feeling like nobody cared about their project as much as they did and feeling like their only option was to enter into an agreement with a company who designed inherently unfair contracts.

Is it Even Worth the Hassle? How Much Does iTunes & Netflix Pay Filmmakers?

Thankfully companies started emerging that realized that a filmmaker’s interests and a distributor’s or aggregator’s  interests were not mutually exclusive.

Finally, companies have emerged that are now giving filmmakers the possibility of reaching these larger retail platforms and are taking fees that seem to better align to the work that each partner is contributing.

The problem with the old aggregator model is that there are too many middle men and the filmmaker ends up receiving the smallest share of the film’s profits. Under the new model, there are fewer middle men and the filmmaker is compensated based on the payout rates of the retail platform (Often getting 100% of the payout). So how much does this amount to? How much do filmmakers make from these deals? Let’s take a look at the revenue payout of a few of the most popular retail platforms.

  • iTunes splits sales 70/30. With 70%  going to the filmmaker and 30% going to iTunes. For example, when iTunes sells a films for $9.99. $7 of that goes to the filmmaker. With the new aggregator model, the filmmaker will generally see 100% of that $7. With the old aggregator model, the filmmaker would probably see around $3.50 of the $7.
  • Hulu streams films for free but 50% of the advertising revenue goes to the filmmaker.
  • Amazon VOD pays the filmmaker 50% of what they collect.
  • Netflix purchases a license for your film for 1 or 2 years and they can play your film as many times as they like during that period of time. Licensing fees vary on a film by film basis.

Each of these platforms will result in different outcomes for the filmmaker.  Hulu seems to be the best choice for exposure, but ad revenue has generally not been the highest performer in terms of payouts to filmmakers. It seems like iTunes may be better for payout (depending on your traffic and conversion rate) but less effective with mass exposure.

Two Companies that Can Help Your Film Get onto Netflix or iTunes

We would now like to recommend two companies that can help get your film or documentary into these retail platforms. These companies charge an upfront fee but 100% of the money the filmmaker makes goes to the filmmaker.

Distribber: Upfront cost: $1295 (SD) $1595 (HD). Distribber was purchased by indiegogo and is one of the most popular aggregators for filmmakers.

TuneCore: Upfront cost: $999 (SD) $1249 (HD). TuneCore started off helping musicians get access to larger retail platforms but has now branched out to help filmmakers as well.

Spend some time and research these companies to see which one might be right for you. There are differences between them. For example, TuneCore seems to have access to more regional iTunes stores while Distribber has access to US and Canada only. However, Distribber has access to more retail platforms than TuneCore does. So spend some time and research the differences and see which one is a better choice for you and your project.

If you’re a student in our online filmmaking course, or any other filmmaker for that matter, and you’ve had experience distributing your film or documentary through either of these companies we’d love to hear about your experience in the comments section below.

 


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7 Responses to How to Get Your Indie Film onto iTunes & Netflix

  1. Devin July 25, 2012 at 11:46 pm #

    Really enjoyed your article! How does this apply to shorts? Is there a market for shorts or is it worse, better? I’d be really interested to know. Cheers!

  2. Bryan Sabillon September 16, 2012 at 8:01 pm #

    I’ve just began working on my first full-feature,and this article was perfect. Pretty much everything I needed to know. All I’m left with to ask is, if I’m asking for no percent of the profit, and letting Netflix or so take the full 100%, would that make it easier to have my film on there? (Assuming it’s good enough, of course.)

  3. Andy October 19, 2012 at 8:34 pm #

    Thank you so much for this article. Truly appreciated.

  4. Duke Riley November 14, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

    That is a great article. It answers some questions that I have had for a while. However, what is the point in using Distribber or TuneCore? I read about them and looked on their website but what can they do that I can’t?

  5. Eric January 8, 2013 at 8:37 am #

    I also heard of DiGi Distribution – the big difference is they pay the fee and do marketing

  6. David February 5, 2014 at 3:51 am #

    As actior and as an independent filmmaker (the whole writer, producer, director thing), I went the route of self-distribution for my first feature film. “The Suitcase” which via CreateSpace allows it to be both sold as DVD and stream-able online via Amazon On Demand.

    I probably spent around $40-$50k making the film, and it has recieved mixed reviews. Proud of the work I did with editing and sound mixing, even I’ll even admit the script was not too great for the first segment of three (and I had no budget for the 4th segment) The film was originally a short and my last year of ‘self-learning’ or a personal senior project. However fans at festivals insisted it become a full length film. Eventually I resolved a way by designing it as a segmented vehicle allowing me to produce the feature. Three short stories about a cursed suitcase. Great. You can tell the writing and production value get better for each. Off topic but my personal advice, never shoot a feature without a completed well written script. Anyway, I made the price for streaming dirt cheap at $1.99 (the lowest Amazon allows a film to be streamed for if I remember) to obtain the largest audience possible. With the success and exposure of an expensive premiere (also costing me more than was taken in at the theater), the pay to play aspect was really just a venue to get my first work seen and appreciated. “The Suitcase” is my ‘evil dead’ or Ed Wood stab (pun intended) at films. Intentional B style acting and dialouge where it makes the most sense with a noirish backstory of an evil traveling salesman (played by myself) most people get what I was doing, which was basically making fun of horrible B style movies while keeping it all entertaining.

    So in producing my big budget (appearing) comedy The Rude, the Mad and the Funny I used Quentin’s Resevoir Dogs paradigm that one location for an entire film is less expensive. Except the one location of RMF is Jake’s truck. Thus the scenery is always moving and several locations where still utilized, and it was still cost effective. http://www.rmfol.com That said, the film is in last stages of post and self-distribution is NOT the angle I am vying for. A kickstarter campaign for distribution after you’ve completed your film is the reason I am adding this comment (other than the shameless plugs), because if you can show the property you’ve produced and raise enough awareness with the fund-raising tools on the internet these days, getting distribution by putting up some of the cost will help to match the remainder you are going for with a viable distributor. I’d say the distribution goal for an independent film-maker if profit is desired would be ulitamtely getting the film onto Redbox. If you investigate the distribution success of the film “Creep Van” which could be found in Redbox’s nation wide (and watch some clips so you know why i’m using it as an example), it’s important to understand that getting a decent distributor (are there any?) along with a region specific deal is the first step. Once you get additional distribution in other countries using sub-titles, and your film fairs well and profits well, it appears larger distributors may become interested in your property and getting a large distributor interested is then possible, and probably. If I had to guess “Eagle Films [lb] (on IMDB) are probably at least partially responsible for handling the portfolio well enough for Redbox to allow its inclusion. If i’m wrong on any of this, i’d appreciate hearing what others with more experience would have to say. Also feel free to let me know what you think of either of my films either on my facebook page or on the RMF website: http://www.rudemadfunnymovie.com Thanks for letting me reply, and hope others have more to educate on this very important step in the industry. Finally, thanks for guiding us to the 2 distributors mentioned in this article.

  7. Andy May 17, 2014 at 7:59 pm #

    Hey David, Ill check out your site. It seems that Distribber now offers Redbox. I did do two films with them and both had create success (Well maybe not great) but I was very happy with making my money back I spent on my films. They are sometime late with payments but I would take that over splitting my film with a distribution company. Anyway, I will also test a Redbox with them and keep you all posted.

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