Lessons from the Lab: Digital DIY and Distribution U.

Posted on December 2, 2010

Last month Indies Lab Director Davin Hutchins went back to school to learn about “do-it-yourself” (DIY) distribution and filed this report for BTB. 

If you haven’t heard of the phrase “do-it-yourself” or “DIY distribution” then perhaps you have been too busy fundraising, shooting, or editing your latest documentary to notice. Or perhaps you live under a rock. With traditional theatrical, broadcast and DVD distribution channels for independent docs in serious decline, everyone is talking about “DIY distribution,” also known as “hybrid distribution.”

The concept, coined most famously by Paradigm Consulting’s Peter Broderick, suggests that there is no cookie-cutter approach to the successful distribution of a film. Each approach should be tailored. Custom strategies like these were the main focal points at the east coast installment of Distribution U., a one-day crash course held by Broderick and journalist and CinemaTech blogger Scott Kirsner. We here at the IndiesLab are sort of obsessed with the digital aspect of DIY distribution — that nexus where fan-building, advertising, and promotion intersect with online platforms like iTunes, Netflix, Amazon VOD, etc. We’ve been monitoring filmmaker conversations online and at events like Distribution U. to see if people are thinking seriously about digital DIY approaches.

It appears confusion about digital distribution persists. Until two years ago, internet film viewing was confined to a browser. Now, with the advent of “lean-back” boxes like iPads, Apple TV, Roku, Boxee, and Google TV — driven by on-demand services like iTunes, Netflix Watch Instantly and Amazon VOD — real opportunities for filmmakers may be materializing. Yet, too many filmmakers remain uninformed.  During our roundtable discussion at Distribution U., many filmmakers we polled didn’t realize that Netflix even had a streaming service or how to place their films on iTunes on their own. 

By overemphasizing declining DVD sales in DIY strategies, filmmakers may be missing out on the sea change about to take place. For example, documentary filmmakers might collectively lobby semi-closed platforms like Netflix to make the case that real demand for great documentaries exists. Through crowdfunding and community engagement, each film can demonstrate a built-in audience. Then, it may be possible to get films licensed to Netflix at decent annual fees and build new revenue models. In 2010, Netflix gained seven million subscribers — eight times as many subscribers as cable or satellite added in the same period! Consumers will be choosing these services over DVDs and sooner than you think. IndiesLab’s data suggests Netflix and iTunes is where new digital business models will emerge first. Filmmakers and their films should factor this into every DIY strategy.


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