Indie sector waiting for digital revolution

Revenues from new media 'not coming very fast'

There’s an awful lot of time and money being wasted right now by people looking into the future,” notes Myriad Pictures prexy and CEO Kirk D’Amico.

Indeed, for those charged with making indie film deals in the here and now, the future remains unclear.

“You’ve got cable-based platforms, you’ve got (Internet)-based platforms, you’ve got mobile platforms — it’s all over the place,” D’Amico says. While distribution via emerging digital platforms may prove wildly profitable for indies a few years down the road, for now, as D’Amico notes, “It’s created a tremendous uncertainty in the marketplace.”

Digital distribution of movies has been billed for several years as a potential boon for the indie sector, with filmmakers and sales agents alike envisioning emerging platforms like VOD via digital cable and satellite systems, Internet downloads, and streaming video over mobile devices — all providing inexpensive, efficient mechanisms for circumventing cinema screens and DVD shelves crowded with studio product.

But no nonphysical distribution mechanism has yet emerged as a kind of globally dominant medium akin to VHS or DVD.

Sure, there are hot spots. Echo Bridge Entertainment exec VP Dan March says his company is already seeing strong VOD sales in territories like Japan. “Asia is moving real quickly,” he says.

But by and large, digital revenue remains nascent. For example, iTunes and Amazon, far and way the top digital movie distribution platforms in the U.S., won’t even say how much they’re making from downloads right now.

Digital is “increasingly important in terms of actual revenue,” points out Matt Dentler, who heads the digital rights management division at Gotham-based indie sales shop Cinetic Media. “But it’s (too) early to talk actual numbers.”

“The Internet isn’t paying upfront advances on anything yet,” adds Jean Prewitt, president and CEO of the Independent Film & Television Alliance, who has actively worked in recent years to educate her org’s constituency regarding digital rights issues. “You can have a library of 1,000 titles, and you’re probably not going to get a dime from any of the major online services at this point.”

Of course, for an indie sector hungry for ways to reach consumers, it’d be nice if the digital revolution would hurry up and get here.

“Everyone on all sides is frustrated because it’s not coming very fast,” Prewitt notes. “Ultimately, there will be money there. It’s just coming more slowly than any of us anticipated. Our message to our members is: Don’t get yourself caught in a situation where you’re giving away something valuable.”

For operators like D’Amico, that means making sure “you’re not shooting yourself in the foot” by signing a lot of exclusive rights deals. “We don’t know how a film is going to get to the consumer in the future, so we’re licensing a lot of VOD rights on a nonexclusive basis,” he explains.

While indie sellers can cover themselves for the future by structuring things like VOD windows in an open-ended way, truly capitalizing on emerging platforms will also require a level of commitment going forward.

“People think it’s as easy as picking up the phone and calling iTunes, but it’s really not,” says Dentler, whose firm is among only a handful of indies that supply a certain volume of pics to Apple’s leading download service. “It’s not unlike traditional distribution, where if you want to set up a deal with a Landmark or a Regal Cinemas, it’s going to be a process.”

Of course, setting up a deal to get your movie on a platform like iTunes “is only half the battle,” he adds. “Getting eyeballs to see it is the other half.”

Cinetic recently offered Richard Linklater’s 1991 cult smash “Slacker” on Hulu and made it stand out by having Kevin Smith contribute to the site a written intro in which he discussed the influence the film has had on his career.

“Sure enough, that brought it a lot of attention,” Dentler notes. “A lot of what we do (digitalwise) is grassroots promotion. There are a lot of opportunities out there.”