Digital distribution’s impact hard to pin down

Download figures hard to obtain

While Internet distribution has been hyped as the long-tailed future of the indie sector, figuring out how much all the various portals benefit a pic’s bottom line right now is tricky.

In June, the dominant market player, Apple’s iTunes store, said it was delivering 50,000 movie downloads a day, but that’s been about the only hard data released indicating this emerging medium’s reach.

None of the other established film portals — Amazon’s Unbox, Netflix, Movielink, CinemaNow, Hulu, Juiced, Jaman, just to name a few — will release figures as to how many downloads they’re delivering or how much money any of their titles are making. It’s likely that everyone else is delivering just a tiny fraction of iTunes’ volume.

“This business overall is pretty small,” concedes Ted Sarandos, chief content officer for Netflix, which currently offers about 12,000 pics out of its 100,000-plus-title catalog for download.

Meanwhile, it’s been hard to assess how much of a democratizing force the Internet will actually become for indie filmmakers looking to self-distribute. Sure, indie titles aren’t shut out from iTunes in the same way they are from Wal-Mart’s finite brick-and-mortar shelves. But the dominant online distributor has plenty of its own barriers to entry, only acquiring titles from name-brand aggregators.

Matt Dentler, who heads up Gotham sales shop Cinetic’s new Digital Rights Management unit, just finalized a deal to provide pics to iTunes. “There are so many films from so many filmmakers,” he says, “they feel it’s best to do business with a company like ours.”

While the digital film biz is still small, and remains complicated by myriad portals with widely disparate deal structures, audience profiles and technology requirements, the long-term upside to the indie sector — upscale, technology-comfortable niche auds available in significant numbers — remains compelling to suppliers.

The download biz’s “most tangible opportunity is probably in the independent space,” Sarandos says. “Independent film is the content that’s least encumbered.” Indeed, indie pics have been the commodity of choice for many film portals, with studios remaining reluctant to make their catalogs available for download en masse, concerned about everything from piracy to undermining disc formats to violating release pacts.

Meanwhile, as movie portals continue to find new ways to transition from the computer screen to the living room — indie specialty site Jaman, for example, can now upload its wares directly to TiVo boxes and Xbox consoles — it seems possible that at least a few movie portals will soon tap into a larger audience base.

They may not be there yet, but sales execs like Dentler believe these digital channels will soon be a primary means to connecting with arthouse enthusiasts. “It’s the Wild West right now,” he says. “We’re all trying to create a successful model. The typical arthouse-going, young-adult audience isn’t going to the cinema like they used to. But it’s our belief that there is still a thirst for quality independent film.”