×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Filmmakers Moving Where the Money Is: Digital TV Series

For independent filmmakers, digital TV series may be the next green.

Like many directors, Paul Schrader acknowledges the difficulty of finding money for his projects. He had to fund last year’s “The Canyons,” starring Lindsay Lohan, on Kickstarter, a process he’s not sure he’d try again. “It’s the kind of thing that’s fun to do once,” he says. “Independent film is not lucrative anymore. People are discovering you can lose money on a $500,000 movie.”

As Netflix and Amazon bulk up on original entertainment, they’re largely focused on buying TV series, which perform better on their services than movies do. The result is that indie moviemakers are starting to think more about crafting, episodic TV-like projects for play on digital screens.

“It’s not a surprise to me that more and more filmmakers are telling me they are working on an eight-episode story than (that) they just finished another screenplay,” says indie film pioneer Ted Hope, the CEO of Fandor, a San Francisco-based platform for independent films. In December, Hope wrote an article titled “Why I Am No Longer Going to Produce Films for My Living.”

The surge of episodic investment does raise the question of whether feature filmmakers will ever get a share of digital dollars. That currently seems unlikely, since online VOD services are strategizing around the higher viewing they get from those watching multiple episodes of a TV show.

“It was very clear to us that we needed to get into the series business,” says Roy Price, head of Amazon Studios.

Netflix’s first season of “Orange Is the New Black” will certainly see a jump in views leading up to the soph installment’s June 6 debut, and that’s by design, with availability of the earlier season to whet the appetite.

Key issues are that films don’t build up a continuing audience. Nor do they invite binge viewing. “It’s a one-time event,” Price says. “There is still a lot of value there, and we want to be in that business, but in terms of promoting engagement with a video service, there’s nothing like a TV series.”

Meanwhile, Netflix, unlike earlier days when it was thought of as a potential boost for indie films, now describes itself as a “global Internet TV network.” Certainly movies are in the mix, but the company pegs its biggest long-term competitor for content as HBO.

Moreover, a series is financially less risky than a film, and the economic payback on the dollars invested favor episodic programming, according to industry execs. “It’s expensive to create a movie,” says Rob Hayes, exec VP of digital media for NBC Entertainment, who previously worked at Showtime Networks. “A series gives you better longevity and better margins.”

Independent filmmakers like Lena Dunham, Lynn Shelton and Miguel Arteta have adapted to this new market by pitching (and winning) TV projects. And in many ways, other filmmakers are finding that the digital realm is friendlier than traditional networks to indie sensibilities. Filmmakers say they are afforded more creative freedom, and there’s lower (or zero) ratings pressure. Digital providers aren’t looking for a project that will perform well at, say, 8:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, and they are more open to distinctive voices and innovative storytelling — programming that has a hard time breaking through on broadcast TV.

“For creators like me, (digital is) exciting and it’s liberating,” says Josh Greenbaum, an Emmy-winning filmmaker, whose “Behind the Mask” docuseries was picked up by Hulu. The show, which follows four sports mascots around the country, would not have been a match as a project for primetime TV, Greenbaum believes. “It doesn’t follow a format people are super-familiar with,” he says. Neither would it have worked as a 90-minute longform documentary, Greenbaum maintains. But a serial format can deliver a richer tale: “Behind the Mask” comprises 10 episodes of 22 minutes — a total of 220 minutes.

Digital services aren’t entirely ignoring longform, but it’s still a slow trickle. Amazon has 28 movies on its production slate, including sci-fi thriller “Touching Blue” from producer Denise Di Novi (“Crazy, Stupid, Love”). But Price says movies simply proceed at a slower pace than series do. “When we get one just right and golden brown, we’ll start figuring out the dates,” he says. “We don’t have a calendar when we need to hit a particular date.”

Vimeo announced in March that it had set aside $10 million to help independent film directors fund and promote their work. And Kickstarter continues to remain a popular avenue for young filmmakers to raise money. “From a creative perspective, independent film is really strong right now,” Hope says.

But not everybody is sure if such films can thrive digitally. Says Schrader: “My feeling about Amazon and Netflix is that they are probably going to be even more brutal than independent equity money, because they are at heart number crunchers, not filmmakers.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Sybil

    Cannes Competition Movie 'Sybil' Finds North American Home With Music Box (EXCLUSIVE)

    Music Box Films has acquired the U.S. and Canadian rights to Justine Triet’s darkly comic drama “Sibyl” which competed at Cannes and had its North American premiere at Toronto in the Special Presentation section. Represented in international markets by mk2, the film follows the ambiguous relationship between Sybil, a jaded psychotherapist (Virginie Efira, “An Impossible [...]

  • Kent Jones Directs 'Diane'

    Kent Jones to Exit New York Film Festival (EXCLUSIVE)

    In a surprise move, New York Film Festival’s director and selection committee chair of seven years Kent Jones will step down following this year’s 57th edition, which runs Sept. 27-Oct. 13. The departure comes as Jones’ feature filmmaking career is taking off. Issues of potential conflicts of interest have arisen as his work has moved [...]

  • Ava-Mark-Split

    Ava DuVernay, Mark Ruffalo Selected for SAG-AFTRA Foundation Honors

    Ava DuVernay and Mark Ruffalo have been selected by the SAG-AFTRA Foundation for its fourth Annual Patron of the Artists Awards. The awards will be presented on Nov. 7 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. The show benefits the nonprofit SAG-AFTRA Foundation and is not televised. Previous SAG-AFTRA Foundation Patron of the [...]

  • Wes Anderson

    Fox Searchlight Buys Wes Anderson's 'The French Dispatch'

    Fox Searchlight Pictures has acquired worldwide rights to Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” extending the indie studio’s long collaboration with the filmmaker. The company has released four of Anderson’s films, including his two most recent pictures, “Isle of Dogs” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” “The French Dispatch” is described as “a love letter to journalists” [...]

  • If I Were a Rich Man

    Filmax Nabs Alvaro Fernandez Armero’s ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN – Filmax has taken international rights to Álvaro Fernández Armero’s comedy “If I Were a Rich Man.” Produced by Telecinco Cinema, Think Studio and Ciskul, and backed by Mediaset España and Movistar+, “If I Were a Rich Man” is a Spanish remake of Michel Munz and Gerard Bitton’s French comedy “Ah! Si j’étais [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content