Filmmakers Moving Where the Money Is: Digital TV Series

Filmmakers choosing TV over Movies Netflix
Christoph Hitz for Variety

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.”