With the Sundance Film Festival just finished, filmmakers whose films didn’t get sold during the festival are now trying come up with a strategy to stay relevant in the eyes of buyers.
In the hopes of attracting some of the movies that aren’t having distributors knocking down their doors, Amazon announced before the festival began that any feature film that played at this year’s Sundance can join its Amazon Video Direct platform, a service that Amazon touts as being a “self-service publishing interface, without the need for complex negotiations or contracts.”
But numerous filmmakers and producers at Sundance who talked to Business Insider expressed uncertainty about how beneficial the service would be not just to titles at the fest, but for independent films that are desperately looking for some kind of release.
Amazon launched Amazon Video Direct (AVD) last May with the intention, as AVD head Eric Orme told Business Insider, to give filmmakers “another avenue if they don’t feel they will secure distribution.”
It’s free of charge to upload any film to the platform. The only requirement is that it must contain captions. You then select the options on how the movie will be viewed — rent, buy, available for free on the site with ads, or available on Amazon Prime. Then the movie is on the service for potentially millions to see.
A filmmaker can track how it’s performing by using their AVD dashboard to see how many people are viewing the content and where in the world it’s being viewed.
But because of the prestige that comes with being selected to show at Sundance, Amazon is dishing out upfront cash to entice filmmakers there.
In a program touted as “Film Festival Stars,” AVD will provide Sundance 2017 titles that join by February 28 a publishing bonus as well as enhanced royalty rates.
The non-recoupable, onetime bonus is $100,000 for titles that were in this year’s US dramatic or premieres categories at the fest. It’s $75,000 for US documentaries and documentary premieres. And $25,000 for titles that were in the world dramatic, world documentaries, NEXT, Spotlight, Kids, Midnight, or New Frontier sections.
Only Film Festival Stars receive upfront money for uploading to AVD.
This year’s Sundance titles that join AVD also will get enhanced royalties — 30 cents per hour of views in the US, 12 cents per hour for international views.
The standard AVD royalties are 15 cents per hour in the US and 6 cents per hour internationally. Across the board, the cap for royalties in a month is $75,000. Filmmakers also receive 50% of all purchase/rental fees for their movie (this will also be the split Sundance films receive when going on AVD).
The Sundance titles that join AVD give up their streaming rights for 24 months, and the first 12 months will be exclusive to Amazon.
“We have structured this in such a way that really helps support them if they don’t get the options they are hoping for,” Orme said of the Sundance filmmakers, adding that they consulted with filmmakers and distributors to come up with the Film Festival Stars initiative.
But filmmakers at Sundance Business Insider spoke to, along with established directors and producers who didn’t have titles at this year’s fest, voiced concerns about the offer.
Some felt $100,000 comes nowhere near a figure that will recoup the investors of their movies, while others feel the late February deadline is unfair since (outside of the headline-grabbing monster deals during the fest) Sundance titles typically don’t find distribution for six months to a year after the festival.
On the latter point, Orme said he understands what AVD is offering isn’t for every Sundance film and points out that this is only for streaming rights, and that the publishing bonus money can be used to promote a filmmaker’s title while looking for theatrical distribution.
The problem with that, however, is that most distributors who would entertain a theatrical deal also want the streaming rights to the film.
“I would just want filmmakers to really exhaust all of those other distribution possibilities before giving up streaming, because once you give up streaming, that’s it,” producer Mynette Louie (“The Invitation”) told IndieWire before Sundance began.
Another issue filmmakers have pointed out is that because of the secretive nature of how many people actually watch content on streaming services like Amazon and Netflix, it’s impossible to know if the figures AVD is offering are fair.
“Distributors withhold digital numbers from filmmakers, so there are no digital revenue comps available to run estimates to determine if this is a good deal for my film,” producer Rebecca Green (“It Follows”) told Business Insider. “For example, the deal stipulates that a film makes money per hour viewed, but what is the average length of time a film is watched on Amazon and how does that differ per genre? What statistics do I have about past films released on Amazon Direct, in the same way I can look up box-office numbers for every film released in theatres, in order for me to determine if 30 cents per hour is a good deal for my film? I can tell you that I do not have this information for even my own two films currently in the digital stage of their release. Maybe it is a good deal, but without the numbers to back it up, I really have no idea and neither does any other filmmaker selling their film.”
AVD states it will not announce the Sundance titles that have taken the Film Festival Stars deal until after the February 28 deadline (the titles will then be available on AVD this September), but two filmmakers who have found success already on the platform were at Sundance singing its praises.
Justin Doescher’s “The Break-In” and Danishka Esterhazy’s “Black Field” have been two of the standout titles since the start of AVD, as both have received the platform’s “AVD Stars” recognition — a cash bonus to filmmakers who are top performers on Prime.
Doescher joined AVD right when the service began in May as he had recently finished his movie and was figuring out where to show it other than film festivals.
Not receiving any acceptance letters to attend film festivals and not getting anyone to pay to watch his ultra-low-budget horror movie on Vimeo Pro, Doescher said he instantly found success when “The Break-In” showed up on Amazon Prime through AVD.
“For people who have Prime already it wasn’t a big deal to check out my movie as opposed to Vimeo Pro where they didn’t want to pay for something they didn’t know about,” Doescher told Business Insider.
Esterhazy is a Canadian filmmaker who had a successful festival run in her home country and a TV release, but she found no avenue to get her Gothic drama to an American audience until Amazon came along.
“I was thinking of trying to put it on iTunes or Netflix,” she said. “But my filmmaker friends who had tried that told me they spent a lot of money to get it on there and nobody watched their movies.”
Uploading “Black Field” for free to AVD was enticing and it has led to Esterhazy’s movie having hundreds of thousands of views on the platform since, according to her.
Both filmmakers were coy about how much they are making from AVD, though they said when they were named AVD Stars they made around $100,000, counting the bonus, in that particular month.
Orme says that like all Amazon initiatives, AVD will be tweaked as it evolves, but from the outside, at least at the moment, filmmakers are still skating carefully around this latest self-distribution option.
“I’m still trying to figure out what the immediate advantages are, unless you made your movie for less than the amount being offered,” said filmmaker Zach Clark, whose movies like “Little Sister” and “White Reindeer” have premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival, followed by distribution. “I just saw that they paid $2 million for a movie that premiered in competition at Sundance, so why offer only $100,000 to everyone else? Streaming rights are increasingly the only rights that matter for independent films, so I would be extremely cautious and sceptical about taking this offer, unless I had a $75,000 movie in competition. And honestly, how many $75,000 movies are in competition at Sundance this year?”
Note: Business Insider is a partner in Amazon Video Direct.
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