Rebecca Norris gives indie filmmakers 5 reasons to self-distribute your film on Amazon Video Direct, for international distribution without the middleman.
Rebecca Norris is a writer and filmmaker with her production company Freebird Entertainment. Her award-winning self-produced feature film, Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine, is currently on the festival circuit and distributed on Streaming and DVD. Rebecca is also a script analyst who has read for multiple contests and production companies, as well as her own script consultancy, Script Authority. Follow Rebecca’s posts on Twitter at @beckaroohoo and at #ScriptTip!
If you’ve read any of my past articles, you know I’m a big fan of self-producing your own writing. Why wait for someone else to produce your work if you can do it yourself? Well, the same goes for distribution. It’s not a new concept—clearly platforms like YouTube and Vimeo have been allowing creators to upload and distribute their work for years—but there’s another major player in the mix: Amazon. If you’re not yet familiar, last year, Amazon launched Amazon Video Direct, a direct-to-Amazon pipeline that allows filmmakers to distribute their films to TVs and mobile devices around the world, without the middleman. I recently used the service to distribute my feature film, Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine, on Amazon Video streaming. Based on my experience, I wanted to share 5 Reasons to self-distribute your film on Amazon Video Direct, as well as a few drawbacks to the platform as well.
Until recently, an indie filmmaker needed to pay an aggregator (a company that has a direct relationship with streaming platforms) to distribute a feature film on Amazon. Depending on the service, placement on Amazon through an aggregator can cost filmmakers upwards of $1000-1500 or more, sometimes with additional annual fees attached. Although many streaming platforms, such as iTunes, still require an aggregator to place digital content, Amazon no longer does. Amazon Video Direct doesn’t cost the filmmaker anything, yet filmmakers still get the same revenue split on rentals and sales as they would with most aggregators.
At the time of this writing, filmmakers can distribute on Amazon in four territories: United States, United Kingdom, Germany/Austria, and Japan. Filmmakers have control over which of these territories they’d like their films to be available in, and can change their films’ availability in those territories as they wish.
Filmmakers Have Control Over the Platform
Control is one of the key advantages of self-distribution over working with a traditional distributor. With a traditional distributor, a filmmaker essentially hands over control of his or her project for a period of time. Generally, depending on the deal you strike, distributors can often recut the trailer, change the artwork, re-design the poster, and even rename the film. They also control the presentation of the film up on the different streaming platforms. They may rewrite the logline and summary, and can price the film however they choose. This can cause a lot of consternation if a film isn’t being represented the way the filmmaker had hoped. Also, if there are any mistakes or spelling errors on your online platforms, there’s a good chance it will take many weeks or months to fix them, if they are even fixed at all. At the low-budget indie level, the filmmaker is also generally expected to do a lot of the marketing to sell units, even if he or she disagrees with the way the film has been presented.
I want to point out that this is not to knock traditional distributors at all. Some of them do a great job and care about the filmmakers and films they represent, and their connections can take a film much farther than self-distribution can. Unfortunately, not all of them fall into that category, so it’s important to know what kind of deal you’re signing and what kind of arrangement you’re getting into. If you feel you want to have 100% control over the presentation and marketing of your film, then self-distribution might be your best bet.
On Amazon Video Direct, you can control the trailer, artwork, and the poster you upload, as well as the text of the synopsis of the film. You can also control the pricing, release date, and the territories the film is released in, as well as the billing of the cast and crew.
Filmmakers can also choose the revenue model for their films. You can choose between Rent, Buy, Included with Prime, or Free with Pre-Roll Ad, or any combination thereof. Rent and Buy offer a 50/50 revenue share between Amazon and the filmmaker, whereas filmmakers make a tiny amount off of Prime hours streamed for Included with Prime. Free with Pre-Roll ad, which is only recommended for shorter projects, not features, offers 55% of the advertising revenue for views of your film.
Filmmakers looking to earn revenue may want to choose Rent/Buy options, whereas filmmakers chiefly concerned about exposure may want to choose to be included with Prime to reach a wider potential audience. (Films included in a Prime subscription are essentially “free” to the viewer, who has paid a monthly or yearly subscription fee to access unlimited content.) Other filmmakers may want to start off as Rent/Buy and then eventually add themselves to Prime down the line once sales have slowed. Whichever way you go, those options can be changed at any time.
Filmmakers Can See Their True Earnings
Another beef that filmmakers often have with traditional distributors is the general lack of transparency that comes along with the sales of their films. It’s practically impossible for the filmmakers to truly know exactly how many units they’ve sold, or how many minutes they’ve streamed, because the filmmakers don’t have direct access to that information. Also, distributors usually have a clause in contracts that their expenses need to be recouped before the filmmaker willsee any profits. Not all distributors share the amount of their expenses or report them accurately, so it’s not uncommon for low-budget indie filmmakers to not see any money from their distributed films.
This is not the case on Amazon Video Direct. Filmmakers have immediate access to view their analytics and earnings in their territories just by logging into the site. When you sign up for the platform, you choose a payment method for Amazon to deliver your earnings, so when the time comes to receive payment, everything’s already set up for you.
You Can Make Changes at Any Time
With traditional distribution, as mentioned, you usually relinquish control over your project, to at least some degree. If you disagree with the online pricing of your film, for instance, there’s usually not much you can do about it. The distributor has control over that. If you want to update your film’s logline, or upload a new poster, that’s likely not going to happen. Once it’s out there, it’s out there, and changes may either occur very slowly or may not happen at all.
The beauty of Amazon Video Direct is that you can make changes and updates yourself. You can upload a new poster, change your pricing, or add or remove territories with just a few clicks.
As helpful as this platform can be to the low-budget indie filmmaker, there are a few potential drawbacks to using Amazon Video Direct. First off, you need to have a certain level of tech savvy. Although its design is streamlined and simple, the platform isn’t the easiest to grasp at first. It takes a little playing around and reading articles in the Support section to fully understand some aspects of the platform. If you don’t like dealing with technical specifications, aspect ratios, varying file formats, and frustrating large files that take many hours to upload (if they upload at all), then you may struggle with Amazon Video Direct.
Secondly, if you like to talk to customer service agents when you have questions, that isn’t going to happen. Like IMDb and Withoutabox, also owned by Amazon, there isn’t a “person” to talk to—customer service questions are submitted via a contact form and everything is handled via email. So if you like that personal touch of being able to speak to a representative, Amazon Video Direct may not be the choice for you.
Thirdly, although you can customize the price of your film, Amazon does reserve the right to change your pricing depending on what competitive products are selling for. This is something that even traditional distributors have to deal with when it comes to Amazon. So although you do have control over your pricing on the back end of the site, ultimately, it’s Amazon who may decide to change your price if what you’ve chosen isn’t competitive with similar titles.
Speaking of money, another potential issue is the revenue split. For rentals and sales, the 50/50 split you get with Amazon is pretty standard with a lot of distribution deals for low-budget indies. However, if you choose to go with Prime, the 15-cent per hour streamed revenue split isn’t exactly enticing. That means if someone watches a 2-hour movie on Prime, the filmmaker only makes 30 cents. One could argue that the viewer hasn’t really paid for the film itself, since he or she paid for an unlimited Prime subscription for the month or year. However, it still isn’t the best deal for filmmakers, unless you’re solely looking for exposure.
Altogether, I believe the benefits of Amazon Video Direct outweigh the drawbacks. For those of us indie filmmakers that don’t have thousands of dollars for aggregators at the moment, Amazon Video Direct provides free access to one of the most prominent platforms in the world, as well as international distribution to millions of potential viewers.
Have you used Amazon Video Direct? Share your experience in the comments!