RedShark Replay: Once upon a time Roland Denning had a part in making a small, independent documentary film. Having jumped though all sorts of hoops and spent significant amounts of money to have it distributed online, he can now find it pirated and available for nothing to anyone who wants it on YouTube. Here he tells the story...
A generation has grown up expecting music, films and TV to be free. The download genie has not just come out of the bottle, it’s smashed that bottle into a thousand pieces. Unauthorised downloading of music and movies is no longer marginal - it’s the norm.
Behind this is, of course, a massive historical shift. We have moved from a world where information and entertainment was contained in physical objects, bought or rented, to one where content exists in computer files that can be copied and transmitted endlessly with no loss of information at virtually no cost. Cinema, which in its heyday offered an experience which simply could not exist elsewhere, now offers us a picture that is barely better than the HD screen in our home, yet seat prices have risen dramatically. The economic models we are working with are based on a radically different era; no wonder filmmakers struggle to find ways of getting paid for their films.
Online distribution was seen by many as way for filmmakers to compensate for falling DVD sales and cinema attendances and, importantly, support a much wider and richer range of films. What follows in my own experience of getting an independent film distributed.
Distributing Mirage Men
Mirage Men is an documentary feature I am credited with co-producing, co-directing and co-editing (officially it is ‘a film by’ John Lundberg, Mark Pilkington, Kypros Kyprianou and myself). A story of how the US military helped to create the UFO cult to obscure certain secret developments the public had stumbled upon, the film was well received at the Sheffield DocFest in 2013 and had its US premiere at FantasticFest in Austin, Texas later that year. Soon after that we got a sympathetic Sales Agent and, eventually. a US distribution deal.
All seemed to being going very well. The US distributors offered us a reasonable, if not massive, minimum guarantee, payable in instalments. They saw the main market for our film was transactional (pay-per-view) Video On Demand - they had already had a great success with another (but totally different) documentary that featured UFOs, taking $250k in the first 24 hours. This previous documentary was of the evangelical ‘aliens are among us, tell your friends!’ type - our was very different, a cold war story of misinformation and manipulation; altogether far more sceptical and ambiguous. I don’t think the distributors ever quite got this. Nor has any independent documentary since, as far as I know, got anything like that return through VOD.
As is standard practice in the USA, the distributors required E & O (Errors and Omissions) insurance - basically a cover to stop themselves being sued. This is relatively easy to buy, but first the film needs to be scrutinised by a lawyer. They also wanted a Title Search (which seems to amount to paying a lawyer to Google the title to make sure no one else has used it). All these are producers’, not distributors’, expenses and the bills came to thousands. Also required were audio transcripts, a post-production script and Closed Captions sub-titles (CCs are rare in the UK - in fact, I couldn’t find a company here to do them I ended up doing them myself - and that’s a whole other story). We were also asked to make a 60 minute TV version. All of this adds up to a considerable amount of labour in addition to the costs. None of this will come as a surprise to anyone with experience of feature distribution, but it may be news to those who think online distribution is simply a matter of uploading a file. Then there are the technical hurdles.
Time to transcode
Our finished film existed as a 1080 ProRes422HQ file at 25fps. The US distributors were happy with this, but they also wanted a 24fps file (24, of course, meaning 23.976). And a 24fps HDCam SR tape with 10 audio channels (this was way back in late 2013 and, even then, I was surprised they insisted on a tape copy). The audio channels contained a stereo mix, Dolby surround and separate M & E (music and effects) tracks.
Now there are two basic ways of transcoding a 25fps film to 24fps; the first is on a frame by frame basis, which preserves the integrity of the picture but means your film is around 5% slower and longer. You also need to do a pitch correction to the audio so it doesn’t sound slowed down and this can introduce unwanted audio artefacts. The second way is to use a standards convertor like an Alchemist or a Teranex to shift the frame rate but maintain the running time and speed. This preserves the audio intact but can introduce visual artefacts, but in the end, this was the route we chose, with satisfactory results. I don’t think I need to point out how all of these stages cost money, and for an independent, self-funded movie, those costs are significant.
If you get a reasonable minimum guarantee, you are resigned to the fact you are unlikely to get any more. The distributors deduct their marketing costs and production costs and, before that, the sub-distributors (like the companies who handle VOD and DVD), have deducted theirs. Once the minimum guarantee is paid off, the distributors also take a share of what is left - but, of course, it seldom gets to that stage. And the Sales Agent takes his cut of the money that is coming to you. At one point, we didn’t even think we were going to see all of the minimum guarantee; the distributors were ‘disappointed’ with the returns and the final payment was delayed by over 6 months. Like many other distributors who had invested their resources in VOD, they seemed to be in trouble.