For the past 30 years, I’ve toiled in the vineyards of independent film, cultivating the voices of new directors and writers. While not every one of our films is an Academy Award-nominee, they all tap into underserved audiences.
A proposed Federal Communications Commission rule would change all that and turn our handcrafted indie movie “wine” into water.
I come to my perspective by diligent hard work over many years involving more than 1,000 films. I’ve sold movies in almost every country and have had direct experience dealing with virtually all forms of media across every distribution platform. Among the films I’ve distributed or sold in recent years have been a number of documentaries, including “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “No End in Sight” about the Iraq war and “Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired the Civil Rights Movement.”
The economic lifeblood of independent films is a relatively new form of distribution called Transactional Video-on-Demand. It has allowed our businesses to grow for the first time in years, and we work in concert with the electronic distribution platforms — cable, telephone, satellite and Internet companies — to market our movies directly to the home. With each rental or purchase from each consumer, we earn money for our filmmakers.
The structure of our relationship with the platforms is on a percentage basis. Thus, everyone — the platforms, the distributors and the filmmakers — are all rewarded when a title performs well. This joint reward encourages us to work together on marketing.
Big companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, Verizon and Dish don’t just give away their display space. We must fight for position on their user interfaces. We have to spend hard dollars on marketing and prove that our product will perform well.
That’s one of the big problems with the proposed FCC rule called “AllVid,” which would allow third-party tech companies into your home through your cable box. AllVid would cause our nascent Transactional Video-On-Demand business irreparable harm, because it would allow these third parties to control how TV programming is marketed to consumers. Since they would not share in the revenue, they would be unlikely to promote independent movies. In fact, once they realize that promotion is our lifeblood, they likely would charge us to promote our titles on their user interface — advertising money we could not afford.
We would lose our placement on the user interface. We would lose marketing, and marketing really matters. How else would a consumer know a movie is available? The key to successful distribution of a film or show isn’t making sure that it’s everywhere. The key is making sure that people know it’s somewhere. For a product to do well in a store, it needs to be prominently displayed.
Revenue from Internet platforms such as Google, Apple, Amazon, Vudu and Vimeo would not be enough to make up the difference. More independent distributors would close. More independent films would not make it to market. Fewer independent films would be make at all.
The second big problem with the proposed FCC rule is that it would open the door to more piracy by encouraging pirate sites to appear right next to our legitimate offerings on your home TV screen — just as they now try to undercut us online.
Pirates have taken many shapes over the years. These days, they comfortably sit by their computer servers collecting ad revenue from content created by my peers and me. Sadly, no one seems horrified by this — they think that only wealthy people are being damaged by these seemingly small crimes.
With the growth of piracy, it has become more difficult for small companies — such as the one I run now with my wife — to survive. Anything that helps piracy proliferate would be devastating. Many independent film producers, directors and distributors have had to find other ways to make a living. Their voices have been silenced.
If the government is truly concerned about creating a competitive environment, it ought to find ways to support small businesses like mine. If the government is concerned about securing a space for new and varied voices, it ought to find ways to support the filmmakers who depend on the small companies to spend the time, energy and money required for their work to be seen.
Meyer Shwarzstein is founder and CEO of Brainstorm Media, based in Beverly Hills, Calif. He has produced several theatrical films as well as movies and series for DIRECTV, Lifetime, Hallmark, Oxygen, PBS and other networks.