FROM ITS INCEPTION BEFORE WORLD WAR II through its early years, anyone who owned a television set with bunny ears could receive transmissions free of charge. Viewers watched stations like NBC, CBS, ABC and the BBC that hit the air with shows like “Howdy Doody,” “Meet the Press,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Tonight Show,” “The Lone Ranger,” “The HoneyMooners” or “The Benny Hill Show,” Hill Show,” to name just a few.
As early as the 1940s you could also watch sports, including the 1947 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers (the Yanks won in seven) and even the first Emmy Awards — all free of charge.
Nowadays, many viewers may spend $80 to $100 a month to watch favorite programming, whether they use cable or they’re cord-cutters. But cord-cutters still have to pay for internet and individual subscriptions, such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, according to cordcutting.com, a trade publication that says it will help you “find the best live TV streaming services.”
With a new onslaught of subscription services starting in the coming months — they’ll likely rival even the best available, including Apple TV+ and Disney+ — you can be sure of this much: You are about to start paying more if you want to see all of your favorite shows. And yes, it looks like these services may put a real dent in Netflix’s strong hold on eyeballs.
Paid cable TV, which was originally introduced to bring a better picture to viewers in mountainous or geographically remote areas in the late 1950s, offered an opportunity for programming that was originally seen as competitive and thus frozen from businesses through the 1970s. The earliest of original television programming services started with HBO in 1972, shortly thereafter followed by WTBS — then Ted Turner’s — into the 1980s, when nearly 50 million households subscribed to cable TV. And, yes, we paid for it.
Popular channels like MTV, CNN, USA, BET, CSPAN and ESPN sprung up and hundreds of others were available if you anteed up the monthly cable TV subscription. Now in 2019, it seems many can’t live without some of these channels. But others have cut the cord.
By 1990, over 57 percent of TV households in the U.S. subscribed to cable TV services. By 1998, there were 170 networks. And by 2006, there were 115 million subscribers. Now, Netflix has more than 151 million streaming subscribers worldwide. The company is arguably the leader in distribution, especially among cord-cutters — the many millions of millennials and others who saw cable as too expensive and excessive. Many of these cord-cutters are finding that in addition to the expense they incur for streaming of internet and Netflix, more and more subscription services are breaking from and competing with the subscription giant.
Disney recently pulled all of its shows from Netflix to start its own streaming service, a logical move, since the company may have some of the best content out there, say many viewers.
As a consumer, it makes sense, too. Think of watching all your favorite Disney movies along with all of Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar. (They also throw in National Geographic). So, Disney’s channel is poised to challenge Netflix for subscribers. Ads for it started, on free TV no less, during the Emmys on Sept. 22. Pre-orders for the channel are being accepted at $6.99 per month or $70 per year. It is slated to begin Nov. 12.
That isn’t the only bad news for Netflix. Two super-popular classic shows, “Friends” and “The Office,” will be leaving for competing streaming services — NBCUniversal’s Peacock and HBO Max — both slated to stream next April. Both also plan their own channels that millions will subscribe to because, well, it is “Friends” and “The Office.” Will viewers pay an additional $10 to $15 a month to continue Netflix? Time will tell.
Netflix’s recent acquisition of “Seinfeld” suggests the company is concerned. While Netflix offered informative background for this story, the company would not go on record to comment. The negotiated deal, however, may be one of the biggest sales in the history of television.
Apple TV+ is advertising that it will include original shows with some pretty heavy hitters, including Oprah, Jennifer Anniston, Jason Momoa, Hailee Steinfeld and Snoopy. Snoopy, you say? Just take my money.
A golden age?
This kind of fierce competition for your viewing habits, and thus subscription dollars, puts significant pressure on such professionals as content creators or filmmakers. They may be asking, “Is now the best and biggest time for me to sell?” Many subscription services appear to blow through cash that viewers of rabbit-ear television in the 1940s couldn’t have imagined, suggesting a straightforward answer: Yes, now may be the time.
Service subscribers now want immediately accessible go-to channels. At the end of the chain are content generators looking to make that deal. In-between them stand agents, dealmakers and production companies, all getting in on the act.
So how does original content make it to streaming services? This is a great question if you are an up and coming filmmaker. The answer is this: There is no clear path, but numerous options. (See our distribution board game on the following page.)
Netflix purchased rights to filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett’s work after his documentary film “Alive Inside” won the audience favorite at the Sundance
Film Festival in 2014. (You can stream it on Netflix right now or purchase the film on Amazon Prime.) His kiss with film fame and direct-to-distribution on your screen via multiple streaming services was nothing short of kismet.
The filmmaker has repeatedly described how, by happenstance, he found himself “in a post office two minutes before closing to barely make the submission date requirements” for Sundance. “I remember I had a serious discussion with my wife questioning if the $100 fee to submit to Sundance was really worth it,” he reminisced over the phone while taking a stroll in New York City recently. Five years later his film has been distributed internationally, theatrically and — in a deal with undisclosed terms — on demand.
Moral of the story? The first thing is you have to make some sacrifices — and have a smidgen of luck.
And Mr. Rossato-Bennett’s deal was made before the competition really started to heat up.
Now it seems like some sort of golden age for content and distribution.
“This is a golden age,” said Jonathan Wolf, managing director of the American Film Market, “but only if you are an actual worker — an actor, writer, director or cinematographer looking for work.” The market, which sees around $1 billion in film and television sales during its annual gathering in Santa Monica — this year from Nov. 6 to 13 — will mark its 40th anniversary in the business.
It is produced by the Independent Film & Television Alliance, a global trade association of the independent motion picture and television programming industry.
“It is not a golden age of the producer, however,” Mr. Wolf added. Producers work for the bigger distribution companies. Netflix will pay a producer, for example, and then place an additional demand on him or her, leaving contractual negotiations flat. “The producer will then just be asked to go out and find the next big deal.”
Whether this also is a golden age of independent productions depends on how you define independent, in Mr. Wolf ’s mind. “Some say ‘independent’ means low-budget films with 100 percent of the creator’s vision. But it really is when the production is separate, apart from market leaders. If the risk comes from outside of there, it is independent.”
As an example, he points to a film that won the indie spirit award in 2004 in Santa Monica, Calif. “The film ‘Sideways’ was considered independent because it was low-budget, but it was financed by Fox Searchlight, which took all of the risk. The very next year ‘Million Dollar Baby’ emerged, taking Oscars for best picture, director, actress and supporting actor. Several studios rejected the project, so it needed to be more independently financed.”
However you define it, other independent filmmakers who have seen success slowly and over years still view distribution as something less than an easy path.
Different paths and motives
Known for movies such as “The Cove” and “Racing Extinction,” Academy Award winning filmmaker Louis Psihoyos’ current film, “The Game Changers,” was made available on iTunes starting Oct. 1, for $14.99. It first appeared at Sundance in 2018. At the screening in Park City, Mr. Psihoyos described how distribution would be different now that he has a couple of award-winning films under his belt.
Going directly to sales was something he could only wish for in the early days of his work, he recalls. Now, though, distribution companies are seeking him out — and his films are treasured if and when they play on their streaming services, giving him an even more muscular reputation. Leading up to the release of “The Game Changers,” for example, his film was beating “Toy Story 4” and “The Lion King” on iTunes for pre-order.
But money isn’t everything. “When we sit down with backers, we make it clear the mission for our films is to make a difference,” he said in an interview. “You need to all be on the same page when it comes to if your intent is to get the best sale or reach the greatest number of viewers. Ours is to make a difference.”
Mr. Psihoyos has distributed films on Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streamers before giving the Discovery Channel distribution rights to his film “Racing Extinction.” It is somewhat telling that he’s chosen to go directly to consumers through iTunes with his latest documentary. “The Game Changers” is the story of James Wilks — an elite special forces trainer and winner of The Ultimate Fighter — as he travels the world to learn the truth behind the world’s most dangerous myth: that meat is necessary for protein, strength and optimal health. What Wilks discovers permanently changes his relationship with food and his definition of true strength. The film’s executive producer is James Cameron.
In addition to making films, Mr. Psihoyos is executive director of the nonprofit Oceanic Preservation Society.
“The stories we tell are driven by our objective to create meaningful impact,” he says on the OPS website (www.opsociety.org)
His films have lived up to that mission. “Since the release of ‘The Cove’ — which earned the 2009 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary — over 15 countries have banned dolphin captivity,” a news release states. “The number of dolphins killed in Japan plummeted from 23,000 to 6,000 annually, and the town of Taiji also stopped serving mercury-laden dolphin meat in its school lunch program. Today, hundreds of thousands of people continue to place social media pressure on Taiji, in addition to pursuing more traditional forms of protest.” In addition, OPS says, “the campaign we built around ‘Racing Extinction’ — which received 36 million views in 220 countries and territories in just 24 hours when it aired on the Discovery Channel — contributed to the passage of laws in Washington, Oregon and California banning the trade of 10 endangered species.”
Mr. Psihoyos’s wish “is to show the world the decline of the oceans — Our planet’s most crucial resource.”
Would he distribute his first films differently today if he had the chance? Yes. “By accepting the terms of some distribution companies, you limit your potential to get word out. And in my opinion, this is the most crucial aspect to being a filmmaker.”
Like Mr. Psihoyos, filmmaker Ted Dintersmith also chose a different route from most filmmakers seeking mostly a profit. “We really wanted to reach as many as possible with the message,” he said, describing his self-distribution of “Most Likely to Succeed.” His film kicked off the Fort Myers Film Festival in 2015, after successfully screening at the Sundance Film Festival in the same year. A thought-provoking documentary feature, the film reveals the growing shortcomings of conventional education in today’s innovative world, coincidentally offering alternative approaches to revolutionize filmmaking. “By going a traditional distribution route, we considered that it may be less available to certain markets,” he said. But by screening in dozens of film festivals he raised an awareness that earned the film buzz all over the world. Now, it self distributes through the website www.teddintersmith.com/mltsfilm and on Amazon, Google and iTunes.
When films like these get attention from some of the finest film festivals in the world — at Sundance, for example — companies want to purchase them. Details of the transactions are always different, it seems.
Advice on the best way to take advantage of this “Golden Age” of content distribution varies.
“Play festivals and see what the biggest, most prestigious festival you can get into is — let that be your festival premiere and continue from there in your festival run,” Liz Manashil said. As a filmmaker and the manager at Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Initiative, she’s advised some of the best. “Distributors do look at some festival announcements. If you are looking for a distribution partner, that’s one way — just allowing yourself to be found by positing yourself as a valuable commodity.”
Also, she said, “There are some distributors that are flexible to hybrid distribution and will allow you to split rights between different partners. For example, I’m going to be working with a smaller company who is going to advise on marketing without spending on marketing, taking a small split, and helping with merchandising of my film and pitches for cable and SVOD (subscription video on demand is a service that gives users unlimited access to programs for a monthly rate, like Netflix).
“I’ll also be taking on some things myself because I want to learn — airlines and theatrical. As we say a lot, ‘getting distribution’ is actually quite easy. Marketing is the hard stuff.”
This advice works for some but not for all. “I just went Amazon Prime,” says John Scoular, a filmmaker living in Naples who has tried various routes with his full-length features. His latest film, “Marcus Jansen: Examine and Report,” a documentary on Southwest Florida artist Marcus Jansen, is available for rent or purchase on Amazon. His experiences with past films led him to appreciate this distribution strategy for independent filmmakers. “I’ve gone numerous routes, and this one is favorable to profiting the artist and not just the distribution companies.” That, in addition to Vimeo and Vevo, which offer full control of distribution to the filmmaker with direct to rent or purchase options, is crucial for artists who want to retain some control.
“It’s important that filmmakers maintain control of their distribution, even when they happen to turn out not being great deals after all,” said Eric Streeper, founder and CEO of XerbTV, who encourages filmmakers’ direct requests. “Distribution has always been what makes a studio a studio. But where Netflix changed that model, they really just took it and put it online. We think if you can make that accessible to anyone, that makes it very, very powerful.” His company offers streaming services from independent filmmakers and film festivals, giving money directly to them, unlike many other companies.
You still need to get buzz, the experts agree, and film festivals can often provide that. If the film screens successfully at some of the bigger festivals, it’s more likely to appeal to someone who hasn’t seen it. “It also helps if you have stars in the film,” said Mat Levy, head of acquisition and sales at Passion River Films. The company, now distributing “Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story,” specializes in films “that engage with audiences and impact communities. We handle distribution to theaters, VOD, home video, and to academic and digital markets.”
According to the company’s website, “Passion River’s diverse catalog features Academy Award and Emmy-winning films, as well as films that have been recognized at Independent Spirit Awards, Sundance Film Festival, SXSW, Tribeca Film Festival and many other prestigious events.” Mr. Levy said it is one of a few companies that will take a look at filmmakers’ work without an agent intermediary. “It’s hard. We have hundreds of cold submissions, and we can only screen so many. But we try.”
Netflix, to the contrary, has a policy of not accepting “unsolicited submissions” that basically excludes filmmakers without a licensed literary agent, producer, attorney, manager or entertainment executive who already has a relationship with Netflix.
Festivals and distribution
While film festivals are important, screening films there before, during or after distribution remains an open question.
“You get a film that has done well in several film festivals, and has garnered some excitement, and it comes to the American Film Market, and some companies start to wonder how much control they have over the distribution,” said Jonathan Wolf of AFM. “Getting your film looked at by an agent before even going to festivals is a good idea.” Better yet, getting your film ideas con- “There are some films that folks get real set on that get no interest from companies at the market and those more than likely will not do well in distribution.”
“Crash,” which played the Toronto Film Festival and Cannes, went the indie film festival route instead of the Los Angeles markets and got $98 million at the box office. Others have hit the festivals and then you can’t find them in distribution anywhere else. Which adds to the importance of film festivals, but in another way. It may be the last time you can see the film. Ever.
Michael Hutchence’s documentary, “Mystify,” by Richard Lowenstein, premiered at Tribeca Film Festival this past spring. Now it can’t be found anywhere. The producers said Dogwoof is distributing the film. “The U.S. release will be happening through Shout Factory, so please reach out to them,” a sales executive, Cleo Veger, said. Shout Factory did not reply to a query.
Netflix and Adam Sandler reportedly signed a deal for $250 million for a five-movie contract. The last original one that aired, “Murder Mystery” with Jennifer Aniston, was watched by a reported 73 million households, the biggest Adam Sandler original movie yet. Netflix also had no problem working with heavyweight Martin Scorsese to pen a deal giving it rights to his next big movie, “The Irishman,” starring equally larger-than-silver-screen-life superstars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. The deal, which will give the film only a controversial and limited theater release at the New York Film Festival and Netflix full rights, was signed for $150 to $200 million, some insiders have said. Those with Netflix will be able see the film screen on Nov. 27. For free. Kind of.
“I mean how many more subscribers can Netflix realistically get?” Southwest Florida-grown filmmaker and NYU graduate Jordan Axelrod asked in a phone interview from his Brooklyn apartment while discussing the massive spending Netflix does in controlling original content. His films have been screened online and at film festivals across the nation. “How can they reasonably ever get that back?”
The question seems valid. “Well, think of it this way, there are other avenues of sales when you own the original content. There’s DVD and international sales,” said Michael Hayes, in charge of sales and acquisitions at Prolific Pictures in Los Angeles. While in the game for years as a writer and producer, he wet his feet going to AFM for a decade before deciding to go with production and distribution to all worldwide markets just a few years ago.
“We will consider films that are independent but are really looking for the right films,” he said. His company’s website points out they “produce and sell quality films in all genres to the worldwide markets.”
Still, most filmmakers watch as distribution companies seem to revel and roll in the payout, while they struggle to sell their films. Again, enter companies like XerbTV.
“The most important source of revenue is direct to streaming, and we give control of that to the filmmaker and the film festivals,” Mr. Streeper from XerbTV said. “We give curation to the festival, though, as that’s what they do. That’s very valuable.”
How it’s all changing
Some cord-cutters are realizing they can spend as much if not more than when they held basic cable. Others seem satisfied.
“We did cut the cord, and we were happy. We have cable now because it was a cheaper package deal with internet, but never use it,” said Destiny Haggett of Coral Springs. “We do Netflix, Hulu Prime and HBO GO now.”
Looking to watch your favorite show has never been easier, in a way. Your favorite music, TV shows and movies are instantly available in 2019. With the press of a button, or a verbal command to your virtual assistant, you can ease into an evening, weekend or late night with just about anything you can imagine and with an immediacy that one could only have dreamed of years ago. But it may cost you every time you go looking now.
Watching “Game of Thrones” is no problem when you can instantly access your HBO. Getting in the mood for some “Big Bang Theory” is simple when you can just click on CBS. Looking to binge-watch programming on Amazon Prime Video or Netflix is easy. With subscription services between $6 and $15, you may be comfortable with what you are paying.
Over time, though, this ala carte approach may require research, sometimes intensive, multiple subscriptions and moments when you end up having to purchase even more pay-per-view items because your subscriptions don’t cover exactly what you want to watch.
“At some point bundling will come back into favor,” Mr. Wolf concluded. “Whether it’s Apple or cable, some or multiple platforms will create the interface that will make it easy and direct to consumers. It is where it will go from here.”
“It’s funny — we’ve reduced ourselves to basic cable due to the internet package deal as described in a prior comment,” said Brian Jameson of Cape Coral. “I have Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and a FireStick. They all have their drawbacks but are for now cheaper than cable with all the bells and whistles. The interesting thing is all the networks have caught on that streaming is the way to go, so they are all offering their own streaming services — for a fee, of course. What’s going to eventually happen is we will stream all content and pay for it, and TV and cable channels as we know them will be following this model. The funny thing is that, on average, those that have totally “cut the cord” with spend around $37 a month for streaming services and when asked they think they should only spend $177 to $27 on average for streaming. Nobody is ever truly happy with either choice, I think.”.”
For Jaime Michelle in Fort Myers, “I get Hulu for free with my cell phone, and I get Sling for ESPN during football season. With the cost of high-speed internet, I pay $45/month total and $65/football season. I’m happy with that. Comcast keeps trying to get me to bundle, but I’d rather lick the sidewalk than do anymore business with them than need be.”
In another way, looking to watch your favorite show has never been harder. If you love an older film you may just be out of luck. Want to learn where older films are streaming? You can’t because they aren’t. Take for example, the 1971 indie sport film, “Le Mans,” starring Steve McQueen. Go to the find it, and it’s just not out there. Unless, of course, you hoarded an old VHS or DVD from the day.
Enter Reelgood, basically a comprehensive list of all of the shows and movies currently available to stream online. Type in your movie and Reelgood tells you which subscription service you need, where you can rent and purchase it, or that it is not available online. This is where all of the DVD and Blu-ray hoarders can gloat. Seems as if keeping some films you love on hand is the only way to watch them anymore. Which is weird in 2019.
“Having content buried in all these different apps serves the streaming services — it doesn’t serve us as the consumer,” says David Sanderson, CEO of Reelgood, a website and app that helps you instantly learn where your favorite show is streaming. “We’ve never had more choice or more quality when it comes to streaming TV. The issue now is being able to sort and organize all this content in one place — and that’s where Reelgood comes in. You shouldn’t have to hop in and out of all these different apps. The best experience is to have everything you want to watch right at your fingertips.”
The service, which also quickly crunches number and habits of streamers, offers a real look at the future of streaming. “What we’re seeing on our platform is that streamers are network-agnostic — it’s all about the content, the actors and the story. Consumers couldn’t care less about whether it’s ABC, Hulu or HBO. What they care about is their favorite shows. And whoever can leverage that fact to make on-demand TV a lean-back, frictionless experience will be ahead of the game.”
The app also helps if you really want to watch shows for free, showing plenty of streaming service options including Crackle, MeTV, Tubi TV, Roku and PBS.
And if you don’t like that? You can always get out the rabbit ears anytime and get roughly 40 digital channels for nothing. ¦
— Eric Raddatz is the presentation s WM editor for Florida Weekly, director of the Fort Myers Film Festival and host of the indie film series TGIM in Fort Myers.