Monday, August 31, 2009

The Film Industry in the Digital Age

This is a topic that's been in the public eye ever since the rise of Napster & the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, most well known for making it a crime to tamper with industry safeguards against piracy and illegal downloading.

However, those on the indie film side have unique opportunities because of the rise of cyberspace, the Internet, social networking and all that other good stuff. A recent NY Times story even confirms this (

Over at my company, one of the producers we work with has a web series entitled “The Really Cool Show”. The idea for the show was born when the two female leads, Christi Chiello and Deirdre Herlihy, appeared on a sketch for "The Ryan Balas Show" an ultra low-tech (shot on webcam) series Ryan Andrew Balas (producer of the feature film “Carter”) did for fun. They decided to create a sketch show, which blossomed into the idea of a mockumentary about three wanna-be internet celebrities who start to make a show together but end up in a romantic relationship. A threesome.

The show rose from humble beginnings. According to Ryan, “The first 5 episodes were shot on a web cam, the next 5 on a consumer grade home video camcorder. The second season was shot standard format on a Sony HDV camera and the third season was shot on a DVX 100-B. We never had an official crew until the third season. The second season was shot by anyone who wasn't acting in the scene. In the first season, we'd just put the camera on a tripod and started talking. Everything is completely improvised and the season is based on a rough outline.”

Now, the show has over 8.5 million views, provoked controversy from a religious group & has plans for a best-of DVD release. Merchandise is also available on the show's website ( Ryan says “The business structure for the show was not developed until after the majority of it's success. So we have to work backwards, and utilize new forms of self promotion and distribution, if we hope to have any monetary gain from our work. Fortunately the show has cost very little to make and we are happy to work on it for free as long as we have an audience. The show has found an international fan base (largest overseas demographic is South America) and continues to grow with each episode.”

We also had a blog post on how 50 Cent offered a new album for free, in a revolutionary move ( We discussed amongst ourselves how such a model might work for indie filmmakers who don't have Hollywood backing. My thought was that perhaps the showing of short films, a product that has limited market value, might get the attention of an audience since they're of a shorter time span (usually about 15-20 min) and might offer that unique flavor to encourage interest in a 90-120 min film.

But what about making open source films? Apparently, this is a movement that has some teeth in other countries. I was in a business meeting for my company recently where an individual discussed having worked w/a foreign company that did such projects. Here's a link explaining the concept in more detail:(

So it seems that major studios could still make a profit from their works if they use technology to their advantage. Everyone knows what happened to the music business, which sought to try holding back technology. If major studios are smart, they will look at independent companies and try to avoid repeating the mistakes of the major music labels, particularly the RIAA.

Maybe we'll see more independent films and projects acquired or backed by major studios? I'd love that, but only time will tell what technology does to the film industry model.

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  1. Hi Monica,

    Interesting post. I wonder how artists protect their creativity with online exposure, though ... I tend to think on one hand: the more people who see it, the safer your creativity (and IP) is. But then, if a smaller audience sees your product, are you at risk of losing it? And if so, once you discover it has been stolen (or copied in some form or way), is it too late (or prohibitively expensive) to remedy the matter?

    Am just thinking out loud >> I have had friends in business idea competitions who refuse to give us any idea of what they're submitting ... similarly, I have recently met a friend working on documentaries, who also has signalled the people she works with are very protective of their ideas until they are actually in production.

    What's the balance?

    Thanks - Sls.

  2. You've just described the exact issue my company's CEO has w/the idea of letting people see your films for free: once you let the genie out of the bottle, you're done. Great question & I think the answer's probably "we're still trying to figure it out."

    One of the best ways to protect the work product is copyright registration so at least you can sue for infringement; but the problem is if someone posts your product anonymously onto a site. My thought was to do things like a screening at a set time where one could merely stream the movie in real time.

    At least to prevent inside leaks, there's the option of well drafted confidentiality agreements. Confidentiality is a well established norm in the business, much like in law. We're in a good place since we don't really have employees & those who might leak material would harm themselves w/less money or damage to career. My being around also helps.

    However, I'm not sure what other artists do. I hope they have access to a lawyer or aren't of the mindset that they can't make someone sign things b/c someone's "a friend." We're also still seeing the law catch up to the problems of technology (esp. in music) so hopefully, some of the wrinkles can get ironed out in a manner that doesn't stifle innovation or rob people of their creative works.


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