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Netflix May Be Good for Indie Film, But Is it Good for Indie Filmmakers?

by Anthony Kaufman
July 31, 2006 6:56 AM
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Filmmaker Magazine just put up its summer issue online, and while it's currently not available on the web, I'd like to point readers to my story on Netflix in the print edition. Over the last few months, several articles have heralded the arrival of Netflix onto the movie scene as part of the democratization of media (part of that whole "long tail" phenonemon that everyone's talking about). But a filmmaker recently came up to me and said that one of his recent films had appeared on the mail-order service without him ever seeing a contract, let alone a cut of the proceeds.

Like any business, Netflix is looking closely at its bottom line; as Netflix's VP of original programming and resident cineaste Eric Besner told me, "It's not like we're throwing money around willy-nilly."

Indeed, several of the filmmakers I spoke to for the article were sobering about their profit prospects.

"A lot of it really has to deal with your expectations," "Room" producer Jesse Scolaro told me. "No one is becoming wealthy."

Michele Ohayon, whose 1997 Oscar-nominated documentary "Colors Straight Up" was acquired by Netflix, is a staunch advocate for the company. (She has since partnered with them on all of her subsequent films.) But she admitted to me the model isn't exactly financially viable. "It's not like we can sell a movie and live on it. I make documentaries for mostly educational purposes," she said. "I write fiction for a living."

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  • Ray Privett | August 1, 2006 4:12 AMReply

    Perhaps this filmmaker had a (sub)distributor who sold copies to Netflix. For example, say the filmmaker sold U.S. DVD rights to Kino. Then, Kino might sell copies to Netflix. Whatever deal the filmmaker had with Kino would then impact how much the filmmaker would get from Kino's sale to Netflix.

    I don't think Netflix makes many deals directly with producers. Most deals are probably between Netflix and distributors.

    Of course this is just speculation. But if a filmmaker wouldn't expect a detailed report about all their sales to Mom & Pop video, why would they expect one about their sales to Netflix? After all, Netflix usually functions more like a video store than an acquisitions and distribution company. Quite possibly, the filmmaker's "cut of the proceeds" is incorporated into whatever deal they made with the subdistributor who, most likely, sold copies legitimately to Netflix.

  • Brian Newman | August 1, 2006 2:12 AMReply

    Can't wait to see the article. As I was just mentioning on Eugene's post on IndieWire about the "Long Tail," it doesn't help individual niche artists, but the aggregator of such content. It's odd to me that everyone seems to throw blinders over their critical heads when it comes to Netflix. I love the service as well, but it's not going to make too many individual indies rich.

  • Sujewa | July 31, 2006 12:56 PMReply

    Hmmm, yeah, if it is the former then it is to be expected. (depending on the agreement) for the most part I think pretty much when u sign your flick over to a distributor its their property to sell & market as they wish although, I hear some DIY filmmakers like Lance "Head Trauma" Weiler are now changing this traditional model - i think by working with different distributors on specific markets while retaining much of the (long term?) ownership & rights to the flick) . Hopefully the filmmaker in question in the Netflix case got some compensation (or will get some in the future) from the distributor through the initial signing with them. Or maybe Netflix will make her/him famous, thus perhaps making it easier for them to make their next film (a justification for going w/, or trying to go w/, Netflix that I've heard a couple of filmmakers mention).

    - Sujewa

  • anthony | July 31, 2006 9:48 AMReply

    Hi Sujewa,

    I believe it is the former, but we may have to wait for said filmmaker to read the blog and comment himself. And if it is the former, it's not very nice, anyway.

  • Sujewa Ekanayake | July 31, 2006 8:45 AMReply

    "But a filmmaker recently came up to me and said that one of his recent films had appeared on the mail-order service without him ever seeing a contract, let alone a cut of the proceeds."

    Meaning did that filmmaker sign the film over to a distributor & then the distributor signed it over to Netflix w/ out telling the filmmaker about it (which the distributor may have the legal right to do)? Or is the filmmaker accusing Netflix of distributing his film w/ out any permission/is Netflix being accused of theft?

    Please clarify if you can AK.


    - Sujewa

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