What are movies made of?
Aug 4, 2012
9 minute read

These days, I’m rather interested in how the movie distribution business works. However, it’s fool of crooks and incompetent people. How about taking a shot at designing the perfect movie distribution service?

Let’s start by analyzing the way the current system works.


A particularly fascinating debate has been spawned by Twitter’s announcement that it would make life harder for 3rd-party clients. Dalton Caldwell stepped up and put actions behind his criticism of what Twitter is becoming. His upcoming social platform app.net is still open for backing.

With the ambitious goal and seemingly meek number of backers, I don’t know if app.net is going to reach is goal - but Dalton raises an important issue: when you start thinking of your company as an entertainment company and not as a service / tool, if your business model is ad-supported, your interests are no longer aligned with those of your users.

And as soon as that happens, wtf-y decisions like “let’s kill third-party clients because it’s hard to put ads on them” are a lot less wtf-y to upper management. On a business level, and with a lot of added shortsightedness, it seems to make sense. Just like taking down YouTube videos of popular artists did - until Vevo was born, an unwilling cooperation, recognizing (way late) that it was more of a blessing than a curse.

So let’s recap: as a business owner, your interests need to be aligned with those of your users/customers in order to provide the best service and not shoot yourself in the foot. Creative work is a completely different endeavor though. I’d argue that creation is at its finest when the creator writes, draws, plays, shoots, edits, mixes stuff completely for its own selfish purpose, because he enjoys doing it.

As for movies, the greatest ones were made not because of financial motivation, but because at some point, someone had a story to tell. And they went through thick and thin, they fought their way to telling that story the way they wanted to. Sometimes it means pissing off a whole lot of people. Sometimes it means making less money than if you agreed to place a Coke ad, or making Keira Knightly and Joseph Gordon-Levitt kiss.

You don’t become a filmmaker because it earns a lot. You do it out of passion. You get through all this shit so that you can write, produce, shoot, stuff that you care about.

Costs & revenues

We’ve established that passionate creatives would keep doing what they’re doing even if it didn’t pay as much. That doesn’t mean we can get away with the whole money problem just yet. Even with all the determination in the world, a production still has costs - you can only fake/borrow so much. At some point, you gotta have cash to spend to make the magic happen. So that’s a problem.

And when you’re done producing your film, you have to distribute it. Is it fast-foody enough to have the option to sell the rights to the big ones and go through what we call mainstream channels? Will you line up the cash for a theatrical release? Release on iTunes? Or will you pull a C.K.? There are many options, and all of them have costs - some cost money, others cost you rights, pride or integrity. Are you willing to dumb down the cut to make it PG-13 and have a larger revenue stream? Are you willing to sell out and have a comedy trailer be cut out of your dramatic piece?

Even if passionate people stand behind each good movie, the sheer numbers have attracted greedy scumbags like a magnet over the years. And even for people who mean well, things sometimes end up in quite a mess. That summary lets loose a small recap of the indie distribution landscape right now:

The independent distributors are far worse because they imitate the studios. Ladies and gentleman, if you don’t have 20 million to spend on marketing then distributing a motion picture in an identical fashion, only smaller, isn’t clever. It’s shutting your brain off and flying on auto-pilot. We spoke to dozens of these companies and despite the volume of words escaping from their slick, capped teeth it’s mostly blather.

To put it simply, we realized that we didn’t want any of these companies distributing our movie because they didn’t actually know how to do it. They knew how to hire other people to do it. They’d never stepped inside a projection booth. They didn’t understand how long it takes to clean a movie theater between screenings. They’d never seen operated a concession stand. They didn’t know how to do a media buy. They’d never printed a movie poster. They’d never physically stuck a screener in the mail and sent it to a critic. They’d never actually booked a movie screen on their own. They hired other people to do these things.

These other people had the skills. The distributors? They had shiny suits.

The Past Six Months & The Road Ahead, Justin Eugene Evans

About ads

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads” says Hammerbacher, ex-Facebook. “That sucks”, he adds. Which developer could disagree with that? Ads used to serve a purpose - to solve the discovery problem for products. Before the age of the internet, billboards on the street might have been useful to make you discover new products.

But in the age of the internet, that problem doesn’t exist anymore. If you want something, you’ll find it. Ads are now trying to remind, no, manipulate you into buying A rather than B. Worse still, advertisement has become a business folded onto itself - you’ll go to an ad-supported website and see an ad about… a piece of software that can help you grow your own ad campaign. Even the AdBlock guy puts up ads so he and his wife can go on vacation.

Trailers, once considered advertisements for movies, are now themselves served with ads on the side, as if it was a privilege to watch a promotional skit - and that you somehow had to pay for it. Trailers are also country-restricted on YouTube, embeds are disabled - measure are taken so that they are actually harder to spread.

I won’t go further exposing the madness of ads, but I will go and analyze the underlying premise of advertisements in the content business. In Brett Gaylor’s RiP!: A Remix Manifesto, the point is made that when the USA chose to bet on intellectual property instead of manual labor, it was mistaken. Because, especially in the young generations, many people feel that you cannot sell something that is virtual. That trying to claim it is unethical.

That debate is vast, and I won’t end - or even start it here. Whatever your opinion on the matter, the fact is: it’s harder to make someone pay for something he or she can duplicate perfectly at zero cost. Turns out, even chasing people with a stick and beating checks out of them still doesn’t work. (Also known as subversing governments for your own interests, shutting down filesharing websites, and prosecuting citizens on dubious grounds), even by doing all of that, still doesn’t stop people from sharing things.

So if you can’t force people to pay, what can you do? That’s where advertisement comes into play. If you can’t force people to pay, you can force them to watch stuff that gets you paid. For them, it’s just a few seconds of their life wasted on a product they either already use or will never use, but as long as there are big enough fools to pay for advertising space, it works out for you, the distributor. All that’s left to do is pray that fools won’t realize their campaigns aren’t exactly delivering as well as they thought they did. But shh. Don’t tell them that.

In short, ad-supported websites are based on the premise that people are too cheap to pay for content. And that they’re too dumb to realize that while they’re waiting for their episode to start playing on Hulu, they’re actually paying with their time for the content that they’re watching. Talk about taking your audience for idiots.

The other side of the looking-glass

To top it off, advertisement-based businesses don’t seem to be that much of a bane after all, as the Facebook IPO disappointment shows.

Meanwhile, everyday, indie projects are funded on Kickstarter. The huge success of Steam sales, and the Humble Indie Bundle - and other countless initiatives, go to show the contrary of the ad-supported premise: people are willing to pay for what they love. A lot of money. Because among the swarm of people that are too cheap or too lazy, there are a dedicated few that realize the value and cost of what they consume, and who are willing to put their money where their mouth is.

To me, kickstarter is truly one of the most disruptive and most important companies of our epoch. Along with Twitter, which is - to me - as important as the phone was in the 1880s, and YouTube, which played a role similar to Super-8 in the 1960s: giving a voice, and a score, back to the people. And that’s without counting today’s hardware (ie. how your phone is more powerful than an early day supercomputer). All these technology advances have definitely impacted the way we do things, but was it always for the good?

We’ve talked about the costs of producing and distributing a movie. Kickstarter definitely helps with covering the production costs, but indies are left with a distribution problem and a discovery problem. Couldn’t we put technology to good use there too?


It is my belief that peer-to-peer is part of the solution to distribution. Like VCR was before, or, before yet, the printing press, it is still seen as a threat to traditional distribution, because it makes it easier and cheaper to distribute content on a large scale. Well, fuck you, old-fashioned chaps! If you can’t find of a way to use it to your advantage, you simply haven’t thought hard enough yet.

I believe that within this technological era, both the production costs, and the distribution+discovery problems, all by combining existing (and very effective) tools. But for that, we need to abandon a few myths.

The first step is to admit that large-scale distribution is no longer in the hands of a few entities. Anyone with a broadband connection can do it, and in 2012, it’s a lot of people. The second step is to admit that a billboard is worth less than 200K Twitter followers. And the third step is to admit that both of those are not good enough to ensure a good distribution of your movie.