You probably already have it, use it and, especially in this economy, love it. But you might not know that "it" is the thing that could change the game for independent black moviemakers. It is VOD, or Video on Demand, a system that plays movies from your set-top box and is changing the way Hollywood thinks about marketing and selling films.
Most consumers access VOD through their cable or satellite company, like Time Warner or Direct TV. VOD can also stream onto your computer via Netflix and Amazon. With consumers increasingly switching to VOD, revenue collected by studios from DVDs dropped 44 percent in 2010, according to a new study released by SNL Kagan. According to Billingsworld News, an industry publication, VOD revenue in the U.S. alone is projected to reach $10 billion annually by 2014, far eclipsing that of DVD and Blu-Ray sales. VOD is emerging as Hollywood's best bet for a bankable future.
VOD is also changing the landscape of consumer content and the relationship between filmmaker and audience — and it's having an effect on the way filmmakers are making and distributing their films. This could be a major game changer for the people historically marginalized by the big-bucks Hollywood studios, particularly for independent black filmmakers.
In the good old days (just nine months ago), a filmmaker made a movie, applied to film festivals and, if he or she was lucky enough to get accepted by a festival selection committee, prayed that a distribution company would buy his or her film. For any filmmaker, the odds that the decision makers will give their work a chance to be seen by audiences are long. For a black filmmaker, the chances are nanoscopic.
But black filmmakers are used to working outside the Hollywood system. Oscar Micheaux, the godfather of indie film and black cinema, made Homesteader and Within Our Gates with his own money and on his own terms, and then he distributed his work to black audiences. Spike Lee used sales and marketing genius to get movies like She's Gotta Have It to the people.
Working outside the Hollywood studio system is in our DNA. This is why VOD is a godsend to both black filmmakers and the black audience. In this brave new digital world, there is a fresh model for filmmakers to follow. This is the road I followed for my first feature film, Sex Drugs and Comedy.
When a hilarious comedian named Brooklyn Mike started to tell me about his life on the road at venues like Black Ski Weekend, I knew I had a story. I borrowed a video camera and took $300 out of my account to hit I-95 with Brooklyn Mike and Marshall Brandon.
When the borrowed car we were in ran out of gas, a promoter took over Brooklyn Mike's hotel room to have sex with a groupie and an unexpected snowstorm threatened to push our on-the-road budget past empty, I wondered why any comedians would put up with such hardships. But I figured that hardships, particularly comedic hardships, would make for a great documentary. By the end of our road trip, I was even more convinced that their story had to be told — and I was the one to tell it.
To finance my movie, I raised some money — about $1,000 — on Indiegogo. I also served as my only crew member, since funds were tight. I couldn't afford to pay a producer and an editor, so I made them both a deal, offering a piece of the profits and producer credits. (Thanks, Zaire Baptiste and Andrew Seger.)
Two years, about $3,900 and several editors later, I learned that even without a lot of money, it is essential to pick the right person for the job — and not just the right person because they are doing it for free. But I had a film.
Instead of applying to festivals and spending more money to follow my movie through the circuit in hopes of getting a distribution deal, I used VOD to get a return on the investments I'd already made of my money, my time and a little bit of my soul. I sold Sex Drugs and Comedy to VOD aggregator Gravitas Ventures. You could say I took a gamble — I turned my film over to Gravitas without an advance, opting instead for a bigger percentage of the profits. I will get 90 percent of all VOD sales; Gravitas will take 10 percent. I figure it's worth it: Just like that, this company instantly offers my film to 70 million homes throughout North America.
Another component of VOD is the need to develop a marketing strategy that is DIY — which, in the 21st century, means using social media to your advantage. To spread the word, I set up a Facebook page and Twitter account and also created a presence on FourSquare, YouTube, StumbleUpon and any other digital space I could find where lots of people congregate. African Americans are the biggest users of social media, so, like Master P driving with a trunkload of VHS tapes, I've gotta go where the people are.
The downside with VOD is that the filmmakers have to pay for most of this P&A, or publicity and advertising. The upside is that filmmakers take a much bigger slice of the profit pie. Instead of bringing in 15 cents on the dollar, if they're lucky, using the old distribution method, the filmmaker will be bringing in 75 to 90 cents on the dollar — and actually receive a royalty check! With that profit, indie moviemakers can reinvest the money they earn to do more films.
Independent filmmakers are happy because, with VOD technology, they are finally making money on something they love. Audiences are happy because they have a place where they can discover the next Spike Lee from the comfort of their own homes … But everybody better hurry. Hollywood is coming. Once the studios step into the VOD landscape, they're sure to change it forever.
Ralph Richardson's Sex Drugs and Comedy is now available on Amazon and on VOD. He lives with his wife and son in Brooklyn, N.Y.