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Filmmaker Spurlock: Digital distribution revenues are 'pathetic'

A panelist of film industry and digital video representatives at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival agreed that digital film distribution isn't a cash cow. But they didn't agree on the best strategy for working toward that end.

Guess what isn't super-sized? Digital distribution revenues for filmmakers, apparently.

AUSTIN, Texas--The Internet and the rise of online video have meant a plethora of new options for independent filmmakers. But, as has been well-publicized, the money just isn't there yet. A panel at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival on Monday highlighted that this is an extremely contentious issue.

"Digital distribution is not some magic bullet," said panelist Gary Hustwit on the success of his documentary "Helvetica," in front of a packed room of audience members that came from both SXSWi and its sister festival, SXSW Film. "It's not that because the film is available digitally it does well. It's because you do the work...because of that exposure, it did well."

In spite of widespread blog speculation that DVDs are dying and that digital downloads and streams will replace the physical medium in due time, filmmakers say that from the creative side, relying on these outlets--iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, Joost, and SnagFilms, represented on the panel by CEO Rick Allen--simply is not profitable yet. In fact, in many cases, sales and revenue numbers are kept on the down-low.

Morgan Spurlock, the documentarian behind "Super Size Me" and "Where In The World Is Osama bin Laden?," put it bluntly. "The reason numbers aren't released (for digital distribution revenues) is because the numbers are pathetic," he said. "The numbers are sadly low in comparison to what we expect from film and television."

"If you're looking to pay your rent, not so much, if you're looking to pay your phone bill, you have a great chance," Spurlock continued. "It's getting to a point where it's down the road from being profitable, but we're just not at that point yet."

The panelists disagreed over whether the best digital distribution strategy is to get a film on as many platforms as possible or to be strategic in the hopes of making more money.

Matt Dentler of digital representation group Cinetic Rights Management argued for the be-everywhere model. "We are a direct aggregator to, I would say, about a dozen portals in the U.S., and we just closed our first couple of deals in Europe." Dentler said that Cinetic's films go to YouTube, Hulu, iTunes, SnagFilms, and quite a few others. "We're probably going to have about five to ten more in Europe over the next few months...what this touches on is there are so many freaking options out there for consumers that you kind of have to provide all of them."

But Steve Savage, president of distributor New Video, disagreed. "It's good to be agnostic, and I think it's a good way to put everything out there and see what sticks but there's also other ways to do it," he asserted, "to be really strategic, to find where the money is."

The panelists seemed to agree that, as so many people have said before, digital revenues are on the way. "The money you're going to make as an independent filmmaker right now," Dentler said, "the fact that we can start cutting checks for people today, it might not be huge checks, but at least they're checks."

"They don't approach TV license fees," SnagFilms' Allen said. "We are at the front end of this. However, they are hundredfold, a thousandfold, the size of the checks that most independent documentarians have received from theatrical release."

Gary Hustwit said that filmmakers need to take responsibility for pushing the digital distribution business forward themselves. "Go directly to the audience instead of relying on, with all due respect to the distributors here, other businesses to do it," he suggested. "Why are we building other people's businesses when we could build our own businesses?"