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Independent Filmmaking in the Age of Streaming

As the first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic passes and most remnants of “regular life” slowly start to be reintroduced, one element remains behind the rest. The theater industry has been in an existential crisis since Netflix unveiled its video on demand platform back in 2007. This is a distribution shift that has created clone after clone and now every major studio has made an effort to recreate that magic. ViacomCBS is the latest entity to join the streaming world with their Paramount+, making seven major streaming platforms available.

To the benefit of the streamers and viewers, the saying of “quality, not quantity” doesn’t exist in this world. These streaming platforms can and do have it both ways. Yet therein lies a problem for these new streaming platforms. Because of the growing number of platforms, each streaming service needs more and more novel content to remain competitive. 

Historically, streaming platforms would license films and television shows and produce individual content to round out their library. This worked at the inception of this distribution method, but now some streaming services are forced to take the inverse approach to compete with those that have “vaults” to dip into, specifically Disney+ and HBO Max. Due to the high cost of licensing and the lack of licensable intellectual property, self-produced content is key. Instant fan-favorite shows like Netflix’s Stranger Things (2016) or Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (2017) wouldn’t exist without this paradigm shift in the streaming marketplace. 

Though not every show can be a Stranger Things or Handmaid’s Tale. For one, these shows are extraordinarily expensive to produce. According to CinemaBlend, each season of The Crown (2016), another widely popular show on Netflix, costs the company 130 million dollars to produce. Netflix’s content acquisition budget went from 2.4 billion dollars in 2013 to 17.3 billion dollars in 2020, with a sharp rise of 3.14 billion dollars between 2017 and 2018( In 2018 Disney CEO Bob Iger announced the launch of their proprietary streaming service Disney+, a move that not only added further competition and further saturated the market but also removed Marvel films and television shows from Netflix’s dashboard. If these big-budget line items take the place of the licensed content, what will be the new typical items that round out the catalog? The answer: independent films.

Independent films as a genre, if you will, is an untapped market normally relegated to the fringes of filmmaking. Films designated as “indies” are inherently seen as highbrow, only to be appreciated by the small number of cinephiles that enjoy such a niche. In other terms, they don’t make money, but this may no longer be the case. In my opinion, independent films are the pinnacle of filmmaking; they require a high level of creativity and ingenuity to mitigate their microscopic budgets. Or at least microscopic relative to their studio counterparts, and yet the genre continues to grow year after year. In the article “Indie Films: A Genre to Take Over the Industry,” writer Spokkz stated, “According to Kickstarter, the largest online crowdfunding platform, film, and video projects are the fourth largest section where creators are seeking funding, and when the success of these projects are evaluated, film and video is the second most successful category lagging only behind the music. So far, almost 70,000 filmmakers raised more than $413 million.” The vast majority of these projects don’t reach the level of funding they need to finish their projects, but it is evident that there is a massive community of future showrunners and producers telling unique stories.

Independent films that do get enough funding to finish normally go through a gauntlet of festivals to gain some sort of notoriety for their films. The disruption streaming could have in this normally small market could have everlasting effects and completely change the landscape of independent filmmaking. Would it be a net positive or negative?  

Being totally transparent, I am currently employed as an editor on an independent documentary so my perspective of this topic could be considered biased, although I don’t see it as such. Rather, my personal connection to this shift in the independent film genre is invaluable to this ongoing discussion, as are all other independent filmmakers. In the case of the film that I am working on, it is primarily funded by grants from the Sundance Institute and a modicum of small personal donations similar to that of the crowdfunding I stated earlier.

During an editing meeting in February, my director Javid Soriano shared with me that his biggest anxiety of working as an independent filmmaker is his film not being distributed. He is contractually obligated to release at Sundance but given how large the festival is, there isn’t any promise a representative from a distribution company would want to purchase the rights to his film. “It would all be beyond me to schmooze the right people and try to get the highest lowball price to pay myself back.”  The vast amount of money streaming platforms have to buy new content will be the best place for independent filmmakers to go to get that return of investment. 

Streaming platforms have a much larger incentive to find the content at festivals like Sundance to fill their catalogs because of a recent change to Oscar eligibility after the 93rd Oscars broadcast this past April. In one part due to the pandemic but also the shifting landscape of film releases in the digital age, this eligibility shift is a symbiotic benefit to both filmmaker and streamer. Although independent filmmakers are more known for their success in smaller film festivals, streaming platforms can use the infrastructure of their digital advertising and marketing departments to get prospective independent films considered for Hollywood’s highest honor. 

There is some pushback to this new development, mostly from established industry professionals accustomed to the old, and to them, the “better” way, of being considered for the award. As we read in an article published in The Hollywood Reporter, “writer-director Paul Schrader wrote, ‘Dear Academy: Send me DVDs and I will watch them. Send me links [to online screeners] and they disappear into the vast catalog of streaming links that may or may not be seen.’” Films widely accepted as being Oscar-worthy now can be considered for the award because an archaic limiter has been lifted.

Even if there is a deal lined up, some independent filmmakers would rather continue the arduousness of the festival run than sell out and lose creative control. At the time of the event, relatively independent filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho battled with the now disgraced Harvey Weinstein over the control of a scene in his film Snowpiercer (2012). Because of a rider in Bong’s contract, he had the final say over the edit of the theatrical release. In retaliation, Weinstein limited the film’s release to regional theaters rather than a national one. Bong spoke on this exchange, “Maybe for [Weinstein], it was some kind of punishment to a filmmaker who doesn’t do what he wants. But for me, we were all very happy. Yeah! Director’s cut!” 

This is less evident with streaming platforms but is still very possible. Streaming platforms have curated images of themselves and their content, an array of set standards that independent filmmakers might have to comply with to get the financial benefits of being on those platforms. Independent documentary filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer spoke to this point in a discussion during a “Sociology of Show Business” class at Emerson Los Angeles. He said, “Independent filmmaking as it’s formally known is becoming an endangered genre. With the rise in streaming platforms perpetually needing new content, two of the largest uncertainties that surround independent filmmaking, financing and distribution, dissolve away. Yet it’s at the expense of the creative control Indies used to secure for and define themselves as.” While a pessimistic perspective, Tyrnauer’s tenure as a successful filmmaker gives his statement legitimacy. 

To Tyrnauer’s point I would say don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good, to invoke Voltaire. Independent filmmakers’ largest hurdle is financing so for streaming ability to shave some height from that hurdle is a positive even if they have to relinquish some amount of creative control. The ability to put one’s name on the map of filmmaking and the larger content creation world gives independent filmmakers the ability to create the perfect project on their second go-around. If anything, the disrupting factor of streaming on independent filmmakers is but a stepping stone towards that ideal of a totally independent, auteur level of creative control.

And even then if there are filmmakers who still want to remain entirely independent, there are still have avenues to do so within the streaming world, albeit smaller in market share relative to the larger streaming platforms. A rise in niche streaming platforms gives filmmakers the chance to have their films shown to a wider audience than they would doing the conventional route. Platforms like Mubi, Shudder, and IFC Online all cater to the cinephile demographic some independent filmmakers want to remain in.

The possibilities of larger investment for independent filmmakers are overwhelmingly positive. This shift is also not specific to long-form content like film and television. The Netflix animated series, Love Death + Robots are made of short-form animated vignettes and have grown a cult following. Short films could soon be included in the lexicon of mass marketable digital content. As streaming becomes more accessible, so will the genre of independent filmmaking of which I am excited and proud to consider myself a part.