A few months ago, we were talking with Vimeo’s creative director, Jeremy Boxer. We asked him what he was most excited about, and, without hesitating, he said Vimeo On Demand — Vimeo’s newish service that allows filmmakers to sell their work directly to their audience. Vimeo On Demand, he told us, is going to radically change not just the economy of filmmaking, but films themselves. We asked him what in the world he was talking about. “I think the first thing it’s going to do is erase the idea of traditional formats,” he said. “We’ve had filmmakers who’ve made 35-minute films about a specific subject for a specific audience, and they’ve done better than some feature films. It [becomes] more about the storytelling. I think you’re going to start seeing a lot more odd-length projects coming out in the next couple years.”
While “odd-length projects” might seem like an underwhelming revolution, it’s an indicator of a radical new way of thinking about the film industry — an industry that no longer relies on cut-and-dried formulas or fill-in-the-blank programming. Vimeo On Demand and services like it promise filmmakers a chance to cut out the middleman, create a relationship directly with their viewers, and charge whatever they want for the films they make. It’s not a new idea. (Louis C. K. has been selling his comedy directly to his audience for years.) But the slick, easy-to-use, available-to-everyone infrastructure is new. And it’s the infrastructure that will open doors to some radical changes.
After talking with Jeremy, we’ve been thinking about what some of those changes might be. Here are some of our predictions.
It’s not particularly hard to make your living as a filmmaker right now, as long as you’re willing to make a couple dozen soul-crushing corporate talking head videos a year. But that’s not what starry-eyed kids have in mind when they decide to make films. Direct-to-audience services will open the door for filmmakers to make cash from their own creations. Their vision — rather than their know-how — will become their commodity.
However, while it will be much more possible for filmmakers to make a living from their vision, it probably won’t get any easier to do. The difficulties of jumping through middleman hoops will be replaced by the difficulty of being your own marketing director, PR manager, entrepreneur, customer service representative, etc. And thanks to capitalism, the spoils will go to those who hustle the hardest.
Just as the lengths of projects will radically vary, the style and subject matter will too. Niche audiences will emerge — much smaller than the mainstream, but large enough to support work they love. They will rally around certain filmmakers who seem to be making films “just for them.” There will be more famous filmmakers than ever before, but they will also be less famous than ever before. The perfect example of this already exists: High Maintenance, a quirky, off-color, heartfelt, direct-to-consumer “TV” show. Not only do the episodes vary wildly in length, but they also vary wildly in tone. It’s an inspiring example of what can happen when all the arbitrary limits are lifted. We hope it’s an example of the rule, not the exception.
It’s important for filmmakers to make the things they want to make.
Everybody hates gatekeepers these days, but we tend to forget that — at their best — gatekeepers have saved us from a lot of terrible films. Just like the proliferation of self-publishing has made the Internet almost unreadable, direct-to-consumer services will inevitably cause the overall quality of films to fall. As Jeremy said, it will become all about the storytelling. There will still be plenty of room for remarkable things, but they may be hard to find amongst all the noise.
When we think of filmmakers selling their work directly to their audience, we imagine them selling us their passion projects, the films that have been burning in their hearts and now finally have a market. But this new marketplace will also have the reverse temptation: filmmakers making films they know they can sell to us. Usually when we get exactly what we want, things start getting bad. BuzzFeed lists and Upworthy articles attract far more readers than the best journalism or most heartfelt personal essay ever could. And so even in this new economy, it’s important for filmmakers to make the things they want to make. For their vision to transcend popularity. Or, as Ben Sinclair, co-creator of High Maintenance, says, “Don’t worry about how popular you are. Worry about if you’re making a thing you can watch over and over and over, and as soon as it stops, you want to press play again because you like it that much. Things will follow if you stay true to your guts.”
So that’s what we’re seeing in our crystal ball. We have high hopes for this new era of film. We love the idea of filmmakers earning a living from their work (see: Filmsupply.com), just like we love the idea of musicians earning a living from their music (see: the whole reason we exist). Communities are emerging to support the art they love, and it’s going to change everything. It’s happening already; this is just the very beginning.
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