This article was originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of Filmmaker Magazine.
Over the last decade, as the tools of filmmaking became less expensive and more generally accessible, there was much excitement about what came to be known as the “democratization” of filmmaking. Suddenly, one didn’t have to be rich or the relative of a studio executive to get a movie made. In addition, web sites such as YouTube and others opened up distribution to the masses, creating a new paradigm that was dubbed “user-generated content.”
All of this sounded great on the surface, but like other seemingly positive advances—remember the “thousand channel universe” or the “long tail theory?”—there are always unintended consequences. While it was true that more people were making “movies” than ever, I would characterize the change not as democratization, but rather as “amateurization.” These market forces—an oversupply of product and seemingly endless channels of accessible distribution—caused the bottom to drop out of the professional marketplace. Content in all its forms was being commoditized. Why should distribution channels pay for content when it could be provided for free? If audiences could be attracted by offering them quantity, why worry about quality? In other words, the so-called democratization of filmmaking was ensuring that no one could make a living at it.
So where does this leave us? If you think this will be another in a series of doom and gloom pieces, then you haven’t been playing attention to the latest developments. The same marketplace issues that have been plaguing filmmakers are suddenly creating opportunity. You see, all the businesses that were built to take advantage of the unlimited availability of content are competing with one other to find a model to reach profitability. Consumers are confused and frustrated by the variety of choices and the lack of a coherent way to differentiate among content providers.
Ironically, the solution seems to be taking a page from HBO, one of the more venerable (and successful) “old media” companies, and to produce and/or acquire content that is both high quality and exclusive. If you look around, all of the major players are heading in this direction. Netflix is producing original TV series and outbidding all the Pay TV channels for all of Disney’s theatrical films. Hulu is acquiring exclusive rights to foreign as well as domestic TV series. Direct TV is licensing exclusive rights to a series of smaller independent films, challenging smaller outlets like Snag to step up and start paying significant money for content. Perhaps most emblematic of this change is that YouTube, the poster child for user-generated content, is spending significant money to get exclusive rights to quality product created by filmmakers who cater to specific niche audiences.
So here’s where it gets interesting. If “differentiation” is the name of the game, we are in the early stages of a gold rush to finance and acquire the best product available for identifiable niche audiences. While some of this product may emerge organically from self-financed, self-distributed, no-budget projects, huge media companies need more reliable sources for a constant flow of new programming. It’s clear that they are willing to spend what it takes to lock up that programming.
The best news is that the ongoing focus is back toward quality, rather than quantity, which means that there will be a need for more filmmakers who can show that they have mastered the art of storytelling in all of its forms, and not just the basic tools of the trade. In essence, the business is being re-professionalized.