What If I Can’t Afford or Don’t Want to Use an Aggregator? Is DIY Digital Distribution a Feasible Plan?

POSTED ON November 9, 2020 / IN Documentary Toolkit


Julie Angell

This Q&A was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of Documentary magazine, a publication of the International Documentary Association, a nonprofit media arts organization based in Los Angeles.

A filmmaker might consider VOD self-distribution as an alternative or supplement to the use of an aggregator or distributor to distribute a film. The primary digital platforms that allow self-distribution include Amazon, Vimeo, YouTube and Facebook. Amazon offers both transactional and subscription-based monetization alternatives through its Prime Video Direct service. Vimeo also offers both TVOD and SVOD self-distribution alternatives (although the SVOD service is primarily targeted to the creators of episodic content). YouTube and Facebook both permit filmmakers to upload films for VOD streaming, although monetizing content on these platforms has more significant barriers to entry than Amazon and Vimeo.

On Amazon’s Prime Video Direct service, a filmmaker can upload her film directly to Amazon without the need for an intermediary sales agent, distributor or aggregator. The filmmaker can choose to make the film available for digital purchase, digital rental, for streaming as part of Prime’s subscription service (i.e., Prime members can stream the title without the need to pay an additional fee), or any combination of the three. (An AVOD “free with ads” streaming option has been discontinued.)

For digital purchases and rentals, the filmmaker receives 50% of the purchase price paid by the buyer, net only of taxes. The filmmaker sets its own prices, although Amazon “reserves the right to adjust the price to ensure competitive pricing with other retail platforms and provide the best customer service.” (Based on a recent unscientific review, documentary titles for purchase on Amazon range may in price from $7.99 through $14.99 per title, and rentals range from $2.99 through $5.99 per title.)

For titles made available as part of the Prime subscription service, Amazon pays the filmmaker a royalty per hours watched. In the US and certain other territories (e.g., the United Kingdom and Japan), the royalty rate is a sliding scale based on a film’s “Customer Engagement Ranking.” In the US there is a minimum potential royalty of $0.01 per hour of streaming, and a maximum potential royalty of $0.12 per hour. “Customer Engagement Ranking” is a percentage ranking of Prime members’ level of engagement with the title in relation to other titles offered on the same service and territory; unique viewers, popularity of the title, and IMDB ratings may factor in, as well. In certain other territories, the Customer Engagement Ranking is inapplicable, and there is a fixed royalty per hours watched in a 365-day period.

Amazon does not charge filmmakers any out-of-pocket fees to distribute on Prime Video Direct, although filmmakers must provide key art and closed captions, and also comply with Amazon’s technical delivery requirements at their sole cost. The analytics offered by Amazon include number of unique streams, minutes streamed and projected revenue. In trying to attract an audience, a filmmaker also might benefit from the potentially built-in audience of Prime video, which has “tens of millions” of users according to some sources.

As an alternative or supplement to Amazon Video Direct, Vimeo provides a video-on-demand platform by which a filmmaker can rent and/or sell a film directly to its audience. The filmmaker sets the rental or sales price, and keeps 90% of the sales after credit card fees and taxes, which range from four to 17%.

Using Vimeo’s service, a film can be streamed directly through the Vimeo-on-Demand consumer portal or through a filmmaker’s own website or custom domain. It can also be embedded with a trailer directly into a filmmaker’s social media posts, where it can also be purchased.

In order to sell or rent your film on Vimeo, a filmmaker must have a $20 per month subscription to Vimeo Pro. The subscription includes 20GB of monthly storage, access for three individuals to manage the account and the ability to publish natively to social media. Detailed analytics are included with the subscription, including the number of total plays, finishes and likes for a film; total and average time watched; and the ability to see the territory in which the film was viewed, the device type used to view it, and the source URL that led to the view.

Vimeo offers sound financial terms and a sleekly-designed portal, but its native audience is not as large as Amazon’s, YouTube’s or Facebook’s, so filmmaker-spearheaded marketing efforts to drive traffic to the point of purchase would be a key to success.

YouTube and Facebook are AVOD platforms with massive audience potential, where a film could be released without the use of an aggregator or traditional distributor. However, both platforms would require a filmmaker to have a pre-existing audience and proven eyeballs before qualifying to make money via in-stream advertising.

On YouTube, in order to monetize content via in-stream advertising, a filmmaker would need to become a member of YouTube’s Partner Program, which requires a channel with 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 valid public watch hours in the last 12 months. On Facebook, in order to be eligible to share in revenue from in-stream ads, a filmmaker’s page would need to have had at least 30,000 one-minute views on videos that are at least three minutes long in the last 60 days; a page also must have 10,000 unique followers in its own right. Both platforms also require compliance with all of their various terms, conditions, guidelines and content policies.

Filmmakers with a sizeable social media following and robust content library who qualify to monetize their content may determine that YouTube and Facebook are viable self-distribution alternatives. A filmmaker with one or two stand-alone films, however, might be best served by using Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms to build an audience and market the film, while driving traffic to TVOD points of purchase like Amazon or Vimeo.

A successful distribution strategy of any kind requires a filmmaker to identify and attract an audience, and engage with that audience through targeted marketing efforts. A self-distribution effort must include a plan (and, ideally, a budget) to promote the film and drive traffic to the platforms where the film is available.

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