It’s always worth paying attention to Joss Whedon. The writer, producer and director responsible for the Marvel movie franchise also plays the independent movie game, contributing projects such as Much Ado About Nothing (2012) and The Cabin In The Woods (2012) between massive blockbusters.
This year’s Tribeca Film Festival saw the premiere of his latest project. Whedon wrote and produced In Your Eyes, a fantasy love story. Its central characters, who can see the world through each other’s eyes, spend most of the movie apart. It’s their journey towards each other, and their situation as a metaphor for the transformative power of love, that makes this such a touching film.
But the long-term impact of In Your Eyes won’t come through the sweetness of its story. It will come from its unusual distribution.
The path less travelled
With no fanfare or advanced announcement, In Your Eyes was released onto the Internet during its premiere. Rather than doing the rounds of festivals before a commercial release, the film was released directly to Vimeo, where viewers can rent it for a few dollars.
This is an incredibly bold step for someone in Whedon’s position. He’s risking a pet project on a new distribution method. He’s standing up and being counted for change. He’s leading the charge into a new era with the potential to democratise and reinvigorate the film industry.
Disrupting business as usual
It’s hardly news that the Internet is undermining business as usual. iTunes has replaced record stores, Amazon the big book chains. The film and TV industries are in constant battle with illegal streaming sites.
The internet provides people with entertainment on their own terms, and we shouldn’t be surprised when they seize upon that. Why watch shows on someone else’s schedule if you can watch them when you choose? Why hire a DVD when you can get the film down your phone line? While part of the appeal of pirate sites is that they are free, what’s far more important is that they give people what they want, when they want.
The entertainment industry has two ways to deal with this.
The studios have shown what happens when you take the defensive option. Lobbying and court cases can hold back the tide for a while, but they can also make you look greedy when you over-step. And for every streaming site that’s shut down another two rise, hydra-like, in its place. Huge effort goes into defending the status quo, and it still isn’t working.
The other option is to embrace online distribution. Give audiences ease and convenience, the opportunity to watch the latest films and shows in their own home at a time that suits them – and most will pay for it.
The online release of In Your Eyes might look like a gimmick now, but we can expect much more of this in the future. And with it come other disruptions to the established business model. Without captive audiences forced to sit through trailers and ad breaks, old models of advertising are falling apart. Business analyst Seth Godin has argued convincingly for a shift to permission marketing, but in the meantime the infrastructure used to entertain us is losing much of its funding.
The upside of all this is that it will make audiences happier. The downside is that there are challenges ahead in finding funds for films and distribution.
This might all sound like dry business talk, but it has implications for the creative power of the film industry.
Internet distribution allows filmmakers to find new audiences, ones more oriented towards their individual tastes. As Scott Bradlee has pointed out, the Internet lets creators find an audience for their music in a way they never could before, and the same applies to films. There might not be a big enough audience in any one town for a showing of your non-chronological black-and-white dystopian romance thriller, but around the world there are enough viewers to support almost any niche. Many of these viewers will be delighted to see films that fit their own personal tastes, films that never could have survived in the old mass market.
As a result, this distribution model has the potential to unleash a whole new wave of creativity. The gatekeepers of popular culture will no longer be huge businesses with an interest in bigger, blander films for the largest audiences. They won’t even be critics demanding art for art’s sake. They’ll be networks of like-minded fans recommending the next new thing, distributing the link amongst themselves. Creators won’t need to find a big enough audience for a cinematic release, or to get shelf space in DVD stores. They’ll just need enough of an audience to cover their wages and their costs, which will be lower with this distribution model.
The business of cinema is changing, and that will affect film as art as well. These changes will ultimately be for the better, providing more interesting films in a more convenient way.
In Your Eyes may just be the beginning, but it’s a great beginning.