Disruptive Distribution: Joss Whedon and the Release of ‘In Your Eyes’

Joss Whedon In Your Eyes 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.

Joss Whedon In Your Eyes

Kiera Gruttadauria in ‘In Your Eyes’

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.

Unleashing creativity

Joss Whedon In Your Eyes

Zoe Kazan in ‘In Your Eyes’

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.


Andrew is a freelance writer based in Stockport, England, where the grey skies provide a good motive to stay inside at the word processor. He’s had over forty stories published in places such as Daily Science Fiction, Wily Writers and Ann VanderMeer’s Steampunk anthologies. He blogs about books, film, TV and writing at andrewknighton.wordpress.com.

17 thoughts on “Disruptive Distribution: Joss Whedon and the Release of ‘In Your Eyes’

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  3. Andrew, I have to confess (perhaps adding that ‘as a fellow Englishman’-for some pointless reason) that I have never streamed a film. I have also never watched a film on Sky, Netflix, Vimeo, or any of the other platforms available. To be honest, I am old, so I cannot afford the luxury of these services on subscription, with only a pension as income. I also have an ‘uneasy’ feeling about not sliding in a DVD, or watching the film as broadcast on TV. I am a cinematic Luddite, personified.
    As a consequence, I rarely see modern films, until I can afford them, or they appear on TV. (Thanks, Film 4!) I also have an aversion to watching feature films on the small monitor of my PC, with poor resolution, and less comfortable furniture.
    You are right though. I am undone. The future is here, and I am not a part of it.
    Great stuff mate. best wishes from Norfolk. Pete.

    • I also have to confess (as a fellow Norfolk native – I grew up in Norwich) that I made a big oversight in writing this article, in that my focus was shaped by my own experience as someone with easy access to these services. I think that people like me will shape this sort of distribution, but that doesn’t mean it’s right to ignore people with different perspective like yourself. Someone mentioned this on my own blog, and I’ve written a follow-up post that will appear there this afternoon, looking at that gap.

      Also, hooray for Film 4! One of the best things in British broadcasting by an absolute mile.

      • Thanks Andrew. I am not a native of the area, but retired here from London in 2012 (near Dereham). One thing I should also mention, from an East Anglian perspective, is that decent speeds of broadband are yet to come to most of Norfolk, so we also lack the facility to stream seamlessly like many parts of the UK.
        I do agree that in the future things like DVD and CD will be as outdated as 8-track tapes and cassettes. Just not yet please!
        Best wishes, Pete.

  4. This is all so true. Thanks to the Cineworld pass I still visit the cinema regularly, but do admit to pirating shows like Game of Thrones. I’d be happy to pay for episodes individually, but can neither afford or want to have to buy a whole package of channels for a couple of hours viewing per week. Great article!

    • I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there Sophie when you mention packages of channels. Given a choice most of us wouldn’t pay for a bunch of shows we don’t want just to see a couple of good ones. Splitting them out to be paid for individually gives people more choice and what they want.

  5. Terrific piece, Andrew! You’re absolutely right … this is a wonderful step into a brave new world. And many of the personalities I’ve spoken to in the industry have mentioned such practices as things to come (or what’s already here). So there’s definitely a shift, and that will affect everything from advertising to writing.

    I wonder, though, if the old modes of entertainment–going to the theater–will ever really disappear, though. There is a distinct pleasure for me in going to the movies, sitting in the dark with some popcorn, and waiting for the flick to start. What’s troubling, though, is that independent theaters are finding it hard to make money … in my neighborhood, one long-standing independent theater recently closed, leaving just two others in the area. So it’s definitely an issue. A fine article.

    • I’m sure you’re right that the old forms will live on for those who want them, just as there are still people collecting vinyl LPs and leather-bound books. They’ll struggle and become a small niche, but in a world that’s increasingly supportive of small niches they’ll find a way to keep going.

  6. This is a great subject, Andrew. I don’t think there’s any question that the production and distribution arms of the film business are changing. It seems like the potential for radical change is coming in the area of exhibition. This is an evolution that began with the advent of television and has now moved through various incarnations of home video and on-line streaming. There have been a lot of predictions of the end of the traditional, theatre-based exhibition model but thus far, the communal theatre experience has fluctuated but survived. It will vanish at some point, in small increments, and we may not even know it is happening. I suspect you’re right about the impact on production, but I am also virtually certain there will be a counter-force, with major entities from all three facets of the business fighting tooth and nail to hold onto their ground. This most likely means they will move into bigger and more extravagant spectacle, expanding 3D, Motion Capture, IMAX, Virtual Reality, etc…. New and innovative production, hopefully less spectacle-driven, will seek out and find new distribution and and exhibition models. We’ve seen it happen to Broadway, which was once a generator of innovation, and now is a museum of established modes. The streaming distribution that you describe may be the equivalent of Off-Off Broadway and regional theatre. It should be fun to watch.

    • I think you’re quite right Jon, and we’re already seeing older parts of the business fight back. There’s the extravagant spectacle, the big adverts for how much better things are on the big screen, the vigorous copyright court battles. And those parts of the industry won’t just vanish, but as they fight tooth and nail to make people want what they have, rather than giving people what they want, they’ll slowly but surely lose their relevance.

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  8. Great article, Andrew! The landscape of film distribution is undergoing such a radical shift that it’s hard to imagine where things will be ten years from now – but as you say, it will afford filmmakers a whole new range of possibilities.

    Glad to have you on board the CURNBLOG team!

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