Local filmmakers finding audience, a little revenue on streaming sites

Filmmakers Joshua Land and Victor Fink knew an audience was out there somewhere for their dystopian drama, “Lotus Eyes.” The trick was finding it.

“We didn’t really know what to do with it,” Land says of their 80-minute feature, set in an America where oil shortages have left the country decimated and a 16-year-old boy is looking for safety on his uncle’s farm. “We screened it at some random festivals and stuff, but that didn’t really lead to anything.”

Discouraged, the 2014 Johns Hopkins University grads turned to a medium their cinematic ancestors never dreamed of. They got “Lotus Eyes” uploaded onto Amazon, dabbled in some small-scale marketing (including a Facebook page) and hoped for the best.

“It was a cool opportunity,” Land says.

And fruitful. Not that they’ve become movie moguls or are ready to quit their day jobs. But “Lotus Eyes,” which is available for streaming on Amazon Prime ($2.99 to rent, $9.99 to buy), has found itself a steady audience. It’s helped both establish names for themselves on the film circuit, which has helped in recruiting cast and crew for their next feature. And it regularly brings its creators about $350 a month — not a huge payout, certainly, but enough to help fund their next film, a comedy called “I Like Me” that they plan to release next year.

Land and Fink are among the latest filmmakers to jump onto a democratizing trend when it comes to finding an audience for your films. While most would-be auteurs still dream of having a major release and getting studio backing, more and more are taking advantage of the internet’s availability as a low-to-no-cost (and low-risk) distribution platform.

The trend has become such a hot topic in the film community that it’s the subject of a forthcoming Maryland Film Festival “Behind the Screens” fundraiser. A conversation with independent filmmaker (and festival favorite) Joe Swanberg, on the topic of “How Streaming Services are Changing Filmmaking,” is set for Nov. 18 at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway.

Cockeysville’s Titus J. Burrell, whose “Black In Blue” was part of the recent Made in Baltimore Short Film Festival at the Creative Alliance, has work up on YouTube and Vimeo. Columbia native Mark Colegrove, whose 2008 “Isle of the Damned” has been available on Amazon for about five years, has also made his latest feature, the comedy “Driven to Succeed,” available there. Skizz Cyzyk, who organized Baltimore’s Microcinefest underground films festivals in the 1990s and is a former programmer for the Maryland Film Festival, estimates he has about two dozen films on the Internet, available on YouTube, Vimeo, Amazon and other sites.

Go online, he says, and you can find almost anything. The possibilities are refreshingly endless.

“I’ve been saying for years, when people ask, ‘Why don’t you bring back Microcinefest?’ that Youtube is Microcinefest,” says Cyzyk.

For those simply looking to get their films seen, there are sites such as YouTube, where pretty much anyone can post their handiwork, then wait for the audience (and their comments) to start building; get enough hits, and you can even start making some money. For those with varying degrees of ambition, multiple sites, including Amazon, Hulu, Netflix and others, are more selective and often more profitable for the filmmaker.

“There are quite a few digital marketplaces out there that allow filmmakers to get their films into the marketplace in a way that’s pretty easy,” says Jason Brubaker, a Los Angeles-based expert in direct-to-consumer distribution.

If the goal is to make money off your films, the first stop should be sites that charge for each viewing, he says. Referred to as Transactional Video on Demand (TVOD), such sites as iTunes, Google Play and FandangoNow charge for each viewing, and the filmmaker receives a percentage (usually between 50 and 70 percent).

Also available are Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) sites, where viewers pay a subscription fee, and can then watch whatever movies are being offered. Typically, filmmakers sign a one- or two-year contract with such sites, which include Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime.

Another possibility is Advertising-supported Video on Demand (AVOD), sites where ads pop up while content is being viewed, and the filmmaker gets paid each time the ad appears. Those sites include YouTube and TubiTV.

If making money is the goal, TVOD is usually the best place to start, Brubaker says. “Most [filmmakers] will go in the order of TVOD, then SVOD and AVOD. If you go in the opposite direction, you can cannibalize your opportunity for revenue.”

But competition to get onto internet sites, especially TVOD and SVOD, can be fierce. And while just about all filmmakers want to make money off their work, sometimes just getting it noticed is the goal.

“There are a lot more filmmakers out there in the world right now, and everyone’s posting their work online,” says Dina Fiasconaro, a film instructor at Stevenson University who recently started a local chapter of Film Fatales, a support group for female filmmakers. “There is so much to sift through, and it’s often hard to bring attention to your project.”

Not everyone is thrilled with such easy internet access and its ramifications. “The movie studios are apoplectic over this,” says Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival, noting that the ability to post movies directly on the internet bypasses the studios entirely. It also has helped companies like Netflix and Amazon quickly become major players in the film distribution business.

Baltimore-based director Theo Anthony, whose “Rat Film” has been picked up for national distribution by Cinema Guild and is not yet available online, has had many of his earlier short films and music videos posted online in the past 10 years or so. “Getting a couple hundred views on your video was super-exciting,” he says.

But the online experience has become too much of a business, he complains. Too often, filmmakers are forced to give up control over their work in exchange for doing business with some of the larger streaming services, Anthony says.

“There was this great hope of the democratizing internet that’s been totally defeated,” he says.

Eric R. Cotten, whose short, “The Love Within,” just played the fourth annual Baltimore International Black Film Festival, is opting for a more traditional rollout of his film. He’s planning to work the festival circuit for maybe six months before making it available online. Not so much because he thinks he’ll make more money as because he thinks that will maximize its impact.

“Yes, social media exposes filmmakers to a larger audience without the cost or limitations of a festival,” says Cotten, who lives in Northwest Baltimore and runs the nonprofit Baltimore filmmakers’ collective Mindseyecinema. “But our goal is to get our project out there, build our name in the local community.” And that’s best done, he says, by getting films up on screen and in front of an audience.

And moving from a platform where anyone can watch your film for free, like YouTube, to one where they have to pay, can prove a mixed bag, notes Samantha Mitchell, film curator at the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown. At least, it can if visibility is the ultimate goal.

"Someone might upload their film to Amazon, but if they're selling if for $4 on Amazon, it can be very variable as to how many people are going to click and pay for that," she says.

Colegrove, who’s also old-school enough that he had 1,000 DVDs of “Driven to Succeed” pressed — he’s sold about 500 — understands he may not get rich off the internet. But, he says, there’s no denying the rush that comes from putting your film online, and realizing that it could — maybe not will, but certainly could — be seen by millions of people.

“It’s great, from an exposure perspective,” he says. “It’s definitely great to know that your work is out there and available for the masses, that anybody from the comfort of their home can now pull it up.

“I mean, we’re here to have fun, and kind of entertain ourselves, for the most part,” he says. “More than anything else, I’d rather more people see it.”

ckaltenbach@baltsun.com

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