Digital Distribution: What Indie Film Can Learn From Live Opera in HD

Motion picture industry analyst Mike Gubbins has written a thoughtful article for the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of movieScope magazine that explores why the digital revolution has yet to benefit independent film. Of most interest to microbudget filmmakers, Mr. Gubbins suggests a strategy based on the recent success of live events (like opera) on HD theater screens.

First: What went wrong for indie filmmakers in the conversion to digital distribution?

To start with: "There are too many films fighting for too little space, while digital has been eating away at DVD revenues without delivering too much in alternative digital returns."

Then: How do we fix things?

Is it even possible for indie filmmakers to benefit from the digital revolution? Has anyone figured out a revenue model that builds upon the new opportunities (e.g., conversion to HD digital projection in theaters) in ways that indie filmmakers could mimic?

Mr. Gubbins looks at the success of live opera projected on a digital screen in a multiplex. Before the conversion to digital projection, most attempts to make a commercially successful film based on an opera floundered: e.g., Kenneth Branagh’s 2006 film of Mozart’s Magic Flute was an epic flop. But more than 100,000 people showed up in theaters in January 2011 to watch a live broadcast of the New York Metropolitan Opera's production of "Carmen."

What's the difference?

According to Mr. Gubbins, it's the thrill of witnessing a one-of-a-kind live event: "[W]hat we are seeing today is that opera works better in cinemas on its own terms, rather than as film. It is clear that opera in cinemas has found its audience: those who enjoy the sense of occasion that comes with a live event, and who are willing to pay for the privilege."

The lesson for indie filmmakers?: "There needs to be some of that sense of occasion around film."

The willingness of true fans to seek out and buy one-time-only live events (or limited custom-made works that will not be around forever) is the new basis for revenue in many industries that used to rely on selling mass-produced physical copies (e.g., music, books, etc.). It is precisely this transition - away from selling mass-produced physical copies to selling once-in-a-lifetime events or customized work - that Seth Godin has been writing about on his invaluable blog.

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