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Indies Spread Wings Online

10 May, 2007 By: Jessica Wolf

The as-yet wide-open market of digital downloading could be a real playground for independent suppliers.

Already, indies are out in force, offering digital content at such services as Amazon's Unbox, BitTorrent, CinemaNow, Netflix's Watch Now service, Movielink and others.

The Netflix effect already is proving very interesting, said Michael Schoel, president of Ariztical Entertainment, which handles a swath of independent and gay/lesbian-themed feature films.

Netflix's built-in audience base and established equity with its subscribers is paying off in the site's streaming video option, he said.

“People are trying it, and it's noticeable that people are trying it. And it's a pleasant surprise,” Schoel said.

Downloading isn't paying the bills yet, but it's got potential for independent film, he said.

“I think it is just a matter of time before more people are doing downloads as part of a way of getting their entertainment overall,” Schoel said.

Netflix's Watch Now option is a great sampling tool for movie lovers to check out new product, said Eric Lemasters, VP of business development for Koch Entertainment Distribution.

Koch has digital-distribution deals with a bevy of suppliers, including BitTorrent, Amazon Unbox, Movielink, EZtakes, Netflix, TotalVid, Polar Frog, Film Fresh and Azureus.

“There are about eight more that we are in the final stages of a contract with,” Lemasters said.

It's easy to get caught up in the wave of excitement over this new distribution platform, but it's still a very small revenue stream, and will be for some time, Lemasters said.

It's not necessarily cheap to create the digital master needed for the different services, and margins aren't great, especially for product Koch distributes but doesn't own, he said.

However, Koch, via the company's audio segment, has learned firsthand how important digital downloading can be as an entertainment delivery method, Lemasters said.

Moreover, making content available digitally as widespread as possible can serve as an impression tool if nothing else, he said. Koch recently offered an exclusive download window with provider Movielink for the documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which was prominently promoted on the site.

Plenty of indie players are filling the download catalog for Amazon's Unbox these days. The site has hundreds of indie titles available for rental or electronic-sellthrough download from Koch, CustomFlix, Egami Media, Monterey Media, Screen Media and Alpha Home Entertainment.

In each supplier's Unbox lineup, bestsellers are more often the $2.99-$3.99 digital-rental version over the $9.99 or so electronic-sellthrough version, if both are available. That's in line with the best-selling download lists for major studio product.

Of Egami's more than 400 titles available on the site, the best-selling one is the digital-rental version of Ron White: Call Me Tater Salad, according to Amazon's listing. The electronic-sellthrough download is No. 69 on the Unbox best-seller ranking for the supplier.

Koch's best-selling download on Unbox, according to the site, is the $9.99 sellthrough download of Don't Ask Don't Tell. Most Koch titles on Amazon's Unbox are listed for electronic-sellthrough only.

Though Amazon, with it's reputation for product discovery, has the potential to be a great purchase destination for digital indie content, other big-name powerhouse digital providers such as Apple's iTunes and AOL Video are focused primarily on top-tier new-release and theatrical content for movie downloading.

That opens up the indie digital world to up-and-coming service providers such as BitTorrent.com.

The BitTorrent Entertainment Network debuted in February with movie downloads for rental only, but recently expanded that to include a dedicated independent film section on the site populated by a strong slate from Palm Pictures, Image Entertainment and Hart Sharp Video.

Palm Pictures was drawn to BitTorrent for the peer-to-peer site's ease of use, quick downloads and its platform-agnostic open digital rights management philosophy, said Erik Martin, who heads up digital strategies for Palm.

Palm is using BitTorrent, in certain cases, to release indie films prior to or simultaneously with their theatrical release, Martin said at the time the service launched.

BitTorrent is keen to catch on with the indie-type viewer, said Eric Patterson, VP and GM of BitTorrent's consumer services. There's a strong, edgy, often cheeky editorial presence on the site, all geared to draw in a certain kind of user, he said.

And the most indie of all indie content can spread its wings via new digital platforms. Amazon's CustomFlix DVD-on-demand service provides a home and distribution method for independent film producers of all stripes. As of March, indie filmmakers in CustomFlix's catalog can now get their product seen easily through Amazon's relationship with TiVo.

“This arrangement significantly broadens the audience and distribution opportunities for independent producers,” said Dana LoPiccolo-Giles, co-founder and managing director of CustomFlix. “Now our members have even greater access to millions of potential customers with TiVo, and we are looking forward to continuing to bring even more independent content into people's living rooms.”

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