As many of you may have heard last week, film aggregator Distribber looks close to collapse. Their office has been closed, staff laid off, senior figures have departed and filmmakers owed money can’t even get a reply to their questions.
I’ve had a number of questions from readers and industry commentators concerning the data behind Distribber. I have no special access to Distribber data and don’t think it’s my place to offer any kind of opinion on the process. But there is one thing I can do to aid the debate – look at the kinds of films handled by Distribber.
First, let’s backtrack and briefly look at who Distribber were/are and the function aggregators serve for independent filmmakers.
What is an aggregator?
In the traditional distribution model for movies, filmmakers assign their film to one sales agent who handles the worldwide rights. In each country, the sales agent looks to do a deal with a single distributor. That distributor will be assigned the exclusive rights to handle the release of the film in their territory for a set period of time. The distributor then handles the deal-making, manufacturing and marketing of the film. This means putting it in cinemas, paying for the advertising, creating and manufacturing DVD/Blu-rays, uploading it to VOD/SVOD platforms and licensing it to television stations.
The chart below illustrates what the traditional distribution model would look like if the movie in question sold to just four territories.
For most of the 20th century, this was pretty much the only model used. However, in recent years we have seen an increase in ‘self-distribution’, whereby filmmakers take on some, or all, of the responsibilities normally carried out by a distributor.
Proponents of self-distribution herald the increased control filmmakers have over how their film is handled, the direct connection with audiences and the financial savings of cutting out (sometimes pricy) third parties. Others argue that filmmakers don’t have the knowledge, contacts or resources to release a movie properly and that self-distribution is a route taken only by those who have failed to secure a traditional release.
One of the things a distributor will have that filmmakers don’t is an on-going relationship with Video on Demand (VOD) platforms. Some distributors will be listing tens or even hundreds of movies a year on sites such as iTunes and Amazon Video. This means that both parties get used to working with each other, know what’s needed and the process is smooth. A self-distributing filmmaker may face some challenges, not least:
- They may never have dealt with a VOD platform before, meaning they’re more likely to make mistakes over the deliverables such as video files, subtitles, artwork, etc.
- VOD platforms don’t want to be dealing with thousands of filmmakers, preferring long-term relationships with a handful of experienced distributors.
- There is little incentive for the VOD platform to invest in the relationship, given that even the most prolific filmmaker can only provide a new film every year or two.
This is where aggregators come in. They act as a middleman between self-distributing filmmakers and the VOD platforms. They can take on the work of preparing the assets, conversing with the platform and dealing with all the issues which may come up.
“But isn’t this just swapping one distributor for another?” I hear you cry. Well, not really. A traditional distributor will take complete control of a film across all media platforms within their territory for a fixed period of time (such as seven or twelve years). They will also invest money in the marketing and promotion of the movie. An aggregator, by contrast, will have no control of the film (i.e. filmmakers can pull it at any time), no rights to the film on other media and no obligations to spend any money promoting the film.
The aggregator will either charge the filmmaker a fixed fee for their work (which is how Distribber earned its money) or take a revenue split from income (such as rival aggregator FilmHub which takes 20%).
Distribber was founded in 2007, sold to IndieGoGo in 2010, who sold it to Digiu Worldwide in 2014. Just a year later, Digiu sold it to GoDigital.
Distribber charged $1,650 to list a feature film on each of the following platforms:
- Transactional Video on Demand (TVOD) – iTunes, Amazon AIV, Google Play, Vudu, Sony PlayStation Network, Xbox, Steam and FandangoNOW.
- Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) – Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu.
- Advertising-supported Video on Demand (ADVOD) – TubiTV.
That’s a total of $21,450 if a filmmaker wanted to list on all thirteen networks, plus a further $200 a year to keep the listing live and a further $19.99 per quarterly payout per film?. The filmmaker could choose the price the film was listed for within the tiers permitted by the VOD platform and at a cost of $100 to Distribber for each price change. Delisting a film cost $200 per platform.
At the time of writing, the Distribber website is still up but their Twitter and Facebook pages have been removed and no-one can reach the company for comment. Filmmakers who have used Distribber are in a tricky position. Not only are many of them owed money (such as Alex Farerri from Indie Film Hustle, who has said that he’s owed $4,000) but, more worryingly, they can’t get their films taken down from the VOD platforms.
This is a bigger problem than it at first seems. Platforms do not want multiple versions of the same film, and so for the filmmakers to re-list their movie using a different aggregator, Distribber must first remove the listings they control. With the company seemingly paralysed, this doesn’t seem likely to happen. So while the filmmakers technically still have the rights to their own movies, in reality, they’re stuck in limbo, unable to receive the money being raised from current sales and unable to sell their own films.
What types of films use(d) Distribber?
Distribber has not published a list of the films which use their services, but it is still possible to get a glimpse into the types of films which used their service. On Amazon, film listings include a ‘Distributor’ field, thereby allowing us to see all films listed via Distribber.
Wikipedia says that the company “releases over 1,000 films each year”. This figure is not cited (verified?) and feels a little high, considering that Amazon currently lists a total of 909 titles as being handled by Distribber. However, we can’t know for certain and it’s possible that they did release 1,000+ films per year but (a) not to Amazon and/or (b) the vast majority were taken down.
Looking at those Amazon titles gives us a window into the types of films and filmmakers who use Distribber (and, by extension, self-distribution for VOD).
Over a third were first released before 2016 and a quarter were released in 2016. Only 16% were first released in 2018 or 2019. It’s difficult to tell if this is due to Distribber releasing fewer titles in the past couple of years or if this is the expected delay for projects using an aggregator (i.e. they try the traditional route first and subsequently turn to self-distribution).
Documentaries make up almost half of all the titles, followed by Dramas (29% of titles) and Comedies (17%). Titles can have more than one genre, the average being 1.6 genres per title.
We don’t have any sales data for these titles, but we can get an idea of their popularity by looking at the number of Amazon reviews they have received.
The most popular title, by a wide margin, is Survivor, with 2,346 reviews. Only 33 titles have over 100 reviews and two-thirds of titles had ten or fewer reviews. The vast majority of titles handled by Distribber either had no reviews or a very small number of suspiciously glowing reviews.
It’s tricky for us to draw any general conclusions without first getting data from the other platforms Distribber worked with. However, from this snapshot, it looks as if Distribber didn’t have a great deal of titles and very few of the ones it did have seemed to be selling well.
If you’re a filmmaker who’s been affected by Distribber’s downfall then my best advice is to stay connected to Facebook groups such as Protect Yourself from Distribber. Right now, no-one has any answers but over time the situation will become clearer and groups like this will be the first to share the news.