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Sites Specific: Can Streaming Save Indie Film?

Sites Specific: Can Streaming Save Indie Film? (photo)

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The way we watch movies is changing. And no one knows how, in the not so distant future, cinema’s going to be consumed — especially those independent and art films that are increasingly unloved by the Hollywood distribution system. Multiplexes may not be the place for defiantly indie cinema, but are iPods, Xboxes, laptops and flat-screens their next best hope?

There are entrepreneurs who are betting on it, which has led to the recent spread of web sites dedicated to putting harder to find films online, from the documentary-centric SnagFilms to the highfalutin internet cinematheque The Auteurs. If there’s one thing that these sites share in today’s tough economic climate, it’s a boldness to try something new when most businesses are scaling back — that, and the fact that they all have founders who are filthy rich.

For the record: SnagFilms’ Ted Leonsis is a former key executive at AOL and a majority owner in NHL’s Washington Capitals; The Auteurs’ Efe Cakarel is a Turkish entrepreneur and former Goldman Sachs investment banker who helped orchestrate the $17 billion merger of the Zurich Financial Services; and Babelgum founder Silvio Scaglia was recently ranked #962 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Billionaires 2008. Cineastes can rejoice in the fact that multi-millionaires also share their love of film.

But are a handful of deep-pocketed backers enough to make independent films thrive online? At this point, it’s hard to say. But by all accounts, at least one heavily capitalized site, — founded in 2006 as a viewing portal for independent and world cinema, with a significant emphasis on Bollywood movies — is losing steam and may not survive in its current form.

The central problem for lovers of indie film and the people who make it their business to show those films, whether in theaters or in the newfangled Web, is that the population that drives the business is ultimately a small one. Why is Hulu the most popular kid in school, and Jaman that nice, hard-working student that nobody remembers? Because Hulu has “Saturday Night Live,” “National Lampoon’s Spring Break” and “Family Guy,” while Jaman has “Chokher Bali,” “A Monk’s Awakening” and a low-budget T&A pic called “Pool Party” among its most popular titles. Netflix is one of the rare companies that has helped to cultivate a taste for indie films, but its primary business is still the delivery of old-fashioned DVDs.

Indie-focused sites have a much harder time of making a dent in a slowly developing marketplace. As Efe Cakarel admits, “The truth is that there are not enough people paying to watch films online at the moment.” But he has hope. “We believe that by focusing on quality films that are hard to find on other online platforms we can build our brand, and when the online VOD market takes off, we will be a leading platform for foreign, independent and classic films.”

The problem is waiting for that day to come. Though The Auteurs has made some high-profile partnerships recently — art-cinema juggernaut The Criterion Collection took an equity stake in the outfit and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation is lending them select films — current traffic to the site is paltry. It’s still in its nascent stages, but the top-viewed films (South Korean director Kim Ki-young’s 1960 melodrama “The Housemaid,” Turkish auteur Metin Erksan’s 1964 film “Dry Summer” and Michelangelo Antonioni’s modernist classic “L’avventura”), all available for free, have been watched, collectively, fewer times than this YouTube video of a golden retriever jumping up to bite a dangling udon noodle. “The numbers,” says Cakarel, “are not an indication of the scale nor the opportunity of what we are trying to achieve.”

Really, how much can be achieved on an indie level?

09042009_lavventura.jpgMatt Dentler, head of programming for Cinetic Rights Management, which provides film sales representation for digital media, argues that digital distribution isn’t a “one size fits all” model: “A film has to speak to the demographic that wants to stream.” In other words, the audience that’s keen on seeing “L’avventura” may not really be the same one that wants to watch that movie on their computer.

According to Dentler, films that work online are older indies that already have established a name for themselves, such as Richard Linklater’s debut “Slacker,” or a documentary like “We Are Wizards,” about “Harry Potter” fandom, which has a built-in mass of interested viewers online. As he puts it, “You need the film to stand out and be attractive on its merits. People aren’t deciding what they want to watch online based on reviews. It’s about the synopsis; it’s about what sounds like a good time right now.”

A lack of name recognition, for instance, will always plague the offers at a site like IndiePix Films, which is both a regular DVD retailer and also hosts micro-budget indies for downloading, like regional festival favorites “Audience of One” and “Toots.” Owned and run by Bob Alexander, a market analysis veteran and a member of the board of directors for the Alliance Capital Management Technology Fund, among others, IndiePix currently doesn’t stream its films, but Alexander knows streaming is the company’s next logical step and vital to their success in providing different price points for consumers: say, a DVD download for $14.95 or a streaming rental for $3.99.

Though Alexander claims there’s been a steady rise in the market — 15-20 percent quarter-to-quarter growth in the last year — the number of sales for individual films on the four-year-old site remains tiny, on the order of 1,000 DVD units for the top seller. Another online indie retailer and buzz builder B-Side, by comparison, may sell over 20,000 units of a particular title, while established DVD documentary company New Video sells over 10,000 units. Many outsider observers suggest that IndiePix’s days are numbered, but Alexander is confident that his company will be, for the first time in its history, in the black by the end of the year.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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