Amazon Video Direct Slams Gates on Indie Documentaries and Shorts

Amazon Video Direct has been changing. It used to be a wide open platform, where anyone who could meet their tech requirements was guaranteed to find a spot on Amazon Video. You content could be seen by their millions of customers. It likely wouldn’t, but the algorithm did a decent job of showing your content to people, and you can directly market your films on the site, yourself.

Over the last couple of years AVD has been tightening the creative reins. They’ve been rejecting poor-er quality films. But, if you had a well produced movie, you could still get on board. Recently they’ve added using their S3 storage for titles. And begun kicking tiles off of Prime (SVOD) based on their murky CER ratings.

And this week, the bell tolled for niche market documentaries and short films. The submission page reads (On Feb. 17, 2021):

All content submitted through Prime Video Direct is made available at the sole discretion of Amazon. At this time, we’re no longer accepting unsolicited licensing submissions via Prime Video Direct for non-fiction and short form content. We’ll notify you if these categories become available for consideration.”

So, if your documentary isn’t solicited by them, you cannot get it on the service. In other words, to get your documentary on Amazon you have to use an aggregator and hope it’s selected or a distributor who will work to get it selected. Just like Netflix and other streaming outlets.

Self distributing a movie just got harder for doc filmmakers. There used to be a few places without gatekeepers to get your film out, and recoup some of the cost of making it. AVD just slammed the gates shut on indie docs and short films.

Streaming for Indie Filmmakers in 2020

It stinks.


On Monday, Regal announced it would be indefinitely closing US and UK theaters.


I also heard from Christian Cinema that one of my titles- arguably my best work- was immediately removed from their catalog because it didn’t meet their small viewership threshold.


And I got an email satisfaction survey from Amazon Prime Video Direct.
All on the same day. This just reminded me how terrible the market is for indie filmmakers right now.


As more major theaters close, and more studios release major movies to streaming first, indie filmmakers watch an already crowded market of independent work get shoved to a second tier. There’s no way a movie with a budget of under $20k can compete with a studio film with name actors and actual advertising money.  The only thing we used to have going for us was that when people wanted to stream things, they could choose older movies and shows or indie content. Now, they can choose new content from major studios.


That brings me to Christian Cinema. A few years ago I put my series on there. It wasn’t the most amazing series ever produced, but it was a niche product and I was a small fish in a small pond. A couple of months later, Christian Cinema added a ton of family friendly, but not specifically Christian content. Suddenly my small pond was pretty big.


When I submitted my documentary to Christian Cinema, I asked about partnering with them on some promotion. My doc film is different than anything else on their platform and still fit their audience very well. They would not even answer the question.


My doc film was available on pages and pages of “documentary” content. The only highlight it got was from my efforts. And frankly, it was easier for people to use Amazon or Vimeo on Demand. So it never saw a lot of sales or rentals on that platform.


Fast forward two years, and amazingly my old series has seen purchases while the documentary did not meet their minimum threshold. So, it’s gone. Like surprise- open an email, last line says it’s gone as of today. Gone. I know that’s in the contract, but I guess I expected some notice, instead of a by-the-way-we-deleted-it email. It’s disheartening to see something you spent 2 years working on get so few views it gets pulled from the “small pond” you put it on.


That leaves Amazon and a couple of places Film Hub is placing the movie. And Amazon pretty much stinks with regard to confusing policies and low royalties. I guess they can because they are Amazon, and their algorithm works, sort of. 


To be honest, no one knows about the movie. I mean, local people know, but no one knows. My meager marketing efforts never reached a tipping point with awareness of the film. I can spend money on social media ads and see views of the film, but with royalties being so low I could never earn more than I was spending. I spent a lot of time trying to find a magical formula for ad spending vs earning, and never figured it out. Maybe I just needed a lot more capital to start with, maybe it’s not scalable? How can no-budget films break through the noise to be seen?


The barrier to entry for indie filmmakers is low. That’s a two edged sword. One the one edge, anyone with a smart phone can make and distribute a film. On the other, no matter how bad it is, anyone with a smartphone can distribute a movie. How can your work get noticed in the sea of content?


I was approached by a marketing firm recently. After the 3rd email, I responded. Their program is this- pay them $800 up front and 30% of revenue and they will market the film. So I did the math on how many revenue shared $1 rentals it would take to recoup $800. When I asked if he could promise I would see that money back… the conversation stopped. I also asked if he had watched the movie… he apparently had not. I might (might) have been tempted to use their company if he had a real passion for the project, instead of just using google to search for indie content and cold emailing them.


There was a time in Indie Christian filmmaking, when just getting a DVD of a movie into brick and mortar stores guaranteed thousand of sales. I heard people say that “You just have to keep the budget under $200k, because that’s about what you will bring in.” Things have changed so much. I definitely missed that window. 


I tried to break the system for Christian TV series, and saw great openness to broadcast the program, but very, very little ability or willingness to pay for the program. I’ve now tried working within the broken indie, self-distribution system. I’ve been smart enough to not spend money I could not afford on production, and fortunate enough to break even or not end up more than a few hundred dollars underwater on a project. But I cannot make a living the way I have approached filmmaking. I describe myself as a part-time filmmaker, but normal part time jobs pay something. 


So, after all that downer talk, why would anyone keep making movies?
Well, it’s not to get rich. The only reason to keep making content is because you are passionate about the content you are making. 


That’s it. The market is terrible, you’re likely not going to even make your money back. So only produce what you are passionate about. From concept to eventually being removed from streaming platforms, it’s your passion for the project that will carry you through and on to the next one.

[By the way, the documentary is available for free with Prime membership on Amazon now. You can watch with your membership and Amazon will give me about one dime. But at least people will be watching it.]

Amazon Prime Video Direct and Short Films

The other day Amazon Video Direct emailed to let all of us providers know they are once again cutting the legs out from under indie filmmakers. They are now taking the Japan, Germany and UK royalties and making them similar to the current US royalties. Basically, if you have a high CER (Customer Engagement Ranking) you can make more money per hour of viewing on your Prime viewing titles. That is to say, you can make jack squat or less than jack squat. Even at the highest CER rank, you won’t make more than 0.07 CBP per hour of streaming. That’s Zero Point Zero 7 Pounds. I took my feature doc off of Prime viewing because I think my work is worth more that a dime per viewing. That’s what I was getting with my CER in the US back then. People would watch an hour and 45 minute film, and I would get about $0.10. Currently my doc is available for rent on Amazon for just $1, of which I receive $0.50. 


But, that’s not the real reason for this post today. Looking at my account I noticed that only one of my videos that are on Prime was getting any views. That’s odd. I had this little comedic short that used to get a lot of views. But there had been no minutes streamed for a few weeks. Investigating further I found these publishing errors on 2 of my 3 short films that were on Amazon for Prime viewing:

So, Amazon had pulled them down. And there’s no recourse, and don’t bother trying to resubmit. These short films had been on Amazon since 2016 for one and 2018 for the other. One had 5/5 stars the other had 4/5 stars. 


The reviews were (mostly) very positive, and the star reviews weren’t a problem. And it’s not about offensive content, or inappropriate content. And it’s not about quality- to be completely honest, my 3rd short film is the worst one of the bunch, and it’s still available. They had good audio, good video quality. I’ve watched a lot of indie films on Prime, and I’ve seen some ugly ones that are still on there. So that leaves you with Customer Viewing Behavior as a cause.


Both the films that were removed were under 3 minutes long. The short film that is still available if just over 5 minutes. I wondered if they had instituted a minimum runtime for titles. So, I dug around and found a contact email. I asked about minimum runtimes for titles and why they hadn’t notified me via email about taking down those titles. And they replied:


“Hello, We do not have a set minimum run-time, however most customer engagement metrics indicate that shorter films (less than 15-20 minutes) typically fail to meet quality expectations. Please note that all title updates are posted to the title entry page in the Your Videos section for each video.”


So there you have it. Short films are out. I survived previous purges, and my 5 minute film survived this one, but the days of Amazon Prime Video Direct being a place to get your short film seen are over. Also, they won’t bother to tell you if they remove a video, they expect you to be checking a page you only look at once a year or so, or when you’re uploading new content.


Now, what does this actually mean for me?


It means those two short films won’t be available on Amazon prime anymore. You can still see them on YouTube:

(A slightly longer -30 seconds more- version of this film was on Amazon, without the Rode Reel graphics)

I won’t really be losing any money. Think about it. If I get a maximum of 10 cents per hour of viewing, it would take 20 views of a 3 minute movie to earn 10 cents. 200 views of that movie to make $1. And the reality is, older films naturally have a lower CER, so I expect those short films were earning 1 cent per hour of viewing, so it would take 2000 views to make $1.


Let’s face it, having a short film on Amazon Prime is like publishing a novel at a Vanity Press. It’s nice, feels good. But you’re not making a living from that. Not with short films. And now, even that option is disappearing. So, off we go to Youtube and Vimeo- where we also make no money for providing content. 

Sony a6600 Picture Profiles and Color Settings

I wanted a quick reference for what the different Picture Profiles and color settings inside the Sony a6600 looked like. So I set up the mono pod and shot a few seconds of each.

Nothing special. Just some fake plants in natural light, but you can get a feel for the way each profile or setting handles color.

I had never messed with SLog2 or Slog3. I had a couple of LUTs I like to use, so I threw those onto some of the profiles I liked best. A Rec 709 LUT and one made for SLog footage. I made no other adjustments. Just right out of the camera with a LUT added.

Anyway, it was interesting to see how each profile handles the same shot, and how these LUTs worked with them.

Which did you like best or least?

One thing that I noticed was really bad noise in the SLog3 footage, in the shadows. Having never messed with SLog3 (or really, SLog) at all, I wondered how to combat that. Is the a6600 just terrible at SLog?

Several Youtubers suggested overexposing your SLog3 footage. Like, a lot. A lot more than you would normally want to. One suggests turning on the Zebra patterns and setting it to show at 100 IRE- That’s where SLog3 clips. So overexpose until you see zebra patterns and then back it down a bit.

I’m gong to have to play with it. Noise aside, with no other adjustment, just adding a LUT, the SLog3 footage was starting to look very nice. Imagine without noise and with a bit of tweaking?

But, was about footage right out of the camera? What about just normal shooting, where you do a minor teak and dump it out of the editor? Which looked best?

I liked Picture Profile 4. I could tweak that and use it fairly easily. I’ve done a lot of shooting in color setting Neutral. Color setting Portrait was a bit oversaturated, but could work if that’s the look you wanted.

My main takeaway after living with the footage a few days is that Slog is intriguing, and I want to see what good Slog footage looks like out of the camera. My second takeaway is tat I may switch to Picture Profile 4 for normal, quick shooting.

I Upgraded My Camera

I know. Telling stories isn’t about gear. You can tell a compelling story on your phone and tell a terrible story and the most expensive camera.
Even, so sometimes a new body comes out that is worth the upgrade. When I upgraded from the Sony a6000 to the a6500, the jump was huge. I was shooting my documentary, I needed the features of a better camera, and splurged a bit to get the a6500 over the a6300.


Enter the a6600. When it came out a few months ago, it was released to mixed reviews. Some people didn’t see it as a major upgrade. The upgraded AF, larger battery, and headphone jack alone were enough to make me want one. Add in a flip up screen and no video record limit, and I’m sold.


But the price was high. I just couldn’t justify spending another $1400, especially in between major projects. Even when the body started going on sale for $1200 regularly, I didn’t purchase it.


Last week, BH Photo put the a6600 on an education discount for $918. At this price point, I could justify the leap. I could sell my a6500 and accessories, and some other filmmaking gear to cover the cost. And I have two college students (dual credit counts) in my home. So, my son bought me a camera. Such a good kid.


I actually looked at the a6400. Numerically, that would be  a downgrade. But the a6400 had the new AF and no limit on recording. I liked those features. but the a6400 does not have the larger battery and headphone jack. Those two features were important to me. (I also like IBIS, but Sony’s isn’t that great, really. I could live without it.)


-As someone who shoots documentary footage, the smaller my footprint can be, the better. With the included headphone jack, I don’t have to use an external recorder to monitor audio recording. 


-I am often “running and gunning” and with the a6500 I routinely had multiple batteries on charge. The new, larger battery will help reduce the number of battery changes.


-In a “run and gun” situation, autofocus can be a critical component. I loved the face tracking in the a6500, but a couple of times it let me down. I had to cover a couple of shots I really wanted to use because at an inopportune moment the face tracking hunted focus for half a second. It doesn’t happen often, but it happened. I’m hoping, with the eye-tracking AF there will be greater accuracy.


I understand that some people may not value these improvements, at least not enough to upgrade. I didn’t think they were worth upgrading until this sale. But at that price, I could not pass it up. Plus I cleaned out my production cases a bit, converting little used gear to a new camera.

My Podcast is Available on All Major Platforms

I just scheduled a new email update about my new podcast. I’ve written about this a bit, but the podcast is about developing a biblical worldview.

This has been a passion of mine for years. I have taught a few times and done a few Bible studies related to this. So, I was thinking about how to get that information out, and fell into the idea of a podcast.

Podcasting is popular, and there are ways to get them set up for free or very little money. And I was surprised that there weren’t any easily found podcasts about developing a biblical worldview. 

Allow me to introduce The Foundations Podcast, developing a biblical worldview in a Post-Christian world. It is available on all of the major podcast platforms, including iTunesSpotify, and Google Podcasts.

The  podcast is about our view of the world, and how we create that worldview. I believe we have generations of believers in the church that do not have a biblical worldview. And, they don’t even know they don’t have one. 

I hope that listeners take away an understanding of how vital a biblical world view is, and some tools to help them understand issues through the lens of our faith and the Bible. 

Currently there are 3 episodes, with a 4th dropping later this weekend. You can see the podcast page at anchor.fm/foundations. I have a few more written and ready to record. Even a bonus Christmas episode next week. After I finish the first series, or season, I will take a break and see what other topics I might cover.

Please take a moment to subscribe through your favorite Podcast platform, and let people who might be interested know about the podcast.

Possible Podcast

I’m considering producing a podcast.

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you probably know I am all about helping people develop a biblical worldview. I have taught a few times and done a few Bible studies related to this. So, I was thinking about how to get that information out, and fell into the idea of a podcast.

Podcasting is popular, and there are ways to get them set up for free or very little money. And I was surprised to find there weren’t any easily found podcasts about developing a biblical worldview.

I sat down and lined out a series of episodes. Ive written 4 of them out, and begun gathering content for 3 or 4 others episodes. I may just do a short series, or if I’m inspired and it goes well I may do more. Definitely on a seasonal basis.

To make it easier, I would record several episodes at a time, and then release them every week or few days.

More info to come on this as I consider whether to do it or not.

Frustrated With Film Marketing

Just being real for a minute.

I spent a year and a half making a documentary that people in the target audience like. It’s far from perfect, but it’s been very well received. Here’s a short trailer I cut together highlighting some of the viewer reviews:

It’s the best thing I’ve ever made. So far.

So, I did a TVOD release, made it available for rental and sale. I marketed the film, did the email list thing, did the direct marketing to the target audience thing. I used social media to find audiences.

After the sales dried up, I started down the road of SVOD. Specifically focusing on Amazon Prime.

Now, I’ve written before about how terrible Prime royalty rates are. Basically, when people watch my movie all the way through, Amazon gives me $0.12. Twelve cents…

But, hey, everyone says that SVOD is how people want to view indie films. Even the people I know who took a survey about it said the same thing. People are more likely to watch through an SVOD or AVOD platform. So we just have to get more people to watch it.

And that brings me to the biggest frustration. I have not been able to find a way to advertise the movie to a targeted audience in a way that actually makes money.

I’m not talking about getting rich. I’m talking about making back the money it cost to make the film. Generating profit enough to make another one.

I have identified a great audience through Facebook, with about 370,000 members. Every time I run a brand awareness or traffic campaign I get great results. Sounds awesome, right?

Sure, if you can get people to watch for less than $0.12 a view, it’s great. But I have not been able to spend less than $0.40 per click. That’s just per click, it doesn’t mean people who click actually watch the whole thing. And sometimes it costs more, even up to $3.30 per click, using Facebook’s bid/auction placement.

When I ask experts on social media ads, they don’t have an answer. Most of the time they talk about using email lists, and building audiences. That’s great. Good advice when you’re making a movie.

But for this film, I’ve already plucked that low hanging fruit. I am ready to move to the next phase- where people who don’t know about the movie decide to watch it.

Is there no way to reach these people and see results that actually allows me to break even? No one seems to know one. It’s very frustrating.

For fun, I’m currently running a new test ad campaign. I’m limiting the bid to 6 cents per landing page view, and making the landing page the Amazon video page. I will see if FB can figure out how to serve up the ads. And if it will give any decent results.

Update: FB did not serve the ads. So, back to the drawing board.

To Prime or not to Prime: TVOD vs SVOD in Indie Filmmaking

Trying to make back the money it costs to produce an independent film is hard.

People expect entertainment for free. Really, I should say “free” instead. Nothing is free, but it’s not normally something people pay for at the time of consuming the entertainment. They pay a monthly (Netflix, Hulu) or annual (Amazon) fee, but when they sit down to watch a movie or show, there’s no transaction. Youtube is free, social media is free, even TV is free, if you don’t count paying for cable or satellite, or dealing with advertising.

Studios spend millions on overcoming this expectation. It takes a big amount of interest to trigger someone buying a movie instead of just “netflixing” it. And, I have found, it takes a lot of interest to trigger the purchase or rental of an indie documentary.

My film has been in the TVOD window, or Transactional Video On Demand window- meaning people who want to watch it must buy or rent it. I’m considering when to move to the next widow, which is SVOD and AVOD, or Subscription VOD or Advertising Supported VOD. It’s a big decision because the difference in margins is pretty large. In TVOD the split between platform and filmmaker ranges from 50-90%, depending on platform. Amazon Video is 50%. So if you rent a movie for $2, the filmmaker gets $1. Amazon Prime royalties are paid by the amount of time watched. And that royalty varies based on a number of factors Amazon calls an engagement score.

Given its current engagement score on Amazon, my documentary would generate $0.05 per hour of streamed video. (Max possible is $0.10) So, I would be making right at $0.08 per viewing of my entire film. (If someone watches part of it, then the royalty will be adjusted.) That means to make more money from SVOD/Prime than rentals ($1) I would need to have my film viewed 12 times on Prime vs rented one time.

Sounds crazy right? How can anyone expect a movie to be viewed 12 times as much as it is rented just by making it available to Prime subscribers?

Part of my issue is that most of the initial rush of purchases have already happened. People who already know about the movie have already decided to buy or rent it. To generate more rentals or purchases I have to introduce someone to the movie and then get them interested enough to spend money on the transaction. I have to trigger someone to overcome their expectation of free entertainment. Opening the SVOD/AVOD window could bypass that, but will it generate revenue?

So, I did a little survey among my friends. These are people I can easily reach through organic means (not paid) on social media and email. I asked 5 simple questions. There was a definite trend.

I should mention this is far from a perfect or scientific survey. It’s a snapshot of what people I know think about watching independent films. It’s also a bit skewed by the number of filmmakers who are included in the survey, so keep that in mind when reading the results. I will break that down a bit more as the article goes on.

29 total responses.

Survey results with filmmakers included:

29 responses. 3 people had give money toward a crowdfunding campaign for film. 12 had been in or helped make a film. 14 had never been involved with film before.

96.5% use an SVOD service like Netflix, Amazon or Hulu.
75% did not use an AVOD platform, like Crackle or Tubi.

65% said they either had or were willing to spend money an indie film (TVOD)
27% said the either had or were willing to watch an indie film on a “free” streaming platform. (SVOD/AVOD)
92% are open to watching your movie, if they are interested.

75% said they would rather watch an indie film on SVOD/AVOD.

Then I took out all of the filmmakers in the survey, leaving 17 responses.

53% said they either had or were willing to spend money an indie film (TVOD)
41% said the either had or were willing to watch an indie film on a “free” streaming platform. (SVOD/AVOD)
94% of these non-filmmakers are open to watching your movie, if they are interested enough. (That’s up 2% from when looking at the responses with filmmakers included… Weird)

76% said they would rather watch an indie film on SVOD/AVOD.

OK, so what does that mean?

Not a lot of people watch AVOD. Almost everyone has an SVOD service.

A lot of people say they will buy or rent an indie film, if they are interested enough. But in both versions of the survey, basically 3/4 say they would prefer to watch it through SVOD/AVOD. That makes sense, right? I’m already paying for the subscription, it’s easy to just add it and watch.

So while more than half are willing to consider spending money on your movie, it’s always going to be easier to get people to watch in SVOD. And, especially among friends and family, you can capture those TVOD transactions early.

Bottom line: After the initial rush of purchases by your committed fans, open the film up to SVOD. This should trigger the next level of fans, who might watch but are hesitant to pay money to watch.

Distribber Bankrupt?

Back when I was first thinking about indie film distribution, I heard about Distribber. It was a well-known aggregator. That is, it was a company that could take an independent film without the power of a full distributor or studio, and ge it placed on outlets like iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, and a bunch of other places.

Distribber’s model was that you would pay them several hundred dollars and they would submit your film. If they didn’t get the movie onto the platform, then you got a partial refund. Later they added a maintenance fee for titles, to help pay for the ongoing work to process payment. Because the outlets would pay Distribber, not you. Then Distribber would get around to paying you.

If you could afford the up front fees, this model sounds great to filmmakers. One time payment, and then all the revenue comes to us.

But apparently the model has flaws. Just from the outside, it seems like you need a constant influx of new films to keep the doors open. You would need that new income. If things slow down or something bad happens, this house of card will topple. But a few years ago, no one was worried.

I opted not to use Distribber because I didn’t have the up front cash, and I didn’t know how long it would take to recoup that outlay of funds. I did a few direct deals with outlets, and decided to go with FilmHub to try to get places i cannot go myself. Currently I’m letting them place the movie with TVOD places in the US, and everywhere around the world. FilmHub has no upfront fees (except $1200 with iTunes…) and takes 20% of any revenue generated.

Fast forward to this week. Rumblings and rumors abound about Distribber. Recent leadership changes and lack of communication are alarming some filmmakers. Alex Ferrari from Indie Film Hustle used to be a big proponent of Distribber. This week he came out and basically said he believed they are bankrupt. He received emails from Distrbber staff advising him to try to place fins using other means. And he sad he personally has thousands of dollars tied up with Distribber. They told him any refunds or payments will be handled through a 3rd party company during their “reorganization” which is often legalese for bankruptcy.

To my knowledge, Distribber has not said anything publicly about this.

Distribber’s website is live, but when you try to submit a film you get a message saying they are no longer accepting any new “orders”.

I don’t know how this will shake out. Any film submitted to a platform through Distribber will still be live and, until Distribber removes those titles, filmmakers are stuck. They cannot resubmit or remove the titles themselves. And they likely won’t get paid. At least not any time soon, if at all.

Business is a risk, and bankruptcy stinks for everyone involved.

My advice, such as it is- make deals directly with platforms and outlets as much as you can. It’s more work, but you limit your exposure. I only use aggregates to reach places i can’t on my own.

If indie filmmaking was easy everyone would do it.