AppleTV and "Amateur Hour": Where Apple Needs to Go with Indie Film

If I make the next Angry Birds-esque smash hit video game, I have a shot at going toe to toe against EA and coming out on top. I have no equivalent chance with my short films, regardless of how many festival accolades I have under my belt, and it's by design or neglect. 

I want to talk a bit about online film distribution, true independent film, and Apple's opportunity to transform the landscape, not just shuffle things around. First let me lay out a few facts:

  1. The iTunes Store is currently the #1 music retailer in the world.

  2. Apple describes iTunes as "a free application for your Mac or PC. It organizes and plays your digital music and video on your computer. It keeps all your content in sync. And it’s a store on your computer, iPod touch, iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV that has everything you need to be entertained. Anywhere. Anytime.

  3. Steve Jobs stated in his Sept 1, 2010 keynote when unveiling the next generation appleTV that "people don't want [to watch] amateur hour" (referring to the desire by consumers to watch "Hollywood" movies on demand with their digital TV technologies).

  4. Independent musicians (that is to say, self published) can easily get their songs or albums in the #1 music store by paying a nominal fee to a distributor like Tunecore or CDBaby. (Yes, you still have to promote it, but it'll be there in the world's #1 music store.)

Let me lay out a few more facts, specific to video and other media in the iTunes Store:

  1. Similarly with music, filmmakers can pay a fee to FilmBaby (same company as CDBaby) to make your feature film available in various channels (including iTunes).

  2. There are short films on iTunes, but they are either Disney/Pixar films or distributed through Shorts International. Everyone else is barred, even through a distributor like Filmbaby, from selling shorts through iTunes. There are a couple exceptions of shorts done directly, but not many, and most are awful.

  3. You may contact Apple directly about selling your feature film individually through iTunes. In most cases (mine included), they will sit on your request for 6-8 months before saying "no thanks."

  4. Any individual can sell books through iTunes' iBook Store.

  5. Any individual can sell Apps thorough iTunes' App Store.

There are a few potential reasons for these inconsistent and silly rules, and several unfortunate effects.

One reason may be that Apple wants to set a very high barrier for entry to sell films, and requiring that all but a precious few films be feature length is certainly one way to do it. It's tremendously difficult to make a feature film (having done a couple), and Apple is less likely to have moronic student films inundating the channel (however, notice that YouTube is prominent on the new appleTV.). However, this is akin to having the greatest music store in the world and only allowing operas to be sold. Short films are not a lesser form, they are a different form, and allowing exactly two flavors of short film (awesome Pixar films and overwrought Academy Award fare) deliberately excludes some of the most exciting cinema out there. There are astonishing works of experimental film, video art, and un-categorizable storytelling that should be seen more widely.

Not wanting "amateur hour" may be another reason behind it. Furthering the "walled garden" concept from the App Store (a concept that I agree with). However, it's easy to find utter crap at the iTunes movie store (random search: I found "Miss Conception"... Rotten Tomatoes gives it 8%), not to mention the App Store (insert boob/fart app here). One speculation is that films (such as my shorts and features) submitted directly to Apple get rejected if they are or had ever been available for free (as mine are). This may be true, but is not logical or consistent. That venerable institution of safe indy films, Sundance, offered many videos on iTunes for free (not though the ignominious invisibility of video podcasts, through the actual store) and are now selling them (like the excellent "This Way Up"). So wait, was limited-time-free thing supposed to spur future sales or kill the ability to charge for it later? Pick a lane! (oh, it's distributed by Shorts now. So I guess it's ok then.)

*deep breath*

There are reasons to give films away, I am all for it, I'm doing it now. What I'd really like to do is give-some-sell-some work away under the banner of the currently greatest media store in the world. I've got a huge track record, I've got awards out the wazoo, so do many of my friends who make brilliant and obscure work. So why not make it possible for video artists to compete on the same playing field, just like they do in the App Store?

Why not? The infrastructure is there. What harm could come from it? Unless the restrictions are part of private negotiations with film and TV studios in their ongoing attempt to restrict the channel as much as possible. I'm guessing this is the case. Film studios have never and will never want individual makers to be able to connect to audiences directly and actually profit from it, they maintain that they much be the gatekeepers of profit, and everything else must be relegated to "amateur hour."

That said, I pre-ordered a second-gen appleTV. It's a brilliant agent of chaos, and I want it to destroy the current film distribution landscape. I have hope: when the iTunes Music Store started it had DRM all over it and limited selections, but as it wrestled control from the stultifying uncreative music labels, it began to reshape the music world. Jobs wrote his treatise on DRM and within the year it was gone. It's now unfettered by bullshit DRM and and the art form is a little bit more free.

May it be so with film and video art.