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AFM Panelists: Free Ad-Supported Streaming Platforms Fertile Ground for Indie Content

Free ad-supported streaming platforms are becoming an attractive distribution venue for independent content, said panelists Nov. 3 at the American Film Market.

“The pandemic just accelerated the trend to streaming,” said Jennifer Vaux, head of content acquisition at the Roku Channel, likening the content flow to “drinking from a firehose filled with Red Bull.”

“AVOD saw a huge lift,” she added.

Roku acquired the Quibi library during the pandemic. Its short chapter-like content provides a natural place for an ad break, she said.

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Years ago, it was difficult for filmmakers “to get on board with” AVOD distribution, said Brian Stevenson, CEO and founder of the Chromata Consulting Group. But the pandemic changed that view, he said.

“I got a lot more filmmakers who were interested in licensing to AVOD platforms,” he said. “They just needed to understand what that platform was all about.”

“I think our company is long on AVOD, and we’re big believers in it,” said Michael Messina, EVP of distribution for Screen Media.

“Most of us have overall deals with AVOD platforms,” he said. “These are rev-share deals with platforms. Those aren’t new deals that are being cut. You have a master agreement with Tubi, with Pluto. You push as much content through it as they can take on a rev-share basis. Beyond that, pitching them specific pieces of content for them to pay you an exclusive license fee for — that’s all relatively new, and I don’t think any of us know how many of those deals they’re doing.”

AVOD is taking some content that would have formerly gone to SVOD services.

“The line between SVOD and AVOD is becoming blurred,” said James Emanuel Shapiro, EVP of U.S. distribution for XYZ Films. “It’s possible now to do [exclusive] Pay 1 deals now with AVOD, which before was almost exclusively SVOD. There’s so many eyeballs going to IMDBTV, Roku — the SVOD market is getting extremely saturated and consumers are being forced to have a number of studio platforms at this point, so it’s becoming a cost issue, and AVOD is going to keep growing because it’s free.”

Filmmakers can’t just count on getting that big acquisition paycheck from subscription services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.

“SVOD, unless you have an output deal, every title is a grind, you have to go out and pitch it and sell it,” Messina said. “Their shelves are pretty full, and the guys who were paying the most money are now creating a ton of content, and they’re not really looking to license content in at least at the same levels as they were, so that’s a challenge.”

“Not everything can be [Hulu acquisition] Palm Springs,” said Adam Koehler, manager of acquisitions at IFC Films, adding that sometimes “it’s difficult to manage expectations of sales agents and filmmakers.”

During the pandemic, IFC sent content to drive-in theaters and genre content in particular to VOD. IFC also has its own streaming service, which provided an outlet for content.

“Luckily, our release strategy was diverse,” he said.

“Very often, we’ll come across a title that will do spectacular on VOD but maybe not have a theatrical life,” he said, such as certain genre films. He said the distribution of films on VOD or streaming simultaneously with theatrical release doesn’t necessarily hurt theaters, noting that major films with that release pattern, such as Halloween Kills and Dune, are “still doing phenomenally well at the box office.”

“With IFC, we kind of pioneered the day-and-date model almost two decades ago,” he said, adding the theatrical release bolsters word of mouth.

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Some genres do better than others on streaming services, panelists agreed.

“Documentaries are tough for the Roku Channel audience,” Vaux said. “It’s hard for them to pop — unless they’re true crime.”

“I think it’s a rule of thumb throughout the industry that true crime does very well,” said Koehler, pointing to IFC’s documentary acquisition Hold Your Fire, which includes some social commentary but also has a true crime aspect. The film, about a hostage negotiation, “kind of plays in a lot of ways like a thriller,” he said.

Stevenson said issue films and inclusive (black, LGBTQ, etc.) content can find a place on the vast number of platforms out there.

“You’ve got to start thinking about what audience you’re speaking to,” he said. “I always tell [filmmakers] to start looking at some of the AVOD platforms and what’s on there.”

For instance, he said Peacock was looking for complementary content to package with its documentary series “The Defiant Ones,” about Black music mogul Dr. Dre and record exec Jimmy Iovine, and a company he works with, Never Wish for Justice, had the documentary Black Boys and was able to fill that need. The ability to target a specific demo with content is also valuable to ad-supported platforms, he said.

Good artwork and cast members are also attractions for streamers, said panelists.

Vaux compared marketing a title on a streaming service to “Blockbuster when you had the video boxes on the wall where you would turn them over and look at the cast.”

“AVOD platforms always request a metadata sheet,” Stevenson said.

“If there is somebody [in the cast] that has a name … it’s easier to work with some of the AVOD platforms and their marketing people,” he said.

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