Eric Doctorow: Search and Discovery and the Independent Film

More than 40 years after the home video business was launched, distribution is becoming more and more centered around digital distribution. This is a good thing and a not-so-good-thing.

And it all has to do with the problem of “search” vs. “discovery”.

Think about it this way: Search is people looking for content, and discovery is content looking for people.

A little history:  The Internet was pioneered by the U.S military.  It was designed as a tool for the military and other government agencies to be search vast amounts of data quickly.  This became an important initiative as the amount of data and information that resides at colleges, universities, think tanks, governmental facilities and other places began to soar in the 1960s and beyond. It was at this time that the conventional search process, using the phone to call around to see who had what, just didn’t work anymore.

Thus, the Internet came to the rescue. The Internet gave users the ability to search vast and disconnected databases quickly and efficiently. It became one of the greatest inventions in human history.

If you knew what you wanted to find, you could easily do so on the Internet.  You could find information about what you wanted in a blink of an eye. The Internet is the perfect search engine.

But search is not discovery … and the Internet is not a great discovery engine.  In fact, it’s a pretty terrible discovery engine. Browsing on the Internet, well, sucks.

This is a problem for the independent film business.

And, in a weird twist of history, guess what … video stores, which were terrible search platforms, were great discovery platforms.  Video stores were great for the independent film business.

Remember how it was, back in the 1980s and ‘90s. You would walk into a video store wanting to find a particular movie and always had trouble finding it.  Much of the time you couldn’t find it – maybe it was a big hit and demand was so high it was hardly ever in stock, or maybe it was hidden in the constantly growing inventories of rental videocassettes stocked by the average retailer.

We all remember that searching for a film in a video store was not a great experience.  But the video store did provide a great experience to discover great new films – introducing millions of consumers to films they would never have been exposed to.

Maybe the box art caught your eye. Or you were drawn to a particular film by the trailers playing in the store, on the boxy TV perched up in a corner. Maybe it was the posters, standees and other merchandising materials. Or maybe a random customer would come up and recommend a movie. Oh my, what an experience that was.

Yes, Video stores were terrible search platforms, but were exceptional discovery platforms.

History will show that the heyday of the video business was the heyday of independent filmmaking. Before video stores there were really very few ways for anyone to discover a film unless it was in a theater or played on television. The idea of just learning about a new film by browsing or walking up and down aisles was simply unheard of.

The video store created an ecosystem that suddenly allowed tens of millions of consumers to be exposed to movies in a whole new way … and they responded incredibly well.  Video store customers loved being able to watch movies in their own homes, whenever they wanted to. No longer at the whims of broadcast or cable television, they were in control. Hey, they could even pause or rewind in case they missed something. And discovering new films by new filmmakers, with new actors, was a fantastic experience. Consumers fell in love with independent films. This set up an entire generation of filmmakers to experiment, learn to make great films, develop a fan base and audience and, yes, make money – fueling hundreds of millions of dollars into the system to support independent filmmaking.

Unfortunately, the video store discovery engine died when the video store ecosystem collapsed.  When tens of thousands of stores closed, consumers lost their life lines to discovering new films in such an entertaining and positive way.

Now, we have Internet “video stores” like Apple iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Fandango Now, among others. These stores are amazing for a variety of reasons: the vast amount of films that are available to the consumer, the superb viewing experience, the ability to search for favorite films quickly/instantly, superior customer service, the ability to watch any film anywhere.  But, let’s face it, they are not great places to browse and discover new films. And this is a critical issue for independent filmmakers, distributors and the independent film business.

Raising consumer awareness for films that don’t have big stars, aren’t made by famous directors, aren’t released theatrically in a meaningful way, is so very hard – and very expensive. And in today’s environment, that means that the era of a flourishing, powerful and impactful independent film business is threatened.

Addressing these challenges is a great discussion topic for another time.  For now, let’s at least understand what we are up against.

The Internet is a great search platform, but not a great discovery platform.

Maybe those old video stores weren’t so bad for the business after all. This, too, is a story for another time.

Former Paramount Home Video president – and Video Hall of Fame member – Eric Doctorow currently heads his own film company, Random Media.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

five × 2 =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.