We’ve seen many press stories in the past year about the headwinds facing legacy entertainment media companies due to the economic challenges brought about by digital transformation, competing forms of entertainment, and labor strikes that effectively closed the business for six months. During my 30 years as an executive in the media field– at HBO, at Disney (Miramax), and most recently as CEO of Sundance Institute for 11 years- I have witnessed rocky times in the media business before, but nothing like what has developed over the past several years.
As a Fellow at the Shorenstein Center this year, I am focused on a media sector that has been particularly hard-hit: independent scripted and documentary film. While the challenges facing quality news and journalism in the digital economy are widely known, the crisis facing American independent documentary and scripted films has not yet captured public attention outside the field. A handful of smart observers working in the sector have written about this aspect of the media crisis, but with almost no data and limited dedicated study of the independent film field, it’s difficult to build effective new solutions.
I believe the independent film sector matters, for the health of our culture and our democracy. As a Shorenstein Fellow, I am conducting research to better understand the challenges and opportunities facing the independent documentary and scripted film field.
The average American spends 12 hours a day (some sources say even more) consuming digital media. About half of this time is spent on professionally made film and television, seen on streaming, cable, or broadcast channels. We can sit back and enjoy a police procedural, comic book movie, epic fantasy, action franchise, true crime story, reality show, or romcom. And, for the first time on commercial networks, our choices even include programming made in other countries around the world. With thousands of shows and films available, and billions invested every year by the Hollywood studios and streaming platforms on new program offerings, it’s harder to decide what to watch than ever before.
But in this peak streaming era, it’s easy to lose sight of what is not available on our popular commercial channels.
Six major companies capture 80% of our subscription streaming time and analysts expect further consolidation in the coming year. In 2023, amid labor strikes and under pressure from Wall Street, these studio/streamers narrowed their mandates to focus on mass-appeal hits that will attract and retain to the widest possible audience (and advertisers for new ad-supported options), while avoiding risk or controversy. Following the playbook set by the large social media companies, they prioritize the most sensational, comforting, or addictive content while mining audience data to push algorithmic recommendations that reinforce existing preferences and increase viewing time. If you watch true crime or rom-coms, you get more true crime or rom-coms. This is good business for the streamers. But it also contributes to sensationalism, polarization, and a narrowing of curiosity.
According to a document prepared by the agency WME for its clients and reviewed by Business Insider, Netflix is looking for crime, celeb, sports, and history-themed stories when it comes to unscripted fare, but “nothing too political.” Apple pulled Jon Stewart’s show over disagreements about the content he would cover, including stories about China that “caused concern” among Apple executives. As the Writer’s Guild of America noted in a recent white paper, these vertically integrated companies control both production and distribution, leaving little room for independently created programming, particularly stories that speak truth to power, take risks, or portray historically underrepresented communities.
With rare exceptions, independent documentary and scripted film are no longer being acquired by the major streamers.
The global streamers’ market dominance, together with their narrowing focus on mass-market content, has real ramifications for our culture and democracy.
At their best, independent films, also sometimes called ‘specialized films’ – made outside of corporate mandates – help us better understand our world, reveal injustices, connect us with others across perceived differences, and reflect the experiences of diverse communities. The independent film and documentary sector is also a significant driver of innovation in the $192 billion U.S. film industry. This sector of artful, risk-taking cinema is also the vital proving ground for talent to launch careers (the directors of both Barbie and Oppenheimer this year got their start in independent film, for example) and for new narratives, aesthetics, and ideas to move into the mainstream.
The stakes are also high at a time when more of us get information from digital media than from any other source. A study by the Reuters Institute at Oxford, showed that more people pay attention to documentaries than to major news organizations on the topic of climate change (to name one example). Documentaries were twice as influential as celebrities and activists on social media, and three times more influential than politicians. This was true across all markets in the aggregate, as well as across all age groups.
This year alone, scores of highly acclaimed independent films – including documentaries exploring North Korean repression, the coal industry in Appalachia and contemporary Taiwan, as well as scripted features about an indigenous woman fighting to keep her family together, and a story of a family raising an autistic child – received no financially viable distribution offers after successful festival premieres. A couple of these films are now making their way into the market with independent distributors backing them, but the path to financial recoupment will be challenging. High-quality films like these are made every year by new and established U.S. creators and independent investors or donors eager to see these stories told. Top festivals -including SXSW, Toronto, and Sundance present many of the most exciting and important independent work to audiences and industry buyers. Despite a few high-profile sales, most of these films are hard to find after their festival premieres.
Understanding the media distribution landscape beyond the major streaming platforms.
To be clear, it has never been easy or lucrative to distribute specialized films. These are not often mass-appeal hits. But they are a critical counterpoint to media made solely for profit, and an expression of a counterculture that is vital to a healthy society. Prior to the streaming era there was a sustainable, if flawed, commercial distribution infrastructure based on slower releases across multiple ‘windows’ (theatrical and then home entertainment, including pay-per-view, pay cable, broadcast television). This distribution system has been overtaken by the one-time global release on top streaming platforms, by the shift in viewing patterns from theaters to in-home due to streaming habits and the pandemic, and by the many other entertainment options competing with professional storytelling for audience attention.
Theatrical releases build word-of-mouth and awareness that has traditionally driven value for ancillary sales that make up the majority of the revenue on most independent films. Despite some bright spots in certain independent art house theaters and festivals around the country, attendance in cinemas overall has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
In prior decades, pay cable and dvd provided at-home revenue that enabled financial sustainability and supported specialized distributors in offering theatrical releases to build word of mouth. But with pay cable and dvd being replaced by streaming media, and with the streaming giants deciding to pull back on acquiring work from independent filmmakers, there is not enough revenue from at-home markets to cover production costs for most films.
Hundreds of alternative at-home viewing platforms are still open to independent filmmakers. Niche subscription streaming services, advertiser supported (FAST/AVOD) channels, and open-platform options that don’t require a gatekeeper to post work vie for audience attention alongside the streaming and social media giants. These range from a handful of specialized documentary and art film channels to YouTube where 9% of all U.S. streaming media viewing happens (as of mid-2023, 45% of viewing happens on TVs and the rest online). But neither niche subscription nor ad-supported platforms have so far generated audiences for independent films and documentaries at a level that enables sustainable revenue to film teams or distributors. In this sense, the problem is not with “distribution” but with audience engagement.
High-quality independent film is launched into a sea of content, and curious audiences can’t find it.
High-quality independent film is launched into a sea of content, and curious audiences can’t find it.
There are potential signals of new energy coming from the start of the Sundance Film Festival. The documentary and scripted programs offered incredibly exciting films from all over the world. So far, there have been one or two notable sales, and many more deserving titles under consideration. Only time will tell whether the trend of the past several years will continue, leaving too many of these films without viable paths to economic recoupment and audiences.
Opportunity: Public Media
One bright spot for documentary film is public television, which reaches 99% of Americans. PBS programs like Frontline, POV, American Experience, American Masters, NOVA, and Independent Lens feature high-quality, diverse, and informative documentaries. There is no current public media funding or distribution for scripted American film. Frontline in particular has had terrific success attracting audiences to hard-hitting and high-quality investigative documentaries on YouTube with 2.5M subscribers, certainly a bright spot for feature-length content on the platform.
But public television is on the backfoot financially, technologically, and politically. Most PBS viewership is on broadcast channels, a sector that is declining in the U.S. with a median age of nearly 60. And public media broadly lacks the digital infrastructure or resources to compete for attention in a crowded streaming marketplace. PBS is funded by donors and governments at levels below its economically developed peer nations. The Nieman Lab noted in a recent article, that “the U.S. is a clear outlier in having the world’s largest GDP while its public media receives a well-below-average of $9.87 in per capita funding and $3.16 in per capita public funding.” These challenges, combined with the polarization of the culture wars, put the future of a robust public media at risk without significant new investment and political support.
Democratic governments invest in public media because they recognize its educational, cultural, and artistic importance. A 2022 study by media scholars Victor Pickard and Timothy Neff showed a strong correlation between independent, government– supported public media investment and healthy democracies. If we want to ensure high-quality, informative media, I believe we must demand a new PBS for the digital age, as we had in the broadcast era.
Opportunity: Regulation of the streaming media field
EU countries have successfully regulated the global streamers, requiring them to include or support independent production. Regulation enacted includes requirements that global streamers spend a percentage of their content investments on work originating from creative teams in each specific country’s market. There are also instances in which the streamers pay a percentage of their revenue in a specific market to a fund to support local independent content production. Similar efforts are underway or in place now in countries around the world.
Both the Hollywood Writers Guild and the Producers Guilds have begun to explore anti-trust legislation in closed-door meetings in 2023. The impact of vertical integration is a focus of these efforts. But there is no organization specifically representing independent media makers outside of the Hollywood commercial mainstream in these movements.
In the U.S., a national lobbying coalition was launched by the dominant streamers in 2023, presumably to forestall similar legislation in this country. There is an opportunity for a counter-lobby to secure the future of independent, informative, educational, and creatively adventurous media at a time of corporate consolidation. A lobbying effort would certainly face headwinds from business-friendly lawmakers, and take time to build, but could yield lasting regulation requiring streamers to support public media generally, or the independent film sector specifically, if a strong coalition of support could be built.
Opportunity: Entrepreneurial Innovation
The scale of the sector may not be big enough to interest the global streamers, but there is an opportunity for independent film to be strengthened through business innovation. Even with philanthropy or public funding partly supporting the field, more revenue must be generated from distribution to build a sustainable sector. Technology clearly offers the promise of bold new paths directly to the audience that are independent, user-centric, and equitable for creators. Creators and storytellers don’t need gatekeepers today, but they do need access to data and forward-looking marketing tactics that help them reach the people who will want to see their work.
My research on the landscape for independent film distribution in the US includes review of published sources, media policy history and practice, and 150 conversations to date with filmmakers and field leaders in distribution, sales, production, financing, exhibition, festivals, social impact consulting, academic media studies, investors, and philanthropists. These interviews have uniformly identified the scope and urgency of the problem.
And I have learned of many new business and nonprofit ideas bubbling up in exhibition, distribution, and audience engagement for independent documentary and scripted film. There are new audience-building algorithms being piloted, new nonprofit and for-profit streaming platforms being planned, traveling film tours in the works, foundations considering expanding funding for scripted work, Web3 platforms, and documentary platforms building community by tying social impact engagement to viewing (and much more). Many of these ideas have promise, and arguably this competition will allow the best ideas to rise. But some observers have expressed concern that competition for resources and audience attention in a niche field risks further segmenting and confusing consumers.
With so many independent films facing the same distribution challenge, I believe there is a unique opportunity across the field to share information and work collectively to build a sustainable independent film business that contributes to a clear public good.
Strong entrepreneurial or policy efforts will benefit from more data, starting with an understanding of the current and potential audience, as well as the current gap between production costs and distribution revenues. I suggest that these two data points will be the foundation for any viable new ideas, even if philanthropy, public policy, or public media can offset some part of a sustainability gap.
Later this month, the Shorenstein Center is launching the first-ever broad study of the audience for independent scripted and documentary film. Results will be shared publicly later this Spring. We are working with vendors and industry groups, including Parrot Analytics, Nielsen, Art House Convergence, Film Festival Alliance, and Evan Shapiro/Publisher’s Clearing House Insights, as well as with our own research team, to understand the scale, demographics, and interest-drivers for consumers of independent film. We believe there are fans and potential fans who can be engaged more creatively. Next, we will turn to a study of the business economics of independent film. This research is generously supported by a gift to the Shorenstein Center from Randy and Chris Gebhardt at the Random Good Foundation.
Let’s expand our vision of American media beyond commerce, to value stories with cultural impact, vital information, and risk-taking cinematic art.
Independent documentary and scripted films, born from the passion of creators unencumbered by corporate mandates, are pushed to the periphery in the U.S. corporate media ecosystem. As sensationalism, disposable content, and polarization grip the commercial mainstream, we must uplift this vital alternative media, embrace politically charged, challenging, creatively adventurous, and unconventional narratives from diverse voices. This is the sector of media where generation-defining new voices emerge, where social ideas move from the margin to the mainstream, and where unfiltered narratives shed light on the unseen corners of our world. Media shapes our society, our beliefs, and our values and when it is only valued through mass-market commercial metrics, we all lose.
The independent film community needs allies standing with them in its fight for survival.
The time to act is now.
About the Author
Keri Putnam, Walter Shorenstein Fellow ’23-’24, is an award-winning senior media executive, producer, board member, and strategic advisor to media companies and nonprofit organizations. Throughout her career, she has supported, developed, and produced bold, original media from new and established talent and advocated for a more diverse and inclusive media. In 2022, Putnam founded Putnam Pictures to produce film and television from creators with distinct and adventurous vision. Previously, Putnam served as CEO of Sundance Institute from 2010-2021. She led the Sundance Film Festival and a wide array of year-round global lab and granting programs for new storytellers in film, series, documentary, theater, and new media. Prior to Sundance, Putnam served as President of Production at Miramax Films, a division of the Walt Disney Company. While at The Shorenstein Center, she is researching and reporting on the state of independent media in the U.S., with a particular eye on the lack of opportunity for independent film today.