If your goal is to get your indie film to major VOD platforms, an aggregator is essential.
In a nutshell, an aggregator acts as a trusty middle man between you and VOD services like iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and more.
They handle encoding and delivery, and when your film generates revenue, they report and send it back your way.
Now, as of September 2019, the aggregator market is facing a bit of a shakeup. So I want to use this article to explore what’s going on, and the variety of options available to indie filmmakers.
Not only that, but if you stick around, we’ll dig deeper into how to earn consistent revenue from your indie films.
The situation with Distribber
Let’s start with the drama.
If you hadn’t heard, Distribber—one of the most popular aggregators in the indie film community—appears to be going out of business.
For months now, the company has failed to render services that people paid for, filmmakers haven’t received their payouts on the backend, and support has been non-existent.
Through some diligent legwork, my friend Alex Ferrari found that most of Distribber’s employees have been laid off, their offices closed, and a handful of other signs that the company was quietly heading for bankruptcy.
Anyhow, as I’m writing this, it’s still up in the air whether Distribber will make a comeback, but it seems doubtful.
It’s always possible that another distribution company or aggregator will purchase Distribber or its remaining assets, and start handling those films.
But as a filmmaker, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
In the meantime, if you have one or more films on Distribber, the best course of action is to email email@example.com and ask for your work to be removed from every platform it’s on.
So far, people are having success with this, and their films are coming down within a week or so.
That said, there are still a lot of outstanding backend payments that were never paid to filmmakers. And that’s going to be a much more difficult knot to untangle.
If you’re in that situation, I recommend joining that facebook group linked above, and potentially consulting an attourney.
The best alternatives to Distribber as of September 2019
So all of this begs the question, if Distribber’s no longer an option, what are the most trustworthy alternatives?
Well for starters, if your primary goal is to get on Amazon, you may not even need an aggregator.
Through Prime Video Direct, you can submit your film to Amazon directly. So consider that before paying an aggregator to submit on your behalf.
However, for the wide variety of other VOD platforms out there, you’ll need to work through an aggregator.
Before we get to the options, though, there are several different flavors of aggregator business models you should know about.
Some aggregators are entirely one-time services, where you pay up front, then receive 100% of revenue on the backend. (This is what Distribber did, but they also snuck various fees into the backend of their service.)
Then there are services that don’t have an upfront fee, but take a cut on the backend.
And finally, there are services that blend those two models, where they charge up front and take a cut.
Which of these you choose is going to depend on your financial situation and your specific goals.
With all of that said, let’s get into the list of aggregators.
Quiver’s one of a few platforms I’ve heard nothing but good things about. It was the preferred aggregator for Sundance’s Creative Distribution Initiative, and Jim Cummings recommends it in his kickass “Short to Feature Lab Curriculum” article.
In terms of pricing, Quiver is in the first camp, where they charge up front. For feature films, it’s $950 for the first platform, and $175 for each platform beyond that. For shorts, it drops to $400 for the first platform, and $100 for each subsequent one.
And again, Quiver does not take a percentage on the backend. So you pay once for delivery, then keep 100% of your revenue.
BitMax is another platform I’ve heard good things about. And their model is similar to Quiver in that you pay up front, and keep everything on the backend.
That said, BitMax’s pricing isn’t nearly as transparent. They say they start around $500 for a feature, but you have to contact them for a custom quote.
FilmHub is a bit different from the others on this list, as they’re seemingly a cross between an aggregator, distributor, and tech platform.
Regardless of what you call FilmHub, the main draw is that submitting your film doesn’t require any cash upfront, and you can reach a substantial number of niche VOD platforms in all sorts of global territories. So it’s not limited to a handful of “majors” like iTunes, Amazon, etc, and only in the US, UK markets.
However, like many distributors, FilmHub takes 20% on the backend in perpetuity. For a lot of people, especially those who can’t (or don’t want to) pay those upfront fees, that’s a great deal. But unlike a distributor, you’re in full control of your film’s rights at all times.
Just know that if your film does well in the coming years, you may end up paying FilmHub dramatically more on the backend than you would have with another service that charged up front. That’s always the risk you take with these things.
(Also, I received a note from a reader that because FilmHub isn’t an official aggregator, they may end up having fees on the backend, as they still have to pay to reach certain platforms. I can’t confirm this, but it’s something to look out for if you choose to distribute through them.)
Walla is an example of an aggregator that places heavy emphasis on delivery to iTunes, and mixes both the upfront fee and revenue share business models.
For feature films, you pay $999 for your first iTunes territory, then $49 for each subsequent one. Then you can reach other platforms like Amazon for $199 each.
However, in addition to the upfront fees, Walla takes a 15% cut on the backend. Frankly, given the other options, I’m not sure why anyone would choose this one.
Our final aggregator is Juice, which falls back into the category of companies that charge you up front, and let you keep full revenue.
Pricing isn’t listed on their website, but in my research, I found an old article saying that a feature starts at $945, with subsequent platforms at $195, and there are no additional “per territory” fees or backend revenue share fees.
Now, quick disclaimer before we move on. I haven’t personally used any of these services.
So as with any distribution entity, you need to do your due diligence and talk to reps at these companies. Not only that, but talk to filmmakers who’ve worked with them to see if they’re satisfied.
Also, as you’ll see later on in this article, I tend to be a fan of building audiences and selling directly to your fans instead of working through an aggregator.
If that’s something that interests you, my platform recommendation at this point is Gumroad, which allows for both purchases and rentals of your film, and sends upwards of 95% of that revenue your way.
Driving revenue once your film hits platforms
Over the last few years, I’ve known a number of indie filmmakers who’ve used aggregators to reach major platforms.
They gladly pay those upfront fees because of the high hopes of revenue they’d see later.
A few have made decent money, but the majority haven’t seen much action on the backend.
The reason for this is simple.
Just getting your film on streaming platforms isn’t enough.
As indie filmmakers, this can be tough to hear, because we want platform delivery to be the end of the story.
Very often, we’re burned out from making our film and schlepping it around to festivals. By the time it reaches platforms, most of us are ready to move on to the next project, or take a much needed vacation.
At the same time, most of us want to see sustainable revenue from our film. And if that’s the goal, just dumping it onto a bunch of streaming platforms won’t get the job done.
You can’t count on Amazon and iTunes to magically drive attention and revenue your way.
Your film is but a drop of water in their vast oceans of online content. And much of the organic attention on those platforms trends towards big budget stuff right out of the gate.
So unless you take control and drive attention to your film yourself (or hire someone to do it), very little revenue will find its way back to you.
Hell, you might not break even on what you spent for aggregation, let alone your film’s budget.
This is a big part of the reason that working with a traditional distributor is so appealing.
Not only can you get some money upfront, but they handle the aggregation piece, along with branding, marketing, theatrical, and more.
A good distributor takes those time and resource intensive tasks off your plate, so you can focus on the next project.
That’s the idea, anyway.
Truth is, many distributors don’t do a whole lot to promote their micro-budget acquisitions. And even when they do, very little money finds its way back to the filmmakers. But that’s a rant for another article.
Point is, if we want to earn real money through self-distribution, we have to champion our film in the marketplace and drive people to it.
We have to get our hands dirty, learn about marketing, and make sure our target audience knows about our film and where to find it.
That’s how you make real, sustainable money from this. By taking matters into your own hands.
And the beautiful thing is, when you take charge like this, some platforms (Amazon in particular) will start sending more organic traffic and sales your way.
After all, that’s Amazon’s job—to recommend relevant stuff so people spend more time on the platform. By driving a certain audience to Amazon, the platform will be more likely to recommend your film to similar folks organically.
That said, I just want to reiterate the cardinal rule here. If you’re not doing the legwork to promote your film, you’re very likely not getting paid, even if you’re on a gazillion different platforms.
So please keep all of this in mind when choosing a distribution model for your films.
If you’re not willing to do that marketing legwork for months and years after your film is completed, going with a traditional distributor makes more sense.
Just make sure you do your due diligence, because again, many lower end distributors are shady as hell.
However, if you’re willing to put on your marketing hat and do that work consistently, there’s one other option to consider.
Building audiences, and selling directly to your fans
Here’s an interesting question for you to ponder.
If you’re doing the work to engage people online, and driving them to watch your film, why would you choose Amazon or iTunes as your primary platform?
Think about it. The reason many of us want to be on these big platforms is the perception that audiences are already there.
That’s why we gladly put up with iTunes taking 30-40% of our revenue, or Amazon paying 6 cents for every hour streamed.
And that’s why we put up with these platforms not sharing any customer information with us.
Because we’re operating on the flawed assumption that, just by being there, way more people will see our films, and we’ll make more money.
As we’ve already talked about, that’s almost never the case. There are obviously a ton of people on those platforms, but we have to be proactive about reaching them.
So again, if we’re doing the work to generate audience attention, why would we choose these platforms?
Why wouldn’t we save money on aggregation fees, sell from our own website, keep 90-95% of the revenue, and build up our customer database so that we can sell to these fans again?
I don’t know about you, but this seems like a no-brainer decision in favor of the DIY route.
You’re going to be hustling to market your film anyway, so you might as well do everything you can to maximize both short and long term revenue.
So here’s what I’d posit to you.
If you’re already doing the work to market your film, consider skipping this aggregator/platform model altogether, and sell directly to your fans.
All of the technology to do this is accessible and affordable. (Again, I recommend Gumroad.)
And when you take this path, the energy you pour into marketing will have a much higher ROI.
Not only that, but you’ll build a targeted email list of people who love your work.
This list is gold, as you can use it to sell past or future films, affiliate offers, or drive people to a Patreon. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what you can do to monetize an engaged email list.
Granted, you may eventually want to take your film to major streaming platforms to widen your reach. But to my mind, that’s something that comes well after you’ve tapped out the audience you can reach yourself.
Again, I don’t know about you, but as someone who cares about maximizing revenue from what I make, I’ll take the DIY option any day of the week.
One final thought about sustainability and risk
Before we wrap this up, there’s one last thought I want to leave you with.
Any time you put additional people, companies, or platforms between you and your film’s revenue, you’re taking on risk.
As we’re seeing with the Distribber situation, if one of those intermediaries goes out of business—or decides to pull some shady crap—you’re out of luck.
If I were a betting man, I’d wager the filmmakers who are owed money by Distribber will never see a dime. Or if they do, it’ll likely be pennies on the dollar of what they’re owed.
Granted, Distribber appears to have been horribly mismanaged. So it’s not like any aggregator or distributor you work with will inevitably die.
But still, that risk is always there.
And for those of us trying to build a sustainable, long-term business around our films, that’s a risk we need to weigh carefully.
This is another reason I’m such a fan of building audiences and selling directly to your fans.
When you take the DIY approach, it’s certainly more work. No doubt.
But at the same time, it’s safer and more sustainable over the long run, not to mention more profitable.
And for me, I’ll gladly go the additional mile for that kind security.
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