As the Federal Communications Commission considers whether to move forward with new net neutrality regulations, much of the discussion has focused on the ongoing dispute between Netflix and Comcast. At issue in the clash between the streaming-video titan and the soon-to-be-even-bigger cable company is the speed at which Netflix’s content loads for Comcast subscribers. Netflix recently cut deals with Comcast and Verizon so that its content will make the last stage of its journey to consumers’ screens in what are effectively faster access lanes.
While it may be frustrating to Netflix to get charged for improvements to broadband networks that it believes Comcast and Verizon should be making on their own, at least the company, with its large and growing subscriber base, can afford to pay.
For independent filmmakers, the Internet was supposed to be a way to circumvent many of the strictures on conventional filmmaking. Crowdfunding could make you less dependent on a studio or independently wealthy investors. Streaming was supposed to be an alternative to distribution through theaters, one where geographic reach did not matter, where local norms could not lock a movie out of cinemas based on its content, and where filmmakers could charge their audiences directly, keeping more of their profits. But if Netflix’s deals and FCC regulations usher in a new regime in which content producers are supposed to pay to make sure their streams flow smoothly, broadband companies, rather than studios or theater owners, could become the new gatekeepers for independent film.
” ‘Life, Itself,’ I think, was the first film in Sundance’s history to be seen at home the same night it was shown at Sundance. And I think Roger would have been tremendously exhilarated about that,” Chaz Ebert said of the biopic about her husband, the late critic Roger Ebert, in a discussion at EbertFest last month. “Some people live in small towns, and some movies like ‘Museum Hours’ or ‘Short Term 12‘ may never make it to some small towns. So in the sense that if they had a film festival where you could get access to that and buy access for streaming afterwards, I’m in favor of that, so more people can see them otherwise.”
But what happens if it becomes difficult to stream those independent films? What if independent films, distributed through standalone Web sites or smaller streaming companies, buffer endlessly while content on sites like Netflix, which pay for fast-lane access, loads immediately?
At EbertFest, after receiving the Golden Thumb for “Museum Hours,” filmmaker Jem Cohen said that Ebert’s vision would be in danger without net neutrality provisions that prevent some people from paying for faster loading speeds.
“If we value unusual experiences in what we read, what we watch, and what we do, then we do have to support things that make that possible. When it comes to cinema and this idea of arthouse cinema and kind of the non-blockbuster, over and over again, it is disappearing for real,” he said.
If different content is allowed to load at different rates, he said, “it is just simply not mysterious what it will lead to…The bigger company will get the lanes on the highway. And the little art film that might have ended up there will be slower to load and easier for people to give up on. Because they will just go and watch the big movie from the big company that loads really quickly…It seems kind of obscure, but they may really, really, really affect not just what you watch, but what people like me get to make.”
Net neutrality matters not just for individual filmmakers, but for the outlets that have grown up to distribute their work, pooling some of the work of getting movies streaming, while imposing less bureaucracy than the theatrical distribution system.
“For the kind of filmmakers Fandor is interested in featuring, people whose work tends not to get out there enough, they tend to have the least money, they tend to make the least money,” Dan Aronson, a founder and the chief technical officer of Fandor, an independent-oriented streaming company, told me. “It’s not far from the whole 99 percent and 1 percent divide, it’s the same corporate problem. The truth is, the FCC has even said, well, we’ll be careful and we’re going to make sure people don’t discriminate. But how do you not end discriminating when some people can bid more and some people can pay less?”
Aronson compared the current state of affairs in streaming video to the Payola scandals of the 1950s, in which promoters paid DJs, radio programmers and television personalities, including Dick Clark, to play certain rock records. In that case, Congress investigated and ultimately pushed for radio station directors to make decisions about what to play, making it harder to bribe DJs in exchange for spins. Aronson suggested that the solution could be the same now: vigorous federal action.
“We’ve dealt with the distribution problems in the past,” Aronson said. “And we passed laws. We were able to do something. We did it via laws and regulation.” On May 15, he will find out. But until then, Aronson and his colleagues will be trying to make clear that when it comes to streaming video, the stakes may be high for Netflix and Comcast, but the issues at stake matter as much for independent filmmakers as they do to corporate giants.