Worsens Conditions for Many Filmmakers Relying on Streaming During Pandemic
In late February, a number of independent documentarians found the already difficult tasks of accessing new audiences at home and making ends meet in a pandemic even more arduous when their films were expelled from Amazon Prime Video Direct as part of a blanket policy change that removed unsolicited non-fiction and short-form content. While independent filmmakers have a number of other streaming platforms left open to them, such as Vimeo, YouTube, Google Play, etc., Amazon Prime’s subscription-based service had the most potential in terms of reach and revenue generating potential. Journalists Chris Lindahl and Dana Harris-Bridson’s coverage of this situation for IndieWire is among the few journalistic accounts to focus on what this policy change has meant for filmmakers, and describes the pre-purge relationship between Amazon Prime and those who used the platform to stream their work. Filmmakers and distributors were able to make docs and shorts available to an enormous potential audience via an already-familiar platform, which, in turn, helped Amazon Prime amass the country’s largest catalog of streaming film and contributed to its image as a home for independent film. This mutually beneficial relationship, Amazon’s emphasis on its relationship to independent film, and a total lack of warning, meant many filmmakers were caught off guard when their films suddenly disappeared from the platform in what filmmaker Robert Steven Williams calls “The Prime Pandemic Purge.”
At first glance, the policy change is so broad that the plight of indie documentaries feels almost incidental. The policy is generalized to include all unsolicited non-fiction uploads, which encompasses award-winning independent documentaries but also content of debatable value, from filmed conferences to slide shows to monologues and “toy play.” Because Amazon gave no explanation for the expulsion, the reasons for it are speculative, and therefore difficult to contend with. Chris Lindahl and Dana Harris-Bridson point to the glut of “lesser” content (slideshows, conference videos, etc.) and complaints about the streaming service’s “clunkiness.” There’s also the possibility that content was expelled as part of an overarching concern with questionable user-generated content, some of which is detailed in a January Vox article about “Amazon Prime’s dark underbelly,” which was published at a moment of increased public pressure to de-platform problematic content across the Internet in early 2021. So, the decision to remove some of this content is unsurprising. What surprised many filmmakers is the apparently indiscriminate application of the policy, which lumped quality independent film together with a morass of non-fiction content and swept it out the door. The blanket policy was enacted in a way that ended up removing films of unquestionable social and aesthetic value, and did so after 5 years of courting indie filmmakers and making them central to Amazon Prime’s brand, at times seeking out and rewarding the very same types of film (as in its 2017 Festival Stars acquisition program that offered $200,000 for some film fest titles) that would be unceremoniously dropped by the expulsion of unsolicited films.
Prior to the “purge,” Amazon Prime was the only major subscription service that accepted unsolicited docs. The sudden loss of such a significant platform, particularly at a time when streaming is more or less the only game in town, has come as a blow to filmmakers for whom the platform meant easier access to a larger pool of potential viewers and sometimes a significant source of revenue as well. Lindahl and Harris-Bridson’s piece explains how, even prior to the pandemic, streaming through Amazon Prime became vital to many filmmakers “as a kind of next-gen ancillary market that helped fill a gap once filled by DVDs.” Although signs of Amazon’s waning interest in indie filmmakers were appearing as early as 2019, the platform remained vital to some independent filmmakers, particularly as the pandemic hit and more traditional means of finding audiences ground to a halt.
Amazon Prime’s importance to many independent documentarians and the impact of its recent policy change are given voice in a recent column Williams penned for Documentary Magazine, which recounts the release of his doc Gatsby in Connecticut: The Untold Story, online and during the pandemic. Williams describes how the pandemic created circumstances in which festivals, university screenings, art house cinema and other ways of reaching audiences were no longer viable, making independent filmmakers even more reliant on streaming platforms. For most small filmmakers, particularly during an era in which entrepreneurship has become as crucial as filmmaking talent, there is at least some degree of self-funding involved in producing and marketing their work, which makes these losses even more devastating to individual filmmakers. So, although Williams’ film has a distributor, was doing well on TVOD platforms (Vimeo, GooglePlay, etc.), he’d paid out-of-pocked for large newspaper ads promoting his film’s availability on Amazon Prime just days before the film was purged from the site. Prior to the film’s expulsion, Amazon Prime Video Direct had actually been working well for him, but his film’s growing, platform-specific popularity was cut short. So, in addition to losing a revenue stream and thousands of dollars of advertising, he’ll also never know how big his audience may have been if it had continued to grow on Amazon.
Williams’ story and sentiments are echoed by filmmakers, some of whom responded to his column on social media. Many have voiced frustration with the way Amazon carried out its policy—films “purged” without warning, explanation or recourse. The policy and its enactment evince an apparent lack of regard for independent film and filmmakers, suggesting that the company’s investment in, and alignment with, independent film was principally a means of branding, differentiating the streaming service and positioning it among its rivals. Williams, the IndieWire authors and filmmakers who have responded to Amazon’s new policy also voice deep concern that the expulsion will result in decreased diversity, as it relegates many independent documentaries to streaming platforms with which the general public is less conversant. In other words, while Amazon could reach a general audience that may happen to scroll by a film and select it, other streaming platforms that allow unsolicited uploads more or less rely on viewers already seeking out a given film. In this sense, the expulsion recreated significant barriers to entry and diminished the possible reach of independent documentaries to audiences already primed to seek them out, and ready to pay for them individually. And, while there is some hope that Amazon may reverse its decision and bring unsolicited documentaries and shorts back online, it would still put filmmakers in a position where they were dependent on an outlet in which they are not the priority.
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Chris Lindahl and Dana Harris-Bridson’s excellent reporting can be found in the article “Amazon Prime Video Direct and the Dystopian Decision to Stop Accepting Documentaries,” which is up on IndieWire. You can read it here.
“The Amazon Prime Video Direct Purge: A Filmmakers View” by filmmaker Robert Steven Williams is available on IDA’s Documentary Magazine, read it here. His film is Gatsby in Connecticut: The Untold Story, and you can watch it here (look for the buy/rent button at the top of the right-hand column).