The following article is published in Filmmaker Magazine. Fall 2012, Vol. 21 #1.
There is a saying I once heard: “Once you change the method of distribution, the product has to change.”
This itself is a take on the idea that distribution defines the product. You see this around you every day in the products you buy. Cars are influenced by the dealership networks that sell them. Phones by the mobile network operators and the choice of computer you use at work by whatever the IT department or value added reseller prefers to work with. Mass market restaurants offer what can be sold by wholesalers–typically frozen, long shelf-life staples. Almost every product category is shaped more by what can be distributed than what can be produced. That’s simply because in mature economies distribution is harder than production. In consumer products it requires access to wholesalers who then require access to shops who themselves have access to prime real estate which attracts foot traffic. Production only requires capital. Distribution requires relationships, often exclusive ones.
This pattern is even more pronounced when looking at media products. Production is arguably easier since it’s constrained by talent, which is fungible. But distribution is even harder as it is addressing bigger audiences in shorter time frames. You see this lopsided balance of power in the abundance of books being written relative to those being published. There are thousands of films produced and hundreds get distributed.
But the saying suggests that if distribution were to change then the product itself would change. Indeed, if you can sell ebooks direct, then they tend to evolve into new genres (e.g. Fifty Shades of Grey). If you can sell cheap adult video online it tends to evolve into new genres as well (I’ll leave examples to the imagination.) YouTube videos quickly cluster around “Fail” or “Win” compilations which evolved from America’s Funniest Home Videos. They get millions of views. Even before the Internet, the availability of cable created the genre of music video, which created the first music broadcast alternative to radio. And of course, cinema itself redefined theater once it could get shown to millions rather than thousands. The new methods of distribution of media affected what gets produced rather than the other way around. Consider the converse: innovative filmmakers who try new storytelling methods are stymied by a lack of acceptance by existing distributors and find their material languishing in festivals or perpetual cult status.
So we can re-state the saying to a new “Law of new media”: Once you change the method of distribution, the medium itself has to change.