The Last Mile
Delivering media to an audience can be the bumpiest part of thecreation process, but there are creative ways around the bumps.
Technology has made shooting and editing video easier, whiledistribution seems the final frontier of the digital revolution.
Ah, duplication and fulfillment. They're not really the sexiestissues in the media creation chain. But glamorous or not, getting mediato its intended audience is as critical a piece as any in the creationprocess. After all, no matter what the content, if no one sees it, anycreative brilliance is pretty much moot.
Large Hollywood studios and corporations with inhouse duplicationequipment may have a clear path to solving pesky duplication andfulfillment details. After all, economies of scale answer a lot ofquestions. But what are small organizations, independent studios, videoproducers, and individual content owners to do?
How does the producer of a targeted documentary on the birds ofMexico sell a few dozen copies to enthusiasts across the country? Howcan local TV stations profit from the wealth of raw footage they'veacquired? How does the ambitious videographer of a local 10K road racecreate the take-home memories a few hundred participants would like tohave? Do these people burn one-offs and lick stamps on the weekends? Dothey contract a duplication run? If so, how many copies do they havemade, and how many will end up as coasters?
Over the last decade, technology has picked off one problem afteranother, simplifying the creation of professional media with productsthat reduce the cost of entry and complexity of operation. Nonlinearediting tools are now inexpensive and easier to use. The DV recordingformat has brought professional-quality acquisition to small,affordable camcorders. And most recently, streaming media tools andinexpensive DVD authoring products have eased distribution roadblocks.Nonetheless, a bumpy ride still remains if audience numbers don't hitbroadcast or Fortune 500 standards, especially when it comes totraversing the proverbial last mile and getting media to an actualaudience.
Weren't the Internet and streaming video supposed to solve thatproblem? Can't anyone with a stream and a server reach all the peopleneeded? Perhaps, but even assuming you have a scalable, bandwidth-richstreaming media server, reaching people is not easy if you go beyondthe comfortable confines of a corporate LAN, where streaming mediaenjoys the luxury of bandwidth. Once you start trying to reach thepublic, the odds change. Dialup just won't do for receiving seriousstreaming content. Even high-speed connections — effective fornews and information clips, movie trailers, and sports highlights— rarely carry the detail television viewers are used to.
For full-quality viewing, affordable DVD creation seems like a solidanswer to the distribution problem. DVD players have been one of themost successful consumer electronic products ever. Annual sales havesurpassed those of VHS players and are expected to reach 10,000,000units sold this year, according to the Consumer ElectronicsAssociation. Burning discs and sending them across town or across thecountry has become a reliable and effective way to share media.
But what if your sharing is on a grander scale, say 50 to 500possible viewers? Worse still, what if you have content that you'd liketo have seen, but don't really know what a potential market might be orhow many viewers it will ultimately have? And what do you do aboutviewers who don't have DVD players?
A new company, CustomFlix, sees distribution and fulfillment as thefinal frontier of the digital video revolution that started a decadeago. It may have become dramatically easier to shoot, edit, and mastercontent, but what then? CustomFlix thinks it can answer at least thelogistics part of that question by delivering content to its audiencewith little capital outlay or effort on the part of the content owner.The company has created a web-based business designed for digitalstudios with video content they wish to sell or even might wishto sell.
CustomFlix assembles no media files for purchase or sharing atcustomflix.com, nor does it attempt to establish a web“community” of like-minded enthusiasts. Those are reallythe business models of the late '90s. Instead, CustomFlix clients(“members,” they're called, in a nod to those '90s webcommunities) pay just less than $50 to buy into a duplication andfulfillment service for a year. Members pay another $9.95 a year afterthat. CustomFlix doesn't even do any marketing or lead generation tohelp sell content. Boring? Maybe, but there's a twist.
CustomFlix is creating its own economies of scale through asemi-automated process to assist individual content owners in sellingtheir own DVDs (or VHS tapes) on the Web. As part of the $50 for“joining,” you'll get a custom web page, complete withshopping cart and credit card purchasing.
And no, it's not a section of the main customflix.comwebsite. It's your web page with your graphics and text, laid out byuploading your design files into a database-driven template. The URLcan be linked directly to your own homepage. For your customers,there's no sign of CustomFlix or its other “members,” savea small “powered by” credit at the bottom of the page.
Bob Turner covered pricing details for CustomFlix last month(“Potential for Revenue,” September 2002), including athorough analysis of CustomFlix costs versus other duplication andfulfillment options, but the logistics of working with CustomFlix arebasically as follows.
You send CustomFlix a one-off DVD. You can send a master tape, too,and CustomFlix will copy it and distribute VHS tapes, or for an extracost, starting at $249, it will create a DVD with chapters and basicnavigation for you. CustomFlix will do all the duplication and shippingto anyone who orders either DVDs or VHS tapes. You set the end price tocustomers, CustomFlix takes the first $9.95 per order, plus 5%. Forexample, at the selling price of $29.95, you make $18.50 ($29.95 minus$9.95, less 5% or $1.50).
Ultimately, there's clearly a point with volume sales at which goingthe traditional route makes more sense than using CustomFlix. There'sreally nothing CustomFlix does that a reasonably sophisticated videoproducer with a DVD burner, web design skills, credit card approval,and a nearby post office can't do alone. Yet each of those pieces ofthe process takes time, as well as the wherewithal to see it through.For example, designing a website and setting up a “simple”credit card purchasing option takes days or weeks, and costs more thanthe $49.95 CustomFlix charge. Blank DVD media isn't all that much lessthan the $9.95. Best of all, you don't have to worry about glassmasters, returns, coasters, bad checks, or bad mail handling.
For very little upfront capital and even less effort, the CustomFlixidea is that you can be in business selling and distributing videocontent that might otherwise never find an audience. For CustomFlix,it's about solving logistics problems and improving productivity. It'sabout removing the roadblocks that keep video content and producersfrom realizing the promise of digital video.
The digital video revolution has been all about making contenteasier to produce. However, traditional distribution methods —duplication and fulfillment companies, broadcast or cable television,streaming media, etc. — can be as intimidating as the onlineediting racks of the pre-digital era.
Today, there's certainly nothing tricky about burning and mailingdiscs; nor is there really anything mysterious once you start workingwith fulfillment houses. But if you're stuck in between, with too manystamps to lick or too few customers for mass distribution, the lastmile can be all uphill. It may not sound glamorous, but actuallygetting content to an audience — especially a paying audience— really is.
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