Renters see docs on disc through Netflix window
Video on demand has come to P.O.V., the PBS summer showcase for independent documentary films, but not as a high-tech option for digital cable customers.
Instead, titles from the indie film series will be available to the nearly 2 million subscribers to Netflix, a DVD rental service that takes orders online and delivers discs by mail. This week the company begins offering P.O.V. documentaries the day after national PBS broadcast.
The exclusive DVD rental window for Netflix customers opens June 23 with Farmingville, the day after it opens P.O.V.'s 17th season. In the film, Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini show a Long Island suburb's hostile reaction to an influx of Mexican immigrants. Five additional P.O.V. films will be offered via Netflix throughout the summer. The company hopes someday to offer all films that debut on P.O.V.
After selecting a P.O.V. doc or other movie through the service's website, a Netflix subscriber receives the DVD by mail and can have at least three discs at a time without incurring late fees.
Though Netflix offers many PBS titles, including the Oscar-nominated American Experience documentary Daughter from Danang, the new P.O.V. partnership is the first to make films available immediately after broadcast.
Producers whose work airs on the PBS series have the option of signing the standard Netflix advance deal that gives the rental company an exclusive DVD release for 45-60 days after broadcast, according to Cara Mertes, executive producer of P.O.V.
"It's just outrageously elegant," said Mark Samels, executive producer of American Experience and a Netflix subscriber. "For [Netflix] to become an advocate for documentaries airing on PBS is a perfect alliance." Samels estimated that he runs through 18 Netflix DVDs a month. "I've been an evangelist for Netflix from day one."
Netflix documentary rentals grew 65 percent in the past year and the company is aggressively expanding its collection to satisfy the interest, said Ted Sarandos, chief content officer. The company's new partnership with P.O.V., announced this month, aims to appeal to documentary film buffs looking for buzz-generating titles such as Farmingville, which won the Special Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
"PBS is a gold-label brand for documentaries, in my opinion, and I think consumers do need to have a guidepost when looking for good documentaries," Sarandos said. It's difficult for documentary buffs to find these films in video shops and it's easy to miss their PBS broadcasts, he added. "My frustration with PBS content is that a film airs once or twice and then disappears from the culture."
Netflix will collect P.O.V. titles in a special documentary category on its website and promote it to subscribers. DVDs produced through the partnership will be packaged with additional P.O.V. content, such as filmmaker interviews, discussion guides and weblinks to film-related content on POV.org, Mertes said.
Netflix's website recommends films to subscribers based on previous rentals, making it "extremely easy" to find films that might interest them, Mertes said. Netflix's ability to market rentals while curating a film collection interested her in pursuing the partnership, especially since P.O.V. itself plays a curatorial role in the ecosystem of indie docs. "We also have a lot of similar goals around cultivating new audiences."
P.O.V. doesn't insist that its broadcasts have Netflix releases on disc, Mertes said, because the series doesn't want to lose docs by producers who have already made other DVD release deals.
The series also offers producers the option of longer-term video release deals with Docurama, a label specializing in acclaimed documentaries.
The distribution packages are "a service we're providing to filmmakers to lessen the work that they do," Mertes said. "They can take a day to consider this as opposed to the weeks it takes them to organize it themselves." P.O.V. doesn't make any money from the partnerships but recovers some overhead costs.
Christopher McLeod, whose documentary In the Light of Reverence aired on P.O.V. in 2001 and has been distributed by Netflix since January 2003, said Netflix is offering a great service to filmmakers who are "probably broke by the time they get the film to P.O.V. This helps them with the costs of DVD production."
McLeod recently checked his film's entry in the Netflix online catalog and saw that 1,811 subscribers had rated the film. That kind of feedback is rare for independent producers. "With an independent film in distribution, you do not have access to individuals unless you are Michael Moore," he said. Netflix is extending the reach of his work to people who wouldn't otherwise find it. He believes the company has a "sincere interest in seeing that documentaries get onto DVD."
Sarandos hopes to add more PBS titles from American Experience and Frontline, though he doesn't expect it to be easy. "There are funding complexities around the signature titles that make it difficult to get the deals," he said. In addition, high-profile titles within these series often aren't readily released on DVD.
Daughter from Danang, which received an Oscar nomination after its April 2003 airing on American Experience, was released on DVD only after Netflix agreed to produce and distribute the disc. For nearly six weeks, "Netflix was the only place to see it last year on DVD," Sarandos said. The film, available to Netflix subscribers since November 2003, ranks 16th among the service's most popular docs.
PBS was evaluating its catalog and determining which titles to convert from VHS to DVD when Netflix sought distribution of Daughter from Danang, said Ed Bell, director of retail sales development at PBS Home Video. The Netflix deal "enabled us to get it out earlier than we would have."
Web page posted June 22, 2004
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