The Internet is barely a toddler and already it’s being set up on a date with television. Although the union may prove profitable, talk of the Internet’s future has eclipsed important discussions about the baby steps of the present. While broadcasters spend millions merging entertainment with online, many producers are still struggling to ascertain how a simple web page might grow their business.
One answer to this question has been e-commerce. Like convergence, e-commerce has many definitions. Some production companies feel that offering prices and video clips, accompanied by directions on how to order by phone or fax qualifies, as e-commerce. Others simply notify users videos are available. While these may result in sales, true e-commerce is done online. Using this definition, there are surprisingly few producers investing in online, but most of these pioneers would invest again.
E-commerce is hardly new. Books, clothes, sex toys and airline tickets are all peddled over the Internet. It’s only natural that producers, who also make money from sales, would investigate the medium. For doc-makers, especially those removed from the major markets in Europe and the U.S., being able to reach a worldwide audience is an attractive concept. ‘One of the main reasons we decided to get a website was because of our remoteness,’ explains Mike Searle, managing director at Perth, Australia-based Storyteller Productions. Perth is a four-hour flight from Sydney, and a 24-hour flight from both Europe and the U.S.
In 1998, Searle invested US$3,000 to set up a website, and within 12 months he began to receive inquiries about purchasing copies of his programs. Searle spent an additional $600 to create a commerce page and to organize methods of payment, and now sells an average of 10 tapes a week. ‘We don’t sell a lot across the Internet because I don’t think the public has grasped [e-commerce] as much as the hype indicates,’ he says. ‘It’s not a big revenue stream (each tape is $20), but we feel that [online sales] are going to grow substantially. That’s the way people are going to buy things in the future.’
The promise of future profits is a common reason why production companies are placing their hard-earned cash into websites which presently reap limited returns. Films for the Humanities & Sciences, a company based in Princeton, New Jersey, that produces and sells educational docs, began selling programs online in 1997 and is now planning to increase resources devoted to e-commerce. ‘The bulk of our sales are still generated via our direct mail catalogues,’ says Andy Romanelli, Films’ VP of marketing. ‘But, [the Web] is by far our biggest sales growth area.’
London-based Pilot Productions, best known for the Lonely Planet series, recently launched a website to support the development of several new brands, including Treks in a Wild World and Short History of the World.
One reason managing director Ian Cross is investing US$100,000 this year alone, is because he feels the Internet is well suited to the genre of film he produces. ‘The sorts of programs we do are guide-like,’ he explains. ‘People go to websites to find out the cost of things, to book holidays and to find out information about places. And that’s our core business.’
The information-based nature of factual programming in general has garnered the faith of producers venturing onto the Web. Searle’s best selling video is an historical doc that investigates a South African woman who insists she is the grand duchess of Russia. The doc, which is titled In Search of a Lost Princess and premiered on National Geographic Worldwide last December, unearthed interesting evidence about her claim. Viewers looking for more information are drawn to the website to investigate.
Producers are also enjoying the many perks that arise from working with a technology-based medium. ‘We decided to pursue e-commerce because we saw it as an efficient means for our customers to search our catalogue, which includes over 8,000 titles,’ says Romanelli,
adding, ‘We can also update the website quicker than we can our predominant sales channel, which is direct mail catalogues . . . The efficiencies the technology brings make fulfilling customers’ increased demands [such as quicker service] easier.’
Recognizing the learning curve associated with the Internet partly explains why producers are investing in e-commerce now, rather than waiting until it becomes more popular later. Says Cross, ‘[The Web] is another one of those things we’ve got to start to understand. It’s like DVD replacing video. Suddenly, the technological questions are such big issues for everyone. There’s a lot of people out there developing this stuff and spending money on it that don’t necessarily see the benefits – but you will.’
How rights apply to the Internet is one issue producers currently active in e-commerce are struggling to figure out. Those working from commissions are on solid ground – they don’t own anything and therefore have nothing to sell. Producers negotiating coproductions, acquisitions, or pre-buys, however, are on terrain soggy with uncertainties. Discovering how to effectively market a website is another lesson which has to be learned through trial and error.
Perhaps the most important provision of the Internet is independence. Pawel Achtel, a software consultant/producer in Australia, set up a website with online sales capabilities after broadcasters returned his film, Aliens of the Sea (which explores the diversity of underwater life around Australia), with the shrink-wrap still intact. Since Achtel was able to set up his own site, his investment amounted only to time. He registered with five search sites and set up links with online dive magazines. So far, the site has had approximately 5,500 hits, and sold close to 20 tapes at $20 each. Says Achtel, ‘The main purpose of being online is to get the word out there. An additional feature is that you can sell online.’ Achtel discovered his experience with disinterested broadcasters was not isolated, and is now planning to set up a site that markets and sells the works of several producers.