Being an independent filmmaker used to be a much greater struggle before the dawn of the revolutionary DIY age in which works of art can be showcased through online streaming platforms. Having proper distribution was everything and if your film was considered grotesque or too risqué, you were lucky to be granted exhibition in a few gritty grindhouse theaters or film festivals in select metropolitan areas. Obscure and off-the-wall titles came and went and didn’t see the likes of a home video or DVD release for years, if ever. But streaming sites such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and now Shudder have made audience exposure to the indie world much more feasible with Amazon being frequently rated as the number one platform for the DIY filmmaker… until now.
Like all other streaming platforms, Amazon offered everything from kid-friendly cartoons to blood-spattered gore flicks— just a couple clicks away— through Amazon Direct Video, a free movie streaming feature included with your Amazon Prime membership. However, effective March 1st, Amazon is cracking down on what they consider to be “extreme” content and lesser known indie horror films appear to be the top targets. Several indie filmmakers such as Scott Schirmer, Drew Bolduc, Liam Regan, and Dustin Mills have received emails from Amazon Direct Video advising them that Amazon “will no longer allow titles containing persistent or graphic sexual or violent acts, gratuitous nudity and/or erotic themes (‘adult content’) to be offered as ‘Included with Prime’ or ‘Free with Pre-Roll Ad” in order to “improve the Amazon Video customer experience.”
With certain titles by these directors being pulled from Amazon’s free streaming section, the directors were offered an ultimatum: films removed from Amazon Direct Video may return to being included with Prime if alterations are made to cover images, metadata, and film footage flagged as extreme.
“MY BLOODY BANJO is currently removed from Amazon Prime UK,” says director Liam Regan, “and the censored version of the movie is intermittently available via Amazon Prime in the U.S. My distributor explained that they [Amazon Direct Video] rejected the initial uncut version of the movie, so changes had to be made to trim certain scenes.”
But wait a minute. Don’t blood and sex sell?
As it turns out, there are many indie horror titles containing crude or graphic content that have remained untouched by the streaming police of Amazon Direct Video.
“I sent them [Amazon Direct Video] an email asking if they were also going to remove THE NEON DEMON, explains Drew Bolduc whose film SCIENCE TEAM was recently removed. “Whoever responded sort of just got confused and thought I was talking about one of my own films. Maybe they will pull everything. Not that I really want that to happen but it does feel like a bit of a double standard at this point.”
Perhaps all extreme indie horror will eventually be banished from the “Included with Prime” slot on Amazon but there certainly seems to be a financial trend for the time being. Many like Bolduc are speculating that this new content policy likely goes beyond the issue of censorship. It is possible that Amazon is looking to improve their own experience rather than that of the customer, holding onto the indie horror titles that have grossed higher at the box office and are probably raking in more revenue by being Included with Prime.
“Even before INVALID and KILL THAT BITCH were removed they were hard to find. Amazon flagged them as adult content even though I don’t think either film contained anything above an R rating,” says indie filmmaker Dustin Mills.
Although Amazon has been a friend of the DIY filmmaker for quite some time, let’s not forget that they are still a corporation that must operate like a corporation and act according to their own best interest.
If Amazon was truly concerned about the supposed fragile minds of their subscribers, why not construct parental control options in a similar vein as Netflix? This would allow for responsible adults to choose how badly they wish to disturb themselves as part of their Prime subscription and children could be protected from the gross content that they will probably grow up to watch anyway. And, as a bonus, indie horror filmmakers could continue to have the right to choose whether their film is exhibited as part of Amazon Prime or available to rent or buy through Amazon’s main website.
Alas, Amazon has bypassed this simple solution in favor of dropping numerous indie horror titles from Prime altogether. So, what does this mean for the future of indie horror?
Some Amazon Prime members have threatened to cancel their memberships in retaliation. Of course, it would take more than a small army for a boycott to even remotely dismantle this corporate giant, not to mention that it could cause other indie filmmakers who still have their films available on Prime to take a financial blow as well. It’s a war that nobody would win.
Rather than wreaking havoc on Amazon or indie filmmakers who continue to use Amazon’s video streaming services, how about we just give more monetary support to indie horror? Amazon might be getting rid of numerous “extreme” indie horror titles from their free queue but the rent or buy option is still available to all filmmakers… and it means more revenue for the filmmaker. In the U.S., films that are available as Included with Prime earn the content provider 15 cents for every hour that their film is viewed. However, when a film is listed to rent or buy on Amazon, the content provider receives 50 percent of the net monthly revenue. Of course, indie filmmakers still carry the struggle of convincing enough people that their film is worth seeing. But even if only a hundred people rent a film, that is approximately $200 (100 rentals x $3.99 per rental x 50% = $199.50) in revenue that would be earned versus the $30 (100 views x 2 hours per viewing x $0.15 = $30) that would be earned through free streaming. If the concern is purely regarding exposure, filmmakers have plenty of other streaming platforms to choose from but they might not be as DIY friendly.
“The benefit of Amazon is that it’s accessible. Streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu are mostly hidden behind walls that you’ll need a distributor to get through,” says director Dustin Mills who doesn’t have any hard feelings toward Amazon Direct Video after his films were removed and will go on to use the platform in the future.
Sure, the Included with Prime feature provides a film with extra exposure. We’ve all been hesitant at some point to pay for a movie that we fear might disappoint us. But we have also paid $10 to $20 on a theater ticket to a movie because it had a cool poster or an “epic” trailer only to spend the next couple hours shaking our heads in agony. You are taking a gamble every time you seek out a new movie whether you end up bored to tears or pleasantly surprised. So, why not stay home from the theater once in a while and throw down $3.99 in support of a bloody indie art film?