I’m a busy man, as all independent filmmakers are. I don’t have time to fiddle and fuss around with my website, which is why I rely on WordPress and DreamHost. They’re great. Set it and forget it! And if there’s ever a problem, there’s always somebody I can talk to.
When I had to settle on an e-commerce partner through which I could sell our films online, TopSpin came highly recommended. Many self-distributing artists I look up to use TopSpin, and their product, by far, seemed the most appropriate for what we wanted to do.
Turns out, that was one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made (and I’ve made some bad ones).
Act I: Cautiously Optimistic
There were some bumps starting out, but I was optimistic. After all, TopSpin offers a WordPress plugin that adds your items right to your website without any headaches.
Their backend system was clearly designed for musicians, not filmmakers, which meant I had to invent some clever workarounds. Customer service didn’t exactly go out of their way to help us when we had problems linking up our bank account. The Facebook app didn’t work right on some browsers, which was annoying but not a deal breaker, and the WordPress plugin wasn’t sexy, but heck, all these things I could fiddle with later when I had time.
“Oh well,” I said to myself, “at least I can focus on my next film.”
Act II: And Then It All Went To Pot
Not long after Avarice premiered, TopSpin released a major update to their WordPress plugin. Hitting that “download and install” button unleashed a hailstorm of suck on my site.
Our shop page broke down entirely, all our digital download items showed up as ‘sold out,’ and worst of all, TopSpin shoehorned its name and logo ALL over our site, even in the URL:
This wasn’t just a technical glitch, this was a complete violation my trust.
I vented my frustrations over Twitter, only to be met with a confusing barrage of responses from people who may or may not have been involved with TopSpin (that was never made clear). I was eventually directed to a website called GitHub. If you don’t know what GitHub is, imagine going to Walmart Customer Service about a return, and being instructed to go around back to the shipping docks; It’s a website where programmers collaborate on projects. I had to register an account, and pick through endless menus before I finally figured out where to leave a comment.
And boy do I wish I could find that comment thread now…it was special. I suspect somebody deleted it to save face, but after I outlined the problems I was having, one of the developers popped on and said some very unkind things.
After that, I was officially done with TopSpin.
The New Gatekeepers of Independent Film
I walked away frustrated, but still very much in need of an e-commerce solution. VHX looks like a great option; I absolutely love the way the Indie Game: The Movie website works. Perfect! Right? Well…no, not really. VHX is in a sort of private beta mode, the kind of private beta where you have to be somebody special, like Dave Grohl. I understand why they’re operating like that, and I’m sure it’ll change in the future, but it got me thinking…
One of the wonderful things about being a self-distributed independent is that there are no gatekeepers; there is no longer a Sam Phillips standing in the doorway of Sun Studios, judging which acts are worthy of entering and which aren’t. In this industry, you’re nobody until you suddenly become somebody. If the tools we need to become somebody are controlled by companies that cannot serve us while we’re nobodies, then how will we ever become somebody?
Relying on an e-commerce partner like TopSpin, iTunes or VHX means trading in our new-found freedom for familiar shackles. Have we forgotten already how awful traditional distributors have been to us?
Act III: The Solution We Should Have Been Chasing From Day One
My story comes full circle with yet another WordPress update, this time for WordPress itself. I clicked the update button, watched the whirligig spin, and browsed through the new features page to see what was new…when something caught my eye: a button labeled “Freedoms.”
I clicked it, and up came my freedoms as a WordPress user:
An idea struck me: why can’t we self-distributers have something like this as an e-commerce solution? I know there are some free and open source options out there, but nothing that caters to filmmakers (if there is, I want to know about it).
I don’t want to make promises I can’t keep, but I want this bad enough to start developing it myself. Can you, dear intrepid filmmaker, see the possibilities in this? What if a community of filmmakers put their heads together and built the WordPress of the self-distribution e-commerce world?
Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to rely on a 3rd party to sell your film?