Big Changes

Over the years I’ve been asked several times, “What’s it like to be a documentary filmmaker?” I’ve come up with a concise response: “Today may be the best time in history to be making documentary films…and, it may also be the most difficult time in history to do so.”

Why is it the “best time”? That’s easy. The cameras, editing and animation equipment (once too expensive for anyone except major networks and Hollywood studios) are now available to individuals and small companies (like Illustra Media) at very reasonable prices. That means filmmakers can shoot and edit high definition programs in ways not possible five, ten or twenty years ago. This is a wonderful byproduct of the digital revolution and the reason we’ve been able to make documentaries often compared in quality to National Geographic, Discovery Channel and the BBC.

And this digital impact isn’t limited to production equipment. Social media has opened previously unimaginable channels for distribution including Facebook, Youtube, Vimeo, Netflix, iTunes and email. More people throughout the world can access and watch non-theatrical films than ever before.That has certainly been the case for Illustra Media and we’re looking forward to all that the future holds.

So, in light of these very positive factors, why is this also the most difficult time to make films? Well, the same digital outlets (streaming, social media) that have expanded our overall audience have also radically altered the world’s perception of media pricing. Basically, people want their music, films, books and newspapers available for free, or at a minimal price.

This new normal has had an unmistakable impact on the economics of the music industry, publishing and DVD sales. An audience willing to consistently pay a full, reasonable price for media is shrinking fast. During the past couple of years Illustra Media has been hit hard by this reality.

DVD sales (long an important source of the income that’s enabled us to make high caliber motion pictures) are diminishing. Ten years ago, DVDs were the crown jewel of home distribution (remember when there were several long DVD aisles in every Walmart?). Now, our income from that market is in steady decline.  We’re still manufacturing and selling DVDs, but we’re also making significant adjustments in our future operational plans. Let me explain.

Illustra’s ministry operating budget has always been generated by two sources of revenue: 1) income derived from DVD sales through wholesale and retail channels; and 2) generous donations from individuals and foundations. For the better part of 21 years, this combination–coupled with our efforts to keep overhead and operational costs to a minimum (we still have only two full-time employees who both work out of their homes)–has resulted in the funding of 20 feature-length documentaries, hundreds of international translations, more than 60 short videos, and The John 10:10 Project website. Our films have reached millions of people throughout the world and I believe the best is yet to come.

Since the inception of The John 10:10 Project website 18 months ago, we’ve been encouraged by our new ministry’s growth and potential. This has been a big step of faith for us because each of the 68 short films currently on the website is available free of charge to anyone with access to the Internet. It’s a wonderful way to share our work with the largest possible audience. It’s also an unorthodox business plan. But we believe it’s what the Lord has led us to do.