YouTube, Sundance Film Festival Partner for Movie Rentals

While perhaps not the truest representation of the movie industry, the Sundance Film Festival nevertheless occupies a prominent place in viewers' minds as the festival for seeing and hearing about independent pictures. Now, Sundance is pairing up with YouTube to show some of this year's award-winning films to the public.

On Thursday, YouTube announced that it was venturing into the world of streaming rentals, starting with five Sundance films from the 2009 and 2010 festivals: The Cove, One Too Many Mornings, Homewrecker, Children of Invention, and Bass Ackwards. The service will begin Friday for U.S. users only and end on January 31. It will also include a variety of videos from health and education professionals and small businesses.

For independent filmmakers, the company paints a beautiful picture--sign up for the "Filmmakers Wanted" program and you can make your movie available for rent at your own price, without losing any of your rights! In theory, an indie feature could use this service to raise some capital, get noticed by both users and studios, and potentially land a much bigger distribution deal. In contrast, most current services that offer Internet distribution for indies (including Apple's own iTunes) require you to sign your rights over to them, as they become in effect your distribution company.

Whether this actually pans out remains to be seen, as much information is currently lacking on the Filmmakers Wanted program. However, YouTube has hinted at plans to expand this program to eventually include mainstream films and TV shows with the same conditions--the studio chooses the rental price and duration--which could present an interesting alternative to services like the iTunes Store, Netflix, and Hulu.

If studios are allowed to set their own prices it may (at first) harm consumers, but it may also result in a much wider variety of streamed content than is currently available. We know Google was in talks with the studios last September regarding this issue, and perhaps this "pick your price" method swayed those previously unwilling to think about it.

Consumers are the variable in this equation. Will they pay a premium for streaming content never before seen online? The early test, of course, will come with these Sundance films, which are priced at $4 for a 48-hour viewing period. The  iTunes Store's yearly showcase of Academy Award-nominated short films is probably the best comparison currently available today, but those are available for purchase, not streaming.

And what about films that are available from services like iTunes and Netflix? Well, we'll just have to wait and see if YouTube can popularize paid streaming the way it has free.

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