Shifts in technology have always been the driving force for streaming video. When Netflix first made the transition from DVD-by-mail to online video-on-demand, it was aided by an explosion of broadband internet access. At the time, content licensing was the name of the game, and nobody did it better than Netflix. Case in point, a decade later, Netflix has over 100 million subscribers worldwide, far exceeding any other service (including Amazon).
Now, however, the streaming video market is likely oversaturated. With services fighting over content licenses, Netflix and others (HBO, Hulu, Amazon) have shifted much of their attention toward original content. Netflix, in particular, has gone all-in. As its licensed content library slowly shrinks, the streaming video giant is spending billions of dollars to add hundreds of original titles to its content library. As far as industry observers can tell, its strategy is working.
Unfortunately for smaller streaming services, the new rules for streaming video success are prohibitively expensive. As more consumers gravitate toward must-have original content only available from individual services, smaller streaming video sites are struggling to keep up. With Netflix entertaining the possibility of spending $20 million per hour of original content, the SVOD market looks on the surface like a “go big or go home” scenario.
However, one California production studio hopes its new technological approach can change the fortunes of smaller streaming services working with much tighter budgets. Thanks to new production techniques coming out of LA Castle Studios in Burbank, California, smaller streaming video services can now produce lower-cost original content at breakneck speeds using a combination of high-tech cameras, state-of-the-art green screens and—more surprisingly—the Unreal Engine more commonly used in video game design.
Christian faith-based streaming service PureFlix.com is one of the first niche SVOD services to adopt LA Castle Studios’ new tech-heavy production method. Their newest original series, Malibu Dan, was filmed using studio’s new technique for a fraction of the cost of what Netflix pays for even its cheaper original series. The service also turned to LA Castle Studios to help film their recent soap opera series, Hilton Head Island.
High-Tech Production at a Low Cost
PureFlix.com CEO Greg Gudorf and LA Castle Studios owner and producer Tim Pipher both believe that this technology has the potential to create a fundamental shift in the streaming video market—and perhaps change the fortunes for niche streaming video sites like PureFlix. As Gudorf told us in our interview, the key is the cost savings made possible by combining these technologies to reduce the need for costly location and set changes.
“When you do content, you shoot on location, you have elaborate sets,” Gudorf explained. “I’ve watched content just because of the elaborate location or sets. I’ve watched movies just to see the gorgeous scenery shots. But that’s all dollars, right?”
Those dollars Gudorf mentions are miles high. According to a 2015 report from Onstride Financial, the average TV show costs $3.5 million to produce.
Gudorf explained that while HD video helped bring production costs down, there was still room to reduce costs further. “Now we’ve got 4K,” he explained. “Of course, if you go into the parallel entertainment world outside of movies, and think about video games, think about how wild video games have gotten, they’re photo ultra-realistic, if you will. The basic premise is combining the 4K and the gaming engines and making a run at producing content that combines those technologies. And that’s where our partnership with Tim and LA Castle Studios is really exciting.”
According to both Gudorf and Pipher, PureFlix.com is the first service to fully utilize the new technology. “We’re the first studio I believe in the world […] that is offering production using an extremely powerful video game engine called Unreal in a 4K level,” Pipher explained.
Pipher went into detail to explain how that technology works.
“Pure Flix productions now can take place from normal locations, like living rooms, bedrooms, hotel lobbies. If they want to have productions taking place on what would be a two million dollar spaceship set, or a Victorian village, or anywhere else they can dream it can all happen right from our stage without spending that million or two million or three million dollars for the set.”
As Pipher mentioned, the technology hinges on computer-generated sets designed in the Unreal Engine. LA Castle Studio has entire green screen sets (as pictured below) that allow immediate background changes with the click of a button. As a result, content producers such as Pure Flix need only have their actors and producers make small changes between scenes. The photorealistic set designs combined with 4K filming technology results in the photorealistic illusion of place necessary to produce high-quality original content at a low cost.
“One of the neat things about that is you have people literally all over the world creating these scenarios, the scenery backgrounds […] using the Unreal Engine,” Pipher added. “Those can now become the set or the location in a video shoot. That’s pretty wild.”
Content Production in Double Time
As noted by the Onstride study, paying actors comprises a sizable chunk of most production costs. One positive result of LA Castle Studios’ new technology is the ability to burn through a script at almost unheard of speeds thanks to the reduction in time associated with set and location changes.
Pipher also noted that it’s not just the Unreal Engine that’s helping to aid in LA Castle Studios high-speed, low-cost production value. The studio is also using major-league cameras to seal the deal.
“Whether they are big-time cameras. big-time lenses, [they’ll] be at a very high level of cinematography.” He explained that LA Castle Studio just got in Panasonic Varicam 35 cameras, which can shoot in 4K and at 120 frames per second. “They are the go-to cameras for Netflix and HBO for a number of their series,” he said.
According to Gudorf, not all streaming video users are looking for what he considered “high-end steak,” or the expensively-produced content coming out the larger services. That’s where lower-cost production techniques come into play.
“Netflix hooked us on binge watching as a society, right?” Gudorf asked. “People bought into the idea of binge-watching. The importance of series becomes hypercritical. The question then becomes, do you need to have a steakhouse level series every night, or are you really just interested in some really good, strong entertainment. If it’s the latter, there are lots of ways to make that.”
For Pure Flix, the best method has consistently been lower-budgeted production. However, lower budgets are often associated with reduced post-production quality. Thanks to their partnership with LA Castle Studios, Pure Flix and other services are able to enjoy higher post-production quality even on smaller budgets.
And for smaller services, part of that cost saving can come in the often high cost of hiring actors. As Pipher tells it, LA Castle Studios has helped produce content at the lightning-fast pace of 70 pages of script in one day. “With most companies, if you did ten pages in a day, it would be considered lightning speed,” Pipher said. For its part, Pure Flix is able to produce its series like The Encounter and Malibu Dan at a rate of about 30 pages a day. The key to that rate? A limited number of set changes, now made possible thanks to LA Castle Studios’ new tech.
“It also leads to savings in ways that might not be obvious,” Pipher said. With shorter production times, smaller services may be able to attract bigger-name actors who can get in and out of the studio faster, allowing them to have more time to work on multiple projects. “On those 70-page days, we had our highest paid actors. So by clustering their scenes over the course of a fewer number of days, we save a lot of money on talent too.”
A New Trend in Video Production?
With huge cost savings on the table, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether LA Castle Studio and Pure Flix will help spark a new trend in original content production. However, both Gudorf and Pipher believe they’re onto something.
“It’s like anything, right? Someone is out there all on their own. There’s a pioneer, and some might say Netflix was the pioneer in that space going back ten years or more,” Gudorf said. “But at some point, the consumer will be the one who decides which services are important for them. If history tells us anything, those businesses that pay attention to the consumer honestly serve what the consumer wants. The one who serves it best, whether it’s originals, or other, will be there.”
With the market demand for original content now changing the streaming landscape, Pure Flix appears to be fulfilling the demand, at least for its own audience. The site now services over 250,000 customers, most of whom turn to its original content over its library of licensed movies and TV shows. If other small and niche streaming services hope to survive the latest trends, a cost-effective push using new technology like that made available by LA Castle Studios just may help keep them afloat.