Things never stand still for very long in the world of film and television.

A new breed of storytellers and content creators is eschewing the traditional model of commissioning and financing, opting instead to distribute their content to audiences directly through user-generated content platforms such as YouTube (even Instagram and TikTok for shorter-form content).

This approach can be a blessing for small production companies that do not have the connections or the commercial track record to have their project commissioned in the traditional way, or whose subject matter might be overlooked under the current model. With more than two billion users a month, YouTube offers a ready-made audience hungry for high-quality – but not necessarily high-budget – content.

Distributing films and other long-form content directly on the internet is understandably appealing. It allows the creators a level of artistic freedom that might not necessarily be possible with traditional players, whose primary concern is generally commercial success.

There are several aspects of this new model, however, that present legal and financial challenges.

The lack of traditional financing will be one of the most challenging aspects of choosing to produce a film or series for direct distribution online. Producers will likely need to rely on a variety of less formal sources of funding, including crowdfunding and potentially product placement. There is a possibility that the budgetary or even artistic conditions attached by funders to such methods of financing may undermine the artistic freedom that is seen as a benefit of these direct-to-audience productions.

Where crowdfunded content is based on short-form content that has already proved popular with viewers online, artistic creativity could also be self-curtailed – directors might be tempted to submit to the real or perceived artistic desires of the viewers funding the project, perhaps compromising their own vision in order to justify the fans’ investment.

From a production standpoint there are a number of other hurdles to face. A common feature of these low-budget films is shooting without the required permits and procedures in place. Although this can save money, producers should be mindful that this is a risky film making tactic for several reasons.

Firstly, if the production is asked to stop filming and to leave the location, any cast and crew engaged on union terms will likely still have to be paid for the full session. Secondly, they could be exposing themselves to fines or potentially legal action for trespassing on land without a valid permit.

Finally, if the content becomes a commercial success and a major broadcaster expresses interest in distributing it, they will expect all relevant permits and clearances to have been secured at the time of filming. Not having these in place could inhibit commercial exploitation of the project on a larger scale.

Producing direct-to-audience content also presents distribution difficulties. Without the benefit of the deep pockets of a major broadcaster or distributor, producers will want to make sure they set aside a healthy sum for marketing the production (and might even rely heavily on guerrilla marketing) to ensure it gets the reach it deserves. It may also prove difficult to make substantial money from the release of the content, particularly on sites, such as YouTube, that have notoriously high viewership thresholds for monetising content.

Despite the legal, financial and logistical challenges, the shift looks set to continue. Direct-to-audience content has the potential to shake up the film and television industry more and more, as increased numbers of productions opt for a model that allows them to tell their stories to audiences for a smaller budget and with (potentially) greater artistic control, without having to wait for commissioners to find them.

There are signs that the two approaches are starting to converge. Big broadcasters are beginning to hone in on high-quality content found on YouTube and other online platforms, picking up existing works for distribution or commissioning long-form content based on shorter online pieces.

Blue Story, for example – the film written and directed by Andrew Onwubolu that attracted considerable news coverage after Vue banned it in the wake of violence at cinemas – was co-produced by BBC Films after it started its life as a series of videos on YouTube which garnered 12 million views.

Traditional players, already competing with SVoD platforms for viewership, face losing out on viewers to these online platforms unless they embrace the change.

In the meantime, despite the obstacles involved, direct-to-audience productions may, in some cases, be the best option for content creators to have their stories told.

This article was written by one of our Film & TV associates, Caitlin McGivern, and first appeared in C21 Media.