There used to be a time when content was valuable. If you managed to complete a feature film, provided money was spent judiciously during production, it could be sold for a profit — even if it was junk. The reel of film could be marketed, regardless of its intrinsic merits.
I cannot help thinking of the first projects produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick. His very first film — a 16-minute short entitled “Day of the Fight” — made him a small profit, which he then invested in the production of his second project. The merits of that short are not the point here. The point is that he made a product, and was able to sell it for more than he spent to make it.
The same applies to his second feature film, Killer’s Kiss. Not his best film by any means, but he did manage to sell it to United Artists, who then made a neat profit on it. It mostly ran as a second feature, but it made money! This all happened in the 1950s, by the way. Back then, a reel of film was worth something. It was a commodity; it had value.
Things are very different now. Independent feature films rarely make their money back, let alone a profit, no matter how little was spent to make them, not to mention the fact that if you give someone a DVD screener of your film, it will only be a matter of days (or hours) before the entire movie is available for free somewhere on the Internet. This happened to a couple of friends of mine. (Luckily one of them was able to make a profit on video distribution anyway, because the budget was very low and the movie was highly marketable.)
Life was undoubtedly better back in the days when watching a movie was a real treat and could only be done by going to a movie theater and buying a ticket. To be sure, making movies independently was also much more difficult back then, but it could still be done by the most motivated, and the return on investment (financial and otherwise) was much greater.
Content — be it a film, a piece of writing or a piece of music — is more valuable when there is less of it around and people are willing to pay good money for the privilege of enjoying it. Once you start to give it away for free, you have opened Pandora’s box and you only have a painful decline to look forward to. This is why the big studios recently decided to keep their most valuable content off the Internet, lest they end up like the newspapers or the record industry. Wise move.