Thursday, October 23, 2014

YouTube & Filmmakers: From the small screen to the big screen (or not)

Up until last week I hadn’t thought much about YouTube as a platform for filmmakers. A place for comedy sketches, makeup bloggers, shopping haul people, conspiracy theorists, music videos, precocious kids and pets….sure. But filmmakers…I didn’t really think about that much.

And I mean actual films, not what essentially amount to video selfies aka monologues to camera that are more about the person doing the monologuing than anything else. I mean work that has a style and a structure and lives in a category outside of much of what we see online. And it doesn’t have to necessarily be shot on film to be placed in this category. That’s just a detail. Heck, there are even stars of Vine now, making those short looping smartphone videos that can be strangely hypnotic. Give people a new format and they will create a new art form around it.

Generally the process for making what we’ll call films, short and long, fiction or non-fiction has been limited to a few routes: self-funded, grant funded, or studio or broadcaster-funded. In recent years we’ve been able to add crowd-funded to this list, whereby fans of a person or an idea essentially pre-pay for something they’d like to see, or act as a micro-financier as a show of support for the person or the project. So yes, there are now more options on the production side, but what about distribution, which is where the rubber hits the road. Or the reel hits the road. Or whatever the alliterative phrase should be to denote the finished product making its way to people. Increasingly that won’t happen in theatres, at film festivals, or on cable. Netflix is a new digital home for films, but I’ve been told by an indie filmmaker that their licensing deals have dropped from low 6 figures to low 5 figures, meaning small tens of thousands.  So even a very low budget film, made for say, $100,000 or less, is going to have trouble breaking even if Netflix is its primary route to audiences.

So where does that leave filmmakers? How about just the wild frontier of the web and YouTube?

One of the ways the Internet changes the media landscape is that it’s not beholden to any particular format, timetable, or programming block. Whereas half hour TV shows need to be 23 minutes plus commercials, and feature films need to come in around the 100 minute mark, short films online can be whatever the person behind the camera wants them to be. And no need to think about what the lead in or the follow up show is because everything is on demand.

At Buffer Festival, last weekend’s festival of YouTubers, I came across a range of people using YouTube, Vimeo, and their own websites in a way that overlaps with the world of filmmaking. Take 5 Second Films, which is pretty much what it sounds like. But don’t take the name completely literally, because the films are closer to 8 seconds long if you include the 2 seconds of opening titles and the 1 second of closing titles. Like their slogan says: “Wasting your time, but not very much.” 

And they are brazen enough to impose on your time five days a week. As one of the 5 second filmmakers said on a panel I attended last week: “Maybe not all the films are good, but at least they’re short. Plus you can come back the next day and it’ll probably be better.“ A collective of about a dozen people who reportedly live in the same house, the 5 Second Film crew have been posting to YouTube for just over 7 years,  and now have 200 million views on their channel, making them about the 1300th most popular channel in terms of view count.

But does it all start and end in those 8 seconds on YouTube? Apparently not. The 5 Seconders did a Kickstarter last year and raised just under $250,000 to turn their ultra-short “Dude Bro Party Massacre III” into a feature. An additional $500,000 was kicked in by an unnamed party, and they completed production in Summer 2014. I emailed them to find out what the plans were for it and they said: 

"Dude Bro Party Massacre III" distribution plan is still in the works; we definitely plan to have an online presence; we came up on the internet, and funded our film through it. But we're also looking at possible film festivals and traditional distribution methods."

I also attended a screening of short films and Q&A with Bertie Gilbert, a 17 year old Londoner who had a part in a Harry Potter movie as a child actor and uses the royalties from that to fund what he’s doing now, which is making highly cinematic short films and posting them online.

Bertie in his Harry Potter days
Existential teenage Bertie

“I put my films on YouTube not as a YouTuber but because YouTube is a place where things are put

“I started putting up videos on the Internet years ago and they were shit”, he admitted to the crowd at Buffer Festival. “Reviews of video games, me talking to the camera, lego animations...And then my stuff got more filmic, existential, and depressing over time.

Bertie Gilbert's first film went up on YouTube just under a year ago and he’s got 370,000 subscribers and 2 million views in total. “My subscriber count has been the same for 3 months because I’m losing as many subscribers as I’m gaining, and that’s okay", Bertie told the crowd at Buffer Festival. If people like it, they like it, and if they don’t, I don’t mind.” 

It doesn't hurt, of course, that Bertie Gilbert is teen idol beautiful, has a foundation of Harry Potter fans to build upon, and still lives at home with his mother and sister. These things help with both the business model and the growth of the fan base. And in the interim a talented teenage filmmaker has complete creative control, advances his craft, and does so while getting instant global distribution online.

The final evening of Buffer Festival was on Vlogumentary, the name of a forthcoming Kickstarter-funded feature film. Vlogumentary, as you’ll see in the trailer below, looks at the phenomenon of the YouTube vlog, an intimate form of personally-produced media that is responsible for billions for YouTube views, but perhaps more importantly, has created a new 1-on-1 relationship between media viewers and media creators. Though Kickstarter-funded documentaries have been around for a few years I’m including the story of Vlogumentary here to highlight YouTube as a path to a kind of fame, then funding, then the ongoing support of the fan community.

Shay Carl is one of the earliest and most beloved vloggers on YouTube, and is one of the driving forces behind Vlogumentary. Even though he’s pretty much what you would call YouTube royalty, with over a billion views across his various channels, he is the first to admit he knew nothing about filmmaking when he and director and YouTuber Corey Vidal began work on Vlogumentary last year. “First off, and I should have known this from the world of construction, it ends up being double the budget and quadruple the time”, he told the hundreds assembled for some advance clip screenings at Buffer Festival. 

But this wasn’t the biggest problem. “We ended up doing production, then pre-production, and then post-production, and that’s not the usual order it’s done.” Moving from vlogging to a feature film, as in a real film, with a Motion Picture Association of America rating and al the rest, has meant dealing with things like licensing, clearances, insurance, and lawyers, none of which are on the radar for most vloggers and YouTubers.
The 34 year old father of five has been a daily vlogger since 2009, and prior to that had been a car salesman, a real estate agent, a door to door pest control salesman, and proprietor of his own countertop installation business. A former class clown whose weight has yo-yo’d over 100 pounds (which you can observe in his vlogs), Shay Carl has one of those personalities that fills the room the minute he walks into it. People relate to him like he’s their best buddy from high school, the guy who’s always ready to tear into a pizza or three. And women love him too. I know this because at the screening and panel discussion I witnessed a whole lot of them in the audience swooning from his mere presence in the room. What Shay Carl did was create a media empire, first one YouTube video at a time, then oneYouTube channel at a time, before there was any whiff of industry in the random, global dogpile of videos that is YouTube.

But I don’t want the takeaway from this post to be that you need to be a YouTube superstar or create an empire using emerging media platforms in order to get your project made, and ultimately seen. That’s one way of doing things, but is an unlikely outcome at best. The more valuable takeaway, I think, is that there are now doors that can lead to filmmaking careers of various tiers, and they exist in places where there didn't used to be places. Shay Carl’s story is the extreme exception, but in the case of 5 Second Films and Bertie Gilbert, things may be less financially fortifying than they are for Shay Carl but are still mighty encouraging. For example, 5 Second Films and Bertie Gilbert are among the 14 recent recipients of funding from New Form Digital, a partnership between Ron Howard and Discovery Communications. The funding is for scripted short films, less than 10 minutes in duration, with an eye to distribution across multiple platforms, brand partnerships, and extensions into series.
The digital channel, whether it’s YouTube or Vimeo or Vine or an app or a website, can be the primary platform for a filmmaker, or an ancillary one. Whereas traditional filmmaking, on both the production and distribution sides, was a high stakes, high budget game, there are now new options. It may not be an easy or particularly lucrative path to go down, especially in a landscape in which the process has been democratized, but it’s also not just about a chance at the big bucks. The days of show business as lottery ticket are largely over. And I think that’s one of the big lessons we all have to come to terms with in the easy upload world.

When creative expression is everyone’s right and privilege we need to think in terms of the opportunities that accompany a universe filled with entertainment-friendly moments and devices, like the 1-on-1 relationships that can be fosteredwith audiences and the ability to create affinity groups around niches previously thought too small to matter to anyone. Then the focus moves to the ability to hone one’s craft while simultaneously building an audience base. And then to figure out the new possibilities for revenue streams, around that which is unique and valuable to fans. Where attention and enthusiasm go, opportunities arise.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Lessons learned at Buffer Festival 2014: People will pay

I have a number of things I want to share with you coming out of my attendance at this weekend’s Buffer Festival aka the gathering of the stars of YouTube and their fans. But I’m about to head out to observe the red carpet portion of the event; yes there’s a gala, where formal wear is expected of both fans and celebs (as per this special offer received via email) but I'm going in civilian garb as I'll merely be a spectator and will then likely come back home and blog some more. And in keeping with the egalitarian spirit of the festival, the red carpet is open to anyone. If you want to go to the Gala, it's a $50 ticket, plus however much that tux or gown rental runs you.

In the meantime I’d just like to say that one of the bigger surprises of this weekend has been seeing that in a time when people have either become accustomed to, or expect to, pay zip for their entertainment, the people of Buffer Festival are showing me that there are things for which they are happy to open their wallets.

In yesterday’s post I included this picture, taken yesterday around 5:30 pm at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre (that’s the Canadian spelling, btw, for any non-Canadians reading who think I may have gone all French on them.)

You can’t see the beginning or the end of the queue, which gives you an idea of how long the line was. It was for what’s termed a “meetup”, and was one of three or four held each day of Buffer Festival. At the meetup people wait in line first to get into the theatre (again, Canadian spelling) and then a second time so they can form into a line to get their picture taken with the YouTube celebrity who’s there in the person. These pics are from the meetup for Rhett & Link, who I first discovered a couple of years ago for their low budget commercials made for local businesses.

“Our degrees our 2 years and our haircuts are 2 dollars"

YouTubers Rhett & Link, as the loving onslaught of
picture-seeking fans arrives
To get into the meetup you needed to have a ticket for the screening, which are the backbone of the Buffer Festival. And, even more ironically, the screenings were held at mega-cineplexes, those six level apocalypse-feeling places in the middle of downtown that one really has to wonder about the future of. 

Yes, people paid $15 to go to a cinema to watch YouTube videos they could watch for free at home or on their phone. The only difference was that the YouTubers on the screen were generally, but not always, present at the events.

So, naysayers, carp all you want, and say there’s no such thing as people willing to pay, that the Internet has ruined the entertainment industry, etc. Yes, the business models are still being worked out, but there are also tens of thousands of people making it work for themselves, and that’s on YouTube alone. What we can safely conclude is that there’s a new type of entertainment and a new type of performer resonating with people, and those are the ones that know how to be relatable and real more than professional and polished, the ones who understand the importance of cultivating relationships with their audience, and adding an actually sincere personal touch.

The walls of the Cineplex during Buffer Festival
adorned with posters promoting not movie stars, but YouTubers

One more data point from this weekend: In the world of YouTube, the superstars of the medium like Shay Carl, with over a billion views on his YouTube channel, take the time to meet individual fans and in these interactions compress the distance between performer and viewer.

And this is hardly an isolated incident. If you search on the hashtag #BufferFestival on Twitter you’ll see hundreds of tweets from people talking not just about the official meetups, but also about recognizing YouTubers on the streets of downtown Toronto this weekend. About being able to just go up and say hello to them, and being warmly greeted in return. You don’t get the Internet version of Tom Cruise’s bodyguards giving you double outstretched palms to keep you away. This, after all, is media made of the people and by the people and the etiquette and culture reflect it.

For more glimpses into the world of YouTubers and their fans at this weekend's Buffer Festival, here are two fan-created video diaries recently posted. Kind of a YouTube Parking Lot. Check them out here and here. Or for a view of the proceedings from the camera of a YouTuber, there's this little romp through a day at the fest.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

The stars of YouTube: Buffer Festival 2014

I’ve been blogging so much lately I feel like I may need a full on A&E Intervention soon, but dammit, there’s lots going on, so blog I do. Today I am here to tell you that the “everybody’s famous” future has arrived. And not only that, it has a burgeoning industry to go along with it. I know this because I’m currently attending a festival of the stars, or more accurately ‘microstars’, of YouTube. It’s called Buffer Festival, and from this vantage point it has been most interesting to observe the trajectory of YouTube celebrities from the earliest days, when it was the domain of the weird, to the midpoint a few years ago when it was everyday people and their largely accidental viral videos, to today, the age of the intentional YouTube star who knows how to navigate through the new ecosystem of fan communities, brands, and multiple revenue streams.

Intentional celebrity: YouTuber's booth
 at Buffer Festival's Industry Day

YouTube in the director's chair
 at Buffer Festival 2014
YouTube turns 10 this year and the little site that at first seemed like a repository for all that was ridiculous and/or a waste of time online will bring in about $5 billion in revenue this year. This means that for the first time it may actually be a profitable endeavor for parent company Google.

And along with this established path to profitability has come a brigade of young YouTubers, eager to make their mark in this new industry-outside-an-industry. They are essentially independent creators, some associated with MCNs (multi-channel networks), some not, and in both cases monetizing, aka getting paid, via advertising that runs before their videos, as well as by business opportunities they build on the foundation of their Internet famous-ness.

Yesterday was “industry day", the day before the full festival of screenings, meetups, and galas began, and I managed to stick my head into a few panels to glean some insights into this new face of YouTube.

Like the banner says, it’s now the business of YouTube, and to that end the conference rooms were filled with representatives from advertising agencies and talent agencies, from brands and broadcasters looking for the next big thing, and with tech companies and marketing consultants looking to mediate between them all.

Before I head to next panel I thought I would share a few pictures with you, along with a few nuggets from industry day, and then I’ll jump back onto the blog tomorrow with an update from today’s screenings and sessions. Yes, I've been watching YouTube videos in cinemas, actual movie theaters, which means a lot of giant talking heads videotaped in their bedrooms.

From the “Why is Hollywood Getting Involved” Panel:

 “We need to realize that the days of forcing people to go places and do things are over. Because if you do your job and you build an audience, and relationships, your fans will ‘show up’ and the money will go to where the audiences are online.”

“I’m reading a book now about the early days of ESPN, and not only did everyone laugh at those guys when they started, they did not have a clue about what they were doing. Today they’re the single most valuable media property in the world, and I can imagine a world where the things people are doing online end up the same way.”

“Audiences are migrating online. They’re shifting away from TV, they’re shifting away from movies. This was one of the worst summers for blockbuster movies.  And media buyers are now counselling their clients to spend 25% of their budgets on digital. This is a huge shift.”

Click here for Part 2 and here for Part 3 of my Buffer Festival Report

And/or in the meantime enjoy these candid snaps from the event.

The Tim Horton's down the block from the event
got into the festival spirit with a custom donut

YouTubers showing their wares on the big screen earlier today
YouTuber Matt G124 getting mic'd up
for an interview with the CBC crew at TIFF Bell Lightbox,
one of the Buffer Festival venues

Fans queuing for the 'meetup' where they can get their picture taken
with assorted YouTubers. No autographs allowed. (Too time consuming)