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.