“I don’t know how big of a historian you are,” begins David Dundas, one of the founders of YouAreTV, a video hosting site launched at the beginning of this year. “But this whole technology thing is kind of equivalent to when the printing press came out.”
A printing press of sorts, indeed. Websites that provide video download and streaming services allow filmmakers, proud parents, essentially anyone with a video camera, webcam, or video-enabled cell phone to make their content available online for free. The possibilities for short-filmmakers are especially enticing. But the proliferation of websites has not only provided short filmmakers with new, increasingly accessible platforms for their work, it has fostered an explosion of quantity. In keeping with the short-film-as-calling-card model, some filmmakers, animators, and amateurs are using the web to promote their work. Many more are creating content specifically for online presentation, an enormously popular category often called “user-generated” content. Short films with high production value and meticulously crafted scripts that used to be condemned to the shelf after a few festivals have populated the web, often competing for viewers with funny, crass, and no-budget shorts like The MySpace Movie, (www.davidlehre.com/myspace/play.htm). Much of the traffic that passes through video hosting sites like YouTube.com and video.google.com, as well as veteran sites like ifilm.com (owned by Viacom) and AtomFilms.com, arrives via the viral effect: people follow links they’ve received in friendly emails. Online availability of short films and user-generated content—the line between the two is increasingly difficult to define—is overhauling the distribution paradigm into one based on word-of-mouth and broad appeal. Online video is becoming contagious and short filmmaking is evolving.
Roger Jackson, vice president of content and programming at IFILM, a video-streaming site that launched in 1999, suggests that “film”-makers are having a hard time coming to terms with this shifting paradigm of what constitutes a short film. Jackson believes that the traditional idea of a short, a film semi-professionally made at the expense of a film student or wannabe director, is becoming less relevant in the emerging realm. A time when two barely-teenage girls can upload an anti-porn diatribe entitled “Totally Hot Makeout Session,” (www.ifilm.com/ifilmdetail/2689979) made with absolutely no attention to lighting or the color of the wall behind them (it’s a putrid pink) and still get 1,371,169 views in the user video sections, while a scripted, labor intensive and possibly expensively made short, maybe even shot on 16mm, often gets no more than 1,000 views.
According to Jackson, executives and agents who have met with IFILM about discovering new talent through websites have lowered their expectations in terms of production value and formal rules of filmmaking. They respond to the wit and creative ability demonstrated by “more organic, more spontaneous filmmaking,” as well as how successfully a video taps into what people want to watch—a success that is easily measured on the internet. In terms of whether studio execs or agents spend time browsing around, in search of the next big thing, Jackson says the answer is… probably not. There is no need to. In order to see what people are responding to all one needs to do is look at the numbers. Each clip or short reports the number of times it has been viewed. Jackson says the people who three years ago were saying, “I saw a great short film on the short film channel, and I’m in development” are now saying, “I saw that clip in the user video section, and wow, that’s a great idea. That person has got some talent.”
During a recent meeting, CAA talent agents who had been poking around on the site told IFILM, based in central Hollywood, that though in the past they were looking at classic short films, “now we look at the numbers.” Numbered, it seems, are the days of orchestrated market research and focus groups. “We can figure out what creators and what creative approaches work with our audience,” says Scott Roesch, the vice president and general manager of AtomFilms, a veteran site also launched in 1999 that gets 5 million unique visitors a month. “We have some information that helps us when evaluating future projects…whether we’d want to invest in them.” AtomFilms currently has six or seven projects in development with content creators who have previously had work on the site.
This potential has not been lost on The Independent Film Channel, who launched Media Lab in January and heavily promoted it at this year’s South by Southwest film and interactive conference. Registered users upload their shorts, and viewers vote to rank the films. The five highest ranking films are broadcast on IFC once during a given month, and according to the Media Lab website, “top ranking filmmakers will be nurtured and cultivated by IFC on an ongoing basis.” Evan Fleischer, who is in charge of the project, says that IFC has a competitive advantage over other video streaming sites, most of which do not have a television outlet and are “essentially a free-for-all.” Using Media Lab, IFC programmers can gauge what people want to watch before putting it on the air and without investing in production costs, licensing fees, or even paying a programmer to sit through the 675 submissions that Media Lab got during its first two months online. Current TV takes the same approach, encouraging viewers to upload “pods” onto www.current.tv. The shorts with the most votes are then broadcast on one of Current’s programs, VC2, (viewer-created content). MySpace.com, often touted as the nexus of media-sharing and social-networking, recently launched a section that taps into what many users have been using the site for already, sharing video content. On “MySpace Film” viewers can vote on which up-and-coming filmmaker they’d like to see more from.
What kind of material gets high numbers? Brevity and comedy seem to be the recipe for success, and voyeurism is a big factor. If a filmmaker or content creator produces something “that is compelling to a wide audience and resonates with people,” says Jackson, “the bottom line is: would you rather be a filmmaker who got something into a festival where a dozen top filmmakers… said to you, ‘Hey man, that was great,’ and it doesn’t go anywhere. Or would you rather have a half a million nobodies watch it online and see all the comments.” Jackson insists that while the festival circuit is still significant and highly valued by filmmakers, “the numbers at film festivals are trivial.”
According to Jackson, 85 percent of IFILM’s 35,000 video clips gets watched every day and the majority of broadband entertainment viewing takes place during the working day. “It’s more of an ‘I’ve got five minutes at work’ thing,” says Jackson about the general preference for shorter films. Roesch calls online video streaming “the perfect entertainment snacking medium.” People like to consume short bursts of content rather than make a conscious effort to seek out specific material. “They’re not leaning back and watching an hour or two’s worth of programming at a time,” he says. “They’re surfing from one short film or one short clip to another.”
“Everything is digital, so the reach is infinite,” says Dundas, whose day job is working in content licensing and business development for mobile phones. But infinite reach can be confusing, and audiences can get lost in cyberspace among or within the multitude of websites that deal in video content. “[A film] will be up there,” says David Russell, president of the short film distribution company and sales agent Big Film Shorts, “along with 7,500 other films. It becomes ‘How do you let your world know that [your work] is even there?” Roesch of AtomFilms, which carefully programs its site and pays royalties to all content creators, says that the shortfall of sites focused on user-generated video is the way that the most-watched videos go straight to the top, resulting in pages filled with sexual and scatological humor.
Dundas explains that YouAreTV hopes to maintain its democratic direct posting model while also trying to incorporate more than just if someone watched a clip when determining which work is featured, but whether viewers actually liked what they saw. Their plan is to hold audience attention over time—an aim fundamentally different than that of success attained by the viral effect—by making the identity of the filmmaker a central part of the viewing experience. IFILM and other sites do offer a tab or sidebar where satisfied viewers can see more work by the same creator, but think of YouAreTV as the social networking site (i.e. Friendster, Facebook) of the online video world. They are poised to use networking and buzz among community members to enable content creators to build a following. Just like in the user video section of IFILM, users can upload content unfettered by any editorial voice, but the content tends to be more crafted and deliberate and less voyeuristic, perhaps because it is so closely associated with its maker. “No one knows how independent content is going to change the landscape of media and the way that media is consumed,” says Jesse Sanchez, one of the founders of YouAreTV. He explains that the hope is that successful filmmakers or content creators would build a solid, wide enough audience to continue self-distribution via YouAreTV (YouAreTV plans to share ad revenue with content creators in the near future), or that the likes of MTV will take notice as they did with The MySpace Movie.
Just when it seems too good to be true, Russell, founder of a traditional short film distribution outlet, cautions filmmakers about free online distribution. “Once a film is on the internet for free somewhere, or even if it’s subscription and you have to pay for it, it can kibosh other kinds of deals and sales,” he warns. At a SXSW panel “State of the North American Docs,” The Documentary Channel’s director of programming, Michael Burns, responding to a question about whether he would broadcast shorts that have been available online was initially ambivalent: “I wouldn’t be crazy about it.” After a few moments he leaned into the microphone and said, assertively, that The Documentary Channel’s customers pay a monthly fee (similar to HBO) to get content that is not available elsewhere, especially not for free. Krysanne Katsoolis, executive producer of Cactus Three, a high-end nonfiction programming company that presented three films at SXSW, commented that while that is the case currently, the traditional model of distribution is in flux. Putting a short online right away does take away any chance of being nominated for an Oscar because the academy will not accept anything that has been online.
Ultimately, it depends on whether a filmmaker is promoting her film or herself, in which case an individual piece is a vehicle to get her name out there, and Russell concedes that in that case online distribution might be a good option. Gerard O’Malley of the BBC, who’s newly launched short film streaming site Film Network, which attracts around 70,000 users per month, points out that “you’re more likely to get people watching your film [online] than putting it at a graveyard slot on TV.” As a result of Film Network’s “virtual industrial panel,” a function that allows industry professionals to register for the site in a way that identifies them as such when they post comments, several filmmakers whose work is showcased on Film Network have been approached by small production companies. Many content creators who started at AtomFilms have already started to make it big, including Jason Reitman, whose 2005 film Thank You for Smoking stars Robert Duvall and William H. Macy. “A lot of people come up to him and tell him the first time they saw him…it was under an AtomFilms brand of distribution,” says Roesch. Annibelle Scoops, a series of animations by Keith Thompson, also got popular on AtomFilms and was picked up for a pilot by MTV.
“There are all these screens,” says Dundas, so if Roesch’s prediction that the internet and mobile devices are about to become real career opportunities for people—Dundas predicts that within 18 months video-enabled cell phones will be ubiquitous—sites that provide online film and video content will continue to add to the roster of success stories.
O’Malley has observed that “new players that we can see coming in are kids in their bedroom animating, creating animations for the web…who don’t really see themselves as filmmakers.” Says Jackson, “You can question as to why people find it compelling, but you can’t really argue. The numbers really do speak for themselves.” It seems clear that short filmmaking is becoming less about producing a polished calling card to show off to high-powered movie execs and more about building a following around brief, witty encounters that might never bring the creator a dime. A film posted on the net is significant to a filmmaker’s career in terms of what it can lead to and is a venue for showing off creative prowess rather than production skills.