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You Don’t Have To Get Into Sundance To Put Your Feature Film On YouTube

During the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, there was much news and blog posting about the festival putting up several feature films that were screening this year on YouTube for rent. After the festival ended and after the rentable films were taken offline, there was similarly much analysis on whether or not this online festival experiment was a failure or not.

However, excluded from all this writing about the Sundance/YouTube partnership, one secret, key fact was left out:

Lots of filmmakers already upload their feature films to YouTube and other video sharing sites for audiences to watch. For free.

Excluding that fact and, worse, not writing about or embedding feature films on major indie film websites sends out a clear message that the only worthwhile independently produced films worth watching — online or anywhere — are the ones that make it into major film festivals like Sundance.

This isn’t a rail against Sundance or the YouTube rental program. Sadly, it appears that the partnership was indeed a “failure,” at least in the amount of money the participating filmmakers made through the deal. But, it appears to have been a failure of marketing as the films were extremely hard to find. I personally found easy links on the YouTube homepage for the films while the program was running, but that other people had such a hard time finding them points to some failure of promotion.

Beyond Sundance, there’s lots of sturm and drang about the alleged “death” of indie film these days. In fact, one popular article making the commentary rounds is called “Can Indie Movies Survive?” But, in articles like this, what’s actually defined as “indie”? Jay Epstein doesn’t quite say, but apparently it’s a movie produced outside the Hollywood studio system and costs less to make than Avatar.

What about underground films, e.g. those films that are produced off-off-off-off-Hollywood and cost anywhere between two to five figures? Apparently, those movies don’t count as “indie.” Judy Berman wrote an opinion article based on Epstein’s called “Why Is Indie Film Dying While Indie Music Thrives?” What does Berman think of underground filmmaking:

Yes, there are small groups of experimental and underground filmmakers working together around the country, watching and critiquing each other’s work, volunteering to hold a light on the set of their friends’ project. But this community is much smaller and attracts few fans who aren’t filmmakers themselves.

Yep, totally dismissive. Unfortunately, Berman’s attitude of the underground film world isn’t much different than most other film writers. What’s unusual is that she’s exceptionally blunt about it. Typically, the underground film world is dismissed through exclusion.

Those two articles in particular are fairly negative about the fate of “indie” film, but the real truth they sidestep by ignoring or glossing over is that real independent film is absolutely thriving and indie filmmakers are loading tons of films to YouTube, Vimeo, BlipTV and other websites. Mostly, it’s short films, but more and more filmmakers are putting their features on these sites, too.

But, the harsh truth is that the reason feature filmmakers are doing this is because they’re shut out of most film festivals or their films can’t find traditional distribution for various reasons. Then, even though they’re online and available to see by anyone with an internet connection, these films then unfortunately get ignored by most major film websites.

So, asking about whether or not “indie” film is either dead or in its death throes is really more about the status of the current economic model of the indie film world. That economic model is looking for new solutions such as the Sundance/YouTube partnership, which really is just the same old economic model with a new spin: Get into Sundance and your film will get written about. Don’t get into Sundance and get ignored.

Reading a lot of indie film blogs and websites, I feel like I’m always reading about the future of films going online and get shown videos about people talking about films going online, but I don’t see very many actual films being embedded and then written about on these same sites. I don’t know if there are tons of feature films by indie filmmakers online, but I know there are at least some, and probably many more. It feels to me that there’s a disconnect between the online film world that gets written and theorized about and the actual films that exist online right now.

Uploading feature films to YouTube and Vimeo may or may not be the future for indie filmmakers, but it’s the current for quite a few of them. Go check one out and if you hate it, turn it off. Try another one if you like. If you find one you like, leave the filmmaker a comment. They’ll appreciate it.

And if you have your own feature film that can’t get into any film festivals or get a distributor — or even if it has — think about uploading it in full online. If you’re crafty, you might be able to figure out a way to make some money back from doing so. Just be prepared to not get much of a reaction out of the world, but some audience will find it and appreciate it. That’s not great consolation, but remember, you made the film to be seen. It just may not be seen in the way you initially intended.

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  • Ryan Balas says:

    Very interesting article. I really appreciate you making note that other films, working outside of the tier one festival circuit are experimenting with online release.

    my second underground film ‘Carter’ has been available online, in hi-def since December. For the most part, its been a quiet release, and little to no monetary gain. Fortunately, I understand the value of making the movie for cheap, and on my own dime. At this point, every new viewer is “profit”. The value of having someone watch the film is higher than any ad-share program or cut of the dvd sale.

    I think more films need to be released online, and even showcased for free, at least on a limited basis. I feel that many filmmakers, even many of the underground folks, are still uncomfortable with the online platform and feel that it takes a festival or major city premiere to make their films legit.
    ‘Carter’ has played at a fest over seas, and premiered in NYC at the Anthology Film Archive as part of the New Filmmakers fall series. But our audience has been larger online and whether or not that will equal financial gain, I don’t know, but at this point, having any sort of screen time is a healthy thing.

    To watch my film ‘CARTER’ for free online (limited release) please go to:


  • Ryan: Thanks for leaving a comment. One of my hopes in writing this article was that it would draw out filmmakers like yourself to promote their films. I hope more follow your example.

    I think the big stigma against online “releasing” is that there’s still a perceived tier of quality, that a film is only “good” if it plays at certain festivals, screens at theaters, gets a DVD release, etc. If a filmmaker goes straight to online, then a film can’t be any good can it?

    Of course it can! I just wish there was a more aggressive combating from more film sites to break through the stigmas.

  • gokinsmen says:

    Great topic, Mike. This is just what I’ve been thinking about lately. If an underground band can put up their music — no festivals or labels to deal with — and get tons of fans, why can’t an underground filmmaker try the same? Obviously, it won’t be as successful (films just take longer to watch), but it’s an avenue worth exploring.

  • Nathan Wrann says:

    Great rant Mike!

    A few things:

    1) I think it’s a really big mistake for people to try to compare indie film and indie music. Music and film are two completely different art forms that people react to and enjoy in completely different ways. My favorite song I’ve listened to thousands of times, my favorite movie I’ve probably watched less than a hundred (as an adult). I can become a fan of a band by listening to their music while doing other things. I have to give a movie my full attention. I am more than happy to tune into Pandora on-line and play music at an acceptable quality on my computer (while doing other things). I have NO DESIRE to watch a movie on my computer. A musician can grow fans in a different regions around the world as the discover his/her music 3 minutes at a time. Music gets played on the radio. If a musician you like mentions a band you haven’t heard you can determine if you like them in a matter of seconds, buy more of their content and see them live. If a filmmaker you like mentions a movie you haven’t seen you rent it on netflix to test it out and, even if you like it, the chances of buying the movie are slim because it isn’t necessary, or feasible to continue watching a movie over and over. Arguably, film takes a hell of a lot more resources and time to make than music. I know guys that can write and record 5 good songs, from scratch, in a month and have them on iTunes selling. Do you know anyone that can make 5 good movies in a month? Basically movies and music are two completely different art forms and two completely different distribution models. Indie music could mostly be compared to short, sketch comedy, which, if funnyordie.com is any indication, is very successful right now. ((***FYI I wrote this part before reading the Judy Berman article in which she touches on some of these points as well. My question is: why would anyone feel compelled to even compare the two?***))

    2) I touched on it above. I don’t want to see movies on my computer. PERIOD. Even in HD either the connection has to buffer or something else happens. In fact, I don’t know if I want people watching MY movies on the computer. Interrupted by e-mail and pop-up ads? That’s no way to get immersed in the story and be an active watcher. I’m guessing that most people that appreciate independent, underground films appreciate them because the films are usually smart, creative, tough and complex at the very least. They usually aren’t the kind of tripe that was meant to wash over someone in a Coke & Doritoes induced coma. These people want to be immersed in the movie, I find that very, very difficult to do on a computer. On the other hand, I recently bought a blu-ray player that can stream Netflix Instant movies. IT IS AWESOME! If my blu-ray player could stream Youtube I would have definitely tuned into the Sundance movies as well as the other underground free offerings on youtube. I’ll say it again: I won’t watch a full length feature on a computer screen. (especially not on youtube) And I’m betting most of the underground feature film audience is like me. Get them streamed to my TV (in good, broadcast, quality) and sign me up.

    3) I don’t think Indie film is dead or in its death throes. I think that certain types of indie films at certain budget levels are very, very close to being put down. Because of media consolidation (most studios/distributors have relationships based on advertising dollars with most media outlets, therefore, they get coverage) unattached films don’t get media coverage. You covered it in another post, those websites without big connections cover the same films as everyone else in the hopes of boosting their numbers. Therefore, unattached, underground films are shutout of media coverage. Movie fans are, for the most part, lazy and safe. In general they do not do the hard work to seek out films that fly below the radar, and they don’t risk spending their money on the unknown (they stopped buying DVDs so that market sank). So the “Weekend” edition of the paper has the latest blockbuster on the front page (and a huge paid advertisement inside) and that’s what people go see (this is also why Sundance has such good attendance, people are told to go there by the media barrage, so they go.). So if the media doesn’t cover a movie and fans don’t seek it out, how is a $250,000 to $10,000,000 movie supposed to make money? It can’t (unless it buys a couple million in advertising and pays its way into theaters). If movies can’t make money they die. I think underground movies under $250,000 will always be made, even if it is by someone as a hobby. You can’t stop people from making movies now. And I think that movies over $10,000,000 are such a risk that only “sure things” will get made in that price range. Movies in the middle range will be very few and very far between. Nobody will greenlight them.

    Despite what I said about fans being lazy, there are a few movie fans that do the hard work and seek out the unknown, and I thank them and love them and hope they can convince others to do the same.

    That’s all I got for now.

  • Nathan: Thanks for your long, thoughtful comment. My (probably much briefer) replies:

    1. I totally agree. I think comparing movies to music just because both can be downloaded is a mistake; for economic reasons, for the type of entertainment they provide, for the ancillary merch that can be made, etc. You can’t drive a car and watch a movie.

    2. I totally disagree. I watch feature length movies on my computer all the time. But, to do so, yes I have to shut off my email notifications and anything else that may distract me. I also think EVERY viewing arena has its distractions, e.g. I’d almost rather deal with computer blurps than rude assholes in a theater. I can get totally immersed in a film on my computer if I’m making the conscious effort to do so, whether I’m popping a DVD into the drive or streaming something on Vimeo. But, it depends on what setup you have your computer in. Mine’s in a spot where I can get comfy and watch and not just sit at my desk like I’m working.

    3. I don’t think so either.

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