There's been a lot of noise out there about the YouTube rental program and it's experiment with some films from Sundance. Most of the posts seem to (almost gleefully) agree that the program was a failure - and with approximately $10,000 in net revenue, it's hard to disagree. So, I'll concede from the start that whatever this experiment was, it was a failure. I don't think it's something we can really make any judgements from, however, as it was almost not even an experiment. The story of this debacle really shines a light on the problems Sundance has always had with digital, and which YouTube seems to have with monetization in general, but I'm not sure it shines any light on indies, rental or the future of the business except that it might not be Sundance and YouTube figuring it out (even if they likely remain part of the answer).
First, calling this an experiment in day/date rentals is generous at best. Ok, they did get lots of press impressions, but in nearly every mainstream publication I read, the story was buried on about page 2 of the business section. Almost every story focused on the idea of rentals, the fact that it was in partnership with Sundance or some similar angle. There was almost no mention of the films, the merit of the films (as no PR person seemed to think that was something to pitch them on) or anything else that would make you want to see the films. Then we have the marketing...or should I say we didn't.
Midway through this experiment my Sundance condo-mates and I did our own experiment - how easy would it be to find and rent a film. So late at night (disclaimer, we'd been to a party or two, so this could be an influence) Lance Weiler, Scilla Andreen and I tried to find the films online.
For an hour. With no success.
This is three people who are pretty darn net-savvy and none of us could find a single Sundance title. We looked on YouTube. Nothing. Searched on YouTube and then on Google....nothing. Hmm, perhaps we should search on Sundance. We found...the Sundance Channel (both the real channel and the youtube "channel"), videos of some stars in town, some interviews and news reports. We looked on the Sundance fest page and Institute pages. In the press releases. We eventually found a video that one of the producers made in advance saying he was doing a new day/date strategy in conjunction with Sundance, but no link to the films. None of the pages we found had a single link to the actual videos for rent. Yes, we tried searching the exact titles of the films. Every last one of them, and what did we get...well, not the real "Bass Ackwards," I can tell you that.
Finally, after tweeting our increasingly hilarious results, we received via twitter a direct link from a fan of one of the films and from a producer of one of the films. And yes, if we went to some of the online news stories, a few had some direct links. Problem there...well, leaving aside that it should never get to this point at all, once we found one Sundance film we weren't linked to any of the others and nothing told us that there was an, um, ground-breaking new program going on here. Odd, you think? Yep, very odd.
Let's try this for an experiment. I'm booking my film at a brand new theater in town. I'm going to send releases out about this partnership and the theater. We'll focus on the industry trades and barely mention my film's name. Then I'm going to run the film, but I'm not going to take out a single ad in any newspaper or online. I'm not going to list it with MovieFone, and even though Google owns the new hypothetical theater, I'm not going to make sure my film's info is SEO'd at all. I won't put a poster for my film's showtimes anywhere. Then, the theater is going to refrain from having my film's running times up because....well, they don't even bother having a marquee at all. Essentially, people will have to walk by the theater, decide to walk in because they can't find the ticket booth, decide to walk past all the celebrity films playing and all the posters for other films and stumble into my screen (unlabeled) to see my film. Someone presumably will show up to take the admission fee.
And when 300+ people come to my film....yes, I will proclaim to the New York Times:
"It definitely exceeded our expectations given all the barriers."
Just like Chris Dale, a YouTube spokesman, said after their noble experiment. Because yes, Chris, this is a miracle. That anyone showed up given these obstacles is nothing short of divine intervention. Sundance and YouTube practically led these viewers through the Red Sea through some kind of divine intervention, because Lord knows they didn't give them any help getting there.
This is not an experiment. Almost nothing can be decided about download, day and date or pretty much anything else to do with new models from this travesty. Can you imagine if the first theatrical release of a film had been handled this way?
What makes this story a little funny, instead of pathetic, is the fact that after searching for an hour, we did finally find one great video. We typed "YouTube Rentals" into Google, and the first video that showed up was some 12 year old kid who filmed himself complaining to YouTube that rentals were a bad idea and that YouTube should stay free. It was brilliant, ironic, beautiful (it was 4am now) and I'd love to link you to it, but it has been "voluntarily removed." I tried to find some of the other protest videos, same story. I'm gonna trust them in advance that this isn't censorship because I don't have time to track these all down, but it does seem odd, no. Or maybe those videos expired with the experiment???
I ran into a smart person who works in this space at a Sundance party and asked them what they thought and they said something to the effect that YouTube has some rules and algorithms about how things show up. Memo to self - if I ever experiment with YouTube get them to bend the rules. Just a little, you know, to where things might ever show up. I mean c'mon, you could've bent the rules to allowing some 12 year old tag some of the content a bit and done a better job.
I'm sure YouTube had some good reasons not to promote this too heavily - like maybe all those backlash videos - but my understanding is that they promised heavy promotion to the Festival and the filmmakers (hearsay, I have no one on record here). YouTube had no trouble sending out street teams to promote that other indies should put their films in the rental program. Heck, they even defaced other filmmakers posters getting their message out. Guess it's ok to do some heavy promotion at the expense of other content holders if its at high altitude, just not online. They put out lots of marketing materials at Sundance, so I guess marketing is ok in the snow, to people who already have tickets to the real screenings, but not online. This really makes no sense. Unless YouTube really wanted this to fail and consciously decided to do everything possible to not promote these films. I don't believe that though, and I know many people at Google and YouTube who seem to work extra hard at making the thing work, so I have to think that the head of marketing was out sick that month or something.
Now I don't blame Sundance too much for this, but they deserve a lot more blame than, say, the filmmakers. Sundance has a marketing machine, and a web-team and PR people. I think they could have at least made sure that their online YouTube channel was promoting this, and maybe from their website itself? Might make sense. But I think there's many lessons here for other nonprofits, film festivals and filmmakers. On another panel, someone said that the biggest mistake indies make is making a deal for digital distribution on some platform but not thinking about marketing and merchandising. Hello everyone - negotiate how this will be handled in your contract. Bring along a sponsor to help insure better placement if you have to, but don't sign the digital delivery deal and think your job is done. Ever.
Second, whether you are an organization or an individual plan to invest a lot of your own time and resources into marketing your project online. Don't count on your partner, even if they're as big as Google. They may not do evil, but this doesn't mean they spend time thinking about doing good for you. You must do good for your film, or it's just plain... evil...by accident.
Third - and I'm sorry Sundance, but it has to be said - Sundance has missed every digital boat that's come along and you can't count on them to lead the change. Yes, they've been part of it all, but it's usually been after the fact. That's fine, it's not really their job to lead change, but if you look at almost every innovation in the field, Sundance has come late to the game - from digital projection to the "Next" filmmakers. I've said it many times before - if Sundance had really taken a look at where things are going about 8 years ago, they would have launched YouTube. It would have been branded Sundance4All or some cheesy name that nonprofits pick, but it shoulda been them. So, this isn't a surprise, nor is it an attack (I know, it sounds like one, but I do love them), but if we're looking to test new models, it might not be the best place to start. And this carries a big lesson for the distributors partnering with YouTube - don't expect that because your delivery partner is smart about digital that they'll help you out. If you don't have a good track record responding to digital change, this is probably not the panacea you think it is. You still need to execute on your side.
Fourth - whassup YouTube? You need to figure out ways to monetize content. You've been trying, relatively unsuccessfully, to brand content, bring in advertisers, etc but they just seem scared of the unknown parts of YouTube that they may end up against. Thinking about augmenting free with a fee service is smart. Lots of stories have it that you are also pitching the studios, and we know you're launching with many distributors now too, so why drop this ball with such a thud? I can't answer this, but it needs to be teased out in the coming months. You've got smart people (I've met them, and they are going to hate me for this post BTW) so perhaps you need to give them less to work on so they can focus on what matters...I don't know, do something.
Now, I've been a tad bit hard on YouTube and Sundance in this post, but I'm really not out to get them - I want everything they do to work. I want it to succeed for filmmakers. All films, actually, but especially for indies. I want it to work for them, too. I am also sure that both will somehow be involved in whatever new models evolve. I'm not sure they're going to come up with the best strategies, but I'm darn sure they'll be part of the implementation of any solution to the distribution dilemmas we now face. So my ire isn't against these particular actors, but rather at those who will look at this and argue that some lesson about digital rentals can be had. You can't make many judgments on the model, beyond implementation non-strategy. Ok, a small bit of my anger/disbelief/ire goes to SunTube for not anticipating that if they were going to say they had a ground-breaking experiment then they owed it to all of us to actually give it the old college try. They especially owed it to their filmmakers. But hey, you never succeed if you aren't willing to fail. Then again, you may need to try a little harder to qualify for even trying.
Here's hoping that the next experiment works better. Kudos to Sundance and YouTube for trying an experiment, and to the filmmakers that went along for the ride, but next time, put some more resources into implementation and marketing - you know, like good distributors do.