Tuesday, February 02, 2010

On the YouTube, Sundance Failure

Share photos on twitter with Twitpic 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.


CineKinkster said...

I really don't think I would've even known about the Sundance on YouTube experience if it weren't for Twitter. And I'm someone who works from home with various cable/news outlets on constantly in the background for company and various internet updates always nearby for distraction.

Going onto YouTube at one point to track down a filmmaker's trailer, I saw a notice about the possibility of Sundance rentals... then, after clicking, got tracked onto one individual film that wasn't of immediate interest, with no obvious way to a directory of offering. And I turned my attention back to my original reason for being there.

So, yeah, didn't seem like a lot of thought put into the "experiment" and question whether it can tell us much of anything.

Meanwhile... off to snag that CineKink4all domain before anyone else gets it!

Sheri C said...

great post Brian. I have my thoughts and some knowledge on the subject of the actual marketing of the films rather than just the platform used. It was a shame that all stories concentrated on the Youtube/Sundance experiment and not on the films themselves. I hate to think anyone is pointing to this trial and saying "digital doesn't bring in numbers," but I know they will.

Great you pointed out that no distributor cares about a filmmaker's film like the filmmaker himself and that turning over a film to a platform and forgetting about it will not insure success. Often the opposite. Live and breathe your film in every aspect of your life and gather people to help you make it important and get it seen.

Sujewa Ekanayake said...

Netflix is a better place for this kind of an experiment than YouTube, I think. Maybe Netflix wasn't interested? (or perhaps their subscription model would only work for people who already have a membership, not a random person who just wants to see one of the Sundance movies for $3.99 during the window & not join Netflix, even then, the movies would have gotten more exposure going with Netflix, but it would be tricky to figure out how to get some $s from those views to filmmakers). Well, maybe a whole separate YouTube channel/site for paid programming (stuff you gotta pay to watch) is the way to go - YouTube2 ?

Unknown said...

Very thoughtful post about the experiment.

After reading the recent article in the NYT about whether strides in Digital Distribution render physical festivals like Sundance somewhat obsolete, I think the question of virtual festivals/screenings may have to be asked sooner rather than later. While I doubt the virtual can wholly replace the real gathering, it is an interesting and pressing question.

Unfortunately the Youtube partnership wasn't sold to the public as a proper festival screening because it was outside of the world Sundance is traditionally comfortable with. If they were to invest (marketing and tech) in some sort of parallel virtual festival which made their brand more visible and allowed the same level of interest in the FILMS to develop among real film aficionados who cannot attend the festival, then that might be a real game-changer for filmmakers and the festival.

Sundance has a great brand. The question as I see it is: Will they squander it away with their half-hearted investments in new modes of viewership/distribution or will they step up to the real challenges and become a part of the next wave of indie filmmaking?

Aina Abiodun

Mynette Louie said...

Brian, thank you for this great, brave, and honest post! As one of the Sundance/YouTube filmmakers (producer of Tze Chun's Children of Invention), in spite of the results, I don't regret opting to try this experiment--someone's got to be the guinea pig if we're going to figure out a viable alternative distribution model. But you make some great points, many of which I agree with, and have already shared with YouTube. To their credit, the YouTube folks have been actively soliciting our feedback on what they could've done better. In fact, we're meeting with them this week to discuss further, so I'm glad I read your post.

Mynette Louie said...

Oh, the one other thing I wanted to add was: we're thankful that the DVD of CHILDREN OF INVENTION was available for purchase from our site during the YouTube run (and still is, btw: www.childrenofinvention.com)--we made more money from DVD sales than online rentals!

Michael in Cannes said...

At the risk of stating the obvious, people don't watch experiments or strategic partnerships, they watch films. And it looks like you hit the nail right on the head. If you don't promote the films, something terrible happens: nothing. It reminds me of Philips selling the CDi (remember that?) rather than the funky titles they were actually producing at the time. I must say, furthermore, that I wasn't even aware of this at all.

I'm off back to theauteurs.com

Mike Ambs said...

Wow. I had heard about this through Twitter - not on sundance - the other day and wasn't able to really find anything to watch on YouTube.

You would think the people behind this idea would be savvy enough to bring on someone a little more experienced with online screenings to ensure this "experiment" wouldn't turn out to be a joke...

Saskia said...

Totally agreed with Michael in Cannes- we tend to let the tail wag the dog, or in this case, the distribution methodology inform the marketing angle. It's totally exciting for those of us in the industry, but for those outside... Who cares about an 'experimental distribution strategy'?

In any case, I hope this 'failure' is re-visited and people continue to try this sort of partnership. Rhetorically, I wonder if YouTube had featured them prominently on the home page how it would have gone...? I'd be curious to see the numbers.

Unknown said...

As one of the YouTube guinea pigs, I am baffled that people could not find the movie. During Sundance it was always on the main page in the right hand column, very clearly marked. Additionally, if they just searched One Too Many Mornings, it's literally the first result. Not sure how to make it any easier than that...

Thomas Mai said...

I dont believe that the YouTube "Experiment" was a failure. It only ran for 10 days and proved there was a demand however small. For an independent producer this can become yet another revenue stream and it can all add up to bigger bucks when you gather up another possible angle of income.

We are so used to think exclusivity, please start to think non-exclusivity.

Now it is possible for a producer to make a deal themselves with no expensive middleman and have their film online at multiple online retailers like Itunes, NetFlix, Amazon, TheAuteurs, Youtube etc, the more the merrier.

Sundance title Back AssWards became the most sold film on Itunes on the indie section during Sundance see with 289 downloads after 2 days see http://sydneysbuzz.blogspot.com/2010/02/releasing-on-digital-platforms-first.html

We are talking about small films here not major block busters. This is not Avatar but independent films who can now have longevity and stay online instead of being yanked from the theaters and video stores after a short period. If the experiment had run for a year the numbers would be much higher. We have to look at the lifespan of the distribution and the possibility of actually having people find the film online, as opposed to 5 years ago when there was no alternative.

We have to embrace this new era of no Gatekeepers who can decide the fate and life of you and your movie. Now we are empowered as filmmakers to have our own distribution and make money while we are sleeping.

With Social Media, marketing and sales is possible for the even smallest production company.

Stop focusing on the small picture and see this in the great context of possibilities that now exists for filmmakers globally. Remember the film was only available on YouTube in the US. There is a whole world out there, America is still only 300 million people as opposed to more than 6 billion worldwide

I believe this is the best time ever to be a filmmaker. Never has equipment been cheaper and distribution easier and dont get me started on Crowdfunding.

Check out http://www.ageofstupid.net/money and MyMillionDollarMovie.com are great examples on Crowdfunding for films and how it is possible to raise funding for films in this digital edge.

You can watch my presentation on VOD, Social Media & Crowdfunding for free on Itunes http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=342575704

of if you dont have Itunes click here http://festivaldarlings.23video.com/video/526600/vod-and-what-it-means-to-the

Thomas Mai

Amy Lo said...

Excellent comments on YouTube's new venture - effective marketing is still key, no matter what the platform. YouTube heavily promoted our film PLANET B-BOY during our 2008 release - we took over their youtube.com homepage for 24 hours with a dozen featured videos, which was huge exposure. We already had 4 million video views on their site but probably doubled that in a day. We've had strong sales on iTunes, Amazon and Netflix, but if we can sort out the rights, I'd like to add PLANET B-BOY to the YouTube Rentals program...would be interesting to see if an older film with more awareness does any better than newer indie films - I noticed the two films from last year's festival actually got more YouTube rentals than the brand new premieres.

BNewmanSBoard said...

Wow, such great thoughts from all of you. First, Michael of "One too many mornings" I believe you and understand the frustration, but I promise you, we looked on the home page and refreshed it many times. It wasn't there, nor were the other films. It also didn't show up when we searched by title, in quotes even, on Youtube or Google. This was so odd that we wondered if it was geo-blocked from Park City, but we heard from many people (then and as recently as today) who had the same problem. I don't think all of us were complete idiots - perhaps they alternated what was on the page at times for other reasons and we happened to search at the wrong time.

Regardless, a quick glance at the Planet B-Boy experiment shows some major differences in prominence. Anyway, great thoughts from all, especially Thomas Mai, who I think best captures the spirit of how we all need to think about these changes, experiments, etc and I highly recommend that anyone in the Berlin Talent Campus attend his workshop there.

Kudos are also due to Mynette. By prominently listing her DVD she found success with many DVD sales. YouTube worked as a marketing tool for her, and considering that many films of that level are lucky to move 5000 units with a distributor, 1K in a few days is astounding.

I think the big lesson here is - marketing, marketing and more marketing - plus hard work - are needed from all parties. Thanks for all the good comments - please continue to post your possible solutions!

Anonymous said...

indeed, sadly, what horrendous PR - tried forever to find films - they should have hired a kid to put meta-tags or... something. i mean try "sundance films youtube" and many variations and forget it - nothing!, you think that would work! at least sundance could have advertised it on their youtube channel or on their website. on top of that when you were lucky to find them, they didnt even have info on teh others, or on the whole program. to top THAT off when I finally had time to watch them, they were gone. my concern is that this will be seen as some kind of example - when it was so poorly advertised.

one more thing I found FASCINATING (of not depressing) was some of the comments - vitriolic ones - on one of the movies on youtube, about 50% of people were so pissed they were asked to pay for anything. geez... that was scarier than anything.

anyway, as an experiment it worked: as we learn and apply and better. keep up the cool insightful work on your blog. awesome.