As you may have heard, Sundance and YouTube have established a unique collaboration during the 2010 fest, through which three films world premiering here (Bass Ackwards, Homewrecker and One Too Many Mornings--all entries in the NEXT section), as well as two films that debuted in Park City last year (Children of Invention and The Cove), have been made available for rental on YouTube during the duration of the festival. Each film costs $3.99 per viewing, and the filmmakers will, according to a press release, "receive the majority of the revenue share."
The press release also promises that the films will be "spotlighted on the YouTube homepage," but when I went to YouTube I could find no sign of such promotion on the homepage. My "Featured Videos" included Streets Full of Bodies in Haiti and Man Makes Chocolate Records; the clip promoted as Most Popular under the Film & Animation category, The Perfect Body? is a video diary in which two teens interview other teens about style and body image.
At a press conference yesterday announcing the venture, a YouTube rep said the company wants to "give a sense of independent choice for our users," but the fact is, YouTube users seem to mostly choose the homegrown, the incidental and accidental. If the comment thread on Children of Invention (which I only found by searching the title) is any indication, some of those users are hostile towards the very idea that the video sharing site could be used to facilitate for-profit distribution of films. To quote sonicballer8888: "this is bad. soon, youtube will start charging for all videos. keep on rating these low guys."
If indie films are a questionable fit for the YouTube audience, another big argument against the experiment is that a ten-day rental window online could "cannibalize" the potential to sell the film later through other outlets. Theatrical distributors have historically expressed little interest in films that have taken a major distribution step in between the festival circuit and theatrical, based on the logic that every film has a finite number of potential viewers, and that every audience member can only be "exploited" once.
At yesterday's press conference, Homewrecker co-director Todd Barnes said that he considers YouTube to be an extension of the festival experience: "It's like a big theater at Sundance." But for a film like his, which has no stars and no obvious acquisitions hook other than (gasp!) its merits, taking a deal like this could be construed as equivalent to giving up on traditional theatrical distribution prospects. Word on the street is that YouTube asked the makers of all eight NEXT films to join the promotion, but only three were willing to risk potentially missing out on other/better offers down the road.
Of course, there are plenty of arguments in favor of the experiment, too. For films like Invention and The Cove, which are already available on DVD, the press associated with the YouTube pact could very well lead to increased sales; Invention producer Mynette Louie told me this morning that they've sold $1000 worth of DVDs since the rental program was announced. And for the NEXT newbies, YouTube distribution may seem like an intuitive next step. At the press conference, Barnes bragged that his film was shot in 13 days, beginning one month after the project was conceived, to which Ackwards director/star Linas Phillips enthusiastically interjected his belief that the pace of "distribution needs to catch up to the speed of creativity." For filmmakers working in a specific niche, a YouTube premiere may end up as not only the quickest, but the sole sure shot of reaching a wide audience. As Anthony Kaufman charitably wrote of Ackwards after watching it on YouTube, "The decidedly lo-fi, offbeat, rambling road-trip story of a slacker looking for direction in his life would not fare well in theaters."
If a film's natural audience is already on or could be easily convinced to use YouTube, why bother with Sundance at all? The answer may be that a synergistic collaboration between two major brands such as this generates the kind of attention that wouldn't be available to most filmmakers who might want to make their work available online independently of such a deal. Louie says her team are happy to be "guinea pigs in the hopes that we can get closer to finding an alternative distribution model that works." But the experiment is only groundbreaking if future filmmakers will be able to build on that ground once it has been broken, and yet this advantage is available only to those who already have the Sundance imprimatur behind them. The biggest danger in here may be that the Sundance/YouTube deal grafts the closed-club nature of Sundance onto the wild, democratic free-for-all that is YouTube. No wonder technolibertarians such as sonicballer8888 are pissed.
Tags: bass ackwards, children of invention, homewrecker, one too many mornings, sundance, sundance film festival, the cove, youtube