File under: There’s something happening here.
Freddie Wong (FreddieW). Ryan Higa (NigaHiga). Jenna Marbles. Kevin Wu (KevJumba). These are four names that I can mention in conversation with almost everyone I know in the independent film business and get blank stares. They aren’t the only four names that I could mention, but to me, they are arguably the four most important names that every indie should know about, but somehow no one does (hyperbole, I know).
For those of you not already in the know, each of these folks are in the top 10 channels on YouTube, based on number of subscribers, and to make that more clear - that means they all have over 2 Million subscribers. FreddieW has over 3M and Ryan has over 5 Million. That’s just subscribers. If you look at actual viewership, Ryan’s videos have been viewed over 1.7 Billion times, yes, with a ‘B.’ Each video FreddieW makes gets an average of 4 Million views, and he also makes how-to videos of each video, which routinely get hundreds of thousands of views. The hilarious “How to Avoid Talking to People You Don’t Want to Talk To” video by Jenna Marbles has been viewed over 23 Million times.
FreddieW did a Kickstarter last year for a new 10 episode, roughly 10 minutes long each, feature called Video Game High School. He turned that audience into about $274,000 of funding (versus a 75K goal) and quickly made his episodic feature. Episode’s one through three have premiered on RocketJump over the last two weeks. To my knowledge, he bypassed the festival world entirely.
Independent Filmmakers: You have been disrupted. As in disruptive innovation. It’s a business term from Clayton Christensen, usually applied to companies: a little company disrupts an incumbent when they operate in an area that is of too little value to the incumbent. As the start-up grows, it takes on other “low value” segments of the incumbent’s business. The incumbent can’t afford to adapt and serve these areas and before they know it, they’ve been undercut by the small folks, who then usually take over the incumbent’s business.
Disruptive Innovation is probably the most over-hyped concept in business, so I hate to circle back to it again here, but lately I’ve realized that the disruptive innovation in independent film that matters isn’t what’s happening in business - where start-ups are developing the new models of distribution and exhibition, etc. The real disruption is happening among the makers.
While the old school indies (even, and importantly, the young ones) have embraced new technologies such as cheaper cameras and new methods of editing, they’ve been slower to embrace the real change from digital - the direct connection to their audience.
Time and again, I see it - filmmaker makes interesting short. They don’t have a good website for themselves, have no presence on YouTube and valiantly spend more cash on festival entry fees than you can imagine. If they are lucky, the get into some festivals, but a year later, they still haven’t bothered to put it online. They’ve been seen by perhaps a few thousand people in theaters, have maybe amassed an email list of 50 names and 200 people have liked their film on Facebook. Five years from now, they’ll probably have two features under their belt, and if they’re really lucky, one of those films will get picked up and play one week at IFC Center to about 2,000 people total and then be on VOD and DVD for perhaps another 5000 viewers. They still won’t know who their audience is or how to reach them.
Meanwhile, there will be a new crop of another four names, unheard of now, who spend that same time building their audience online and reach millions with their work. Those millions of views will translate into several thousand who will fund their next creative project - be it a feature or just another websiode. The four mentioned above will probably have quadrupled their audience and will likely still be going direct to that audience, bypassing the indie system entirely. They’ll likely be making more money than their counterparts in the indie film world too. It would be nice to make a living doing what you love, right!
The “old school” indies will shake their heads and talk about how they make art and that you can’t compare the two - an indie film in a theater is different than some 4 minute video. They won’t know where to begin in building that kind of audience, or that kind of career.
Someone else came along and built it under their noses, and now none of that audience will care about the difference between RocketLaunch and Sundance. In fact, they’ll probably think of Sundance as something like the Metropolitan Opera - a place you go to see a wonderful artform that you know you should respect, but that no one cares about anymore and which very few can afford to make or attend. Hyperbole again, but sometimes it’s only through such overstatement that we can glimpse the truth.