Short of the Week

The Viral Experience: What Happens When You Reach The Top

Article / September 17, 2012

You’ve seen the scenario before: some talented, young filmmaker releases his latest short film on Vimeo… and BOOM… practically overnight it goes viral. A few million views and a couple hundred thousand comments later, they garner industry attention, eventually cinching a movie deal with Hollywood. Welcome to the new American dream! Scratch that… the new global dream—where anybody can start with YouTube and end up in up as a player in Tinsel Town.

But, really, what does internet success even mean? What’s the experience like? And, perhaps even more important, what does it even get you in terms of your dream of being a full time filmmaker?

Oddly, I feel like the answers to these questions are never really explored. While we here at Short of the Week care far more about quality content than page views, I still think it’s interesting to dissect the results of internet success. In order to do this, I’ve reached out to four different filmmakers, each of whom has had a massive viral hit. The goal—which, admittedly, is quite broad—was to get their takes on the whole experience, from then to now. The filmmakers I communicated with are located all over the world and represent a wide range of cinematic styles, narrative content, and creative backgrounds. They are in order of their film release date:

  • Lucas Crandles, Black Button1.8 million views
    Lucas Crandles is an Australian filmmaker who always had a dream to make creative content for a living. Black Button was one his first ventures into serious short filmmaking.
  • Ryan Woodward, Thought of You5 million Views
    Even before Thought of You, Ryan Woodward had a successful career in Hollywood, working as a concept artist and animator.
  • Jesús Orellana, Rosa1 million views
    Prior to Rosa’s release, Jesús was working in France, creating comic books for “Les Humanoïdes Associés,” the famous publishing house behind the Heavy Metal series. His ultimate goal was for his film to be seen by the industry, which would then hopefully lead for funding to create more things.
  • Tom Jenkins, Address is Approximate3 million views
    Tom Jenkins always had the simple goal to create cool stuff, with the end goal to someday be making movies. Before his team’s viral explosion, he had been running various production companies with his directing partner, Simon Sharp, making corporate and industrial films for different clients.

Now, as a disclaimer, this article isn’t meant to serve as some sort of roadmap, listing step-by-step how to build your very own new media spectacle. Not only is such a template impossible to create, it would essentially be disingenuous to the nature of online content itself. As movie studios have illustrated with their lack of contemporary understanding and online-influenced gambles (Hi, Snakes on a Plane), the success, or rather—lack of success, of all things internet is decidedly unpredictable. The goal here is to provide some transparency—the reality behind the millions of clicks and fancy laurel leaves.  Let’s start at the beginning.

You Can’t Manufacture a Viral Hit

Interestingly enough, of the four filmmakers I interviewed, not a single one of them created their short film with the intention of it going viral. In fact, the consensus seems to be that by doing so you would be creating a recipe for failure—a situation where the desired reaction is more important that the actual creative product. From the very beginning, each director set out to make a film first. As Tom Jenkins, one of the minds behind the awesome stop motion piece, Address is Approximate, puts it, “I think trying to second guess what actually goes viral might kill the idea. You’ve just got to tell the story you want to tell, and if it connects with people, well that’s a massive bonus!” Jesús Orellana, the wunderkind who single handedly animated the sci-fi spectacular, Rosa, relates a similar sentiment: “Never imagined that Rosa would go ‘viral’,” he writes. “I’ve always wanted to make movies and I just did one for the pure joy of doing it, that’s all.”

Creativity is truly an amazing entity—it’s one of the few things left in this world that can’t be faked—either your heart believes in the work or it doesn’t.  Ryan Woodward, the auteur behind the beautiful, impressionistic, Thought of You, says it best: “I made it cause I had to, cause I knew that if the creative beast in me did not get fed by making this, it would consume me and kill me.” Any fellow artist can surely relate.

The Ecstasy and the Agony

At least for me, one of the big questions I had was the hackneyed “what’s it like?” What’s it feel like to have a million people watch something you’ve internalized for so long? Up until recently, that’s a sensation that was only shared by a very few select people in the entertainment industry. Now, it’s been potentially outsourced to the masses. As obvious as it may seem, online popularity can feel feel pretty damn good. Tom Jenkins writes, “It’s a cliché but it felt like a dream… like we’d won the lottery—it was amazing.”

To be blunt, online accolades are a definite ego boost—a warm fuzzy feeling built on a foundation of clicks and comments. But, more substantively, they are also a sort of objective  proof that it was all worth it, that what we have to say matters. We as humans—especially us filmmakers—need reassurance. The internet has enabled us to find this sort of affirmation from millions for free.  As Jesús points out, “the point of making films is for people to watch them and there is something immensely gratifying about being able to reach that many people.” Ryan Woodward describes the feeling as “completely bizarre.” He writes, “I didn’t know what to think… ‘uh, cool, glad… you… liked… cried… wept… over this… ?’ But after a little bit I started to really appreciate all the comments and felt really honored that so many people felt a strong emotion over it.”

But, it’s not all roses and sunshine. Since even the earliest days of movie making, there have been critics. After all, if content creation has gotten easier, so too has content review. Lucas Crandles, the director of Black Button, says it quite succinctly:  “For every five positive comments you’ll get a negative one, and good gracious! People do not hold back in their vitriol when they have online anonymity. That was a good lesson to learn early!”

Yeah, but what have you done for me lately?

Feelings and virtual accolades are one thing, monetary compensation and career opportunities, those are another. As shrewd as it sounds, enthusiastic fandom and internet exclamations are essentially, when it comes down to it, somewhat meaningless.  How does one take the clicks and make it something tangible? Well, for one thing, online buzz definitely makes getting your foot in the door a little bit easier. Let’s face it, the old adage is true, there is no such as bad publicity. After Black Button went viral, Crandles was able to attract animators to work on his production company’s comedy pilot, Wentworth & Buxbury. This wouldn’t have been possible prior to the film’s online success.  Furthermore, he was able to parlay the film’s recognition into speaking engagements at various conferences and filmmaking gatherings, which eventually led to further connections, and finally, meetings with traditional TV executives in his home country of Australia. Not bad for a low-budget SD short uploaded to youtube.

Following Thought of You’s incredible success, Ryan Woodward was inundated with offers to duplicate his artistic efforts for other various projects. “When people see something successful, they immediately want that same success for them, it’s natural,” Woodward says.  “So I got a lot of calls from companies and individuals who wanted me to animate something for them.  What most people don’t really understand is that this type of artistic exploration doesn’t really work in a commercial environment.  Imagine watching the film and then at the end a coke bottle appears in the girls hand making her feel better.”

Ryan’s point is astute—people like what they know, and when it comes to monetizing your artform, they want what they’ve already tasted. From a creative standpoint, that notion is unabashedly depressing. While I can’t speak for all filmmakers, in general, I think we all share the same basic goal: to be able to support ourselves doing what we love and making cool stuff. We just want to tell stories. That’s what is inherently dangerous about transferring your creative online success to a business model—you might be pigeonholed in doing the same thing over and over again.  As Ryan says, “I would rather someone come to me and say, ‘Wow, great film, tell me what you could do with funding.’ If someone actually had the foresight and belief in something unknown like that, I’d create magic.  But, that’s not really the world we live in.”

Then, there’s the case of  Jesús Orellana’s, Rosa, which recently was given a feature film deal by Fox. I mean, how did that happen? How did a movie made by one person on literally no budget get Hollywood suits knocking? According to Orellana, he released a trailer for the film in August of 2011, which eventually got picked up by some big sites like Twitch and First Showing. From that moment, he started getting emails from Hollywood agencies and producers. The result? Orellana knew he needed some help to traverse the Hollywood jungle. After signing with a manager, he was eventually brought to L.A. for a week where he visited with producers and studios. Then, eventually, struck a deal with Fox. It’s an inspiring story to be sure—I mean, what young filmmaker hasn’t wished for that sort of message in their inbox?

But, credit where credit is due. For one, Jesús made a visually stunning genre film. He also practiced strategic self-promotion and marketing, sending it to select, important festivals and websites that were instantly taken with his content. Once Hollywood became interested, his credibility went through the roof.  Still, despite all the online hubbub, it took just a few select people to like what they saw to give Orellana his big break.  Millions of views are great, but when it comes down to it, all you really need to achieve larger commercial success is the right “one.” Which means that a lot all of this comes down to…

Luck

Ah… our old, friend… luck. In talking with the filmmakers, this was by far the most intangible aspect of everyone’s experience. No matter how good you are, you still need that bit of je ne sais quoi to get your film the right kind attention. And, it’s getting harder. Frankly, there’s just more competition out there. Think you’re good? Well, there’s somebody better than you and his film just went live two hours ago.

Upon recollection, Lucas Crandles fully admits that Black Button just hit at the right time. Back in 2006 (practically Medieval in the escalated timespan of the internet), YouTube had a single universal homepage that cycled through 10 videos. About a month after he posted Black Button online, the film miraculously showed up on YouTube’s front page. That night, Crandles came home to find 2000 emails in his inbox.  Had the film been released one or two years later the same viral explosion may not have happened.

Ryan Woodward initially submitted Thought of You to Sundance, where it was rejected. “That bummed me out and I thought the film was crap, so I dropped it onto YouTube with no thought,” he says. 5 million views later and he’s still proving Sundance wrong—if the film had been accepted by Park City’s major fest, things would be very, very different.

Which brings me to a major, essential point…

Everything Matters

Luck. Creativity. Talent. Timing. Content. Online success is random concoction of all of these things. It’s an indefinable recipe stemming from various factors, all of which play some pivotal role. As Jesús Orellana puts it: “Everything matters in the end.”

Have the lives of these filmmakers changed since their work became online phenomenons? The easy answer is a definite “yes.” The success of their films have allowed them to foster new opportunities, whether it be commercial connections, film deals, or speaking engagements. They may never have expected their online success, but they are certainly using it to their advantage.

Lucas Crandles currently co-runs a Melbourne-based production company called DHP, where he is working on a variety of projects. His team’s pilot, the Weatherman, recently became the world’s first crowd-funded TV series, garnering major media attention in both Forbes and Time Magazine. After Thought of You, Ryan Woodward took a long break before embarking on his next personal creative project. Eventually, he released an animated web-comic entitled Bottom of the Ninth using a similar art style. On the commercial side of things, he continues to work as a storyboard artist, animator, and digital effects wizard for major Hollywood films. He also continues to teach the art of animation on a professional level.

Jesús, of course, is hard at work trying to bring Rosa to the silver screen, but he has larger ambitions as well, hoping to parlay Rosa’s industry attention into an established career in mainstream film. Although he loves animation, his primary dream—ever since he was child—has been to make  live action films. Rosa’s computer generated roots were dependent on budget and feasibility, and Orellana hopes to seamlessly transition to the live action world as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

Following Address is Approximate’s phenomenal success, Jenkins and his team released another viral hit called Speed of Light, touted as the world’s tiniest police chase. Just uploaded in June, the film already has over 1 million views. Because of their online success, Jenkins and his collaborators at Theory films were able to lock in professional representation at William Morris Endeavor in Los Angeles. They are also repped by Nexus Productions, a production company based out of London. The goal is to bring their unique, visual style and innovative filmmaking approach to the commercial market.

But, as Tom Jenkins relates, “It’s a marathon not a sprint. Now we’re cultivating relationships and opportunities and learning how to ‘play the game’. And it’s a fun place to be.” Getting all those views isn’t a destination but rather a starting point—a path to get your foot in the door, a way to network and get your name out there. Frankly, if your end goal is simply to go viral, you’re doing it wrong. Honestly, very few short films do go viral in terms of mainstream awareness; the stuff that your mom’s watching on her lunch break? Most likely, it’s Rebecca Black’s Friday, not the newest animation think piece from Bendito Machine. The key is to cultivate the quality views into something more, to reach an audience beyond just your average web-surfer with a 10 second attention span: quality, not quantity.

And, really that’s the crux of the matter. In end, what does a gazillion views physically get you? Nada. At least, not in a tangible sense.  As always, success can’t be quantified—something that is especially true in the case of the internet. The difference between a thousand hits and millions means nothing as long as that “one” right person gets his/her eyes in front of your work. More clicks just give you better odds. Again, Orellana says it best: “Numbers are completely useless, you can do a video of your cat walking around the room and get millions of random views on YouTube, it doesn’t mean anything.”

True. It doesn’t mean anything. Not really. The reality behind all the clicks is the slightly underwhelming realization, that above all, you have to create stuff.  That’s the true definer—the delineating factor of success. Here, we’ve examined four very different filmmaker journeys, and with each one, it all started with the simple, uncontrollable desire to make something. TV connections and movie deals notwithstanding, their mission has not changed. Not one bit.

Never stop creating, for we all have our own stories to tell.

Watch the Films

Sci-Fi about Other Worlds in 3D Animation
Jesús Orellana / 10 min / Spain
Absolutely Stunning. Is it from SQUARE? PRODUCTION I.G? No, the most perfect realization of the anime-style in 3D comes from a single young animator out of Spain.

Experimental about Love in Animation
Ryan Woodward / 3 min / USA
Lyrical choreography, gorgeous animation, and a tale of love and loss from animator Ryan Woodward.

Adventure about Other Worlds in Stop-Motion
Tom Jenkins / 3 min / UK
When everyone leaves for the night, the objects in the office take over the computers to experience the outside world in this stop-motion animation powered by Google Street View.

Thriller about Greed in Live-Action
Lucas Crandles / 7 min / USA
Would you press this button for a million dollars? What happens when you press it? A classic moral dilemma unfolds.
~
Ivan is a filmmaker, video editor, and motion graphic artist from the Washington, DC area. He is an avid movie watcher and podcaster. He’s also quite handsome and charming (at least that's what his Mom says). For more information about Ivan, visit Lucky 9 Studios.
  • http://www.andrewsallen.com Andrew S Allen

    I’m sure we’ve all dreamed of what it might feel like to have our film seen and adored by millions. Now we know. Excellent and insightful article, Ivan.

  • handsome bob

    Interesting… not one successful internet short was made by a woman…?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasondhi Jason Sondhi

    I knew someone was going to ask that.

  • handsome bob

    Welllll… just curious- I wonder if it’s true or just four guys were selected at random. No doubt that won’t always be the case- just interesting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasondhi Jason Sondhi

    No, its a worthwhile question. I think that women are underrepresented in creative viral video, because the demographics of online short media watchers skews young and male. They are much more geek and visually inclined. Notice, of the 4 picks, a couple are sci-fi, and two prominently feature robots. Women are well represented in animation however, and filmmakers like Julia Pott or Kirsten Lepore could be easily included in this article.

  • handsome bob

    Agreed. I did notice that the short listed as “Best 3D” was eerily similar to what one might see as a narrative portion in a videogame, so there may simply be a particular bent to the notion. It’s a great idea to investigate the viral popularity phenomenon in an age where the large film institutions still stand but an increasingly loquacious general populous has the means to create great art that used to require an entire studio to produce. I do think gender is only a small part of a filmmaker’s ultimate product but the industry is a big ship- and I think we’ll begin to see more female animators and filmmakers more notably represented in the very near future.

  • Rusch Meyer

    Hey Jason,
    thank you so much for the insightful article. I knew it before but your article made it more clear to me that an online hit might not sell back directly into money or jobs but gives you so many new contacts and oppurtunities!
    Best, Rusch

  • http://www.shortoftheweek.com Short of the Week

    Rusch, this article was researched and written by contributor, Ivan Kander. Seems we need to improve our attribution on articles—thanks for highlighting this.

  • http://twitter.com/NicoArnohold Nico Arnohold

    Nice article. So the conclusion is actually: Luck…because, I had to face it, submitting something to SOTW didn`t bring a single play of two shorts I made. The noise has gotten so overwhelming it`s quite depressing, to say the least…I think I`d better quite altogether…

  • http://www.facebook.com/weldon.byrnsiii Weldon Thompkins Byrns III

    Great article.

  • Ulisver Silva

    Wonderful article. It helped me to thing again about my strategies to get into film industry.