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Know Your Medium: —Why Some Great Festival Films Fail Online

We’ve seen it time and time again. A film plays for an audience on a big screen in a dark theater and brings the audience to tears or has them buckled over in laughter. Later, the same film hits online with hope of connecting to an audience in the same powerful way, and yet it falls flat and is forgotten. Why?

As the redeemed Marshall McLuhan first said in 1964, “the medium is the message.” Storytelling takes on many other forms—forms that often shape critical aspects of how a story unfolds. There are stories that work better as novels, others as films, as games, or something else entirely.

We’ve come to appreciate that the online world is not just a new distribution platform for film but a new medium entirely. We’ve underestimated the fundamental differences it has with the world of theatrical film. A new medium demands a new type of story. Storytellers who understand the strengths and weaknesses of this new medium, will tell the best, most innovative stories online.

Yet there are many filmmakers coming from the festival and theatrical world who look down on the online medium. Why? What are the differences when moving from the festival world to the web? Let’s dive in.

“Small Screens”

We hear the complaint all the time from filmmakers about small screens and poor compression. More broadly, it’s about quality—online screens tend to be smaller, sound isn’t 18 channels, and compression can leave artifacts in your beautiful picture.

Tell a great story!

Quite simply, don’t rely on quality. As much as filmmakers gripe about small screens, the importance of technical quality is highly overrated in storytelling. Great stories transcend technology. One thing the overwhelming growth in mobile tells us is that viewers are more interested in convenience than quality. And as history shows us, quality improves over time, so this complaint is becoming less relevant every year.

Be clear, be bold—don’t hinge key story moments on tiny details and frame your action a bit closer. Some filmmakers have even made an aesthetic of embracing the degradation like animator, David O’Reilly.

“Broader Audience”

The more accessible the medium—the broader the audience. While film festivals screenings (and paying $15 to see a handful of unknown films) will attract a very select group of viewers, online audiences tend to reflect the broader world—some may even say a more populist viewer with no patience for challenging stories.

Find Your Audience!

Don’t let the lure of a selective festival audience fool you. What happens is that festivals tend to attract a certain type of film. There are many great films like the collaborative To This Day or sci-fi story-starters like True Skin that festivals can’t accept simply because they don’t fit the programming needs of the festival.

A broader audience means you can tell a wider range of stories. Vimeo, YouTube, and Funny or Die all play to different audiences with different expectations. You need to find the audience that fits your story. For more traditional festival films, go with Vimeo. For serial content like a web series or franchise, YouTube is hard to beat. Do the research and find the platform your audience is on.

“Distractions”

At the theater, you have the full attention of a captive audience. On the web, your film competes with the largest source of media the world has known. A viewer has millions of choices for entertainment—Hulu and Netflix are just a click away. When you do manage to grab someone’s attention, your film can be viewed on Facebook, Twitter, Short of the Week, or a platform site full of content and advertising all desperately trying to grab your attention. And not only do you compete for attention with the rest of the web, you compete with everyday life. Online films can be watched just about anywhere—on the bus, in the bathtub, at work. You, the filmmaker, have little control over when or how your story is viewed. For those coming from the festival or theatrical world, putting your work online can feel like becoming a street performer after playing at a concert hall.

Kick up the Pace!

On the web, you must compete for attention. And it all comes down to pacing. Pacing is one of the most critical aspects of storytelling and yet I can’t tell you how many online films I’ve seen with beautiful cinematography, great premise, great acting, great everything all ruined by a slow, 20-minute storyline that goes nowhere. A slow pace may work in the monopolistic environment of a theater, but not in the highly competitive online world. Soldier Brother, an interactive film from the NFB, cleverly combined both audio content and a running SMS feed that has you multi-tasking in the world of the story.

Any filmmaker who has edited on a laptop and then screened their film on a 100-ft projection knows that size effects pacing. General filmmaking rule: Smaller screen = faster pacing. Filmmaking duo, Daniels, have done this well with their own brand of fast-paced absurdist comedy. These films would be too short or chaotic in a theater setting, but play perfectly online.

Not all films need to go cut crazy to work online. Most importantly, you need to open strong and create genuine interest. As the great author, Kurt Vonnegut, would say, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Cut the long, epic opening title sequence. Get the viewer invested in the first shot. The type of story where you put the viewer through 10 minutes of exposition before a final Shamalan-style payoff, (ed. Shyamala, sorry M. Night!) will have a tough time finding an audience online. Most viewers don’t get past the first minute—make it count.

If you already have a slower-paced festival film that you want to put online, consider re-editing your film for the faster pacing of the web. Theatrical films need to be recut and cropped for home video. Online films are no different. It can be a lot of work, but it’ll do more for your film than anything else.

“Loss of Control”

Which leads us to perhaps the most important difference—control. Let’s be honest, compared to other storytelling formats like books, we filmmakers have had it good. In theaters, we control the time, the place, the darkness of the room, the volume, the angle at which you sit, and the foods you’re allowed to eat. For audiences, watching a film in a theater is a very passive experience. Online, at any moment, the viewer can click away, jump ahead, mute, or do any number of things to mangle your story.

Make it Interactive!

Hand over control of the story. Invite viewers to participate in your film—even if just to share it. Some of the most unique and powerful story experiences out there invite a greater level of participation like our 2012 Short of the Year winner, Welcome to Pine Point. The NFB’s Bear 71 and Soldier Brother and Chris Milk’s Wilderness Downtown and 3 Dreams of Black are other examples of great stories that invite you into them.

Share something remarkable—literally—a story worth talking about with others. With my own film, The Thomas Beale Cipher, we purposefully hid 16 encrypted messages in the visuals of the film. At festival screenings, they went by too quickly to read and decipher. Online, where viewers control the playhead, they went back to dig deeper and the story became more meaningful. Embrace the loss of control—invite the audience in.

This is the Beginning

The web is a new medium for storytelling. Great stories on the web don’t depend on big screens and immersive sound but on the fundamentals of great storytelling. They play to broader audiences or in some cases new audiences outside the festival world. They compete for attention with quicker pacing and a strong opening. They’re interactive and open up the story to their audience. To recap…

  1. Tell a Great Story
  2. Find Your Audience
  3. Kick Up the Pace
  4. Make it Interactive

The web is still young. The first films made in the infant years of cinema mimicked the stage settings and viewing angles of the theater. Today most online films today still resemble their festival counterparts. Over just the last couple years we’ve begun to see new web-specific genres emerge like interactive films, branded films, and web series. And we think this is just the beginning.

Some will fight it. But where they see compromise and struggle, I see an incredibly provocative platform with the potential for new types of stories to define culture at a deeper level and bring a greater understanding to a broader, more engaged audience. Go be a part of history.