Releasing Your Feature Film on YouTube

July 3, 2013
posted by sheric

This is a guest post from director Nick Lawrence who wanted to share his experience in releasing his film Time Expired on Youtube so that all might benefit from it. If his numbers seem low to you, think about how much money a typical filmmaker receives from a no advance distribution deal with little marketing efforts put behind it where the filmmaker has relinquished all rights to her film. That is the  most common distribution scenario of most low budget, no prestige festival, no name cast  independent films.

YouTube isn’t just a spot to share short videos. It’s also a surprisingly strong platform for releasing your feature-length film. My producing partner (Rachel Tucker) and I released our 93-minute comedy film Time Expired on YouTube in late 2011. Since then, the film has been viewed almost 700,000 times, with 2,000-3,000 people watching it every day. We’ve earned $3400 in ad revenue in the last year, and the numbers keep growing: $339 in April, $442 in May, $652 in June.

In fact, YouTube has become our most lucrative platform, far outperforming VOD and DVD sales. Since Time Expired was made for a very low budget, we are actually looking at recouping our entire investment in five to ten years — almost completely thanks to YouTube revenue.

Decision to Release on YouTube

If you’re like me, you might initially find the idea of putting your film on YouTube a hint distasteful. YouTube started out as a place to share short amateur videos, and that’s still how many see the site. Putting your film on YouTube doesn’t fit the old narrative of being chosen and embraced by the system.

I suggest you get over it. YouTube is the third most popular website in the world, the film and TV arm of Google. YouTube is familiar, easy to use, and available on mobile devices, smart TVs, and even gaming consoles. The site is expected to earn 4 billion dollars this year, growing to 20 billion by 2020.

That said, YouTube is best used as part of a comprehensive release strategy. Ideally, you’d start off releasing on VOD platforms like iTunes and Amazon, and then move to YouTube and other free/subscription platforms (Netflix and Hulu) once VOD sales have slowed to a trickle. But for many smaller films like ours, access to these platforms is not guaranteed. YouTube offers the chance to circumvent these barriers and reach a worldwide audience of thousands, even millions, while earning not insubstantial sums of money.

Since Time Expired lacked name actors and marketing hooks, our chances of finding a distributor were basically nonexistent. Rachel and I decided to release our film using a “freemium” strategy — making it available for free on various platforms and hoping it would spread virally on its own. Unfortunately, the viral part didn’t happen. We learned the hard way that most people just aren’t that interested in discovering new films. YouTube, however, proved to be an exception. Four months after release, we were averaging about 100 views a day. Six months after release, the film was up to 1,000 views a day. What happened? Did the film finally catch on and go viral?

Who’s Watching and Why

The data from YouTube Analytics reveals something else is happing. The number one reason people click on Time Expired is as a suggested video. YouTube suggests our film to people who have been watching other feature-length films, often of questionable copyright status. These films don’t always have much in common with Time Expired, but they tend to be newish features with a mainstream sensibility. In other words, YouTube’s algorithms are connecting us with a global audience channel-surfing for movies. Our second biggest traffic source is searches with strings like “Hollywood”, “full movies”, and “comedy”. Most viewers aren’t searching for our film by name. They’re just looking for a movie to watch.

One of the interesting things is who these people are. According to YouTube Analytics, 80% of views come from outside the US, including unexpected places like the Philippines (35,000 views), Saudi Arabia (26,000 views), and Malaysia (20,000 views). The film has been watched in 218 countries and territories, ranging from Afghanistan (151 views) to Zimbabwe (471 views). Also surprising is the age range: two thirds (66%) of viewers are 45 or older, defying the stereotype of the typical YouTube user. This probably reflects the subject matter of our film, which is a comedy about dying. A full third of viewers watch the film on a non-computer screen, such as a phone (17.6%), tablet (10.2%), or TV (1.6%).

Time Expired 1

 

Uploading and Monetizing Your Film

Uploading your film is pretty much the same as uploading any other YouTube video. Guidelines for best encoding quality are here. Although YouTube started out only accepting short SD videos, those days are long gone. The site now supports 4K resolution films of any length.

You’ll need to become a YouTube partner in order to monetize your film, but this is no longer difficult. You’ll also need to provide proof that you own the rights to the film. In our case, we emailed scanned copies of the music licenses and a document that certified we owned the film’s copyright and controlled our YouTube channel.

Once the film has been accepted for monetization, you can choose the type of ads you’re willing to allow using the monetization tab. TrueView in-stream ads are basic commercial breaks and can appear before, during, or after the film. You can choose the act breaks (spots for commercials) by adding minute and second values into the mid-roll field. Overlay in-video ads appear as little text boxes directly over your film. We opted out of overlay ads because I believe they diminish the viewing experience, but it’s your choice. Text ads also display by default on the sides of the view page.

Time Expired trueview

Tips for Success

Pay close attention to how you present your film on its YouTube page, including the description, key words, and title. Don’t expect most potential viewers to be searching for your film by name. We titled our film “Time Expired (full movie)”, which I believe is an important factor in its success. When entering key words, try to cover the obvious, keeping in mind that people are searching for things like “full movie 2011″, “english movies”, and “Hollywood movie”. Cover the basics and as many variants as you can think of. I’d also recommend looking at popular movies on YouTube in your genre. How are they titled? What key words are they using?

Another issue to consider is the snowball effect. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, your film becomes more popular the more times it’s viewed. YouTube tends to connect people with popular videos, which only reinforces their popularity. That’s why you want to give it a nice strong push down the snowy slope. I’d recommend doing everything you can to help your film in the first weeks/months it’s up on the site. In our case, the film really started to build momentum after three or four months, but I’m not sure this would have happened if we hadn’t worked hard promoting it early on. We held screenings in Oklahoma (where we shot the film and where most cast and crew lived). We sent out press releases. We contacted everyone on our mailing list and posted on our Facebook page. We  mailed out cast and crew DVDs (about 100 total) with a letter asking for help “spreading the word” and some cards that people could share with their friends/family. We never paid for YouTube promotion, although this might not be a bad idea at the critical stage when you’re getting started. I can also see paying for some advertising on Facebook to help drive traffic.

YouTube also supports captions and subtitles in multiple languages, which will make your film more attractive to some viewers.

What About Vimeo?

Many filmmakers prefer Vimeo to YouTube. Vimeo has a reputation for quality and aesthetics (and, if we’re honest, “coolness”) and has tended to do well with filmmakers and other artsy types. They’ve even added a VOD service, which is an intriguing, if expensive option requiring an upfront fee for a PRO account. So why not just post your film on Vimeo instead of YouTube? Several reasons:

1. Vimeo has no advertising, which means you can’t make money the same way.

2. TIME EXPIRED has 680,000 views on YouTube versus 745 on Vimeo. This isn’t because we promoted YouTube any more than Vimeo. We started out promoting both sites equally, but it quickly became clear that most people were choosing YouTube over Vimeo.

3. YouTube can deliver a global, channel-surfing audience in a way that Vimeo cannot. In the case of our film, it’s not just a little bigger — it’s a thousand times bigger.

So post your film on Vimeo by all means — but don’t skip YouTube. YouTube is a strong and underrated platform for releasing your feature film. Once the film is up and running, you can earn hundreds of dollars a month while being discovered by a global audience of thousands or even millions.

 

Nick Lawrence is the director and producer of the feature films Time Expired (2011) and Shades (2013). He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

 

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