It was supposed to be their crowning jewel. The moment that would solidify the years of anguish they’d put into a project that thrust them into debt and split them up romantically. A project born outside the establishment. It had become the poster child of the burgeoning DIY filmmaking movement. Finally, they could cash in.
On April 29, 2008 Arin Crumley and Susan Buice’s “Four Eyed Monsters” was to be released on a two-disc DVD by IFC and sold exclusively through Borders Bookshop, the film’s first legitimate release after years of being shown for free. But when the doors to Borders opened around the country that day the “Four Eyed” legion flocked to stores and found…nothing. No displays. Nothing on the shelves.
Where did it all go wrong?
Ten years ago this week, “Four Eyed Monsters” premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival and in essence laid the seeds of the modern-day, ultra-low budget filmmaking ethos. Crumley and Buice’s love story — starring the two as lost souls who build a relationship on the promise that they only communicate through artistic means — would not only strike a cord with filmgoers gradually embracing online storytelling; it also coincided with the proliferation of grassroots marketing strategies in the digital age. It spoke to a generation reared on MySpace accounts, webcams and chatrooms. In short, “Four Eyed Monsters” was the first movie made for an internet-savvy audience in its own vernacular.
With a popular video podcast on their dysfunctional relationship following the film’s Slamdance premiere and grabbing headlines when it became the first feature to be released on YouTube (legally), the filmmakers were being touted as the pathfinders of a new era in independent film. The directors tapped into a trend among filmmakers eschewing traditional paths of distribution for a do-it-yourself drive to build an audience, which in time, would reward the creators monetarily. But what Crumley and Buice didn’t consider was that the industry would adapt. As Buice put it, “Arin thought we were going to crack the paradigm, but really the paradigm absorbed.”
A decade after the film premiered in Park City as a work that prided itself on being forward thinking, the sad irony is today “Four Eyed Monsters” has vanished from relevant indie film conversations. It isn’t on any traditional streaming platforms (though you can still see it for free on YouTube) and the version that’s available through Netflix DVD is taken from an unfinished Spirit Awards screener. In essence, it has become an artifact of early 2000s DIY filmmaking.
But the paths Crumley and Buice have taken since may be the most puzzling of all.
The Imperfect Model
The press coverage of Crumley and Buice’s journey to make and release “Four Eyed Monsters” ended, for the most part, when the film had its YouTube release.
In the lead-up to the deal, the two had become extremely successful building their celebrity on the festival circuit — or, as Buice dubbed them at the time, “subleberties.” By speaking on panels about their DIY ways while using the Internet to release their video podcasts that delved deeper into their relationship hell, the appetite to see the movie grew. But outside of some merchandise sales, none of the filmmakers’ efforts yielded any profit. They had no luck with getting any traditional theatrical distributors to consider the film. But with YouTube, Crumley saw an opportunity. “We thought we’d finally arrived at an answer: a sponsor underwriting a free release,” he said.
The deal with YouTube didn’t make them rich (Crumley said they took in $60,000 off various ad sales and a sponsorship deal with Spout.com) but it kept them from having to charge their fan base for content, which Crumley strongly opposed.
“Whenever we did something we thought would make the industry happy it failed almost every time,” said Brian Chirls, who managed the film’s marketing and distribution. “But when something came up that we thought the audience would like and it’s new and different, that was usually successful. So with YouTube, right away we knew we should do it.”
The way Crumley saw it, YouTube would provide filmmakers access to enough money to survive and create original content without interference. “YouTube was a complete pleasure to work with,” said Crumley, “but it was a matter of time before they got around to [advertising].” For YouTube, the film had become the perfect Guinea pig for their desire to put ads on videos. “They would be like, ‘What do you think of this?’ and it would be Homer Simpson running across the bottom of the movie chasing a donut,” Crumley recalls. “I didn’t agree with what they were doing at the time and I still don’t. But we were part of the problem by working with them.”
For Crumley and Buice, YouTube became a wakeup call about the travails of working with a corporation. But from the outside, the indie film community felt the duo had found “the answer” to an alternative means of distribution.
“We were put in front of audiences and asked questions that we just sort of had to make up answers to,” Crumley said. “We were asked, ‘What is the model? You guys must know?’ And we would always say, ‘Well, this is what we did.’ At the time we knew what we had done wasn’t a model, it was a one-off.”
And they remain uncertain. “I still don’t know how to monetize,” Buice said. “There was never a real strategy. I’m not exactly sure what we were expecting.”
But Crumley said he was expecting a lot of things: to disrupt the system, find that art-versus-commerce sweet spot. However, looking back on it now he realized those were unobtainable goals. “There isn’t a model, there’s never a singular way of doing things,” he said. “It’s just a hybrid of many approaches.”
The Deal That Wasn’t
At around the time of the YouTube deal, Crumley was finally convinced by Buice and others that he needed to start focusing on making money off the movie. In 2006, that opportunity presented itself when the film won the Undiscovered Gems Series — based on the yearly list of top 15 films without distribution that Indiewire released — which included a $50,000 television deal from The Sundance Channel. That created a chance for Crumley and Buice to cash in on the TV rights as IFC and UK’s Arts Alliance also came calling.
With negotiations at a standstill with Sundance over internet rights, Crumley and Buice inevitably went with IFC, which Crumley said offered them a $100,000 deal for their Internet, DVD and TV rights as well as giving the green light for Crumley and Buice to make five new episodes of their popular video podcast exclusively for the IFC site. There would be a two-disc DVD released exclusively through Borders that included the movie, podcast episodes and music from some of the indie bands that were featured. But whether it was due to Crumley and Buice’s lack of professionalism or naïvete (or maybe both), the deal eventually turned sour.
“We started making new [podcast] episodes, but it was taking longer than we thought, they were getting frustrated,” said Buice. IFC was also beginning to get complaints from their DVD replicator about working with the duo. Buice admitted they constantly sent corrected or tweaked materials to the replicator.
But the biggest drama arrived nearing the delivery deadline, when one of her friends featured on the podcast wanted to be cut out. “We were like, ‘It’s too late, we’ve already pissed these guys off,'” Buice recalled. But the friend wasn’t bluffing — and even reached out to IFC and Borders about it. “The way the story goes, a Borders guy is golfing with a guy from IFC and he’s like ‘Who are these asshole ‘Four Eyed Monsters’ people?'” said Buice. “And the IFC guy is totally embarrassed and basically said to us if we can’t get the guy’s signature [to agree to be in the DVD] then the deal is off.'” Her irate friend eventually agreed to stay on after being paid $1,000.
That brings us back to April 29, 2008, when the two-disc DVD of “Four Eyed Monsters” wasn’t in Borders stores. “We’re not being told what’s happening. They made us figure it out,” said Crumely. “We called them a couple of times and they were like, ‘Never call us again, only contact us through your lawyer,'” said Buice. (IFC declined to comment for this story.)
All Crumley and Buice had to show for their $100,000 deal was “Four Eyed Monsters” airing on the IFC Channel, the video podcast briefly playing on the channel’s site (they are currently available on iTunes), and DVDs sitting in a warehouse. They made no money off their efforts.
For a year the film was unavailable anywhere. With no money to afford a lawyer, Crumley and Buice hoped with the passage of time they could restart conversations with IFC. According to Buice, a lawyer who happened to be her ex-boyfriend’s best friend agreed to come onboard pro bono to help them get the film back. “We got to a point where [IFC] would give us $30,000 and give us back the rights to the film,” said Buice. They agreed.
Looking back, Buice feels they are partly to blame for the roller-coaster experience getting “Four Eyed Monsters” released, and chalks a lot of it up to first-time filmmaker mistakes. “We’re not the most professional people,” she said.
Where Are They Now?
For now, the best way to see “Four Eyed” is on YouTube (though if you want the two-disc DVD they are floating around on Amazon), which syncs with Crumley’s original goal: a project that could be easily accessed by its fans. But why isn’t the film on Netflix or iTunes?
“It’s very ironic, we were these digital pioneers but today it’s not on the digital platforms,” Crumley said. “After the black out year [the streaming space] became crowded and competitive. The only way to do it now is through companies that require rights that remove the YouTube mechanism. Those paths don’t equate to any kind of distribution deal, there’s nothing beneficial.”
Buice sees it differently. “He’s wrong. He’s totally wrong,” she said. “There’s no scenario in which we lose by having it on Netflix. Having our film streaming on Netflix makes our film seem legit. Being on YouTube is not legit. My rational mind says it’s completely emotional on his part. He feels really done [with the movie].”
The former couple, who still remain in contact, have tried to move on from “Four Eyed Monsters” with little success. Crumley has found income co-producing and editing internal videos for companies like Sam’s Club and TFI Fridays. He hasn’t released a feature film since “Four Eyed” but is currently making a Burning Man-inspired film titled “Matter Out Of Place.” Buice has done everything from working at “Sesame Street” to doing stand up. She’s now working as part of the media productions services team at MIT and screenwriting in her spare time.
The two see the good and bad when thinking back on “Four Eyed Monsters.” They are astonished by how much people cared about the film, going as far as making video testimonials after watching it (an act that’s now become commonplace on the web for fans of movies), but are aware they have been unsuccessful at catapulting the attention they received into forging a brand where they control their work while also making money — such as peers Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers.
“They really captured the moment and spoke to an audience,” said transmedia filmmaker Lance Weiler, a DIY filmmaking pioneer with “The Last Broadcast” and “Head Trauma,” the latter of which was completed at the time of “Four Eyed Monsters”‘ release. “Little milestones are very valuable and I think ‘Four Eyed Monsters’ deserves that moment.”
For Crumley, DIY distribution will continue to be a fascination.
“Not everybody wants to go on these adventures,” he said. “We need a community that says, ‘We’re dying to know what’s on the other side of that mountain, we want you to climb it and we appreciate that you’re brave enough to do so. If you come back and find nothing on the other side we’ll love you anyway and welcome you back. You won’t be in credit card debt, you won’t be bankrupt, we’re not going to exile you to go do the shit work to exist, we’ll support you on another exploration.'”
He paused long enough for this reporter to suggest that entire concept sounded like a dream. Then he simply added, “Yeah.”