One set of those films is the Incubator series from New Form Digital. New Form, an online studio formed in part by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Discovery Communications, went to 14 YouTube creators and partnered with them to make a series of short films focused on the theme of “curiosity.” Yulin Kuang, a filmmaker from Shipwrecked Comedy and her own YouTube channel, took the theme and used it as a window into the world of fandom.
“I Ship It” follows Zoe (Mary Kate Wiles) and Charlie (Sean Persaud) after they get dumped by their respective followers. Unwilling to mope and wallow, Zoe convinces Charlie to channel their misery into music for a Wizard Rock battle of the bands. The resulting 20-minute film is packed with comedy, drama, romance, social media and “Harry Potter”-themed original songs.
“I love short film,” said Kuang, who wrote and directed “I Ship It.” “In the original draft, it was more of a vlogger love story, but I wasn’t that happy with it. So I decided to take all of the things I love and put them in the film. I hadn’t seen that much in film that touched on fandom.”
But YouTube is not traditionally a home of lengthy content. Many of the videos on the site, including those by popular creators, are sketches often in the 2-5 minute range. Even longer-form webseries are often split into short, quickly consumed segments. Anything longer than that feels more old school, like 22-minute television pilots — something more traditional than what audiences might be looking for. “Short films are a very ‘filmmaker’ medium. There’s an aversion to posting short films online,” Kuang said. In the past, she had mostly put films first on Vimeo, for festival entries, with YouTube being secondary.
Yet both Kuang and New Form Chief Creative Officer Kathleen Grace said there is room for creators to make longer projects, as long as it’s engaging.
“I’ve always been a proponent that shorter is not necessarily better,” Grace said. “Shorter is easier, it’s quicker to produce. You should absolutely have short form content in your strategy for building your brand as a filmmaker. But your audience will watch whatever you give them, as long as it’s good and the pacing is good. When you’re competing against Facebook, Instagram, Vines and Reddit, every single frame has to be fucking awesome. If not, you’re wasting your audience’s time and your time. The Internet is weirdly a very good development executive.”
Despite the YouTube aversion to longer content, Kuang said the site made it easier to experiment with how she told the story, and allowed for her to make more extras without worrying about the pace of the film. The trick is just understanding what can be done with YouTube as a platform.
“We played with the medium since we knew from the start it was going to be on YouTube,” she said. “Working with my editor, we thought maybe we could do something like a YouTube transition, like a buffering effect. The other thing that was nice about putting it up on YouTube is that we knew when the songs were playing [in the film], there was no way audience would have the patience to listen to the entire thing. But for the people, myself included, who want to know what the entire performance was — YouTube has annotated links, so you can click and watch it.”
Added Kuang, “I feel like YouTube has been a place to do all of the crazy experimental things. For this particular film, it was the first short film I’ve made that, from the start of the concept, I was thinking of an Internet audience and not thinking of SXSW or Sundance. I was making this for an audience that is people on the Internet, and already literate in certain fandom words.”
From both a creative and production standpoint, the social world actually can help short films do better. New Form Digital premiered all 14 shorts on the same day, allowing them to indirectly boost one another. It’s a different strategy from traditional marketing methods, wherein the studio might choose one project to promote. But Grace said marketing online is just as tough as getting people into movie theaters. The trick is allowing the social side of the Internet to do some of the work.
“Before we started filming, Yulin was saying ‘Can I tweet about it?’ and getting her audience to spread word about it,” Grace said. That top-down outreach, plus the simultaneous launch of the shorts, gave the short films a boost that traditional methods might not have achieved.
Plus, the metrics available on social sites allows filmmakers to see what is working in terms of attracting viewers, or when people are leaving the video to watch other things. Grace said the data can be helpful, and was the “scary and cool part of the Internet.”
One trick Kuang used in getting the word out on “I Ship It” was her cast. Her two leads were well known, and their established fanbases and outreach to those fans gave the short film more word of mouth than any more traditional marketing plan might have done. Kuang especially noted what Wiles, whose work includes “The Lizzie Bennett Diaries” and “School of Thrones,” was good at getting the word out on ‘I Ship It.’
“[Mary Kate’s] an actress who’s very conscious of her social media presence. She has a fandom that’s established, and that audience is the target audience that I’m going for,” Kuang said. “She’s really good at engaging fans on Twitter and Tumblr. Joey Richter [who plays Pete in ‘I Ship It’] was in ‘A Very Potter Musical’ which I was obsessed with that back in the day. I was a huge ‘Very Potter Musical’ fan and I knew that Mary Kate had worked with him on ‘School of Thrones.’ I thought, why not get in touch with Joey? He’s super sweet and super great. Much like Mary Kate, he’s very literate in Internet fandom and talks with them.”
Both the creative and production sides think short films and longer content will take off even more online and specifically on YouTube. Kuang said that after “I Ship It,” she’s working on more projects because of the creative demands of YouTube – if you want to be seen, you have to keep creating, you can’t be stingy or too precious with your content.
And New Form wants to do more shorts for its Incubator series. Grace said that more filmmakers should embrace more social projects, or at least social sites, to share their work.
“The advice I ‘d give to a filmmaker who hasn’t gone into this world, it’s that the YouTube digital filmmaker world is a great place to be a part of,” Grace said. “When you get to go meet people, go — it’s an incredibly accessible community, and they’ll be your biggest cheerleaders. You’ll find a group of people who will support you creatively.”