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From Online Video to Eight-Figure Picture Deal
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Stories like these are becoming far more commonplace in Hollywood than they once were. In March 2009, a similar effects-heavy short called “What’s in the Box?” was posted on YouTube. The video was seen and spread by thousands of web-surfers, and rumors began making the rounds that the short was part of a viral marketing campaign for the PC game “Half-Life.” When it was revealed (make sure to turn on the subtitles for this one – the director speaks Dutch) that the film was just a small-DIY project created for fun with a budget of about $250 by Tim Smit, a physics major in The Netherlands – Twentieth Century Fox immediately reached out and signed Smit to helm an action-adventure film for the studio slated.

It is clear that the hope is that these young directors will be able to recreate the success of director Neil Blomkamp, whose blockbuster-hit “District 9” was greenlit based on a six-minute short Blomkamp made years ago called “Alive in Joburg.”

As a filmmaker who is already well down the traditional path of film school and the festival circuit, it’s easy to view all this with a bit of skepticism. Sure, these shorts demonstrate tremendous post-production and special effects skills (and networking skills – no one should be under the impression that all it takes to create a short like this is a few hundred bucks and some free time – without a doubt, the creators of these films benefited from access to some professional equipment, resources, and personnel), but do they provide any indication at all as to the directors’ abilities to tell compelling stories or create memorable characters?

At the same time, with the eventual success of films like “District 9,” most producers and studio executives are unlikely to have concerns about story-structure and character development. Furthermore, shorts have paved the way for breakthrough talent and feature films in the past – as evidenced by the success of the Saw franchise and the emergence of Wes Anderson with his original Bottle Rocket short. And maybe they’re right; if a filmmaker can attract millions of viewers on a shoestring budget – it’s a strong indication of good things to come with the addition of industry resources, marketing, and distribution.

The one thing that is clear is that the industry as a whole needs to embrace the technologies that are changing the way we create and consume entertainment. It’s easier than it’s ever been to create a film with theatrical production values, upload it to Youtube, and find an audience of millions with almost no production or marketing dollars. I believe we’ll see more and more programs like the Lionsgate Incubator that take advantage of what is already happening online while creating a meaningful gateway to success in the traditional industry.

What do you think? Will online video replace film-festivals as the major platform for new directors to show off their skills and breakthrough? Is an understanding of SFX and CGI becoming as important as basic storytelling and character development? These are exciting times we live in and I’d love to hear.

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