12 Tips for a Successful Film Reel

We’re hiring right now and I’ve spent more than half my life watching film reels. Mildly put, I’ve seen a lot of donkey crap. For those of you looking to solicit work in the film or media industry, here are 12 tips to consider when editing your reel:

1. Make it short. Like one to two minutes short. I don’t have 8 minutes in my day for a hundred different people I don’t know. Convince me in less than two minutes to beg you for more. A reel 15 minutes or longer is borderline insulting.

2. Cut everything together. I will only watch one video per person (unless you impress me). A list of separate clips does not count as a reel. If you are interviewing as a director or editor, I will specifically request longer clips to see how you structure scenes.

3. Use your own voice. Do not imitate or parody movie trailers or other popular videos. No matter how flashy or technically proficient the reel may be, a ripoff reel proves only one thing to me: you are a ripoff.

4. Focus the viewer. Title your reel with the skill you wish to highlight (e.g. “camera operating,” “hair styling,” “lighting,” “visual effects,” etc.). I may enjoy qualities of the production you had nothing to do with – a recipe for awkwardness in interviews. Tell me what to pay attention to in advance.

5. No repetition. Don’t show me the same shot over and over. Don’t even show it to me twice. I will start thinking that’s all you’ve done.

6. Not overly dramatic. You don’t have time to be taken seriously in two minutes. Watching a grown man cry or woman getting raped while I drink tea and check my morning office email is simply uncomfortable.

7. Keep it current. If your reel is from a VHS transfer, unlit basement production or freehand miniDV, I will assume you failed film school or predate colored television. Show me only the latest and greatest. Your sentimental first film means nothing to me.

8. No movie scores. I don’t care how obscure you think the piece of music is. I am a film score connoisseur by trade (and so are most producers in the business); misusing a recognizable piece of music may distract or offend me. If I hear Clint Mansell in a reel one more time, I will adopt heroin and blame you.

9. No popular songs. Unless you worked with Led Zeppelin or Coldplay personally, your reel does not deserve to be tracked with their music. If you try to get away with it, viewers may stop paying attention when your music selection brings them back to high school slumber parties or the junior prom.

10. Easily accessible. Broken links are dead ends. Always make your reel available and never make me ask for it (“upon request” is not considerate, it’s lazy). Make sure your link is easy to find in your email and at the top of your résumé.

11. Stream it. Do not ask me to download a file. That will add at least two unnecessary steps and pollute my hard drive.

12. Vimeo. A poorly designed personal website will distract me and hurt you. Unless your site is a work of art, let Vimeo or YouTube make the first impression. If you feel compelled to host your work on your own site, enable the compression setting “fast start” or “compressed header” so I do not have to wait for the entire clip to buffer before playing (this is one of my biggest and most repairable pet peeves).

Step Aside, “Thriller”: Interactive Music Videos Are Coming To Haunt You

In the 1980s, MTV kicked music culture up a notch by engaging audiences with interpretive motion pictures a.k.a. music videos. The phenomenon swept the globe. To date, few albums slip out the door without a video or two in tow. The prominence of music videos dropped at the turn of the millennium due to high production costs, meager advertising or promotional return, and the widespread music industry free-fall. Rightfully so, I think, because things were getting ugly. As an example, Madonna’s 4 minute 28 second “Die Another Day” music video in 2002 cost over $6 Million, more than most festival-bound independent feature films today. Not sure how you feel, but I don’t think the video is worth it. Luckily, those days are behind us. People need to use their heads now instead of their pocketbooks to tell a strong visual story.

Fortunately for the music video format, cheaper production workflows and negligible Internet distribution costs have allowed them to return with a vengeance. Everyone can pick up a camera and release a music video online. Exciting times. The problem? There’s more competition to hear your song now than ever before. It is much more difficult to grab an audience’s attention.

It’s time again to kick things up a notch. Watching your music is not enough anymore; it’s time to interact with it as well. I don’t mean Dance Dance Revolution or Rock Band; I mean dynamic music experiences online. I’ve seen a few interactive music projects before, but Ellie Goulding’s “Lights” ranks at the top of my list. Built for the browser with WebGL, “Lights” takes you on a visual 3D journey of light and form through which you have some control. I STRONGLY encourage you to experience it for yourself.

If I heard Ellie’s song in a stack of other songs on Spotify or saw it on a video playlist in YouTube, I would probably pass right over it. Not because the song is bad, no. But because there’s so much noise in the world now and it takes an extra step to stand out. Ellie stood out to me tonight. It may take this much work or more for rising artists to build a new name online. I, for one, am very excited to see where this movement goes.

Wendy [Film Friday]

Yesterday, my final web series with Alloy Entertainment premiered on YouTube. Titled “Wendy,” this series borrows from the Peter Pan lore to tell the story of a girl looking for more. Overall, “Wendy” is the most ambitious series our company has produced to date. I could say a lot more about it, but I would get in trouble. For now, enjoy!

Is New Media For You? [Film Friday]

This is my fifth and final post in my series, “Understanding New Media.”

Last week, I resolved a “New Media” definition that I am happy with: “content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on active viewership platforms that autonomously drive traffic or revenue online.” The key here is the distinction between passive and active viewership.

It is important to contemplate the best way to tell your story. Ask yourself: how long should the story be? How many people should watch it together? How involved should your audience be? As I have said before, we need to knock down the silos of Hollywood. They have no worldly business dictating our storytelling needs anymore. We should choose the format that best suits our characters.

Many people are distracted by the pizzazz of the Internet. Do not get carried away. Before you produce video for the web, ask yourself why. Is your story better told at an audience’s fingertips? Think hard about what role your story can play on the web. Does it belong there? Or does it really belong on a bigger screen?

New Media: Revenue and Profitability? [Film Friday]

This is the third post in my series, “Understanding New Media.”

So far, it’s safe to define “New Media” as “content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on the web that serves itself and no other.” Last week’s post tried to rule out marketing materials and spinoffs (content promoting other content or products). But I asked a key question: what happens when one of these videos generates its own revenue online? Since “New Media” is a tech and entertainment industry term, it is relevant to discuss the format in the context of commerce.

If a company authors products that collect money from the hands or by the influence of consumers, then it deserves to be called a “business.” If the company’s products drive profits, then it deserves to be called a “good business.”

In web land, advertising, subscription, download, and rental revenue are mere pennies and cents compared to the millions generated by the multiplex or family room tube. Web video is still young, and very few Internet networks have been able to grow through these sources of income. Most content is financed by upfront sponsorship and rarely sees extra money after launch. For example, our company depends on sponsorships from large brands to kick-start our projects in exchange for guaranteed impressions. But in several cases online, the cost of video production was so low and viewership so high that notable returns have been made. It is not uncommon these days to find content producers on YouTube bringing in generous annual salaries through the site’s Partnership Program. They might be small businesses, but these producers definitely deserve to be called “businesses” on their own. And in a select few cases, some large budget web series have garnered such a following that they have paid their bills in full and earned a DVD release. My favorite is The Hire, starring Clive Owen.

Some spinoff series online, as well as commercials and promotional skits, have attracted huge audiences and generated revenue beyond the marketing spend. The Old Spice commercials are famous for this. While these pieces definitely serve a greater purpose, audiences have awarded them the respect and merit of being autonomous content online. When this phenomenon happens and commercials become Internet memes, it is hard for me still to call this material “marketing.” Likewise, when spinoff series build so much traction that they turn direct profits for the label, I owe them respect as autonomous entertainment product.

When first approaching the subject, I assumed all web endeavors were only ever marketing extensions that inspire viewers to spend money in a way that indirectly supports the content producer. For example, a sponsored video promotes a product that, if purchased by consumers, can afford new content produced in the future. If a series makes money on a DVD release and not by itself online, the web release is really just promoting home video sales. In this case, the web endeavor is still a marketing extension – even if it is promoting sales of the exact same material. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between content that makes money through viewership on the Internet and content that makes money elsewhere.

Long story short, I think it’s fair to say that any content that makes money online deserves the “New Media” industry label. So, for the sake of iteration, let us expand our definition to include “content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on the web that autonomously drives traffic or revenue online.”

All of that is well and good, but I am still stuck on the evolution of the Internet. In five years, there will be little-to-no difference between the way television and web video are distributed. The pipes will be the same and the viewing devices will be the same. So what then is the difference between “New Media” and other forms of content? While television and web may converge, audiences interface with these platforms very differently.

Next week, we will address the penultimate quality of “New Media” entertainment: active viewership.

New Media: Content Autonomy? [Film Friday]

This is the second post in my series, “Understanding New Media.”

Last week, I differentiated between “Casual Video” and “New Media.” We left off with the assumption that any content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on the web that only ever lives on the web could be dubbed “New Media.” But there are two big curve balls that sidetrack this definition: marketing content and spin-offs.

Releasing promotional content on the web is considerably cheaper nowadays than launching a campaign on television or billboards nationwide. Therefore, more and more companies are generating content tailored specifically for the web to promote their products. Commercials, movie trailers, and sponsored skits litter YouTube and the Internet beyond. These pieces are “financed, produced for, and released exclusively on the web.” So are they “New Media?” Or just advertisements released on the web? If you chose the ladder, you sit in the popular majority. Most would still call this “advertising.”

So, then, one would be inclined to append “narrative content” to my definition above. But we cannot be that myopic. There is plenty of non-narrative content online financed and produced for the web that drives considerable revenue. And some promotional skits or spots otherwise considered “marketing” are themselves “narrative,” so it would be far too general to affix a “New Media” definition with the word “narrative.”

What about spinoffs? Recently, several television shows and feature films have produced content for the web to build community, expand the scope of programming, and promote the source content. Ghost Whisperer is famous for this. Do these episodes constitute “New Media” or do they serve a greater marketing purpose? Very wide gray area. Expanding the canon of a larger body of work has been in practice for ages. I suppose it depends on, again, the producer’s original intent: was the content produced primarily to drive traffic to another program? Or was the content produced to expand the story or characters in a structure better-suited for the web?

I suppose one clear distinction between marketing or spin-offs and “New Media” is “autonomy” – whether or not the content online acts on its own, or serves a bigger product. The web series we produce are original intellectual property and do not play a role outside the web browser sandbox. They serve their own needs independently and do not require or serve content on other platforms. A movie trailer or blooper reel may air online, but they serve a bigger purpose beyond the Internet. Same could apply to a spin-off. What greater purpose does your content serve?

As it stands, our “New Media” definition goes a little something like this: “content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on the web that serves itself and no other.”

Next week, we’ll explore an industry-seeded counterpoint to content autonomy: what happens when a marketing promo or referential spin-off generates its own revenue online?

New Media: Producer’s Intent? [Film Friday]

This is the first in a series of posts I announced last week called “Understanding New Media.”

One argument I’ve heard from filmmakers trying to define “new media” favors a producer’s original intent for the material. If the story being told was meant for web and first launches online, then it (by definition of producer’s intent) should be considered “New Media.” I suppose that’s fair – if it was made for web and only ever lives on the web, what else do you call it? Well, I call 99% of it “Casual Video.”

YouTube is the biggest marketplace for “Casual Video,” where users upload literally anything they can capture. Most YouTube videos have no revenue agenda, are authored by individuals arbitrarily, and lack front-end logistics or financing. For a video to transcend “casual” status, I think it must first have at least a little foresight, structure, and craft tied into its execution. “New Media” is a film industry term, so there should be a certain level of “industry” to the content being produced. There is really no “industry” to my friend Jim skateboarding off of a cliff. It’s merely pure, casual fun.

So I’ve raised a little money and produced something for the web. “New Media,” right? What happens when that content syndicates on television? Or premieres on the big screen? Is it still “New Media?” Or has it become more than that? On the flip side, what happens when a feature film, originally intended for the big screen, first ends up online out of failure to platform in theaters? Is it still a “Feature Film” or has it become “New Media” in spite of the producer’s original intent? Tough call.

Moreover, what happens when our televisions and movie theaters are networked through the web? Is a cable show broadcast on Google TV “New Media” or “Television?” I stream Netflix and South Park the same way I stream YouTube antics. Don’t you? So what’s the difference? Well, there is no difference to the consumer, except perhaps the quality and duration of content. The lines between web and other platforms are blurring. Just because something plays online does not necessarily make it “New Media.”

I suppose the “original intent” argument can stand for now concerning content that was financed, produced, and distributed exclusively for the web. But there’s much more to it than that. Does the content play as part of a greater whole? Is it a spinoff or tie-in to another intellectual property on another distribution platform? Should the content then be called “Bonus Material” or “Marketing” instead?

Tune in next week for a discussion on web content’s autonomy.

Bootlegging Yourself (Marketing Controversy 101)

A few days ago, a bootlegged version of a red band trailer for David Fincher’s latest film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, hit YouTube with a vengeance. Before Sony Pictures pulled it for “a copyright claim,” the video had nearly 2 million hits after only two days. There is speculation that Sony launched the trailer themselves to kick-start a viral marketing campaign. Whether or not this is true, the video’s premature release certainly did not hurt Sony or the film. The leak was awarded widespread coverage in press and online. If audiences were not aware the hit novel trilogy was being adapted for the American screen, they definitely are now.

I find the entertainment industry’s preoccupation with piracy amusing. Sure, I am a filmmaker and can appreciate revenue lost to piracy. But as veteran studio executive Bill Mechanic once pointed out to me, “Pirating means that people want to see your movie.” As I see it, stolen entertainment media suggests one of two things: your content is not good enough to pay for or too difficult for the average consumer to find. Both problems are your fault and worth solving. iTunes rivaled music piracy by promoting easier access to music: it became easier to buy a song on iTunes than steal it from a torrenting site. With bandwidth evolving and platforms like Netflix and YouTube on the rise, movie studios are running out of excuses not to open their libraries. Simple: help audiences consume the entertainment they want to consume. Most people will gladly pay for that. And pirates will help spread the word in the meantime.

But I digress. In a world saturated by media noise, it has become necessary for marketing materials to have unique stories wrapped around them. The Dragon Tattoo leak promoted three levels of discussion: the bootlegging of the trailer in the first place, whether or not Sony released it on purpose, and finally the irresistible quality of the content presented. Trailer discussion spread the word and inadvertently spread the message: “She’s coming.”

Movie studios should bootleg themselves more often. And you should too.

Understanding New Media [Film Friday]

Few people inside or outside the movie business can really explain the “New Media” trend. The term “web series” has developed an underestimated connotation, suggesting handicam YouTube videos, goofball kids, and poor craft. While a large share of the 3 billion videos uploaded daily are casual video, the professional web video industry has exploded. Many companies (including the one I work for) are spending millions and millions of dollars to produce for the Internet, embracing gear and talent normally resident to major motion pictures. The web is the new frontier and everyone is boarding the train.

Producing video for the web does not necessarily make it “New Media.” If that were true, all movie trailers, skits, and press material released online would qualify. But we often separate this type of material into “marketing” or “publicity.” So where do you draw the line? Having worked in “New Media” for over a year now, I feel safe taking a crack at it.

I am going to spend the next several Fridays exploring this topic. I will take cases I have heard and wrestle with them. With any luck, we will come up with a suitable definition for “New Media” in a few weeks.

Tune in next week for a debate about “producer’s intent.”

Table of Contents for this series:

Rules Destroy Imagination

Disney's adaptation of Stephen Slesinger, Inc....

As children, sky was the limit. The word “impossible” never slipped our lips. I vowed to build a spaceship in my backyard. I knew, without question, that I would be the first six-year-old in orbit. With scrap cardboard and colored pencils in hand, I set to work.

As we grew up, we were taught rules: the laws of physics, etiquette, mathematics, morality, sexuality, language, health, justice, economics, politics, and responsibilities. We were told what to do and how to do it. Worse, we were told what NOT to do and threatened with consequences. Sure, we were being educated. But that education undermined the innumerable liberated conceptions we had as children. I’m sorry, child, you cannot defy gravity. You cannot live forever. You cannot leave the house without wearing pants. 1 + 1 never equals 3. Things cost money you cannot afford. No this. No that. No, no, no. The endless list of constraints continues to grow everyday of our aging lives.

I realized how tragically detrimental these rules could be to your imagination as I nostalgically revisited a Winnie the Pooh cartoon on YouTube. When I was young, this scene terrified me to the bone. I feared falling prey to the beasts and maligned physics Pooh suffers throughout his dream. Watching it for the first time in 15 years, I felt some of those visceral reactions come back:

But then, reality sunk in and this video was not terrifying anymore. I now know that hovering and transforming on this level are not feasible in the physical world, and that such creatures do not exist in nature. The boundless scope of my childhood imagination enabled these possibilities in my mind and allowed me to fear the things I did not understand. But my adult mind, constrained by rules of the natural world, can dismiss this scene as psychedelic fiction.

Would our lives be better without rules? No, of course not. Rules will always exist whether we want them to or not. I do not think anarchy or ignorance make the world a better place. But I do think it would liberate mankind’s imagination a little more if we understand rules as surmountable obstacles to our dreams, instead of barriers we cannot pass.

The best thing my parents never did was tell me “no.” They let me play in the backyard until my heart’s content. I figured out on my own that I could not build a spaceship. But because no one I respected ever tried to stop me, I never gave up. I signed up for the movie business to get me closer to orbit, closer to building that spaceship, and closer to the stars – if only through models and effects. I fight the rules every day and refuse to let anything stand in the way of my dreams.

Go out and fight the rules. Never say never. Dream big.

Imagine the possibilities.