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Serious cinema is coming to YouTube

June 21, 2008|DAVID SARNO

AT THE Henry Fonda Theater on Hollywood Boulevard Wednesday, YouTube introduced its new Screening Room, an area of the site devoted exclusively to selected independent films.

The Screening Room will feature four short films every two weeks, as well as the occasional full-length feature. The first several slates of films are chockablock with recognizable names and Academy Award-nominated filmmakers, but as the program continues, YouTube expects to include films submitted to a kind of cinema slush pile, to keep at least a modicum of the "You" in its name.

Don't think this project will grind the coffee industry to a halt as Starbucks baristas everywhere hang up their aprons and get out their Handicams. The Screening Room's tightly orchestrated debut was mostly flash and funky hors d'oeuvres.

Still, watching an hour of fine films in a historic Hollywood theater, all under the YouTube banner, was a strong sign that the site is no longer just a place to watch cat videos and "Family Guy." This is YouTube's first serious foray into the world of cinema, and if I'm right, more than a few of us are going to be watch- ing.

The first four films showcased the creative flexibility of the short form and the way it nicely lends itself to bite-size online viewing.

"The Danish Poet," an animated modern fairy tale by Canada's Torill Kove, won the 2007 Oscar for best animated short, and the mind-bending puppet opera "Love and War" won Fredrik Emilson an award in the same category at last year's Los Angeles Film Festival. Miranda July's "Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody?," starring John C. Reilly, represented the excellent quarterly DVD magazine Wholphin, and Rob Pearlstein's "Our Time Is Up," starring Kevin Pollak, was nominated for an Oscar in 2006.

In a panel session after the screening, the filmmakers discussed the potential upside of having films on YouTube.

"It's difficult to get a mass audience for short films via the film festival route," said Pearlstein, speaking of YouTube's theoretical capability to focus millions of eyeballs on these shorts in a way that Sundance or even Cannes never could.

Nor does the festival circuit act as a living library the way the Internet might: "Typically a short film has quite a short life -- if you're lucky, a year or two," Kove said. "And I think this is a really good way to prolong that."

(A disoriented July did not have much to contribute to the discussion. "I thought this was the Screening Room," she said, referring to the Fonda theater itself. "I didn't realize it was on YouTube.")

Films shown in the (online) Screening Room will be eligible for YouTube's revenue-sharing program, whereby filmmakers split some of the income from the advertising that accompanies their movies.

YouTube never says much about what this can amount to, but stories circulate about the odd person who can make a living by stringing together enough million-plus-hit video clips.

"It's important to be able to enable others by helping them finance their next project," said Jordan Hoffner, YouTube's director of content partnerships. "We've seen that a lot with Google," he said, alluding to its advertising system for websites. "People were able to quit their day jobs and do the things they were really passionate about."

Sounds good, but word to the wise: Don't do it in that order.


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