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YouTube Screening Room: AtomFilms Redux?

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It was with more than a little irony that I read about YouTube’s new Screening Room program for short films last night. In all the coverage in the blogosphere, no one has mentioned that this is the exact same thing AtomFilms did for 10 years, and it didn’t work for them.

It’s ironic because at AtomFilms (where I used to work), was way ahead of the online video curve, offering short-form content ranging from Oscar-winning shorts to crude viral-y animations. Then we watched in 2006 as YouTube came out of nowhere and blew past us to become the 800-pound web video gorilla.

Now AtomFilms has abandoned short films and basically become a sub-brand of Comedy Central, and YouTube is stepping into Atom’s old role of providing high-falutin’ short films online. Adding insult to injury, the industry is abuzz with the thought of revenue sharing with YouTube — when AtomFilms has paid out big money to filmmakers for a decade.

YouTube even got a quote in its press release from Daniel Dubiecki, the producer of Juno and the short film The Big Empty. Dubiecki had a number of popular shorts on Atom over the years.

Technically, the short film route didn’t work for Atom — it had to merge with to survive the dotcom crash and was then bought by big media company Viacom. Without telling tales out of school, during my tenure there the most popular films were either animation, comedies or anything that hinted that there might be a bare boob.

Those Oscar winners? No one cared, bring on Pornographic Apathetic.

YouTube has a much more massive scale than Atom could have ever dreamed of, but that doesn’t change the fundamental situation. People prefer farts being lit on fire to artsy short films.

23 Responses to “YouTube Screening Room: AtomFilms Redux?”

  1. Hi there, I had a random question – I see you worked at atomfilms so perhaps you can help.

    Are most of the short films available online elsewhere, e.g. youtube? I’m looking for a specific film, I saw it years ago and it was about a pair of con artists (bro and sis or bf and gf, can’t remember!) who drive from stop to stop in the desert pretending to be blind I think and conning people. They’re exchanging imaginary scenarios in the car – “what would you do if… five men were chasing you in the street, you have a small penknife and you can either leap the fence, run into a supermarket or …” etc. Then they end up being in a real scenario where these guys are chasing them down having realised they’ve been conned. As they’re cornered, one of them says “what would you do if…” (something to do with only three stones lying on the ground and three men facing them off). The last shot is of the car being driven away, we don’t know by whom.

    Sorry for the long description there, let me know if anyone remembers it or can help me track it down, I’d really appreciate it!

  2. Puneet

    Thanks Chris for this interesting post. It raised a few good points about the challenges. I have been working on a similar project for a while. And you post has given me a new direction to think about.

    Keep writing.

  3. I watched the films at the screenings last night and then tonight fired up the YouTubes with my wife and enjoyed them again. While it’s not the same as watching them on the big screen, it was better than watching TV. Most of the shorts currently up are Oscar nominated or winners (and it shows – these are great), yet I don’t think I would have come across them otherwise.

  4. I’m uncomfortable with the notion of YouTube the broadcaster as a whole. It’s nice to have a window dedicated to film, but it creates just another gatekeeper; it stinks of the traditional distributor/TV network model. Didn’t YouTube promise to “broadcast yourself”? The positive aspect of video-sharing sites for independent filmmakers is that it creates a level playing field, as far as media hosting is concerned. Combined with blogs, syndication and social networks, it gives filmmakers the tools to broadcast, themselves, over the Internet, and create awareness for their films in the traditional venues, and vice-versa.

  5. YouTube’s ‘screening room’ announcement today underscores the powerful role the Internet can play for independent filmmakers to share their work and build a fan-base without the limitations of conventional theater distribution. But it’s not the first — Lycos Cinema has provided a platform for indie filmmakers to showcase their work since late 2006. Having been at it for a while Lycos Cinema is loaded with hundreds of award-winning independent films, such as God’s Lonely Man (Grand Jury Nominee – 2006 Sundance Film Festival); The Corndog Man (Emerging Filmaker Award – 2000 St. Louis International Film Festival); Kid Brother (Special Jury Prize – 1988 Paris Film Festival, Unicef Award Berlin International Film Festival); and The Zeros (Audience Award, Narrative Feature, 2001 SXSW Film Festival).

    And as part of a major upgrade in May 2008, Lycos Cinema teamed up with Independent Features for an online film festival that is running from May 5 to June 30. The festival takes advantage of Lycos Cinema’s unique, patent-pending watch and chat capability, which allows fans to synchronously discuss and watch movies in real-time. So it really mirrors the community experience of a film festival with fans socializing and buzzing about their favorites. Fans also get to vote, and the top films will be shown at the Tribeca Cinemas in NYC in late July. Check it out here:

  6. I don’t think Short Films will dominate online viewership in any way, shape or form but the Screening Room offers YouTube a way to increase the prestige of their content. Film festivals carry this prestige, and YT has partnered with Cannes, Tribeca and Sundance to cover these events and probably will with AFI Fest in the Fall. It’s a stepping stone to a strategy that will showcase that not all content on youtube is crap and that’s a message advertisers want to hear. It’s part of a larger strategy that courts filmmakers to distribute immediately rather than suffer the long road of the festival circuit. I’m not saying Atom Films wasn’t there first, but I am saying that the climate is more appropriate now seeing that YouTube has an enormous marketshare and offers huge viewing potential to any short film featured that Atom Films was never capable of.

  7. Heh, this is what we’re trying to do with Looks like we’re just going to have to focus more of the tools for filmmakers since the 800 lb gorilla is now absolute direct competition. We will have better networking tools though.

  8. Chris Albrecht


    Thanks for the reminder, I added a link to both.


    I concede in my post that YouTube is a much different ballgame than Atom, and it has the added advantage of learning from history.

    I was reacting to the fact that memories are short-lived on the Internet. This has been done before (iFilm did it too).

    If YouTube can make it work — more power to them. I think people should be exposed to short films, really good ones pack more entertainment than most features, I just don’t believe large audiences (U.S. audiences mostly) will connect with them.

  9. The key differences here:

    1. Youtube offering a lot more to leverage as a platform that Atom Films could.

    2. The world having caught up on web video (being too far ahead of the curve is a disadvantage).

    I think those make it foolish to just immediately write this off as “bah! it’s already been done and failed!”

    Also, lets not get overly elitist about YouTube. I speak as someone who has had the same exact videos (Bodega, Checkmate) be hits on YouTube and then later play for film festival audiences or the NPR crowd.

    To reference Mo Better Blues… Is it possible that the people don’t come out for snooty art videos because the grandiose [expletive] making them, don’t play what the people want to hear?

    Shakespeare wrote for the masses yet kept it a level above just some burning farts, right?

    If you don’t want to create work that appeals to someone outside of the film industry, then you shouldn’t complain when it doesn’t do numbers.

  10. No, most of the films in hte screening room won’t become the most popular videos (and they don’t have to), but many will be watched by more people than the better shorts on Atom.

    It would help if either of the posts on it had a link, so we could decide for ourselves

    take 15 minutes to watch the Danish Poet which won the Oscar for best animated short in 2007. It isn’t the same as seeing it in a theater with the filmmaker like I did, but it is better than most feature length animated films you’ll see.

    And then embed it or email the link to someone. That is how these films will build an audience.

  11. “People prefer farts being lit on fire to artsy short films.”

    You may be right as far as the current YouTube generation is concerned. However, even art film connoisseurs thought that dad’s farts were the highest form of entertainment at some point in their lives.

    My point is that YouTube faithfuls will not stay the same age forever, and YouTube is (wisely) providing a content migration path to keep their interest.

    But will your average art film ever enjoy the same mass appeal as “Jackass 2.5”? Probably not.

  12. If YouTube Screening Room is going to be anything like the party, the screening and the rooftop after party YouTube threw last night in Hollywood this should be a great new platform for Indie Filmmakers.

    I really like the part about being able to sell DVDs and Digital Downloads. Very Cool.