The idea that Girl Walks Into a Bar, an independent feature with a Hollywood-friendly cast and a less-than-$1 million dollar budget, is “The First Major Motion Picture Made For The Internet,” could be up for debate. But the film, written and directed by Sebastian Gutierrez, has a very clear distribution strategy: While its world premiere was this Friday at the SXSW Film Festival, it was simultaneously available for free on YouTube, (s GOOG) with commercial interruptions by sponsor Lexus (s TM).
Girl Walks Into a Bar consists of 10 vignettes starting from the same premise — literally, a girl walks into a bar — and despite some somewhat salacious material (including a scene featuring the inner monologue of a stripper), the MPAA wouldn’t rate it higher than PG-13. Shot in 10 days for less than $1 million, the ensemble drama is dense with known actors, including Zachary Quinto, Carla Gugino, Rosario Dawson, Danny Devito and Alexis Bledel, who signed on either because they’d previously worked with Gutierrez or because they were able to fit a one-day shoot into their schedules.
The film’s structure was a deliberate choice on the part of Gutierrez to ease the inclusion of commercials (including pre- and post-rolls, there are currently six commercial breaks in the film), and to serve web attention spans. To that end, the film is available on YouTube both as a complete feature and as a 10-video playlist, which breaks out each individual vignette.
“I would much rather people watch it as a movie than as a playlist, but the Internet community is so used to seeing things in small chunks, so each part is a mini-one act on its own,” Gutierrez said in an interview. Gutierrez is getting his wish, though — the individual chapters of Girl Walks range in view counts from less than 600 views to 3,000; it’s the full-length feature that’s been getting the bulk of the traffic.
Within the independent film world, the low-budget/alternate distribution approach is one that director Edward Burns has been developing as well — the micro-budgeted Nice Guy Johnny cost less than $30,000 and is now available to 30 million households thanks to On Demand distribution.
To distribute Nice Guy Johnny, though, Burns turned to iTunes, (s AAPL) DVD and VOD, thus immediately monetizing the film. Girl Walks, meanwhile, is relying on corporate sponsorship to make back its budget.
While Gutierrez always wanted to put the film up on YouTube with the help of a sponsor, Girl Walks Into a Bar was shot without any distribution or sponsorship in place — the film’s budget was provided by a producer/financier. This can be a risky move for an independent property, but in this case it paid off: Now thanks to the sponsorship deal with Lexus, Gutierrez has no concerns about the film’s financial situation — and Lexus is only sponsoring the YouTube launch, which means that future opportunities for monetization, including DVD, VOD and iTunes (s AAPL) distribution, are wide open.
For the foreseeable future, though, Girl Walks Into a Bar will remain on YouTube for free — where, after 24 hours online, it had received more than 100,000 views. Gutierrez contrasted that with the film he brought to SXSW last year, Elektra Luxx, which launched a limited theatrical release this weekend, and will probably be seen by far fewer people than Girl Walks.
This means that for Gutierrez, Girl Walks is largely an experiment to see how the web and independent film can mix, an important issue for filmmakers these days due to the eroding theatrical market and the boom of alternative distribution platforms. “I don’t know what will come of this,” he said. “But we have to ask the question.”