Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Who Watches Movies on Youtube?

Youtube announced yesterday that they were joining the online film rental business, essentially using the same model as Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. Newer films will be available to rent for $3.99 per film, with older titles costing a bit less. There will be an initial rollout of three thousand streaming films with more to follow. There's plenty of scoffing already from various corners, because like all the other recent newcomers in the rental market, they want to push the more expensive video-on-demand model, which hasn't made a dent in the success of Netflix and Redbox for anyone else. Still, this is not to say that this isn't a good move for Youtube.

You might ask who wants to watch a full length movie on Youtube? Well, I do occasionally. I watch public domain silent films from the 1910s and 1920s, I watch foreign obscurities that are nearly impossible to see through normal domestic channels, and I watch titles stuck in copyright or legal limbo, like Todd Haynes' "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story" or the "recobbled" cut of Richard Williams' "The Thief and the Cobbler." And since I have terrible luck with damaged rental DVDs, I admit that I have gone to Youtube out of frustration to find the last two minutes Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," the final monologue of "Gaslight," and a few other missing endings via user uploaded clips. Have I mentioned I hate DVDs? Anyway, I primarily use Youtube for the same stuff that everyone else does - home videos of cute animals, fan-made mash-ups, music videos, and whatnot. But since the site has the capability for much better video quality than it used to, the prospect of regularly watching full-length feature films on Youtube doesn't strike me as particularly unfeasible.

Youtube also offers something that Amazon and Apple don't, and Facebook has the capability for but hasn't really explored yet - the social aspect. Yes, I'm talking about the user comments, the playlists, the channels, and the other site features that help to facilitate user interaction. I especially appreciate Youtube giving viewers space to share reactions to videos, even though it's extremely limited. Each comment on a video can only be roughly Twitter-length, and navigating existing comments is tough. Furthermore, 99% of the comments are repetitive, fragmentary, profane, and not worth reading, especially for the more popular, newer content. But having those reactions so close at hand creates a communal experience, however small, and for some material the Youtube comments can yield interesting stuff.

I stumbled across a clip of the "Mysterious Stranger" sequence from the 80s Claymation feature "The Adventures of Mark Twain" on Youtube a few years ago. It was mislabeled and the description was full of errors, but the video generated thousands of comments due to the disturbing nature of the content and the controversial treatment of religious themes. People wanted to know what it was and what it meant. A few actually managed to have coherent discussions about it despite the limitations of the commenting system. There's precious little online about "Mark Twain" around due to its age, so the Youtube comments from those who had seen and remembered the film became a handy source for information. I've also seen users, including original creators and production folks, comment on other obscure clips to provide trivia, credits, context, and links to related material.

Full length films are a different matter, but I think Youtube has much better existing architecture in place for social networking centered around videos than something like Facebook. Viewers are already used to gabbing about videos on the actual Youtube site. I for one like seeing other people's reactions to the media I enjoy, one of the reasons I enjoy reading reviews and analysis so much. Last year's "Inception" would have been a lot less fun without all the wacky theories and online arguments that it generated. For older films and shows, you don't have nearly as many spaces for interaction and commentary because the number of viewers is so much smaller, so this is where combining online video streams with social networking is especially helpful.

I don't see the video-on-demand model being particularly successful on Youtube since there are so many other outlets for online rentals, and it's going to take a lot of work to convince anyone to think of Youtube as a pay site. However, it's a good step toward getting more pay content on the site, and seeing how Youtube's existing features can be integrated with them. I'm not crazy about all the emphasis on newer films and shows, because I think Youtube is at its best as a platform for those out-of-left-field curiosities and ancient media ephemera that viewers will spontaneously rally around. Because it's not just the content that has brought Youtube success, but the viewers. Youtube isn't Youtube without, well, You.

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