The tragicomic tale of what happened to my first feature film has been told elsewhere. Suffice to say, I had turned my back on the film industry and made my next film (the one you can watch a bit further down on this page) in my backyard, with $300 cash and an old Super 8mm camera I bought on eBay.
No one was more surprised than me when Spiders on Drugs became a minor hit on the film festival circuit this summer, by which I mean it was seen by tens of people at festivals all over the planet.
But the festival guides usually listed it as a "spoof," which I thought ruined the joke. My fantasy had been to rent a slot on local TV at 2 a.m. and run it as a PSA. I imagined people getting sucked in, and their minds blowing like old nickel fuses.
That's when I became interested in YouTube.
I made three little films, and they got a few hundred hits each. My dream was to do one a week for e-zines like, say, The Tyee or Slate.com, something like an editorial cartoon, except on video. While the Tyee showed a bit of interest but waited around to make up its mind, I ran out of money and had to write more stuff about buildings and food to pay the rent. But Christmas delayed all the cheques, and by Jan. 2 I still didn't have my rent, for the second month in a row.
Meanwhile I had discovered the greatest thing about YouTube: you can connect with everyone on the planet, because everyone is doing it. That's also the biggest problem. There are 65,000 videos posted a day. If you go to the videos page and click on "Most Recent," you'll see the newest hundred uploads have no hits at all. That's the fate that awaits most clips, even many of the good ones. They disappear into that giant electronic hopper and vanish without trace.
This is somewhat similar to the problem writers encounter when selling a magazine article. Editors are very busy people, and unsolicited manuscripts tend to pile up on their desks like snow and sit there for a week in what's called the "slush pile" until they get a chance to slog through them. Of course, there's one big difference with YouTube: there's no one checking the slush pile. No editor. No one driving the plane.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
How to stand out in all that slush? Late last Tuesday night I had an idea. A simple experiment I could run right from my desktop that very night.
The only problem was, I needed a film to experiment with. I had uploaded everything I had, and you can't upload the same file twice. (You get a message that says: UPLOAD FAILED -- DUPLICATE FILE.) And if I took one of my films down and uploaded it again, I would lose the scant few hundred hits it had taken me six weeks to garner.
I had uploaded Spiders On Drugs too, but it was in the private section of my YouTube home page. That's where you can upload stuff you only want to show your friends. But I couldn't post Spiders publicly because Comedy Central had seen it at the Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto, and bought a year-long Internet license for their broadband channel, Motherload. In fact, that was how I survived while making the other three films. I had hoped its appearance on their massively popular site might send a little traffic down my country lane, but CC hadn't even posted it yet, and hadn't returned my calls for a month.
I ran my experiment, and within an hour I started getting comments, which on average happens about once per thousand views. The hit count suddenly went up to 300. Wow, I thought, it worked. What I didn't know then was that it takes hours for the number of hits to refresh.
Then I read an article by Christopher Hitchens, and around 2 a.m. the alarm in my head went off: "Get some shut eye, Struthers! You have to come up with $800 tomorrow!"
I slept like a log, got up around 10 a.m., made breakfast and gazed into space for a while, as is my wont. Then I remembered the experiment. Shit. Did I take that posting down? I ran to the computer and roused it from its slumber. Safari. Canada.com. YouTube. Home page. Come on, come on...loading...loading...
20,000 hits. Oh shit.
My inbox was clogged with messages: "Do you know your spider film is on the top 10 list at ***Del.icio.us.com? At ***?*** At Reddit.com?" Oh shit. Oh shit, oh shit, oh SHIT! I clicked around the Net. It was everywhere. Someone had already sold it to Ebaum's World for $500, where it was the Editor's Pick. I sat sucking my teeth and watching the hit count go up 10,000 at a time. I had no idea what to do. The phone rang. I was screening my calls in case it was the rental agency. But it was Comedy Central.
Attack of the Clones
My parents came over for lunch. I showed them the total -- 70,000 -- and told them what had happened. Then I noticed there was a second posting called "Spiders On Drugs." It had been uploaded by a guy I'll call PaddyWagon. He already had 5,000 hits. It was a crappy looking bootleg with an "Ebaum's World" logo emblazoned on the front. So much for never selling out.
I e-mailed PaddyWagon, explained the situation, and begged him to take his reposting down. He told me to blow it out my ass. (I think he's Irish.) When I looked at YouTube's home page I was right at the top. When I clicked on my own icon there were 10 clones under it, some of them already with hundreds of hits.
Comedy Central called again. I guess the long months of unreturned e-mails were over. When I told them what had happened they just laughed. I felt a great surge of relief. Then they asked if I could take my posting down. I said if I did that, the clones would win. There must be a way to get all that traffic over to the Motherload.
And how come they hadn't posted my film there yet? They said they'd check into it. I said I would ask YouTube to take down everything, with my posting last.
I e-mailed YouTube. I e-mailed them 20 times. No reply. But hey, the kids who started the site are 20-something and they just got $1.5 billion. I wouldn't be answering my e-mails either. And by now I'd begun to think I wanted to stay with YouTube anyway.
All afternoon I screened my calls in case it was the rental agency, or Comedy Central. I thought: This is pretty fucked up right here. I'm hiding from the network of my dreams. Five o'clock came and went, Comedy Central shut down for the weekend, and the hits went up to 300,000.
At midnight I posted a sternly-worded message in PaddyWagon's comments section. He blocked me from his comments section and called me a "little bitch," meanwhile chuckling with the hundreds of people who had left compliments on his page about the brilliant clip he'd found.
I was reminded of the words of Captain James T. Kirk:
All weekend long I e-mailed clones' YouTube home pages, and most of them took their postings down, and some of them said I was full of shit. What really hurt was the quality of the Ebaum bootleg, and the fact that many of the clones had catchy titles like SPIDERS ON DRUGS! (SPOOF!) or FUNIEST SHIT I HAF EVER SEIN.
On Saturday I was #1 top rated, top favourite, most discussed and top director on all of YouTube. Sunday I came off the "This Week" page and went onto the "This Month" page, which left PaddyWagon with a clear field. It looked for a while like his posting would eclipse mine.
Six days in, the hit count was up to 750,0000 and I had over a thousand e-mails. I was shovelling them out like snow when I found one that said:
MTV -- REQUEST -- URGENT!!!
They wanted to show the film later that day on MTV LIVE. I e-mailed back and asked how much they paid. They said unfortunately they had no budget to pay for footage, this was more like free exposure. I wrote back that I was already dying from exposure, but they could show my film for free on one condition: they had to stop playing Britney Spears videos and put The Aphex Twin in high rotation. I never heard back.
An hour later The Tyee e-mailed me: "Hey, Let's Talk." They wanted me to do a "video cartoon" with a small essay attached, that would come out exactly when I posted each one. I love The Tyee, and I was happy to sign on.
But I was reminded of Johnson's definition of a patron: "One who ignores a drowning man's cries, and then once he has reached the shore, encumbers him with assistance."
As the morning progressed, friends in office cubicles all over the planet started sending me links that were circulating their workplace. But PaddyWagon had the top rated, top favourite, most discussed clip of the week on YouTube, whereas I had been relegated to the dusty "This Month" bin. It was a bitter pill. By noon PaddyWagon was closing in on a hundred thou, there were 40 clones screaming EBAUM'S WORLD roaring up the charts, a Spanish version and a German version.
Some guy had even photo-shopped a big red star over top of the spiders and filled it with info about his skater clothing line.
Finally, around lunchtime, YouTube replied to my hundredth e-mail and asked for proof that Spiders On Drugs was my film. I said it had been on the film festival circuit for six months and directed them to a few websites that had had me listed as the creator. Six hours later, around 11pm on Monday night, I clicked on PaddyWagon's link and it was gone. Across the top of the page was an ugly red stamp like a police DO NOT CROSS banner:
THIS CLIP HAS BEEN REMOVED AT THE REQUEST OF COPYRIGHT OWNER ANDREW STRUTHERS BECAUSE ITS CONTENT WAS USED WITHOUT PERMISSION
Who's the little bitch now, PaddyWagon?
After the Gold Rush
As I say, the most amazing thing about YouTube is you can connect with everyone, even your enemies (unless they block you from their site). PaddyWagon blocked me from commenting, but I could still watch the films on his homepage. He had uploaded about 30 clips, and 25 of them were of his new baby, a real little cutie. He looked like an OK guy. The sort of guy who works a dull job and dreams of better days ahead.
Anyway, it's 3 p.m. on Tuesday, one week since I had the idea. I've just hit the million mark, and there are 55 pages of comments, many of which say things like CANADA ROCKS! and I LOVE CANADA!
The funny thing is, I've been showing the script for Spiders On Drugs to Canadian film producers for seven years. Nobody bit. I could have made a thousand of these little films in the meantime, but I was tied up with committees and meetings.
But that's all in the past, just like the Canadian film industry. And Hollywood, for that matter. The long dark meeting of my soul is over. I'm shooting my next film in my living room as I type, and I'll see everyone next week, right here, with another crazy tale of YouTubular adventure.
But first, I think I'll lie down for a bit.
Victoria-based filmmaker and journalist Andrew Struthers will share his films with Tyee visitors as they are produced. Stay tuned!