The evolving world of digital

Jordan McGarry, Vimeo, talks about Vimeo's role in the ever evolving world of online content, having a strategy for uploading work, and that all important staff pick.

14 June 2016


Matimba: You’re listening to BFI NET.WORK podcast, I'm Matimba Kabalika. Our job at the NET.WORK is to discover, develop and fund new and emerging filmmakers. It’s not always easy to get your questions in front of the people who make decisions so we’ve been running around with our microphones pulling in some favors.
Jordan McGarry is the director of curation at Vimeo, we sat down with her to talk about online platforms, the evolving world of digital and that all important Vimeo staff pick.
We're here with Jordan McGarry. We are in Finsbury Park at her lovely home. We were going to meet at the Exeter Street Bakery... what's it called? The Exeter Street Bakery. 
Jordan: Yep. 
Matimba: But there was too much music and loud populace, so now here we are at your home. 
Jordan: So we're here because this is where I work, and it's quite unusual, because obviously Vimeo has a huge office, but that office is in New York, and I'm one of a few people who work remotely. Been at Vimeo for five years this summer, which feels like quite a long time by our standards, because we've grown hugely over that time. Yeah, so I work from here, it's fun. 
Matimba: You've kind of nicely gone into my first question. Vimeo has expanded so much in size and reach over the last few years and is an amazing and really important platform for filmmakers. Can you tell us about the Vimeo ethos, so to speak? 
Jordan: Vimeo's been going for just over 10 years, I think, officially. Maybe it's 10 years. It's come from such a brilliant place, because it was created by filmmakers, and really with everything we've done, they've been at the forefront of what we do.  
Our official mission statement, oh my goodness, let me try to get this right, is we're on a mission to enable creators to make, share, and sell their work in the highest quality possible without interruptive ads. And there's another... I should've said this properly, but also for viewers to be able to watch this amazing work in the highest quality possible without interruptive advertising. 
So yeah, we came very much out of being a creative platform, it was created by people who were filmmakers and by people who wanted to be able to share their work. So we were the first to be able to offer HD video, and we had a music store to help people find music that they could use legally. We made a video school to help even people who... even if you're not interested in being a filmmaker per-se, but you just want to be able to make nice videos of your family on your iPhone, we can help you do that. 
Everything we did right from the beginning was all about how to help people make better work and find an audience to be able to share their work. 
That led us to a certain point very nicely, and then a few years ago we launched Vimeo On Demand. The ultimate thing for us, back then we were always trying to figure out, "How do we help filmmakers get paid?" Because it's all very well helping people make work and share it, but ultimately everybody wants to make money from the work that they do, call us old fashioned. 
So you can make a film whether it's a short film or a feature or a series or whatever it might be. You put it up online and you decide how much to charge for it, and then you keep 90% of the revenue, so that was quite groundbreaking at the time because I don't think it was many people, if anyone, who offers a revenue share as generous as that. 
Since then we've been trying to figure out how to grow that business and help filmmakers do more, to help them promote themselves, and help them reach their audience. Yeah, taking it from there. 
Matimba: I didn't realize all of that. And how many people...? How big is the team? 
Jordan: Well, I can never quite remember, I think I was like number 34 about five years ago and now we are just over 220 or something like that. 
Matimba: Wow. 
Jordan: And we're still small compared to a lot of people when they think about big internet companies. By comparison, we're still quite small, but we're a lot bigger than we used to be and we're still growing so it's exciting. 
Matimba: Can you tell us a bit more about your role as head of curation? Because actually we were talking about it on the way over here and how interesting that title is. 
Jordan: You might say it's sort of divided into people who look after the creators and who make the tools and who make the platform work better for creators, and then people who that know about the viewers and the audience side and marketing.  
We sit fairly uniquely right in the middle, because we do both. There's six people who work on the curation team and we have also lots of freelancers who work with us, and we go through... we've never quite been able to work out how many videos we watch each, or collectively, each week, but let's just say it's a lot. We follow all the creators who've ever been staff picked before, we follow lots of other great channels on the site. We keep in touch with creators on Twitter, ew watch all the social media.  
We have a couple of backend tools that help us track what's trending on the site and what's doing well, but actually most of what we use is available to anyone, so it's not like we have some secret master laboratory that tells us where the good videos are, it's just pure old fashioned digging. 
And we program five videos a day in staff picks. It's very... there's a lot of conversation and thought that goes into each of those. It's never like I'll find a video and I really like it so I just put it in the channel. There's always a conversation and you have to have other curators second the vote and approve it before it goes in. 
It's really fun and it's really wonderful, I think that staff picks is one of the most amazing parts, not just of this job, but one of the most amazing things I've ever worked on because we have such great feedback from the filmmakers that we feature, and we know that it can have a huge impact on their careers.  
So being able to deliver that audience to people is just so wonderful, because it's not... the thing that I really love about Vimeo is it's never been about, "Oh, this video's blowing up and getting millions of plays, therefore we should put it on the front page." It's like, "This video hasn't had any plays, or it hasn't had very many plays at all, but is brilliant and deserves to get a big audience, so let's put it on the front page of the site and help it get that traffic." So that's just a really, really lovely thing to work on. 
And then we also work on Vimeo On Demand, obviously that's a different kettle of fish, slightly, because that's dealing with feature films and series so that's a different kind of work. But we program that front page and we also put those films into the staff picks channel now, which is another experiment recently that we're very excited about. 
We work with our brand studio team, which is... Vimeo's not really a huge thing for advertisers, we don't put ads all over the video and that's very, very important to us, but we do work with advertising brand partners occasionally where brands will come to us and they want us to help them commission some films for the brand, so we'll work with them to come up with a brief, and then generally the curation team gets involved to select the filmmakers. The filmmakers go away and make a film for the brand. 
One of our films, one of the brand studio films just won an award at Tribeca, their first branded content award, which we're very proud of. 
And then also, more recently, there's Vimeo Originals, which is our first steps into original content. That's going really, really well, and it's very exciting because a lot of them, if not most of them, come directly from the Staff Picks talent pool. We get to know these filmmakers and they've all got a script under their arm or projects they want to work on, and so being able to directly help a filmmaker make their first, whether it's a movie or a short film that takes some upper level, or a series that they've done the first season of, and we've come aboard to pay for the second series, that's all gone really, really well and it's something that the whole company is really buzzing about at the moment. 
Matimba: This is exciting. I did not know. 
Jordan: Yeah, we do the funding. It's not necessarily... we're still doing baby steps, it's not something that is necessarily 'there's huge checks to be written for everyone,' but it's something that is going well and it's something that we are, I'm sure, going to get to behind more as me learn more about how it goes. 
The first one was High Maintenance, which is a web series, and that was native to Vimeo. We Staff Picked a lot of their episodes early on, and they built up a really good following online by virtue of being on Vimeo and being Staff Picked and promoting themselves cleverly. So when we were talking to them about the second series, it was clear that there was nobody else there for it who... 
Matimba: Who are the filmmakers? 
Jordan: It's Ben and Katja from, they're now signed with Pulse. 
Matimba: Oh, okay. 
Jordan: But they signed with Pulse, I think, off the back of High Maintenance, an original. But they had a very clear thing that they wanted to do. They had a very clear audience that was already engaged, so it made sense to us that we can write you a check to make the second series. We didn't even read the script. We were like, "We trust you, we know that this is a brilliant thing. We want to help you do what you do best, and will stay out of your way and just let you go and do it." 
So that came out November 2014, and then last year and this year we've sort of been ramping things up a bit. It's not that we have millions, it's about one a month that launches. Most recently we had a documentary called Wizard Mode from a team of directors called Salazar, and they've been Staff Picked like 10 times. And Wizard Mode actually was a short documentary. 
They were very clever, because they released... I think they shot it all roughly at the same time, but they released the short film alongside a crowdfunding campaign. We were already on board as partners, but the short film drove attention towards the crowdfunding campaign that they needed to find the money to finish the film. That all obviously did a nice job of promoting the feature, which just came out. 
We have a short film called Darby Forever, which is made by Vimeo-native directors, but stars and was written by a woman called Aidy Bryant who's on Saturday Night Live, so she came with her own sort of in-built audience. 
And actually that's part of a thing that we should talk about called 'Share the Screen,' which we're doing this year, and this year is... I mean I'm sure it's going to continue actually, but this year the focus is on female directors and supporting female directors, commissioning them and helping them market their films. So that was the first Share the Screen project. There will be more soon. 
Yeah, and there's been others. There's been a stand-up special called Bianca Del Rio's Rolodex of Hate which is very funny. 
Matimba: Sounds funny. 
Jordan: So yeah, there's more coming soon. 
Matimba: That is amazing. Let's talk about audience, because I, obviously, hear from a lot of filmmakers who want that all-important Staff Pick. But also, the thing about Vimeo is that they know that you guys engage audiences, and I just wanted to get a sense of numbers of how wide that audience is. 
Jordan: Well, and these numbers change all the time because everything's constantly growing, but I think we're somewhere around, I don't know, it's either 180 or 200 million unique users a month. The average Staff Pick, I mean it's hard because some of them blow up and go crazy viral, and some of them just get a respectable 40 to 50,000 plays.  
But the thing that we have on our side which is helpful, it's not like a YouTube millions and millions and millions of people audience, but it's a really nice audience and lots of industry pays attention and lots of press pick up the Staff Picks and embed them in their blogs or wherever. So we have an amazing ripple effect where it's not necessarily the day that you get featured that you get this huge audience, but generally over the next week or two your views will keep going and the people that are watching are the people who can help you. So we often hear people, they had their first Staff Pick, and they got signed to a production company. The second or third Staff Pick, they got a development deal and now they're working on a feature version of the short. 
It's also important to say that we're not necessarily... films can have varying audiences. Even though it's a great film, if the creator wasn't paying attention to some sort of basic housekeeping like is the thumbnail really strong and compelling, have they put the right title of the film on. It's amazing how many people still upload their videos and they will leave the name of the film "1080 HP" or that sort of technical details from the file. 
When we found those films like I talked about recently where filmmakers uploaded a film that we've been dying to come to the platform for ages, but it's got a terrible thumbnail, and one of the things about Vimeo that is really helpful is the filmmakers can select any frame from their film as the thumbnail or upload a custom one. So we often say if your films been to Sundance or you've played at any festival or won any award, put the laurel on the thumbnail, because even you're on the internet, you know what it's like, if you look at your Facebook feed or your Vimeo feed or you're scrolling through a blog, there are so many things competing for attention that if the main image associated with your film doesn't really pop and demand that people slow down and look at it, then it's very easy for people to whisk past you. 
So we often talk to filmmakers, we might love the film, but we might say "You need to go work on the thumbnail to make sure it does as well as it should do." 
Matimba: Now that's come from Jordan McGarry, director of curation. No, because I always say to filmmakers even when we're doing stuff on our site or if like, "Can you send us a still?" And they're like, "Well, we didn't take one." Or "We didn't have a photographer," and it's like, well, just be really forward-thinking. Jordan said it, everyone needs to do it. 
Jordan: It should be 'filmmaking 101,' like on set. Don't wait till you're trying to launch your film to think about this stuff, because it's much harder to... like you say, if you'd just taken a few stills when you were on set or done a bit of behind-the-scenes content, extra, like a DVD extra kind of thing, doing it at the time while you're shooting it and then filing it properly and knowing where it is a few months later, whenever you come to launch. Just saves you so many headaches later. 
Again, the thumbnail, I cannot tell you how important that is. I even once did a... this is a few years ago now, and it was kind of rough research, but I took the... I looked at all of the staff picks over a year and the ones that did the best, I tried to figure out why they did so well and the ones that did the worst and why they suffered. 
It's not about the quality of the work, because there were some great films that just didn't quite take off. And there were some films that, of course we love all the Staff Picks, but "I wonder why this one wasn't quite so crazy." I looked at everything, I looked at the day of the week we featured it, time of day that we featured it, what kind of category; Was it animation, was it music video, do music videos do really well?  
And I couldn't find anything and I spent ages looking at this massive spreadsheet giving myself a headache, and I didn't get anywhere until I pulled the video pages up and I noticed that the videos at the top were often very colorful, strong, clear images in the thumbnails. And the videos at the bottom were... well a lot of them were very dark thumbnails, a lot of black and white stuff in there, sort of dark gray. 
Obviously, this isn't very scientific, but what I can tell you is if I was launching a film tomorrow, I would make a very strong, bright, clear thumbnail that really grabbed people's attention. And even if your film's in black and white, maybe do a custom thumbnail to give it a bit more of a brighter image. 
Matimba: So there are lots of platforms out there. Obviously Vimeo, and Short of the Week, We Are Colony, Shooting People, and we've got our own Postroom, so how do filmmakers know where to put their work? 
Jordan: Obviously, I'm going to say "Put it on Vimeo," because I genuinely... I used to use Vimeo before I worked at Vimeo and I genuinely think it's a brilliant platform. However, I would say that we don't demand exclusives from people and you would never put anything, you know, "You must only put it on Vimeo." You've got to do what's right for your film, and while our player is embeddable and you can use Vimeo to put it onto Shooting People or on to anywhere else you want to take it, YouTube does have its own kind of audience, I'd say it's a different kind of audience than Vimeo's audience, but if you feel that that's right for your film, put it on both. 
I don't think you have to just choose one. I think there's a tendency to think about your films as a case-by-case basis. What's helpful is if you can sort of pull back and imagine the bigger picture with each launch that you do, because you might have a film that's released this week and does well, you want to make sure that the next time you have a film coming out, in a year's time or six months, you can harness the same attention. 
So if you get a Staff Pick, you'd want, ideally, that to be on your own Vimeo account, rather than on maybe your production company's account. Obviously sometimes that does happen too, but we always prefer to feature work from the filmmaker's account, because it's nice for the filmmaker to then grow their audience and their followers on Vimeo. 
I would say, whichever platform you use, also set up, even if it's a really simple, website. You need somewhere that people can give you their email addresses. So that maybe you've made a few short films and then you want to do a crowdfunding campaign to fund your feature film, wouldn't it be wonderful if everybody who's ever liked one of your earlier pieces has given you their email address so that you can then ping them all and let the know that you've got a crowdfunding campaign. 
You know, "You liked my short film, I'm releasing a crowdfund to make a feature version. Are you interested in funding me?" Having that database of the people who like your work is invaluable for lots of reasons. So wherever you put them, it's quite smart to have an integrated approach and have, whether it's your social media or a website where you've got an email collection, just make sure that you've got all those boxes ticked, get organized. 
Matimba: Something else that we touched on that I'd love to come back to is talking about festivals. And I feel like we're moving away, especially in the shorts space, and we've kind of chatted about this before, we're moving away from the traditional festival route for short films. Sometimes filmmakers feel overwhelmed. "I got into a festival, I didn't get into that." If you don't get that festival recognition, how can you then leverage your online strategy to make sure that you're building an audience? 
Jordan: Well I wouldn't say that we're necessarily moving away from festivals, because I think... it was tricky for a while, because festivals were quite sniffy about films that had been online, and if you'd launched your film online then they wouldn't... they wouldn't include you in their screenings. And I think that's mostly changing now. 
You have to be careful, because it's worth checking the small print, but a lot of festivals, I know Sundance and SXSW, will now accept films that have been online already. 
Matimba: And LFF. 
Jordan: Yes, and LFF, it's not quite so 'us or them' anymore. If you don't get the festival run that you'd hoped for, I still think that there is some simple things that you can do, certainly on Vimeo, I can speak to that, but in general whatever you're doing, hopefully you've been thinking about the audience that would be interested in your film for a long time, while you've been making the film and while you've been writing it. 
Vast majorities of films do have quite a clear audience, so you just have to figure out who those people are and where they hang out online.  
So we've had a short filmmaker who made a film about Sriracha, you know, the hot sauce, and he was very clever in that while he was... I think he did a crowdfund to make the film, and he reached out food bloggers, and said "I want to make this film. Will you support my crowdfunding campaign?" And they did, and some of them promoted his crowdfund.  
And then when he was making the film he invited those people to come to the set and see the film being made, or into the edit... I forget the details. 
When the film came out, they all picked up the film and promoted it for him. Obviously not everyone has been that organised from day one, but just goes to show that you can think about this that early, and it can be really beneficial. 
Matimba: I think sometimes people feel overwhelmed, because they feel like there's one strategy, or they should be doing this or they should be doing that, but I feel like everything that you've said has been really good at proving that you have to know your audience or know who you're making that film for, and just be a bit more strategic about things. 
What I was going to ask you about is: How do you think short films are faring up against a lot more episodic stuff? Because stuff like Hood Life which I love or Strolling by Cecile Emeke, there's lots of episodic stuff that seems to be taking off and that people are talking about. Do you see one as being more successful than the other? 
Jordan: I don't think so. I know that we're very interested in series for originals, because obviously that's a nice way to prove there's an audience there, and that's a nice way to build an audience if people like something and they come back for it. And obviously that works if the content's good. 
But that doesn't mean that we're not interested in short films. And I don't think that you have to pick one or the other, they can both exist nicely alongside each other. But we're also seeing lots of short films being made as proof-of-concepts for features, which I think is really interesting. I don't think you have to choose one. 
Matimba: Everything that we've just talked about and how much Vimeo's grown, what do you see as the next...? 
Jordan: The thing that we feel really excited about at Vimeo is this sort of freedom you get as a filmmaker or creator if you are able to navigate all of these issues and do well, because you can make whatever you want to make. There aren't any gatekeepers telling you they will anoint you if you can meet what they're looking for. You just do it yourself.  
Nobody told the creators of High Maintenance to go and make High Maintenance, they just did it, and they sort of bootstrapped it for a while, but they did really well. And then, they got a commission from us, and actually the third series of High Maintenance is on HBO.  
So that's a classic trajectory of people who just went out there and did it themselves, and we're going to see more and more and more of that, and I think that's so brilliant. 
I hear stories about people trying to get projects commissioned for TV and it seems like it just takes forever and it's agony. Film funding, there are some great opportunities out there and long may that continue, but also you don't have to wait for that. 
Your chances of getting funding for a commission for TV or film or whatever greatly increase if you've shown that you're resourceful enough to do some of the legwork yourself. 
The idea that you can build your career, you can broadcast yourself or get your work out to your audience, and then when you're selling work you can keep 90% of the revenue is just... if you'd told me about that 10 years ago, I would've thought it was Christmas, that seems like such a brilliant... 
I'm not saying it's easy, and not everyone will be able to do it, but people are doing it, and people are going to continue to do it. For filmmakers it's really exciting, but also for audiences it's really exciting because if you think about how narrow the offerings are in TV and mainstream cinema, now you can find, whatever you're interested in, you can find... we've had documentaries about Ultrarunning do really, really brilliantly, and it's a subject that you don't really see on TV very often, you don't see it in cinemas, but it's a really nicely made film and it did really, really well. 
I think that's an example of niches are much better served now, and if you've got... it's not necessarily that you have to be aimed at a niche, but particularly for people in communities who haven't been given the amount of films, TV, whatever that they can identify with, it feels like it's for them. And if you're trying to make that stuff, traditionally it's been quite hard to get it commissioned because people think, "Oh, it's not mainstream." But now, you can do it yourself and you can find the audience and the audience will be grateful for it because they haven't had much of it before. 
So for filmmakers and for audiences, I think it's a really liberated, exciting time. And yeah, I'm excited to see what happens next. 
Matimba: That is the challenge. I think it's brilliant, and I think that will do it. And as we say, it's not easy, but in a way you do want filmmakers to come back and be like, "Look, actually, I've done that," and I think it's so true, the bit that you speak to about saying you're so much more likely to get that funding when you can prove... but also just show who you are, that voice, that identity. It's very exciting. I think that's the end of my questions. 
Special thanks to Jordan McGarry, to producer Marie, the BFI NET.WORK team, thank you for listening. The music you've heard was from Rory Dempsey.
If you've enjoyed the podcast, there's loads more where this came from on the BFI NET.WORK site for short films, more interviews and funding opportunities. We'd also love to know what you thought of this podcast, so Tweet us @BFINetwork. 
I'll try it again. Because what I realize is I don't breathe, I mean obviously I breathe, but I'm not a good breather, so that's why I think it's coming off really weirdly. If I do it again I think I'll find the natural place. 
Marie: Right. "I'm not a good breather." 
Matimba: I'm not a good breather...I found that out when I was downward dogging on Monday.