Below award-winning Irish filmmaker Graham Jones talks to Beyond the Box Office about his new film The History Student and his decision to release it on YouTube, for free.
BTBO: What was the budget for The History Student and how did you fund it?
GJ: It was the summer holiday budget, which was extremely small. Our son Aidan hadn’t seen his hermetic grandfather in Poland for many years, so we traipsed out to his forest hut in W?oc?awek over the summer. I thought it would be really nice to document the experience on camera, for when my son is older. Within days I found myself making a film not only about his childhood, but also sort of about my own and actually one that others might relate to as well. It became more of a drama than pure documentary. I’m not sure how impressed Aidan was, to be honest, because he doesn’t have much interest in acting and had to be paid in Lego – but I think he makes a nice protagonist for other Irish/Polish children who are growing up on this island.
BTBO: You released it for free on YouTube. Take us through your process for deciding on both free and YouTube? E.g. what other methods of distribution did you consider?
GJ: The process of considering other methods of distribution and ultimately deciding to release movies for free and selecting YouTube was a very long one, which began in the nineties when my debut feature went theatrical around Ireland and continued in the noughties when my second feature was released around the world on niche DVD – by the time I was releasing my third indie movie, I came to the conclusion that it would be a lot more fruitful to make it available online.
The reasons were partly financial, as there are obviously great costs associated with physical delivery and marketing that completely vanish online, but also strategic in the sense that a lot more attention and satisfaction can be garnered on the web nowadays anyway – particularly in the case of a modest indie movie. In short: far cheaper, far more effective. The web simply is the media and truly the space where movies will or will not develop an audience in the 21st century.
It doesn’t mean your movie can’t be projected at a festival or even distributed theatrically at a later stage. The History Student is accessible anywhere and at 4K resolution and that allows for real growth. As you can see from the view counts on my earlier features, some have really caught on. They’re not viral to the same extent as some 30 second video of a man falling down a flight of stairs, but for real indie movies and not Hollywood fare cloaked as ‘indie’ those numbers are quite respectable. In some cases, larger than old limited theatrical releases which were always smaller than people ever realised. This is the way to get people to see what you do, in my humble opinion. I’ve been very pleased with the critical reaction the movies have received and feel prepared for the future and one hopefully one day making money.
BTBO: What can you tell us about the audience for The History Student (where are they from primarily)?
GJ: Actually, I don’t know yet because the film has just been released and hardly anybody has seen it. I will have a much better idea a year from now. That’s one of the advantages of digital distribution – you are able to closely study who is watching your movie and where. On the previous films my audiences have been split between the 18-24 demographic and older, movie connoisseur types. They are largely U.S. based but a lot of people in Europe watch my movies too – not to mention all around the world. It’s great to be able to promote the film in any country you feel inclined to promote it in.
BTBO: How are you promoting the film, do you have a team for that?
GJ: Just like during the production itself, when a number of people work with me on a voluntary basis, there’s also help from some great people during the release – they assist me in drawing attention to the movie in various ways. Word of mouth is key, or the internet-era equivalent of word of mouth and it’s often about trying to make it into a news story, although you cannot completely control that – because ultimately it takes on a life of its own.
For instance, the film I made last year was called Davin and dealt with the issue of suicide. It was released on YouTube August 8th and Robins William took his life on August 11th. Many of the stories journalists wrote about the former made reference to the latter. Over 60,000 people have watched that movie. It was a tough one to make, but we are very proud of it and so there again, we made a choice to focus on audience, rather than income. Income will hopefully improve later, when the internet becomes a bit more dignified – that’s assuming my films are any good, of course!
BTBO: You recently coined the term Nuascannán. If you had to explain it to your son, how would you explain it?
GJ: I would say that when filmmaking began, you needed an expensive army, but not any more. The movies of the 21st century are going to look different from the movies of the 20th century, for that sole reason. Because people who couldn’t tell stories before are starting to realise they can tell stories now. Filmmaking still remains quite mysticised, but to nowhere near the same extent as it used to be. That is how I would explain it to my three children – by saying that it’s a very exciting time when nobody knows quite what will happen. Deep down, I sense they understand the new media more than me anyway…
BTBO: Any advice for filmmakers considering this method of distribution?
GJ: All filmmakers are being forced to consider this method of distribution, really and my advice is definitely learn to swim. Right now we’re all learning how this brave new world operates and that means making movies and releasing them. It’s the only way to learn. And don’t be fooled into thinking there is some economic model you need to fit into. Big-budgeted movies can’t even justify what they are doing economically right now. It’s all going to take time. The best policy at the moment is: keep making and releasing films. Just get on with it.
BTBO: What’s next for The History Student and for you?
GJ: Well, it will be interesting to see how the internet reacts to this little movie over the next year. The reactions so far have been positive. Then I have just finished shooting another indie movie called Nola and the Clones, which is about a homeless girl in Dublin who encounters a series of men who seem strikingly similar to one another. I had the opportunity to work with a really great Irish actor called Caoimhe Cassidy who played Nola and also Joseph Lydon who was previously in The Randomers and played each of the clones she encounters on her journey…
Watch The History Student on YouTube, it’s free!