By Bears Fonte

When Youtube exploded on to the scene one of my first thoughts was that short films were finally going to reach a wider audience.  But 30,000 cat videos (and unregulated hate speech) later, I think we can safely say that’s not the venue for that.  Enter Vimeo.  Years ago Vimeo emerged as the filmmaker’s choice because they offered HD uploads and the films looked amazing (as amazing as possible streaming).  As a film festival programmer, I got in the habit back in 2012 at Austin Film Festival of regularly requesting vimeo links to help make programming decisions.  But there was the whole other issue of what if the film was available online publically?

Now more than ever, Vimeo is a cornerstone of filmmaking landscape, a power player that benefits both Filmmakers and Film Festivals.  As prejudices against showing films available online fade away, film festivals are showing more and more material that debuts on Vimeo.  And Vimeo has become one of the largest ‘film festivals’ in the world.  The Vimeo Curation team fuels the site with the best short films out there, year-round, with Vimeo Staff Picks highlighting the best short-form content on the platform.  Often a film that has already screened at a high profile film festival,the Vimeo Staff Pick gets a permanent laurel overlay on their upload, and can get between 50,000 and 200,000 views in one day.

Sam Morrill

“I think Vimeo is fast becoming one of the go-to destinations, if not the go-to destination, for the best short films on the Internet,” says Sam Morrill, Vimeo’s Curation Director, who I had a chance to site down with at SXSW this year and discuss the way Vimeo is changing the way we see and experience short films. “Staff Picks has existed for about ten years now,” he reflects, “It’s slowly evolved from a collection of pretty raw, unproduced videos that were essentially vlogs originally into a platform for really well-produced, high-quality short films.” In many ways, this shift on the platform has coincided with festivals becoming a little bit more lenient in terms of the sort of programming they were doing for their festivals and the role the Internet could play in the distribution of those films. According to Morrill: “I think Sundance was the first top-tier film festival to say, ‘No we’re not going to do that anymore. We’re going to program films that have already appeared online.’ That opened up the floodgates and now most film festivals, including SXSW, allow for films that have already showed online to be shown at their film festivals.”

Now, film festivals actually go Vimeo, especially the curated sections like Staff Picks or Vimeo Premieres, to find films for their festival.  And the Vimeo curation team goes to film festivals to source films for future Staff Picks. Vimeo has always had a symbiotic relationship with festivals, as their platform became the structure that FilmFreeway built their submission site around, finally ending the monopoly the WithoutABox enjoyed for their online screeners (a much lower quality at the time). Since then, WithoutABox has upgraded their streaming quality signifacntly, as well as allowing the use of vimeo screeners embedded. “I think it’s better for everyone,” says Morrill, “better for the festivals because they get to watch it in higher quality. Better for the filmmakers because they feel like, I’m putting my best foot forward here; They don’t want to feel like they’re showing a compromised version of their film.” The added benefit for Vimeo is it gets the filmmaker into the ‘vimeo ecosystem.’ Filmmakers can get Pro Accounts for more uploading capabilities but mostly, they have a vimeo screener there, waiting to go public when possible. “At some point, the filmmakers is like, ‘alright, let’s release this into the wild.’ They take that same upload and make it public and it goes out there,” he says, “and then, and it’s on Vimeo Staff Picks the next day.”

Of course, filmmakers still need to be careful about selecting when to release their film online publicly.  I regularly consult with filmmakers about their festival strategy and recommend they not to put it online until they’ve played some of the festivals they really want to play. And then you can use that to catapult to much bigger online splash.  On the other hand, I consult with festivals and encourage them to play films that have already played online because the communal aspect and theatrical venue a festival offer in an entirely different experience. Another thing to consider, Morrill suggests, is the subject matter of the film.  “I would say if your film is on the more topical end of the spectrum, then there’s more pressure for you to get it out online sooner,” he says, “in the documentary world, there’s much more willingness to put your film online, and then submit to film festivals and see if festivals want to program it.” He points to a film in the SXSW doc shorts program, on which he served on the jury, Matthew K. Firpo’s REFUGEE which was a Vimeo Staff Pick months before SXSW, which played it and listed it as a US Prmeiere.   “I think for a filmmaker like Matthew,” proposes Morrill, “he’s faced with this choice where it’s like ‘well, this is a really important subject matter and it needs to get out there, so is it right of me to keep this off of the internet and keep this away from the audience, so as to preserve my festival eligibility?’ … It’s a very pressing issue that is immediately relevant.”

Still, more often than not, the system works the other way, like Vimeo Staff Pick Premiere THESE C∗CKSUCKING TEARS, Dan Taberski’s SXSW jury award winning short doc about Patrick Haggerty’s LAVENDER COUNTRY, the first openly gay country album.  “We got a lot of complaints,” remembers Morrill, “we got some complaints when we released it because as soon as you login to Vimeo, the top of the page, Staff Pick Premiere: These C∗cksucking Tears. A lot of people were like, wait a second, what’s going on? We had churches and religious organizations expressing some concerns and we addressed them.” Of course, the eye-catching title is part of the appeal of the film, but if you actually take the time to watch the film, I don’t think there’s anything particular controversial about it. “it’s a really beautiful, inspiring portrait of an activist,” says the Vimeo Curation Director, “he’s a character that definitely has invited controversy through his life, but he’s been proven time and time again to be on the right side of history. The controversial stances he took in the 70s are not that controversial any more.”

Playing a festival like SXSW, Taberski’s film gave Haggerty’s music a chance to find a new generation of listeners.  But featured on VIMEO, his music can easily reach hundreds of thousands of people, and forever, as we all know festivals end and all we have are our memories and program guides.  For Haggery, the experience has been life-changing. “He’s started to book more shows,” says Morrill, “Lavender Country has become more of a mainstay on the music festival circuit.” By the way, if you haven’t heard this album, you should immediately download it.  Its one of the most amazing undiscovered gems of the seventies – TRULY outlaw country.

The Vimeo Curatorial Staff, (left to right) Sam Morrill (Director of Curation), Ina Pira (Curator), Ian Durkin (Senior Curator), Meghan Oretsky (Curator), Jeffrey Bowers (Senior Curator)

So who are these curators that Vimeo uses to find the best films out there and lift them up to a higher platform? Are they bitter filmmakers, or people from a film festival world, coders who got into film? Who are you guys? “We all kind of come from different backgrounds,” says Morrill of the five Curators, himself, Ian Durkin, Jeffery Bowers, Meghan Oretsky, and Ina Pira, the newest one, “she comes from a festival programming background,” – Montclair Film Festival and Hamptons International Film Festival, two solid ones for sure.  “She’s a tried and true festival programmer who’s done features and shorts and knows the festival landscape really well.”  Bowers, another former Hamptons International Film Festival programmer, was originally brought on to be the VOD programmer for Vimeo on Demand. Dirkin, the longest serving member of the Vimeo curation team, actually received as a Staff Pick before joining the Vimeo curation team, and serves as the team’s sort of in-house action/sports specialist. Morrill joined Vimeo in 2009, as an intern. “I’m sort of a hold-over from the start-up days,” he says, “I was brought in intern for the community team… customer support, community moderation – making sure people are playing by the rules. There were 17 people at Vimeo when I started.”

As the co-founder of Staff Picks Blake Whitman took on more responsibility, he put Morrill in charge of Staff Picks in 2010.  “At the time, I was really psyched about it,” he remembers, “but it didn’t real like a big deal at all at the time because, again, we were pretty small and Staff Picks was not what it is today. It’s mere happenstance that I fell into video curation. I’ve always been a huge lover of cinema and TV. Growing up, I really watched an unhealthy amount of television. Although I would argue that it was totally healthy, given where I landed professionally.”

Vimeo Curators approach their jobs as any programmer might, as Morrill quantifies it as “is it a story I haven’t heard before or is a story that I have heard before but told in a way I haven’t heard before?” Lately, the staff has consciously been trying to define their editorial voice. “Previously Staff Picks was really just a grab-bag of the best videos on Vimeo,” he says, “it didn’t make for a super compelling viewing experience when you watched them sequentially” A really funny animation would be followed by really dark music video, then an epic action sports video…  “So we took a step back and looked at what we did best,” he continues, “provocative storytelling, intellectually serious, films that really make you think and challenge your assumptions about the world.”  One such film that made a big splash as a Vimeo Staff Pick Premiere is Calvin Lee Reeder’s THE PROCEDURE, a Sundance Jury-Award Winner. “That’s a very unique story told in a very unique way,” Morrill says, “it’s for sure a story we’ve never heard before, but also its style and efficiency as a short film – it’s, what, 3- 3 ½ minutes. But it asks so many questions. You are left asking so many questions and the implications of the story are so huge, even though it’s such a small story.”

At its core, Vimeo is looking for great films for their audience, which he describes as “a combination of movie-lovers, or cine-philes, for lack of a better word, and then filmmakers and industry professionals.” The great thing about releasing a film on Vimeo is that they are reaching the filmmaking community. “That can lead to future work,” according to Morrill, “it leads to recognition in the industry in a way that other platforms don’t necessarily lead to.” In fact, if you look at the comments page on a Vimeo video, they sometimes look a lot like a Q&A that you’d find after a film festival screening, the same sort of knowledgable craft-deep dive questions.  The Vimeo Curation team will travel to 35-40 festivals this year, scouting films. But they are also accessable with a simple email. According to the website, any video that has played in competition at an Oscar®-qualifying event within the last 24 months is eligible and can reach out at premieres@vimeo.com.

“To be honest, the biggest utility that we may get out of these festivals is just building the network of filmmakers that we know and we’re keeping track of,” the Vimeo Curation Director says, “then using festivals as a platform to talk about Staff Picks and educate people about what it is that we’re doing on Vimeo.” A recent Staff Pick Premieres, SAY SOMETHING INTELLIGENT, a short documentary from Lewis Bennett, reached out to the team after they had met at SXSW a few years earlier with his feature THE SANDWICH NAZI.  The film premiered two months ago on Vimeo and has been seen by of 365,000 people.   “Ideally for us,” Morrill says, “we’re psyched when films skip the festival circuit altogether and just go straight to Vimeo.”

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