Independent Films by the Numbers

The marketing of Independent Films

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The Best YouTube Video Length? — 8 Min.

I am programming a more intense study as I write, but I wanted to close out my initial study on the best length for a YouTube video. Common knowledge has it that since most videos on YouTube are less than 3 minutes that it is best to follow the pack and make many short videos. My study of the differences between randomly selected videos and those deemed popular/most viewed has questioned this pack logic.

What I have found is that videos under two minutes are less like to be widely watched that expected by their frequency in the population, while videos 5 minutes are over are much more likely to become popular that expected by chance and their population frequency. The strongest performance beyond chance comes from 8 minute videos, which have a stunning chi-squared value of 188 on 1 degree of freedom. Scores higher than 10.8 are able to reject a null hypothesis of the observed being the same as the expected with a confidence level of 99.9%!

I have charted this patterning by plotting the runtimes of YouTube videos against the chi-squared values looking at the expected number of popular videos based upon the population frequencies for those same runtimes. To make the chart easier to understand, I made the chi-squared values negative for cases where the observed was less than expected. Enjoy.


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Research Summary on YouTube Optimization

I have been doing more research on the state of affairs with Optimization of YouTube videos. At least publicly, there appears to be not much substance published on the topic beyond common sense and the application of SEO rules to the platform.

The most notable source I have found so far are Jonathan Mendez’s blog “Optimize and Prophesize” and a post at These two site focus on tags as the means to drive viewership much in the same way that webpages are optimized for organic search.



The upshot of these blogs is that optimization should focus on tags by:

  1. Matching tag content to titles and description
  2. Using unique tags for each video (along with unique descriptions and title)
  3. Make tags relevant
  4. Use adjective to help better engage your audience
  5. Avoid use of standard stopwords using in Natural Language Processing
  6. Use as many tags as possible (although this point by Mendez’s blog was debated in the comment responses to this point, based upon a searching index’s tendency to become unfocused when too many options are given).

What you should notice in this work is twofold – First it does not transform YouTube optimization beyond standard natural SEO and it seems very anecdotal based. The method and data backing these recommendations are unproved by information to back their assertions. Second, it is unclear how to apply this advice for impact since it is unclear beyond some loose description what make a good tag beyond it should not be from an undefined list of stop words.

Beyond these tag based insights, I found these others pearls of YouTube optimization from other sources (unvalidated by hard data as well):

  1. New video do not get search preference at YouTube over older content.
  2. Many views are driven by becoming a featured video, but this process in an internal one.
  3. Inbound links are important from trusted domains.
  4. Use the social aspects of YouTube and the 2.0 web to drive viewship/li>
  5. Sex and humor sells. It is a good strategy to find strongly performing content and make a lampoon of it or create a response to it.
  6. Carefully consider the category to be used for the video to make sure it matches the content
  7. Some blogs advice that voting and comments matters, while others think this is not the case.
  8. Make you title catchy, but don’t give too much away

All in all there is not much good content on how best to market your video on YouTube beyond just making it findable by standard search. It seems to me that insights from work I have done for optimizing films for festivals, advertising messaging, and e-mail for delivery would provide some much needed heft to the YouTube optimization toolkit.

I need to plan my big test….

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YouTube Title Optimization Probed

My initial work on analyzing factors for success on YouTube has continued with a quick analysis of Titles. It is clear to me that a bigger, longitudial study is now needed with a much larger sample size. The initial work has oriented me well, but it has its limits especially since the life cycle of typical YouTube video remains in the shadows.

The initial title work has focused upon title length in characters. It is not earthshaking, but it does provide some an initial view into the psychographics of the video posters. Again, I have compared popular/most viewed distributions against a random control.

What I have found is that there is a natural mode at a length of 32 characters for the title in both segments. The random segment has a second mode with fewer characters (<25 characters), which suggests that these might be largely hastily posted video with little effort crafting an involved title. There is one last mode at 70 characters which is the saturation point of naming -- in other words the point at which names cannot be longer. Are these extra-long names attempts at making video more findable by organic search, or just the verbose efforts of passionate uploader? I don't know yet. Anyway, here is the chart... Bar chart of title lenghts by segment

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Flaws with other YouTube Optimization Recommendations

I have been researching the state of the art for YouTube optimization and I must admit it is weak.

What bugs me most with the previous work on this subject is that it lack any baseline to compare. Just because most popular videos are shorter than 5 minutes does not mean that it is wise to make your hopefully popular video shorter than 5 minutes.

Given that all videos on YouTube tend to be short, the question should be are five or less minute videos represented in the popular category more than expected by random chance sampling from the greater population. They are not. My early work suggest that it would be foolish to cut your video short to optimize its chances for popularity.

The other recommendation for optimization I found are equally poor and under theorized… the influence of tags needs to be better addressed beyond rolling over now dated search optimization strategies for tags.

Time of day and day of the week optimizations exist, but they lack rigor of quantifying why this is important and how this effects the success of videos.

All in all, we can do better.

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Number of Tags per Video on YouTube

I have often wondered about tag in video site. Do they make a difference, since they allow videos to be found? Or is the number of videos so vast that they become lost in a sea of other tags? I don’t know the answer yet, but I do know this…. there is a difference between popular/most viewed videos and my random control selection. Popular videos average more tags spread out over a wide somewhat normal distribution, while my control sample has inverse decline pattern with most videos having one or just a few.

Are the number of tags cause for improved performance or are the best performers more carefully crafted? I need to brood on how to show which is the best explanation of what I am seeing.

Number of Tags per Video on YouTube

Number of Tags per Video on YouTube

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Pattern of Run Times for YouTube Videos

Given that there are better movie lengths for festival films, I have begun to wonder if the same is true for YouTube videos.  I am not the biggest fan of YouTube, but given its importance as a grassroots distribution channel I thought I should get over my personal biases and take a deeper dive into what makes it tick.

My initial study has involved capturing data on 2,600 video submitted yesterday.  I drew the sample from YouTube’s top 13 channels (minus Movies and Music, which seem to play by different rules) for a collection of 200 videos for each channel.  Those 200 hundred videos were split evenly into two segments: popular videos for that day and a control group of randomly selected videos.

I am still early in my analysis, but it is clear that these two samples are distinctly different.   Randomly selected videos tend to skew shorter with the largest mode occurring with videos less than one minute long and all others being 10 minutes or less in length.  If you look at the distribution of this random control segment it is a classic inverse power drop off with the count of videos dropping as the lengths go up.  The Popular/Most Viewed segment has a very different form.  There is a mode at less than one minute, but it is much less pronounced than the control segment.  There is a second mode for the popular segment at 10 minutes with a tail of lengths extending out past 10 minutes.

It seems that popular videos tend to be longer than the average video, which is a pattern not unlike what I observed for short films in festivals.  Despite not be normal in distribution, the averages run times are interesting with the control group having an average run time at 2 minutes 37 seconds, while the popular segment has an average run time at 4 minutes 52 seconds (almost twice the length) .

Runtimes for a sample of 2,600 YouTube Videos

Runtimes for a sample of 2,600 YouTube Videos

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Website analysis of the Dead Snow (2008) film website

Movie: Dead Snow (2008)
Designed by: Unknown
Reviewed: 2/25/2009

An extremely simple flash site with an embedded trailer over the top of splash image.

Film Description:

Zombie Nazis in Norway. Do I need to say more? Maybe a little more. The film is a Norwegian language horror/comedy, which was picked up after its Sundance 09 premiere by IFC films.

Marketing Notes:

There is not much here in terms of marketing. The site and its buzz strategy are fairly simple.

The splash background image is cool with the film title in red and a series of three Nazis in the snow. This image is textured to appear as if the image is painted on canvas. The colors are nicely shaded in mottled dark blues and greens with occasional punches of red. On top of this background, the trailer plays off to the left side.

In general, I like the look of the site. The trailer is fine. I think the trailer could have been more playful or suspenseful, but than again this is a film whose premise sells itself. It does not take much to market a film about zombie Nazis, since the draw is the concept. Too artsy a trailer is probably over-thinking things.

I would have like a few more marketing features on the site such as a signup for updates or some way of contacting the production company Elle Driver. That being said, the site works for me, since it nicely focused on creating buzz by having a home for trailer. The idea of a film about zombie Nazis will probably do the rest. You really don’t need more.

It is very good that they were able to get the URL It makes them much more findable than using less obvious URLs such as BTW, the title of the film is excellent. The combination the works Dead and Snow makes for a memorable and evocative title. I like it.

Technology Notes:

I do not like the fact that I cannot pause, rewind, forward, or mute the flash video. I can hide the trailer via a button at the bottom of the page and start it up again, but that is all. The size and quality of the video is good, but it is clearly only directed at broadband users. The design is likewise optimized for at least 1024 pixel wide screen.

What I like least about this site from a tech standpoint is its use of a frameset to place the flash movie on the page instead of using DNS, redirects or content publishing to make a more seamless implementation. The real content sits at There is no excuse for this kind of sloppy use of frames in my mind. The HTML is sparse, except for a large number of largely unused meta-tags, which suggest this site was developed using some sort of publishing framework (maybe hosted by In general, these issue are not so good for search optimization.

The site’s traffic is being tracked by Google Analytics.

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Review of the We Live in Public website

Movie: We Live in Public (2009)
Designed by: Unknown – Perhaps by the filmmakers themselves
Reviewed: Feb 2009

Overview: For a net savvy film, this site is amateurish in its design and execution. The site does provide most of the standard needs of visitor, so its marketing faults are largely experiential, design, and organizational in nature. I do commend the director for putting to use in promoting the film at Sundance and beyond. This use to real-time blogging is a nice parity to the subject of the documentary, which deals with what happen when you start living your life 24/7 online exposed to the World. That being said, they could have taken this effort much further and more playfully than the lightweight Flickr coverage they did for Sundance.

Film Description:

A Sundance Grand Prize winning documentary (90 minutes) that follows the founder of the online video network in his experiments with living life publicly on Internet under around the clock surveillance. Directed by Ondi Timoner.

Marketing Notes:

The marketing of the film is very centered on the filmmaker Ondi Timoner perhaps to the detriment of the film’s content. That being said, her heritage as the director the Sundance winning documentary Dig! does give this project some heft, but I still would like to connect more with the movie itself via the site. The movie itself seems at times to be almost a secondary thought for the site.

The homepage is somewhat emotionally detached and not in a good way … the colors are cold without a punch and there is the lack of human contact. If it were not for the image of Ondi Timoner accepting her award at Sundance, the homepage would be lifeless. This one human image looks away from us and is too shot wide. It would have been better if this image was cropped more intimately so the face is better highlighted, and either mirrored or moved to right so her eyes draw us into the page rather than away to the edge.

The content of the site was generally comprehensive for most visitor’s need and covers most of the standard site visit use cases. Visitors can watch the trailer, find out about screening, know who was involved with this film, and read synopsis. If I want to read more about the film and its characters, the site seems thin.

One of the most glaring marketing issues with this site is the signup for updates being totally buried at the bottom of the homepage way below the page fold. I almost missed it even after a number of visits to this page. This signup is a simple email link rather than a more comprehensive form, which probably came about due to the flat HTML design of the site limiting its functionality.

Given the social technology theme of the project, I would like to have seen a RSS feed option for this site to stay connected with the sites update and news like most blogs now offer. You can follow the film and its makers on Flickr, but Flickr is a better messaging/PR solution than it is straight up direct marketing tool. Flickr is very ephemeral, which limits is ability to broadcast information if someone is tracking many Flickr users at once. I will say that I do wish Timoner used Flickr better. Her posts are not frequent enough and the content reads like a link farm for mobile phone shot images, which limited drawing in outsiders to caring about her film.

Maybe I am just getting older with poorer eyesight, but I struggled with the extensive use of white text on a black background. While this style choice seem cool, it does lead to more eyestrain than black on white text, so it is discouraged. I would also have chopped up some of the text on the site to make it more readable. The web tends to favor shorter paragraphs than traditional print. All in all, I struggled with reading the text of this site, which places a limit on this site’s ability to clearly communicate to its audience.

All the above issues have left me wondering about what the brand actually was for the film. Based on the site alone independent of the trailer, it is hard to tell. The trailer was strong and stood apart from the site in style and tone. It made me want to see the movie and by extension to push the trailer to the front page of the site. The trailer should have been the basis of website in its prominent positioning and by extension of its tone.

An image of the movie poster is prominent on the home page, but its low resolution made it not work for me despite the fact that I do like the design of it. I think that this poster could have been better integrated into site as click through to a high resolution image from the sidebar, as part of the about the film section, or a playful design concept for the homepage. In its present usage, the movie poster is a waste of valuable homepage real estate.

The site has clearly been maintained with updates many of which are prominently displayed on the homepage. The Sundance win is nicely displayed as is the fact that Timoner is the first two-time top winner in the history of Sundance.

I would have liked a press section to help the PR about the movie spread faster. The press section was all about past reviews and not about providing materials to help publishers write new articles about the film and its director.

Technical Notes:

It was clear from the start of my analysis that a professional Internet person did not build this site. When looking at the source code of the pages, I quickly discovered that the site was actually a giant frame referencing the real site hosted at the Apple managed domain – Instead of using 302 permanent redirects, DNS mapping, or content synchronization to make a seamless experience, they choose to use html frames to bring the content into the newly purchased domain. Frames are frowned upon today due to their issues with search engines not always knowing how to index the content within those frames and the general clumsy execution of frames within a web browser.

I was disappointed that the trailer failed to run on my machine as coded into the page. The format was a .m4v video file (which surprised me) that was loaded by a JavaScript call. I was able to quickly unpack the location of the file directly at, which allowed me to view the trailer directly without problem. Clearly, the JavaScript call to the movie file had issues. The .m4v format of the trailer can also be problematic on PCs, since it is actually a MP4 container format (audio/video mix) with an Apple non-standard extension ending its file name. This can confuse some PC-based video players who do not recognize the file naming convention. It is best practice now to rename the file with a .mp4 extension or translate the file into .mov or similar format, or better yet convert the file to .flv and play it through a simple flash movie to prevent players issues. Given the ubiquity of flash video enabled flash players, this last option is the best. Flash video also makes it a bit harder for someone to pick up your trailer and drop it on another site without your permission.

The site is a flat HTML site coded using Apple’s iWeb, which explains the domain. As with all GUI based HTML editors, the code leaves something to be desired with plenty of strange hypertext structures and waste. I did not quality assure the site through a PC browser such as Internet Explorer, but I would not be surprised if there were issues.

The site does have some limited Flash in the photo section and a sprinkling of iWeb standard JavaScript. All other video links beyond the trailer reference YouTube hosted content.

The sign up for the mailing list is simple once it is found by user – a Gmail address in a mail link with the subject line of “Add me the Mailing List.” While workable, it would be preferable to have this form feed directly into a database rather than relying up this data being rolled up via Gmail. Databasing allows more information to be collected such where the person lives (a nice piece of information to target emails about local screenings), while easing data entry and management issues. The good news for them is that Gmail has some of the most aggressive Spam filters, so this mailing link will be completely inundated with Spam due the address being public. Even legitimate bulk senders can have difficulty getting past Gmail’s defenses (this in another discussion for a later date).

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Tracking Film Activity

As you can tell I like to look at films through the lens of data. When you are promoting your own independent film, I would argue that collecting data on your film’s activity should be a continuing activity of yours. As an independent, you do not have the resources of the big studios who share a bent for data collection about their films. You probably cannot afford expensive press clipping services and the like, but this does not mean you are not without means.

By monitoring your film’s website for inbound traffic and a smart use of search engines, you can rival the media monitoring capabilities of the big boys and girls.

One of the great things about the web is its ability to track things. Your own website has this wonderful capabilities whether you realize it or not. Every click a user makes can be tracked by even the simplest of web servers. The challenge is making sense of this data.

The good news is that you are not without options to help make sense of the web log data from your site. Many ISPs provide reporting for sites they host and Google now offers a free analytics package at, which you can enable by placing a small bit of HTML code on the pages of your website. Once installed, a web site reporting tool can allow you to track all sorts of behavior on your site. For purposes of monitoring your film presence online, I recommend taking a look at the number of unique visitors (aka “uniques”) and any report showing inbound linking to your site.

The number of uniques show how popular your site is. If there is activity/buzz online about your film, it will typically result in an influx of visitors that can seen as increased unique visitors. We use unique visitors over number of page views, since a single user can view more than one page. Individual requests of your website (aka “Hits”) are typically not a useful measure, since each page can result in many hits.

When I marketed the documentary Shelter Dogs, it was easy to see any message board posting or e-mail blast sent with a mention of the film. The number of uniques would shoot up over night, and then it was just a matter looking at the inbound links to see where the traffic was coming from. If it was a website that I could access, this enabled me to read the vox popular of the film in almost realtime. Given the controversial nature of this film (you would not believe it), this work was invaluable. We were able to see the positive and negative reactions to the film and our PR efforts, and tune our messaging. It also enabled us to find audiences interested in the film that we have not anticipated, such as ethics programs at colleges.

Not all online activity results in traffic to your web that you can track, so in addition to the website tracking I like using a healthy dose of search engine work to round out my regular data collection. In this work, it helps having a unique film name, such as “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Films with more common names such “Interview” are harder to find in search engines — the search term interview yielded 30,000,00 results and there were 3 films on the festival circuit in 2007 with this name. It becomes hard to find your film in sea of results and confusion.

The best way to work with a search engines if your film has a unique name or can be tracked using some unique feature (e.g. the main character’s name, director, setting, etc…) is to set up a Google Alert, which is a trigger in the Google system to send you an e-mail when a new news article comes out mentioning your film, a blogger post a new post, etc… An alert is easiest set up from the News tab on the Google interface… type your search term in the News search box, hit enter, and at the bottom of your results will be a link to get the latest news on your search term. You can choose what to receive (news, blog, etc..) and how often. I typically get a daily digest to limit my e-mail and ask for comprehensive results. It can be your own low budget clipping service!

This might all sound overwhelming, but once you get things set up and get into a routine it you might enjoy it. It is easy to feel that your film is making no impact. Tracking your film enables you to see how much an impact your film is really having.

BTW, I advise having a thick skin and a sense of humor in this work. Anyone can say anything good or bad about your film. If it gets bad, you need to take a deep breath and move on.

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