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Susan Buice and Arin Crumley - web film pioneers become YouTube's first feature filmmakers

fem8There are few poster-stars of the web-led film evolution quite like Susan Buice and Arin Crumley. The NY duo - who James MacGregor sourced for a Shooting People interview, and then for an interview for the new funding book (republished here) - have just seen their credit-card funded Four Eyed Monsters became the first feature film to be made available on YouTube (films are normally capped at 10 mins). 

There's lots of things you can say about Arin and Susan - how the couple met online and agreed to communicate initialy without speaking, and then went on to turn their art into an expose of their relationship as feature film, how they built up a huge online audience with an ongoing series of video podcasts, and self-distributed their feature film in US cinemas (with DRM-free distribution on the small-screen), who use the latest software, tech, social networks and web services as ways to talk about their feelings. At times I wonder if they were dreamt up by a marketing executive at Apploogletubesoftabox, so brilliantly do they use potentially soulless tools to create something something at once both very personal and universal.

It's this, perhaps, that's their greatest achievement - they've laid their life and love bare, shaping it into a form a world of reality-tv-junkies can gorge on, but in a form altogether more tender, honest, delicate and just plain nakedly human than anything a big media machine could ever create.

The first time I watched the Four Eyed Monsters video-casts I collapsed on my bedroom floor in tears. I have not cried like that in a long time. In fact I wasn't sure I could get up, the films had managed to kick me right back to the most terrifying moments of a broken heart, and the (handwritten) creative explosions around that. It was only a bird, peering in at my window and chirping which made me get up and go for a recovering walk by the river. But it was the honesty of the video-casts which sent me there, and judging by their huge and growing fanbase - I"m not alone.

 Its an interesting experience comparing the video episodes with the feature as it says much about the cross roads the world of moving image is at right now. There's the traditional(ish) feature, created with scripts and dollys and lights and actors; and the video-log, capturing life unfolding, framed with whatever artistry and technique suited the plot at that time. The difference between a celebrity, playing a part, pretending to love another celebrity, playing a part -  and two lovers, playing themselves, with nothing to lose but their privacy and intimacy, which they've chosen to share with us. As well as the 'permission to be human' idea of Cluetrain, it reminded me of something poet Simon Armitage once wrote when reviewing 32 Short Films About Glen Gould: "the inevitableness of a lie, compared with the extravagance and endless possibility of real life".

Anyway, enough of my ramblings (there can be too much human sometimes), and on with an exert from James MacGregor's interview, which can be found in our new funding book.

Four Eyed Monsters Grow Their Own Audience : Romancing – and Distributing - the Web

fem7James MacGregor interviews Susan Buice and Arin Crumley, creators of Four Eyed Monsters. The pair made a movie about the development of their real-life relationship, podcast it on the web to win a massive following and used their audience to decide which local theatres to screen the movie in. They did it on credit cards, racking up an $80K debt.

How did you meet up and decide to start the project and when did you realise your Four Eyed Monsters was going to have a life of its own, through the web?
As presented in episode 1 of our video Podcast (see below) and as portrayed in our film, we met through an online dating website. Our relationship began as sort of an experiment in dating and in communication. We decided to meet up almost immediately but created the rule that we would not speak to each other but could communicate with one another in any other format. We created hand written notes, drawings, and played music for one another. At certain point we began creating videos for each other. After 4 months of this lifestyle we finally began speaking. We were really inspired by the experiences we had during our non-speaking courtship. We wanted to turn our communication experiment outward and expand our audience from just one another to more people so we created the film to tell the story. The video podcast is a continuation of the same story and the video podcast just so happens to be in a format that can easily spread and be subscribed to.

Episode 1

The focus is on your relationship and how it grows and changes over time, but does it really reflect your real relationship? Is it art imitating life, or has it somehow become a case of art almost dictating life for the two of you?
Everyone who has watched the entire video podcast series to date is aware that it is a depiction of our real lives. Even though we are using a medium and style that is normally associated with fiction, the story we’re telling is true. To be fair it’s a highly expressive project so when the audience is looking at something that is very obviously constructed, it is an expression of our real experiences. The film works the same way but the film has an even more narrative feel because there is very little real life footage. What we are interested in is working on projects about real relationships; Making stuff up wouldn’t provide valuable insights to ourselves or anyone else.

No bust-ups over which way to go or which way to play things??
During the process of making stuff we, of course, disagree all the time but we always agree on the final outcome that becomes public.

There are a lot of people involved creatively – how many exactly?
Who we work with is always changing but we usually work very closely with one other person and for the duration of that time that person is an equal collaborator. The individuals we work with at any given time depends on what the project needs in that moment.

Are they all volunteers or have you had to pay for some things you needed?
We’ve had volunteers who have worked on basic things but for the most part everyone we have worked with has been a collaborator, some of them close friends and some we’ve met through working on the project. Other than certain stipends most people have worked in exchange for credit on the project.

Episode 2

Totting up the bills, what were the costs in time and money setting all this up for the web?
We don’t really distinguish between the video podcast and the film in terms of financial costs or time costs. The Web hosting of our videos has been donated by Cache Fly and the cost of our website is very little. What has been expensive is time. We’ve been working on the entire project for the past 3 years full-time and we’ve racked up a huge credit card debt on living expenses. Our debt to date is somewhere around $80,000.

When you decided you would go for a feature length movie as well as podcasts, how did that work exactly - did you edit pre-existing material together, shoot new stuff; how did you give FEMonsters followers a new and fresh experience?
The film was created first and most of the film is shot fresh, though much of it was based on old footage we had from early in our relationship. The video podcast is a continuation of the same story and it is all new content. Most of the video podcast is documentary footage, but every now and then will shoot something , animate or illustrate something and even use found footage to convey certain aspects of the story we’re telling. The video podcast is usually how people find out about the film since we’ve never had a distributor to release and market the film.

We hear about zero budgets, but we all have to spend on tape, bus fares, pencils and yellow pads… what did you lay out to get from web podcasts to a feature you could screen in theaters?
We owned almost all the equipment we needed for the film: camera, lights, Macs and Final Cut Pro for editing. We did rent a track at one point and for 2 days we rented a space to shoot a restaurant scene. Besides that we bought a lot of mini DV tape. The hard costs of the film totalled to less than $10,000 but like I said before, we worked full time on the project so we put our rent and the cost of food on credit cards, which is how we racked up so much debt.

How did you convince theatre owners that they should let your film into their program and did you have to pay hire charges or do a “house split” – how did that work?
On our website we allow people to request our film which means they give us their email and zip code and by doing this they are requesting that we screen our film in their area and that if we do we are free to contact them. Using this information we were able to see where there were people who wanted to see our film. We felt like if 150 people had requested the film in a given area it would be lucrative enough endeavour for us to propose and convince a theatre to arrange a screening. When we called the theatre we explained the request system and explained that we would contact all the requestors and let them know about the screenings and encourage a wider audience to go through our videos on our podcast. In the cities we were going for, we would sometimes hit resistance with a theatre. In that case we would call other theatres until we found the one that wanted to take a chance with us. With most theatres we arranged a 50/50 split of ticket sales. In a couple of cases we were able to negotiate a low four walling fee and all the ticket sales from those venues went straight to us.

Episode 3

You have just had (Dec 2006) a NYC opening week at Cinema Village – how did that go and what sort of box office did you manage to generate?
We opened on split screen with 2 other films. We weren’t playing at every slot on every day. Our box office was fairly weak. We did, however, end up the # 5 opening film in New York City that week and got reviewed in the New York Times, Village Voice as well as a slew of other press. We also lead a grassroots campaign using our New York supporters and distributed 4000 stickers, 500 posters, 5000 postcards, and 200 free DVDs which was a cool way to get to know people who have been watching our podcast for a long time. We also held interactive discussions every night after our 7 PM screenings on various topics ranging from net neutrality, to life logging, to internet dating.

Where do you take Four Eyed Monsters from here? I mean has it now got a life all of its own and could go on as pure fiction, or will it have to continue as episodic, waiting for developments in your own relationship?
Well we still have some story left untold which is what we’re currently editing into the next few episodes. As for continuing to follow our relationship in an auto-biographical way, we’re not going to necessarily continue doing that. We’re still interested in discovering things about real relationships, how we go about making those discoveries is something we’re currently navigating.

Does it ever feel strange that people you meet seem to know all about you in almost intimate detail, yet they are total strangers. Do you ever feel you have over-exposed yourselves? Are you completely cool about it?
We rarely get recognized in the street so we don’t interact with our audience in real life that often, but when we do it’s usually pretty cool because some of the introduction bullshit is out of the way. In meeting new people, you have to spend so much time making your first impression and nothing really gets communicated during that first interaction beyond surface things, such as ‘well this person seems on the ball’ or ‘what an idiot,’ but when we meet people who have seen the podcast we can quickly get to a point where we’re communicating with more depth. Because they know a lot about us, that’s less that we have to convey in a less articulate way by talking and they in turn are more apt to be less guarded and reveal things about themselves.

What advice can you give to anyone thinking of attempting the podcasts to features route – is it a good way to find an audience and is it sustainable long term.
If you’re releasing good compelling video on the web for free you will build an audience. If that is your only goal you are set. If your goal is to get that audience to do something else, that becomes challenging. We’ve been able to get our audience to petition for screenings of our film, come out to theatres and pay money to see the film and to help us promote it. At the centre of all this interaction is a community that we are building. The centre of that community is our video podcast. How financially sustainable this will be for us is the next chapter of this experiment. Our prediction is that having a dedicated community around a project has tremendous value that can be creatively leveraged into getting out of debt and lining up a budget for the next project.

 In a world that churns out endless half-truths, spun and packaged as entertainment products, the honesty with which Susan Buice and Arin Crumley of FourEyedMonsters have offered their story to millions of web watchers is quite a gift. The simplest way to repay the pair - whose film is now free online (for a lowfi version at least) - is to sign up on - who will pay them $1 for every signup.

And here's the feature..