Video Essays from 2011, Part 2 – Hired, Fired, Viral, Hired Again

This is a continuation of a year-by-year recollection of my experiences over the past decade of video essay production. The most recent entry reflected on two sets of legacies of self-reflexive film and media study that happened in 2009 and 2011. As gratifying as it was to connect my work to the past, I was still seeking ways to make a living doing this work in the present. It seemed that I had found a solution when the startup company Fandor hired me in 2010 to manage the editorial content of their site.

Fandor was launched as a subscription streaming service dedicated to connect its audience to a greater selection of festival films. My role was to produce content that would acquaint viewers to these films, which were often obscure to most people, even if they came with festival accolades. Key to this effort would be producing video essays that would help give viewers as vivid and enticing an introduction to these films as possible. This often meant trying to find ways to connect these neglected works to films that had more currency to the moment. Such was the case with the very first video essay produced for Fandor (and the 76th I had made overall at that point), which connected the parallel editing narrative techniques of D.W. Griffith to Christopher Nolan’s 2010 blockbuster Inception.

In 2011 I produced 14 video essays: 10 for Fandor, 2 for the Moving Image Source, and 2 for Ebert Presents at the Movies. Despite working fulltime for Fandor, my video essay output was curtailed by editing text articles for the site as well. I share some reflections on that experience here.

At first this type of work seemed like a project perfectly suited to my knowledge, skills and interests, but very quickly I ran into a dilemma.

One of the key measures of my performance was in the view counts of my videos; another was how many new subscriptions could be traced to their having viewed my content. If I had known better I would have strongly resisted these performance measures, as any self-respecting critic would. Can you imagine the film critics of The New York Times being measured for their job performance based on how many subscribers could be traced to clicking on their reviews? Sadly this quantitative mode of performance measurement is now the norm with any online publication run for profit, and its effect on the nature of publishing has been devastating, as the contemporary landscape of clickbait makes clear.

This was all new to me back then, and I was grateful to be making a full-time income in film criticism for the first time, so I didn’t think twice. If anything I took it as a creative challenge. I envisioned an alternative to the video essays Matt Zoller Seitz was making at the time about brand auteurs like Wes Anderson, Terrence Malick and Michael Mann. These video essays were very popular and led to Matt’s even more successful ventures as a bestselling author. But I harbored some skepticism over their popularity: of course these videos are popular, I thought, because they are about popular films and filmmakers. What if instead I could take a film few people had ever heard of and make a video that could somehow go viral and make people care about the film? To mind mind, a result like this is what can tap into the true potential of the video essay: to expand the viewer’s awareness of films and cinema beyond what the self-perpetuating cycle of what they already knew and cared about.

I admit that I didn’t accomplish this goal often at all. The best outcome I have to show for my efforts is a two-part video essay on the 1968 film David Holzman’s Diary. This film was decades ahead of its time because it presaged so many contemporary film and media trends: scripted reality television, mockumentary, vlogging and social media, even video essaying. Perhaps it was by making these connections that the video elicited a strong response, being featured on Indiewire (Eric Kohn, Indiewire’s editor, uses it when he teaches film classes).

Unfortunately this outcome was more the exception than the rule. And as the months passed, I could sense increasing skepticism from some constituents within upper management about the necessity of my job function. Sensing this, I became more desperate to make a video that truly would go viral. To do this, I figured I would need to abandon the mission of spotlighting Fandor’s catalog of under-appreciated films, and work with the most recognizable subject matter conceivable.

To do this, I looked to none other than Matt Zoller Seitz for a cue. As it happened, he was working on a massive video essay series on Steven Spielberg, coinciding with the December 2011 release of two new Spielberg films, War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin. This Spielberg video essay series would launch Matt’s new venture called Press Play, a blog hosted by Indiewire devoted to producing video essays. This had been something he and I had talked about since we first collaborated: creating a website just for video essays. It was an inspiring vision and he was making it happen.

Meanwhile I was desperate to keep the job I had. So I decided to take his idea and make my own Spielberg video essay. It ended up taking weeks of research and viewing, far more time than any video essay I had made up to that point. I didn’t even know what I wanted to say about Spielberg – so alienated was I to this kind of populist fare at the time – that I even asked Twitter for ideas for a Spielberg video essay.

The most compelling idea tweeted at me came from critic Matt Patches who had published an article on Spielberg’s use of faces. Sadly the article no longer has images to accompany it, but the text of the article itself provides a benchmark to measure the extent to which I adapted and expanded upon Matt’s idea. I presented more of a historical account of Spielberg’s evolving use of the face, critiqued it as a telling example of Hollywood audience manipulation techniques, and then delved into my favorite Spielberg film, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, to account for how this film amounts to an apotheosis of the Spielberg face and filmography. The process of making this video essay gave me a renewed appreciation for that film, and for Spielberg as a complicated artist who presents a formidable body of work through which to understand the nature and power of cinema.

This video essay bears one line around the 8 minute mark that I’m proudest to have authored: “What is cinema but traces of the dreams that stay after the dreamers have gone away?” I even received a compliment on this line from a French cinephile who translated the entire video into French: Le visage de Spielberg. But most viewers probably never got to the end. My brother once asked me if I thought I would have gotten more views if I had just ended with the compilation section that opens the video, and better still, not had any voiceover and just let the opening montage do its thing, and then be done.

It was then that I realized that my instincts as a critic to provide insight weren’t necessarily conducive to making a viral video. This is something I’d be reminded of with increasing frequency with the advent of the supercut over the years to come. At the same time, my brother’s remark made me wonder about a different mode of video essay practice from what I had been doing all along: one where the images could just speak for themselves without a critical narration or voiceover. The question of how much images could produce their own insights (a question that I would later learn was of major interest to Farocki) would also become a more pressing question in the age of supercuts.

Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of my approach, this video became my most viral hit with over 700,000 views on YouTube and Vimeo. It even reached The New York Times. When I told my mother that the New York Times had written about my work, she replied, “Did they say anything bad about you?”

No, they didn’t. But I would still get some very bad news on the same day that this video was published. In the morning of December 13, 2011, I published the video, and then one of my bosses approached me and asked me to lunch. It was at this lunch that he told me that the executive team had decided that my services were no longer needed because my videos just weren’t bringing enough viewers to the site.

I came back from the worst lunch of my life to an office that was buzzing with nervous excitement. It seems that something had happened that was sending hundreds of thousands of visitors to I remember one executive remarking, “It’s Kevin’s Spielberg video. Amazing!” only to have another manager reply, “Yeah, but how many new subscribers are we getting?” At this moment it became apparent that my work had already been designated as a scapegoat to take pressure away from management’s lack of success getting subscriptions, so that even when I succeeded, I failed. Editorial content should never have been tied to marketing performance measurements. Doing so indentures editorial content to marketing logic (clicks over quality), robs it of its substance and integrity, and ultimately renders it disposable when it is inevitably proven not to contribute to the bottom line. Sadly, this would not be the last time I would encounter this mishandling of editorial and video essay production.

Despite the internal dispute over whether the success of my video was really a success, that same afternoon I was invited by another of the executives to a coffee, during which he said that instead of letting me go, they would let me keep making videos as a freelancer instead of a fulltime employee, at a greatly reduced salary from what I was making before. Somehow, despite the humiliation of this experience, I agreed to the arrangement, because i didn’t have any other options to make a living doing this work.

I must say that agreeing to keep making video essays for Fandor proved to be a very beneficial decision in the long run, because it provided a regular platform for me to produce hundreds of videos and continue evolving my work over the next five years. It was a very unique and special opportunity for which I remain grateful. I wish especially to thank Jonathan Marlow, one of the co-founders of Fandor and who was on the executive team until last year. It was he who hired me, who expressed unconditional support for my work throughout the six years we worked together, and who always advocated on my behalf while others seemed less certain about the value of what I was producing.

The Spielberg Face incident, combined with my run-in with YouTube two years prior, left me with more questions over the issue of “value,” specifically how this type of work was to be valued – aesthetically, commercially, ideologically. I became more sensitive to the dubious workings of these social media platforms and internet sites, with their utopian promises for film lovers: that we could see more, create more, enjoy more than we ever have by buying into their platforms. I started to care more about how our pursuits of freedom and fulfillment through film and media are in turn regulated, manipulated and exploited, both on and off the screen.