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Film at 1.5 Megabytes Per Second

Tobias Carroll ventures into the far reaches of streaming internet video, reporting on what may be the future of getting small movies of interest before your very eyes, from SnagFilms to Hulu to Plexifilm.
SnagStreaming video calls to mind shorter-form works: music videos, viral efforts, short films, trailers, and the like. Brevity as the watchword. And while Youtube's ten-minute limit may seem like an arbitrary cap, it may have shaped the debate to some extent, as the conventional wisdom tends to be that the internet as a whole bolsters shorter forms.

That isn't to say that longer-form work can't be found online. Clever types have found ways to post feature films and television shows in segments to YouTube, work both in the public domain and, well, not. The video distribution service Netflix recently announced the beginnings of a direct rental service, allowing members of the service to download select videos directly to their computers; even more recently, Hulu launched with the support of two major television networks, NBC and FOX, streaming a backlog of television shows from said networks and films ranging from The Big Lebowski and Naked Lunch to...Species III.

And while the widespread selections from Hulu offer a wide range of cinematic possibilities, from Cronenbergian body horror to Roger Avery's Parisian heist picture Killing Zoe to the overdubbed Schwarzenegger of Hercules In New York, the impression one gets from their offerings is of a particularly surreal video store (with, of course, the current "most popular" offerings including awful porn-spoof American Virgin and documentary classic Hoop Dreams).


More focused in its offerings is SnagFilms, a new offering from AOL Vice Chairman Emeritus (and Nanking producer) Ted Leonsis and onetime Sporting News CEO Rick Allen. SnagFilms' focus is on documentaries, and their recently-launched site offers upwards of two hundred, ranging from Morgan Spurlock's fast food expose Super Size Me to Bradley Beesley's barehanded fishing epic Okie Noodling to Ondi Timoner's story of an underground rock rivalry, Dig!. And their purchase of film news and criticism site indieWIRE seems another way to attract an audience of cineastes.

The SnagFilms interface is standard for streaming video, offering a standard-sized window and a fullscreen option. Documentaries are run with commercial breaks, some of which can be jarring; on my preferred browser, the film abruptly cut from a full-screen view of an Oklahoma fisherman to a much smaller, embedded cosmetics commercial. What makes SnagFilms fun is its user-friendly ability to "snag" or embed clips or whole movies on your blog or social networking space. Snagging repurposes existing technology to a new end; there's a world of potential viewers if someone "snags" a film like Paper Clips and places it on their Facebook site, for example. The site's easy technology and built-in focus on documentaries may well tap into an existing audience of politically-minded viewers who may not have the means, time, or ability to shell out money when the films were in theaters or quietly released on DVD.

pitchforkA similar focus characterizes, the video-rooted arm of noted music website Pitchfork Media. (Like SnagFilms,'s
interface carries on it a "beta" tag as of this writing.) With a launch date in early April, the main focus of would seem to be shorter works: music videos, concert footage, and interviews. However, the site has consistently showcased rare and hard-to-get music works, from art to documentaries: at the time of its launch, the site spent a week broadcasting Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin's loudQUIETloud, a documentary focusing on the 2004 reunion of revered noise-pop group The Pixies. As of this writing,'s "One Week Only" space was hosting a shorter long-form work: the abstract visuals of Retina Riddim, produced and inspired by the Whitney-Biennial-approved avant-rock group Gang Gang Dance.

Do specific audiences help producers find audiences willing to spend more time watching work on their computers? Though that distinction may be an increasingly meaningless one, as the line between monitors and televisions fades away. Friends of mine have no problem watching baseball games on their iMac via Major League Baseball's MLB.TV service, for instance. And—the video arm of Vice Magazine—offers dozens of regular series, some irreverently focused on culture and politics, others veering into other topics. Interestingly,'s recent foray into film production, Heavy Metal in Baghdad, cannot be streamed on their site (save for a few trailers); it is, however, among the initial offerings available from SnagFilms.

At least some distributors are taking advantage of streaming media to promote their films above and beyond what's expected. Plexifilm, a DVD distributor of documentaries and concert films (among them Moog, You Think You Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story, and Helvetica) now prominently features a "Movie of the Month" on their site. As of the writing of this piece, Finisterre, the Saint Etienne-presented ode to London, can be streamed by visitors; just below the window, a link directs those interested to buy the

For some producers, streaming video, regardless of length, can be seen as a promotional tool. For others, such as SnagFilms, the advertising-supported viewing experience is the end goal. While the quality of streaming video has advanced remarkably in the last decade, so too have the expectations of most viewers. Streaming full-length films is unlikely to make higher-quality video (whether from a DVD or downloaded from, say, the iTunes store) obsolete. Will it attract viewers to take a chance on a previously unseen
film or explore a subculture previously unknown to them? That sort of accessibility seems much more likely.


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