This post was written by Jonny von Wallstrom.
If so, I know how difficult it can be. Are you ready to break away from the mundane world of traditional documentaries and start doing something extraordinary with your craft? In that case, I have a plan. But it's gonna take a lot of hard work, and most filmmakers will make fun of you while you do it.
This is my secret master plan that could revolutionize your career.
I grew up dreaming of making films. Like my hero, Robert Rodriguez, I envisioned them being screened at the most prominent film festivals. The rebel filmmaker who at the time wrote one of the best books on how to make an indie film. He was my biggest inspiration as I started my career over 20 years ago. His filmmaking showed me that anyone could make their dreams come true.
I wanted to show my films in big arenas. At the time, I questioned if it would be possible, but like many aspiring filmmakers, I just kept making films. Robert's message kept my dream alive.
Some years later, I competed at top film festivals like IDFA and Festival de Cannes. It helped me establish myself in the industry, and I even sold a film to Netflix. For a couple of years, I was living my dream as I went on to make several primetime TV shows.
But then it hit me. I hated making films.
My biggest passion is to tell captivating stories that change the world. After 20 years of working in the film industry, the dream had become a nightmare. I was sick of asking for permission to tell my stories and always being on the short end of creative control. Over and over, I was forced to change everything I stand for as an artist. But I had no choice. I had taken the funding, and with that came the loss of artistic integrity. It was excruciating when most of the industry thought that telling a great story involved explaining every minute detail in narration rather than through cinematic storytelling. This anxious, adolescent way of telling stories killed my filmmaking joy. But most of all, I hated that my creativity was stolen.
I wanted to stop. A new dream was emerging. To start a rural pizzeria outside of Stockholm, Sweden. I know, it's weird. But I love food, and who doesn't love pizza? I would grow the ingredients on my farm and start with a pop-up restaurant out of my kitchen. I could even do pizza discos. My gear would get dusty if I just left them on a shelf, so the laser and haze machine would become part of the pizza disco. It was a done deal.
But quitting is more challenging than it seems when you love making films. Most of the time, the nightmare didn't show itself until the editing process. I loved capturing the story, even on projects where I was not too fond of the result. I realized I wanted to find a way to make films without losing creative control. As soon as you lose that, you lose your dignity with it. Since money controls how movies are made, I decided to find a way to make more money.
Making money to make films
Most filmmakers dream of having enough money to make their films independently. It is a great way to retain your artistic vision. I learned this from Robert. In his book, he details how he adapted his story for El Mariachi to the cash he had. It was made on a minimal budget, and this cost-effective filmmaking stuck with me. I built my whole production company by making high-end-looking films on minimal budgets. It worked for a long time. I was self-funding the development of my projects so they could retain their artistic vision. Once it was developed, I sold them to TV or streaming services. This ensured that the films couldn't be ripped apart.
But then things changed. Streaming services started focusing more on serial content, and so did I.
I started making TV shows, where I had to develop the look and storytelling with the buyer. You see, every broadcaster has their way of telling a story. It's this unspoken truth that they expect you to understand. But coming from a world where great storytelling isn't synonymous with explaining every minute detail in fear of leaving the audience with too many questions, I was out of luck. I have often heard them say they don't understand anything after watching an edit. Yet, it magically works as soon as I explain what happens through a voice-over.
It was challenging because TV productions are time-crunched. It forces a narrative that is anxious and scared of losing its audience. I no longer had the chance to organically develop the story by testing things back and forth. The industry lacks the money to do that. So my successful method was ripped apart. It reminded me of what it is like working with brands, but there was a big difference. Here I thought that my film and idea were being made. But no, my creativity had been kidnapped.
It is a big problem. The industry doesn't favor the artist. This is why I want to discover a way to make money outside the system. Only then will I be able to take creative risks that ensure I love making films.
But how do you do that? Well, this might surprise you.
I faced the challenge of finding an unconventional way to fund my films. It felt hopeless. After all, how on earth would I afford such an ambitious idea? But then suddenly, it dawned on me: YouTube!
I know filmmakers hate YouTube. It's a place for garbage.
Remember that this was also what people said about moving from film to digital. It was also what they said about Netflix. It is always going to be the case with technology. YouTube does not serve traditional filmmaking at this time, nor does the conventional industry. Everyone is changing with technology. The industry has its own challenges, one being that documentaries are not as hot anymore. As an insider, I can tell you that even extensive streaming services like Amazon focus on reality TV because that is what people watch.
Depressing, I know.
Learning the language of YouTube
So how would you go about being a filmmaker with integrity on YouTube? First, you need to learn to speak the language.
I know, you watch tons of YouTube videos. Yet, after having been a YouTuber for 13 years. I still need to figure the platform out. No "real" filmmaker has the blueprint. Right now, MrBeast is the biggest YouTuber on earth, with 116 million subscribers and over 313 million views on his most popular video. He has mastered reality TV and gamification storytelling on the platform. He will probably become a billionaire. He and others like him have shown that it is possible to make a lot of money on YouTube. Much more than you can in traditional filmmaking.
MrBeast, or Jimmy Donaldson, has started a trend that traditional television personalities have jumped on. To name a few, Michelle Khare from HBO Max's Karma is doing high-end challenge videos with 3.2M subscribers. HeavyDSparks of the popular Discovery Channel show, Diesel Brothers, quit the show to do YouTube. He has 2.58M subscribers. All of these creators are making TV-quality content. It's just faster. I predict that soon, TV will have to adapt to their storytelling style to compete with them.
YouTube is the biggest platform. It is a massive opportunity that no traditional filmmaker has mastered yet. Obviously, there will come a time when this will happen. I want to be there to ensure I can still attend the party. It reminds me of the rough 90s underground filmmaking era from which Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino sprung. Back then, film festivals were the platform. In the future, it will be YouTube because, for youngsters, it is the platform of their time. I don't see it disappearing, but I can see television fading.
So, that leads me back to filmmakers who want to tell cinematic stories. Today many channels are successful even though they are tedious and slow. The secret is authenticity and access. For instance, during the war in Ukraine, I discovered the Shekkoz Family. They were capturing their family life in Russia. Slow and without an incredible dramaturgy, yet, it was fascinating. You could see the impacts of the war from a perspective that the media didn't portray. This is why being unique thrives on the platform, especially when you have perfect timing.
The Shekkoz Family indicate that talented storytellers can thrive if they understand the platform. So many documentary filmmakers already tell stories about the same thing. But they reach their audience later because they rely on film festivals and broadcasters. In the future, we will see filmmakers tell stories as they happen on YouTube. When there is considerable interest in the topic. This is what blossoms on YouTube. Stories that people are actively searching for and spectacular entertainment that makes people go "wow."
A change is happening. The first one to crack the algorithm for telling cinematic stories will become huge on YouTube, much bigger than the traditional TV stations. But it has some different mechanisms than conventional TV or cinema.
- Traditional cinematic storytelling will make people click away. Simply put, it's too slow.
- Traditional dramaturgy still works. It just needs to happen faster.
- You need to re-envision what great storytelling is based on the algorithm.
- Authenticity thrives (real or fake).
- Chock and spectacle create interest and virality.
- SEO optimization creates longevity.
- Trendjacking generates massive growth.
- Videos must have an attractive thumbnail and title which capture the conflict.
- After the click, the video must deliver on the promise of the thumb and title immediately.
- The video must retain the audience's attention for at least 50%, preferably 70%.
- The first two minutes are vital. The first 30 seconds is when most people click away.
- Suspense is critical. Convince the viewer to keep watching every 10-20 seconds.
- You need to be consistent because videos cross-promote each other, and YouTube will lower your ranking if you stop uploading.
This is the essence of what I consider YouTube to be all about. When you think about it, traditional media focus on the same thing because the audience dictates what is interesting. The audience is shaped by the time and technology they live in. Therefore, platforms are also shaped by that.
The key here is to start from scratch to master the platform. You must research what works to discover how to tell stories you love. Understand the platform and its audience, and you will find a way to tell your story. As long as you do that, anybody can succeed. But I see many filmmakers look down upon YouTubers. It would be wise to accept that they might know something you don't know. They may know something about captivating an audience at a time when the attention span is lesser than a goldfish. Given that no "real" filmmaker has mastered how to tell great stories for YouTube, someone will be the first.
Is that you?
This is the first in a series of posts where I explore how to build an independent filmmaking career on YouTube. Leave a comment about what you think of the future for filmmakers.
Learn more at Jonny von Wallstrom's YouTube.