From its earliest days as an online video platform, Vimeo has been widely regarded as the place where serious filmmakers post their work, whilst immersing themselves in the best films being created by their peers. With the site’s voraciously viewed Staff Picks channel, alongside its recently launched Staff Pick Premieres weekly programme, even the most well received festival circuit shorts covet the career-making attention an official Staff Pick selection can send their way. DN travelled to Vimeo’s New York headquarters for an enlightening chat with Director of Curation Sam Morrill who generously walked us through the Vimeo curation team’s process of finding and selecting Staff Pick films, as well as the best practices you should adopt to increase your film’s chances of landing on the Vimeo radar.
I’ve always been curious as to how Vimeo established itself as the de facto site for filmmakers. How did that culture became embedded in the site’s early days?
Some people might disagree with me but I think it was a bit of a happy accident that Vimeo became the de facto video sharing service for professional filmmakers. In the very early days of Vimeo, pre-HD, it was very much a site that was used for vlogging – even though they weren’t calling it vlogging back then. Then in 2007 when we launched HD we were the only video sharing service in town that was offering HD uploading and playback. So if you were a professional video creator at that moment you had nowhere else to go other than Vimeo if you wanted to share your videos in HD. That was also right around the time that consumer HD cameras became available, so naturally everyone came over to Vimeo in order to share their HD videos online. And so there was this massive influx of professional quality videos that up until that point hadn’t really existed online and now Vimeo was sitting on this giant library of high quality content. That’s kind of where it started.
We are a community first and foremost of video creators and they all bring their own perspectives, tastes and styles.
I started in 2009 so this actually predates me a little bit, but when we launched HD we also created the Vimeo HD channel and the Vimeo Staff Picks channel. The Vimeo HD channel no longer exists but, as you probably remember, it was a showcase of all the best HD videos on Vimeo and Staff Picks was more of a smattering of SD and HD. Those two channels operated side by side for years but when HD became the industry standard it didn’t really make sense to have a HD channel because everything was HD so we folded the HD channel into the Staff Picks channel and now they’re one in the same. And so because we created these human curated channels for people to see the work that was being celebrated on Vimeo we developed a reputation that way.
That credit really goes to Blake Whitman who was the principal curator of Staff Picks from 2007 to 2010 – it was basically him individually curating Staff Picks. He really set the early tone for Staff Picks and it was his taste that was reflected on the channel in those years. He kind of passed the torch on to me in 2010 and it was really just a coincidence that Blake and I have pretty similar taste in videos so it felt pretty continuous – I don’t think anyone on the site even realized that two different people were curating it between 2009 and 2010.
So yeah, I think it was a reputation that started with the advent of HD, which was reinforced by the creation of the Staff Picks and the HD channel and then has been reinforced day in and day out. It’s been four videos a day for the last 10 years now, featuring a certain calibre of video that has cemented our place within the video scene as one of the tastemakers online for video.
How did you manage to get everyone to play so nice? I’m specifically thinking of Vimeo vs YouTube comments.
It’s a couple of things. One is that there’s always been a tradition of users on Vimeo using their real names and a photo of themselves and that way you don’t have a culture of anonymity on Vimeo the way you do on other platforms. Anonymity tends to breed trolls and give cover to trolls. The fact that most Vimeo users are using their real names and a real photo of themselves certainly gives people pause before they write a nasty comment. As a result we don’t have that much nasty discourse. In addition to that, the Vimeo staff has always been very present on the site, more so than almost any other site I can think of. If you scroll through the comments on any popular Vimeo video or in the forums or anywhere you can find users engaging with one another, you’re likely to find staff and the staff really set the tone by holding themselves to the standard that we we want to hold the community to.
What is it that makes a film Staff Pickable?
The easiest way to distil it is that we’re looking for one of two things if not both: for a video to tell us a story that we’ve never heard before or to tell us a story that maybe we’ve heard but in a way that we’ve never heard it told before. Another way of describing it is you have these two axes, one is storytelling or a theme and then the other is craft and style. Every Staff Pick either exceeds at one or the other. It either has incredible craft and style or it’s telling a really interesting story or telling us about something that we hadn’t thought about before. Ideally it’s a marriage of those two so the best Staff Picks are both really incredibly crafted and are telling us incredible stories.
What’s the level of agreement needed within the five person curation team for a film to meet that Staff Pick threshold?
We all have the ability to nominate films for consideration for Staff Picks and then the rest of the team weigh in on each nominee. For a film to be green lit for Staff Picks it has to achieve a certain threshold on the scoring system that we use. Without divulging too much about our scoring process, which is actually pretty boring, basically you need a majority of the curators to be in favor of adding something to Staff Picks for it to be added. No one curator can unilaterally add anything to Staff Picks and nothing gets added to Staff Picks where a minority of the team are in favor and a majority are against.
What inspired the evolution of Staff Picks that we see in Staff Pick Premieres?
Essentially it was something that we were already doing. Since 2011/12 we’ve been regularly going to major film festivals; attending the shorts programs, introducing ourselves to the filmmakers, telling them we were curating for Vimeo, that maybe they would want to consider releasing their short on Vimeo and we would give them a Staff Pick. Back in those days there was definitely much more of a stigma surrounding releasing your short film online. Not only did people just not consider it prestigious, they were also very concerned with how it might affect their festival eligibility.
We’re not a super secretive bunch in the Vimeo curation team.
Sundance were the first major film festival I can think of that said, “It’s okay if your short is already online, you can submit it”, and so they loosened up their eligibility requirements for submissions. That was a major factor in that lots of other film festivals followed suit. Simultaneously, Vimeo was releasing a lot of quality short films that were playing the festival circuit through Vimeo Staff Picks and the filmmakers were getting great results out of it, showing their films to much larger audiences via Vimeo than they were ever showing them to via the festival circuit. Those two things in conjunction with one another have really opened people’s minds to the power and the opportunity that exists online as far as distributing shorts. This was a process that took years. Year in year out we were going to Sundance, going to Toronto, going to South by Southwest and really engaging a lot with filmmakers.
Every year we found that more filmmakers were interested in pursuing these sorts of opportunities with us. It got to the point where we felt confident that we could do one of these releases every week and that we should give it a name and celebrate these shorts by providing editorial context around each film. So for each Staff Pick Premiere we write a dedicated blog post and provide dedicated marketing and PR support for these films. This is something that we didn’t have until recently from a purely human resources perspective. Vimeo is now a much much bigger company than it was five years ago so we now have an entertainment marketing team that can spend time planning a social media release of these films and optimize them for release online.
Does the Staff Pick Premieres selection come with any restrictions?
Generally speaking there aren’t many restrictions, we’re pretty flexible. We do ask that once the film has been released on Vimeo it not be uploaded to any other video sharing platforms for 30 days. It can be embedded anywhere on the Internet, and in fact we encourage that, but in terms of where the video is actually hosted we ask for exclusivity for 30 days. We also ask for another 11 months of non-exclusive after that as we want the films to remain on Vimeo for at least a year. That’s really so that we can consider these films for Best of the Year and all the other awards that we give out. We’re devoting a lot of resources to these releases so we want to make sure that we’re not mobilizing the entire curation team, the entertainment marketing team, and our PR team towards a release and then find that the filmmaker has to take it down 10 days later. We really are putting a lot into each of these releases so we’d like to see them remain on the site for at least a year.
Who’s eligible to apply for Staff Pick Premieres?
What’s really exciting about Staff Pick Premieres is that for the first time ever for anything related to Staff Picks we actually have an open admissions process. There’s no open admissions process for regular Staff Picks because we’d be inundated with submissions and there are only five of us on the team. But for Staff Pick Premieres we decided to create an open submissions process and whittled it down in terms of eligibility by opening it up to any film that has played in competition at an Oscar qualifying event within the last two years. We settled on that simply because there are 200 events around the world that are considered Oscar qualifying and we felt that was the easiest way for us to cast the broadest net possible. You’ll also find that there are a few events in the submissions form that technically are not Oscar qualifying – such as the Toronto International Film Festival which is obviously a huge event and programs great shorts – that we decided to include.
With regards to the regular Staff Picks is there anything filmmakers can do to improve their chances of being noticed – outside of making a good film of course?
Yes absolutely. First and foremost, we’re not a super secretive bunch in the Vimeo curation team. If you spend any amount of time on Vimeo you’ll see us in the comments, you’ll see us liking videos and we are totally accessible via messages as with anyone on the Vimeo staff. That said, we get a fair amount of messages so we’re not able to respond to all of them but I can assure you that every single time I get a message on Vimeo I get an e-mail notification about it. I do read my messages and we oftentimes find Staff Picks that way so I do encourage people to reach out. But in addition to that every filmmaker, regardless of Staff Picks, should really do some leg work to drive engagement towards their film whenever they’re releasing something online and not just on Vimeo, anywhere.
It’s a really easy mistake to make that for your film to be successful online all you need to do is upload it and then it will naturally find its audience because it’s so great.
I think it’s a really easy mistake to make that for your film to be successful online all you need to do is upload it and then it will naturally find its audience because it’s so great. It’s just not how things work! What I encourage everyone to do when they release something online is not just fire off a tweet or share it with your friends on Facebook. Look at the landscape online and look at who the tastemakers are – the people who are curating video online that you respect and whose work you admire – and just reach out to them. On any given website there’s usually a way to get in touch with the editors, you don’t have to know them already. You can just say:
“Hi my name is Sam and I’ve got this short film that I’m planning on releasing – here’s a private link to it. I’d love for you to check it out and if you’re interested in sharing it on your site or writing something about it I would be really honored and happy to talk more about it.”
I think people would be really pleasantly surprised how open online curators and writers are to this sort of thing. Really you’re kind of doing their job for them because if you’re not sharing your work with them then they’re going to have to go out and find it themselves.
For Staff Picks we on a daily basis are checking lots of different sites across the web. Directors Notes is obviously one of them and has been an incredible resource for Staff Picks in terms of sourcing great shorts online. Then obviously you have Short of the Week, Booooooom, Nowness and others that we’re looking at just as much as they’re looking at us. It’s a very symbiotic relationship and we all feed off of one another in a really positive way. And so if you want to get on the radar of the Vimeo curation team all you need to do is get featured on one of several dozen sites that we’re looking at regularly – it’s pretty much as simple as that.
You can reach out to us directly but I think that the best way is to cast a pretty broad net. Reach out to a lot of different independent curators online, see who’s into your work and have them share it. It can create this domino effect where once it gets featured on one site, the rest of the sites pick it up and eventually Vimeo catches wind of it as well.
How important do you feel it is for filmmakers to be active members of the Vimeo community? Does that help their films come to your attention?
Yeah I definitely think it does. Vimeo is like a little neighborhood and there’s a cast of characters that if you spend enough time on Vimeo you’ll start to recognize in the comment sections of the videos. There are plenty of people that I’ve never met in real life, like [DN’s own] Rob Munday but I see Rob’s face every single day when I come into work. With Vimeo, like most things in life, you get out of it as much as you put into it.
With Vimeo, like most things in life, you get out of it as much as you put into it.
If you are creating work not only is it good to watch things on Vimeo and engage with the content because you’ll maybe get some exposure out of that for yourself, but you’ll also learn a lot as a filmmaker. I always recommend student filmmakers watch Staff Picks every day because that way they can see what sort of techniques people are experimenting with, what’s derivative, what’s not, what are the latest innovations that they can incorporate into their own work. It can be a really educational experience and then as a bonus, the more you engage with content on Vimeo, the more people will recognize you and the more inclined they will be to engage with your own work.
Clearly Directors Notes has a vested interest in this question but how important do you feel it is for the Vimeo ecosystem that there still be independently curated channels, given that the Vimeo team curates many of its own channels in addition to Staff Picks?
It’s essential because everyone has their own network of creators. We watch a lot of videos as the Vimeo curation team but there’s no way for us to watch them all. Independent channels on Vimeo play a huge role in terms of stirring the pot on Vimeo. It’s how we the Vimeo curation team find a lot of videos that we then put into these vertical channels. It also enriches everyone’s experience on Vimeo to follow Jeff Hamada’s channel Booooooom, or to follow Directors Notes’ WeAreDN or Short of the Week’s channel. Even though there’s a lot of overlap between all of our channels, there are films that you can only find on Booooooom or on WeAreDN. So I think it’s really important that people continue to curate their own channels, it’s a huge benefit to the community.
And finally, is there anything waiting in the wings that you’re excited about?
What’s really crazy to think about is that we’re getting pretty close to the one year anniversary for Staff Pick Premieres! It just dawned on me recently it was coming up and what that really means. Obviously a year anniversary is an arbitrary number but just looking at that, it’s gonna be 52 of the best short films of the last few years that have rolled out exclusively on Vimeo through Vimeo Staff Picks Premieres. The number of awards that these films have won and festivals that they’ve played and the size of the audience that they’ve reached, it’s pretty staggering and ultimately very humbling. This may change by the time the one year anniversary comes along, but we’ll have at least two Oscar nominated shorts, three or four Jury Prize winners from Sundance, and Jury Prize winners from South by Southwest. These are films that have really racked up lots of accolades and I’m really excited to see the whole body of those 52 short films side by side and take it in as an anthology of short films.
We’re going to do some fun stuff to celebrate the one year anniversary. I really want to put together a blog post where we dissect them and show where these films came from. What festivals they play played at. How many of them were actually true premieres that hadn’t played online before because there are several of those. Really dissect them and get into the nitty-gritty of what a Staff Pick Premiere is based on these 52 films. So that’s something coming up that I’m pretty excited about.
The Vimeo community has produced the next generation of talent – the top talent in Hollywood and the film industry.
One other story that we’ve really been eager to tell is something that we’ve only been in the position to do over the last couple of years. Essentially, what we’ve seen is a lot of creators who cut their teeth on Vimeo, received Staff Picks and had a lot of exposure on Vimeo, are now moving on to working on really exciting big projects in Hollywood and elsewhere. We’re trying to really tell that story to the world – that the Vimeo community has produced the next generation of talent – the top talent in Hollywood and the film industry. So we have a series called Vimeo Origins where we’re basically creating these short videos to highlight creators on Vimeo who are directing big ticket projects that you can see in the theatres.
The first one we did was with Jordan Vogt-Roberts who’s the director of Kong: Skull Island. Jordan received a couple of Staff Picks over the last few years and he had a film called Successful Alcoholics which played at Sundance. He was one of the early adopters on Vimeo to release his short film online. He played Sundance, then he released it on Vimeo through Staff Picks and it did very well. Now he’s directed the new King Kong movie!
There are dozens of examples of creators like these: Hiro Murai who is now the creative force behind Atlanta which is one of the most popular TV shows right now in the U.S. The DANIELS who did Swiss Army Man which was a hit. There are a lot of examples of these and we’re trying to highlight those more and more and so the Vimeo Origins series is going to be part of that.