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Golden Age for Online Films

The election season generated a creative outpouring–and enormous amounts of traffic–at sites such as Atom Films and iFilm. With the election over, can they hold onto recent gains?
November 5, 2004

Now that the presidential race has come to a merciful end, with pundits and politicians picking through the results for meaningful bits, its time to examine the impact of lesser-known election players. Though it may not have altered a single persons vote, This Land, a hilarious online animated film from an outfit called JibJab Media, spawned a cottage industry of digital movie Fellinis hoping to make their mark in the nascent world of online short films. In the process, these films revitalized an online segment that many had abandoned in the last few years. Thanks to the prevalence of low-cost video editing software, high-quality home video cameras, and the increased adoption of broadband, coupled with high-traffic, high-interest events such as a presidential election, the short film is experiencing a renaissance. We have a very fervent and prolific audience, says Blair Harrison, CEO of, a leading online film site.

This Land, Good to Be in DC (also from JibJab), and a clever Bohemian Rhapsody spinoff from Flowgo were just a few of the dozens of political parodies and topical shorts that zapped around the Net in the months leading up to the election. But it wasnt just South Park-esque animation shorts that people tuned into. When Daily Show Host Jon Stewart went on CNNs Crossfire program two weeks ago and lambasted the shows hosts for hurting America, the 13-minute clip became a top draw for iFilm. Already the clip has been downloaded 2.2 million times, making it one of the most popular selections in the sites six-year history.

Peoples interest in these short films has reignited interest in an art form that first surfaced several years ago. In the late 1990s, back when content was king, prognosticators predicted a golden age for short films online. During the Sundance Film Festival, huge banners touting Atom Films hung from chalets at the ski slopes in Park City, Utah. Hollywood took notice of the potential for online shorts, and now routinely releases trailers to sites such as Atom Films (one of the first online movie sites) and iFilm to generate interest.

But when the dot-com ads dried up and the retrenchment began, the online film sites struggled to keep people’s attention. When the market crashed, online movies werent such a big movement any more, says Megan ONeill, director of acquisitions for Atom Films. Macromedia spinoff Shockwave bought Atom Films in 2001 and the site became a piece of an online film and games network.

A funny thing happened on the way to obsolescence, however. Broadbands reach into U.S. households exploded, thanks to cable company bundling and aggressive rollouts and price-cuts by the telcos. When the electoral season heated up this summer, all the pieces fell into place and a viable medium for expression took hold. The blogging community also played a key role in these sites rapid traffic escalation, with bloggers pointing visitors to iFilm for the Stewart clip and to Atom Films for This Land.

How big a deal was the election for online films? Before the July launch of This Land, Atom Films was getting about three million unique visitors per month. As November 2 drew near, that figure reached 910 million. The political-themed Mock the Vote section of Atom Films tripled our traffic and sustained it, says ONeill. iFilms Harrison says that the political fare increased traffic to his site as well. iFilm now streams between 40 million and 45 million movies per month, up from 1520 million a year ago.

What now? The event that drove traffic, the presidential election, will quickly fade into history. How are these sites hoping to hold onto the gains made in the last four months? Harrison says iFilm will soon launch an action sports channel, hoping to capture the grassroots enthusiasm surrounding activities such as skateboarding and motocross. Atom Films ONeill says her company has learned a valuable lesson from its recent success: go topical. Were looking at the calendar for big events to figure out what we can produce around them, she says. If we can keep even half the people weve gotten through the election, well be thrilled. If sites such as Atom Films and iFilm can continue their audience growth, dont be surprised if the short film category inches closer to the A-list among the Hollywood elite.

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