YouTube's 4K support gives indie filmmakers hope, ups ante in online video race

Jim O'Neil

You're not likely to use YouTube's newly announced 4K for, well, anything at this point, unless you're in Hong Kong and surfing one of the 1 Gbps connections that are being offered to residential users, but the video hub's newest tech tweak isn't about today, it's about tomorrow.

And, at the moment, it positions YouTube well in a race for the distribution of high-quality, high-definition online video content; in fact, it positions YouTube pretty much alone in that race.

YouTube Friday announced it would support 4096 x 2304 pixels video, more than four times the size of the current HD-quality standard 1080p, or a video that ideally would fit on a 25-foot wide screen.

YouTube warned in its post that the ability to support 4K video didn't mean it would become a standard overnight: "Because 4K represents the highest quality of video available, there are a few limitations that you should be aware of. First off, video cameras that shoot in 4K aren't cheap, and projectors that show videos in 4K are typically the size of a small refrigerator. And, as we mentioned, watching these videos on YouTube will require super-fast broadband."

While that's all true, the potential is still great.

YouTube has been aggressively courting independent filmmakers in the past year. In June, Gravitas Ventures announced it would use YouTube to help it distribute hundreds of indie titles through a branded YouTube channel, GravitasVOD. In January, it kicked off a "Sundance films on demand" offering that, while it was only marginally appealing to consumers, was a huge hit with independent filmmakers who, generally, have minimal opportunities--and even smaller budgets--to distribute their work. This gambit means even more.

"YouTube has been making thoughtful, but very aggressive, steps into helping independent filmmakers--even more so than Sundance and other film festivals that originally were designed to showcase their work," said Reed Martin, an adjunct professor of film marketing at NYU and author of "The Reel Truth: Everything You Didn't Know You Needed to Know About Making an Independent Film."

"They're really democratizing filmmaking, and in a shorter interval than anybody else ever has."

Indies traditionally finance their films by borrowing money from family and friends, or by finding a few angel investors. But the big nut has always been making the master, a process that can cost from $50,000 to well over $100,000, said Martin.

"A talented indie now can take a Canon Vixia, shoot something that is film quality, that looks like film, upload it to YouTube, charge people to view it online and theoretically link to a theater with a 4K projector and output it," Martin said. "All you need now is talent and a URL and you can--potentially--be a successful filmmaker. This gets rid of one more obstacle for independent filmmakers."

With In-stat projecting 1.2 billion new computer users in the next five years, the potential audience for indie films is staggering.

"You always hear about 'the audience of one' for a film, but add a billion people and you can aggregate huge audiences," Martin said. "With the huge costs of distribution that currently exist, you could have the best independent film ever made and no one would ever see it. This really helps establish the pillars that allow filmmakers to bypass the studio system entirely."-Jim