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Coming attractions: Upload Cinema moves online video from the laptop to the theater

A popular Dutch film series showcases how web videos change when moved into a new context — and they’re hoping to come to America.

Watching online videos can be a social experience, in the same way sharing any story, slideshow, or Internet curio is social. It can be a link swapped among friends, and yes, from time to time we gather around a monitor to watch the Bedroom Intruder or Double Rainbow. But for the most part, we see these things alone, swaddled in headphones.

But if you step inside the confines of Upload Cinema, those same videos — the time wasters, the mind blowers, the utterly incomprehensible performances — become a true shared experience. Since 2008, Upload Cinema has been gathering audiences in movie theaters in Europe to sit down for a night of, well, communal YouTube. It’s the Internet transferred from private terminal to the big screen, with each event featuring a curated, themed selection of online videos. Look, there’s Star Wars as told by a three-year-old, and our old friend Nyan Cat. Here’s some Rebecca Black in full stereo, and, yes, the Leave Britney Alone guy.

The scale’s key here: seeing these videos on a screen that far exceeds our laptops, phones, or tablets. But Upload Cinema is really an exercise in collective entertainment that bridges digital bits and celluloid and tries, one night at a time, to find a shared experience in the fractured niches of the web.

“Besides music, film is the most dominant art form of our time,” Dagan Cohen, co-creator of Upload Cinema, told me. “What you see happening is that all of a sudden, that medium became so accessible for everyone that, all of a sudden, everyone became a filmmaker.” Of course, many probably didn’t set out to be filmmakers; online video is a hodgepodge of the personal and the bizarre, and that, says Cohen, is part of its beauty. “Everyone is gravitating towards video as a form of self-expression,” he told me.

In 2008, Cohen and Barbara de Wijn started gathering friends together at a failing art house movie theater in Amsterdam for informal video nights. The events quickly grew and they created a formal process for Upload Cinema. Each event has a theme decided by Cohen, de Wijn, and a small editorial team. Once the theme is set, the doors are thrown open for people to submit videos — either their own or, more commonly, others culled from the Internet. Upload Cinema has now expanded to 12 cities in the Netherlands as well as Madrid, Istanbul, and Antwerp; Cohen said he’s looking for partners to start a series in a U.S. city (hint, hint).

What’s curious about the growth of Upload Cinema is that many in the audience may already be familiar with some of the videos. (Cohen said they ask video auteurs for permission to show their work as part of Upload Cinema; they don’t pay, but he said they haven’t been turned down yet.) If you’re a YouTube or Vimeo connoisseur — the type of person not only aware of the latest memes but likely to vote on which videos get selected — it’s the equivalent of paying to sit in a theater and watch reruns.

And yet they never have a shortage of people coming to shows. (It originally started out one night a month before switching to two.) Cohen said it’s the theater environment, something far removed from sitting at your desk staring at a computer, that helps drive audiences. “It does create a strange bond because there is this kind of knowledge — people know. You have people who are really Internet savvy and know half of the videos, and then you have, really, laggards,” he said.

But the universal reason we go to theaters is the same, regardless of whether we’re watching “Prometheus” or a clip from Italian Spiderman. We can watch almost anything in our homes now. But we choose to go to the theater to be with a crowd, some whom we know, most we don’t. “By choosing themes that are broad, we combine stuff that is inspiring and makes you think, stuff that is hilariously funny, or shocking, or just beautiful,” he said. “We go through a lot of emotions in one show. That is the thing that is shared.”

Upload Cinema is experimenting with new ways to increase the community feel of its events. For example, at a recent event in London, the audience was asked to give feedback on its favorite videos by smartphone; these talking twin babies took the top prize:

Of course, one of the problems with online video is that sometimes the quality of the video — not necessarily the subject matter — can be less than perfect, thanks to the not-exactly high def nature of some camera phones. Blowing that up into theater-sized proportions doesn’t sound optimal. But Cohen said one truism of web video carries over to the movie screen: If a video is captivating, it doesn’t matter if the picture quality is poor. “If the quality if rough but the ideas are fresh and there’s a sense of urgency behind it, all of a sudden the quality of execution becomes less important,” he said.

Splicing together close to two hours of the Internet’s greatest hits is a fun challenge. Having a theme helps focus the process, but Cohen and the rest of his team are still left with ample submissions each month. When your raw materials are two-minute videos, it takes a good editor to install order and some kind of narrative structure. The videos are a constant juxtaposition, new finds alongside older “classic” videos; it’s like putting together chapters of a really abstract book. Alternately, Cohen said it can be like making music. “Start well, then let it dip in slightly, then go up and try to end with a crescendo,” he said. “I think it’s more closer to composing music, in a way, than real drama.”

Cohen believes all the things we relish about online videos only gets amplified in the theater environment. “We do like to see people who completely and utterly lose themselves and are not as restricted as we are in daily life,” he said.

It makes sense that online videos would find life in other media. The language of online video is a kind of pidgin derived from TV, movies, and real life, a low-rent cinema vérité. It shouldn’t be surprising these videos bleed over into offline life at ROFLcon or on TV on Tosh.0. In that way, it also becomes more participatory: not just people making videos, but people watching videos of people who made videos. “I think it’s also a window on the world, it’s not just a bunch of funny videos,” Cohen said. “It is a reflection on society and culture via online video.”

                                   
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