SXSWORLD February 2014


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How a Crossroads Hunch Made Casey Neistat a YouTube Star by Erin McCarthy I n 2010, Casey Neistat was at a career crossroads. The New York City-based self-taught director—who made traditional advertising spots as well as short Internet videos with his older brother Van—had produced a movie, Daddy Longlegs, which had premiered at Cannes, was bought by IFC and garnered him an Independent Spirit Award nomination (and a win in 2011). He and Van had also written and directed a TV series, The Neistat Brothers, which they sold to HBO and that premiered to critical praise. When the end of the eight-episode series also marked the end of the brothers' decade-long collaboration, Neistat had to decide what he wanted to do next. The options seemed myriad—he could work on a feature film, maybe do another TV show. But instead he went another way. "Much to the chagrin of my agent, I said 'Fuck it. I don't want to lean on the work that I did with my brother. I want to create my own canon of work and find my voice,'" explains Neistat. "I thought the only medium that would allow me to do that was the Internet. Not another feature, not another series. I just wanted to create videos on the Internet." More specifically, Neistat wanted to build a presence on YouTube (at that time just five years old), because "I wanted there to be no filter between me, my ideas and my audience." Everyone told him that this aspiration was stupid. "Nobody had the respect for Casey Neistat YouTube [then] that they have today," he says. "I thought then, and I think now, that they're wrong, and I'm right." But even believing that, "it was really scary, having a show on HBO, and [then] uploading a video to YouTube and it has 745 views," he says. "It was like, 'have I totally fucked up my career?' " But Neistat's hunch turned out to be prescient. Today, YouTube is the third most visited website in the world, pulling in more than one billion unique visitors each month. Neistat's videos—which he usually films with just one other person using whatever camera is closest, taking on subjects ranging from NYC's subway emergency brakes to calorie labels to his own sunglasses—have nearly 50 million views, and more than 210,000 people subscribe to his channel. Last December, USA Today named his channel the best of 2013. For the past couple of years, Neistat says that his reach on the video sharing platform and his unconventional execution have allowed him to create videos for big name brands including Mercedes-Benz, The New York Times and Nike with virtually no oversight. He famously 18 SXSWORLD / FEBRUARY 2014 threw out an agreed-upon concept for one of Nike's "Make it Count" commercials in favor of a 10-day globe-trotting adventure that featured clips of Neistat running left to right in front of notable locations and quotes about what it means to "make it count." With more than 10 million views, it is his most popular video to date. When 20th Century Fox approached him to create a video about chasing dreams to promote The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Neistat proposed making a short that had nothing to do with the movie; instead, he would go to the Philippines to spend the $25,000 promotional video budget on relief supplies for victims of Typhoon Haiyan. To his surprise, Fox agreed. The ensuing heartstring-tugging movie, which went up on December 16, 2013, has close to three million views so far. In Neistat's view, there is no better showcase for aspiring filmmakers than YouTube, specifically because a person can communicate directly to an audience. There are no distributors or producers altering a film, nor are there any of the politics that accompany the traditional filmmaking process, because on YouTube, it doesn't matter what connections you have. Neistat also dismisses the idea that it is easy for wannabe auteurs to get lost in the noise of cat videos, "Charlie Bit My Finger"-style clips, and song covers that make up the 100 hours of video that YouTube users upload to the site every minute. "What makes [YouTube] great is that it's a meritocracy," Neistat says. "If you make something good, it will be seen. I can tell you that from experience and as someone who is a very keen YouTube observer." Neistat so believes in the power of YouTube that he thinks the service, combined with the low cost and high quality of technology, is going to usher in a new era of filmmaking. "When we were 10, if [someone] wanted to make a movie, it required money, resources, reach, access. For the entire history of moving images, [film has] been a very elitist medium," he says. "But in the last 10 years, it has radically changed. Now everyone, on [their] cell phones, can write, shoot and edit a movie, and distribute it to the entire world. People still don't realize what that means. If you remove the preciousness, you start to disturb the entire foundation of filmmaking, and the yield from that could be really interesting." n Casey Neistat will be a Keynote speaker at SXSW Film on Tuesday, March 11 at 11am in the Vimeo Theater.

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