If you're a self-taught filmmaker (or just a filmmaker in general, actually), then chances are you know who Ryan Connolly is. Recently, we broke down the reasons why his brilliant YouTube channel Film Riot is so popular and so successful. Now, we've managed to grab some time with Ryan himself to dive deeper into what it takes to make it on YouTube, the democratization of education online and some expert advice for filmmakers just starting out on their journey.
For those who don't know you, tell us Who you are and what you do.
I'm a filmmaker and host/creator of Film Riot. So I guess I'm a bit of a filmmaker and a filmmaking educator.
...every week it was just us trying something new and being like, 'Hey, here's what we tried and what we learned.'
People love to hear the origin story of creators because we can all relate to that, so where did this journey start? How did this all begin?
It all started in a theater watching Jurassic Park, for me. I loved telling stories before that, but Jurassic Park was really the thing that turned the light switch on. There was a group of people - specifically this director Steven Spielberg - who gave us, in this room, this gift. This insane experience was transformative for me. And so ever since that moment, it was me hunting down how to give that gift to people - how to be a part of making something that I found so magical.
Fast forward years later, I had gone to film school and then spent several years doing whatever jobs I could to raise money to buy gear. Because gear was just way more expensive than it is now for not even remotely the quality you can get now. So it was a couple of years of working 2 or 3 jobs at the same time, just trying to make it work, and then once I got the gear, I was doing stuff on nights and weekends for free just to build a resume or reel.
Then I got a job at Alienware running their video studio, and I was just trying to figure out what's next. I was working towards a short film, but I thought, ‘What am I going to do with this short film once I finish it?’ I always knew I wasn't going to be a festival person. Festivals would never be a fan of the type of stuff I liked to make. So, I just wanted to make things for an audience to experience.
So I was trying to figure out how to find an audience for these short films. And then YouTube popped up, and I saw what other people were doing thinking it was really interesting. I wanted to start doing stuff there but couldn't quite figure out how. Then a friend of mine was just venting to me on how he had no way to get to film school. He didn't have the financial means and he had things that were holding him here. And there was no real info online about how to do this...it was all close to the chest, and that's why I had to go to film school.
And that gave me the idea...what if I could sort of kill 2 birds with one stone and create this thing (Film Riot). In the beginning, the opener was 'Wanna be a filmmaker? So do I. Let's figure it out together.' So that was always the idea. It's not something where I'm Professor Ryan walking in and telling you, ‘Hey, here's how you make a film.’
I was 4 years outside of film school at the time, and I'd done some professional stuff, but I was still very aware of how new and green I was and how much I had to learn. So instead of doing something where it was like, 'Hey, here's how you can be a filmmaker,' I thought it would be cool if it was just, 'Here's where I'm at, here's what I've learned so far, here's what I've learned right now.' And then every week it was just us trying something new and being like, 'Hey, here's what we tried and what we learned. We made this stand out of PVC because we don't have money.'
And we were doing it publicly and honestly. For example, 'I don't know many actors, so I'm using family and friends. I don't have any money, so I'm making things that I bought at Home Depot to do the job for me. This is the best camera I got, so this is what I'm using.' And I hoped to let that scale my career into the stuff that we've done, like having a full crew. So we started with, 'Hey, I don't have anything, but I'm still doing it, and I'm still trying ideas that Hollywood does.' And, of course, it doesn't look like Hollywood. But I'm trying these concepts that I'm preparing myself for when I do have this crew and cast.
Then the show gets there, and we show that as well - I’m getting close to doing a feature, and I wanted to handle it the same way - ‘Here’s my first go-to feature. Here's how it happened. Here's what went down. Come along with us for that ride.’ That was kind of the inception of it, why we did it, and how it's gone ever since, pretty much. But the idea was always just 'Here's me as a filmmaker, here's where I'm at, here's what I'm learning.'
That's why we've done a lot of theory stuff very recently because I've been pretty deep inside of that for the past 3 years as I'm pitching things out in Hollywood. So now we're doing a lot more of that because that's what I'm actively doing constantly.
As someone who's completely self-taught myself, it's pretty wild how nowadays you can very feasibly build yourself a great career in the filmmaking industry just by teaching yourself on YouTube. Can you speak a little bit to that and the changes you've seen over the past 20 years or so?
It's like night and day. If I was a 20-year-old now, I wouldn't have gone to college for film school. Everything you could possibly want to know and better (than college), I think, can be found online if you put in the time. I went to Full Sail University. It's this 1-year hardcore school, And it was borderline around the clock. You go hard, and you put in 3 years in that amount of time. And I really like that because that's kind of my personality. If I'm going to do something, I'm obsessed. I like to go hard.
They told us on the first day, 'you're going to get out of this school what you put into it. We're not your babysitters, and this moves fast. Remember, you're paying for this. So what you put in and how hard you work is what you're going to take from this.' And then they said, ‘So many of you are going to leave it hating this experience, and many of you are going to leave it loving this experience.'
I went with my cousin, who was also my roommate and very much like me. We both worked hard at it, and we left loving it. And most of our class left hating and complaining because instead of going home and studying or staying in a lab, they go drinking, or if there was a 3-hour lab, and they were only made to stay there for an hour, they were gone when the hour was up.
You need to become obsessed and really put in the time and effort, and go at what can be found readily available online for free as hard, track things down and binge-watch the shows that give information and keep an open mind. You have many channels that are doing stuff - you can see their work and where they're at. And you have to look at how young green people are thinking outside of the box, and I met many people who watched Film Riot in the beginning for that reason.
And I still do that a lot. I'll still watch channels of people who are brand new and go, 'that's really smart, I never thought of that.' When you're young, brand new, and you don't have the tools, you have to have MacGyver-style thinking to get it done. So that's what keeps you fresh even when you're further along. Because you can start to get stuck thinking, 'Well, I have the Arri, and I have the Technocrane, so I'll just do it,' but sometimes, the MacGyver way is the best way. You really need to go at it in those terms, find people whose work you really like and admire and dive into how they did it.
That's become the trend online - being very honest and open. When we started, that wasn't the case. Everybody was doing ‘Instagram filmmaking,’ making it look like it was the best thing possible and they never had a problem. And that's why if you go back in the early days, we made a conscious effort to be like, 'yeah, we've screwed up. This went bad. We had a huge $300,000 short film that fell through.' And instead of trying to spin it, we just came right out and said, 'Yeah, we bit off more than we could chew. It fell apart. This is how it goes. And I feel horrible, and I just want to die.' But instead of crying about it, we went for [a budget of] $300 instead. So we took that negativity and spun it into positivity. We showed that, yeah, this is horrible. This sucks. We screwed up. That's what happens. We couldn't handle it right now, apparently, but we're going to make something anyway. And that's the way to do it.
So you need to go find those things online. You can go and find these places that have really good stuff. Some are paid, some are free. But I paid $60,000 to go to school! You know what I mean? You can do a crash course in a year for well under $1,000. And you have all this information, from talents like freakin’ Aaron Sorkin! It's an unbelievable time. If you really wanted to, you could just fill your brain with so much amazing information and just be trying things all along...because that's the key.
Many people will go look at this stuff, and they'll get discouraged. You can even see it in our comments. When we make an episode, even if it’s for our $100,000 short film with this huge crew, with all this gear, we still shoot it purposefully with a Canon C200, which is a $5,000 camera, maybe less now, to show that we're using this camera instead of an Arri mini or an Alexa or whatever, we're using this camera. and instead of thinking, 'They shot on that camera, I can get that,' and getting excited about that, you have the people that go, 'Yeah, but look at your crew and look at all your gear.' You're missing the point.
With every episode, with every project, the info that we put out is all about the concepts, and you could take those concepts at any level and really run with them. And there are many people that do get that. We see that in the comments, and they grow, and we see their work. They send it to us, and you see them growing because they understand that 'yeah, I don't have $100,000 to make a short film, but I see why they did that and how they did that, and I could shrink that down to my level, and I could use that concept - not exactly button by button what they did, but the concept’.
My brain is wrapped around that idea of giving information to the audience because when I was young, I watched ‘Movie Magic’. This was a Discovery Channel show, and they showed behind the scenes of the biggest movies ever made - Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, Speed... But, of course, as a 12 or 13-year old, I can't do any of that! But I took the concepts I saw behind it and started doing stuff with my VHS camera. I didn’t have After Effect or anything like that, There was no software, there was no computer to do it with. I mean, there were computers. I'm not that old! But I didn't have any of that stuff. That wasn't like what it is now, where you get DaVinci Resolve or HitFilm - pro-level editing, VFX, and you can have free versions of them. So you really can just go and just start trying things. Take the concept you see from people way above you, learn from the people that are right at your level who can give you the button by button to push you forward. What you can do now, from the information that's out there and the readily available technology, is really incredible. You can put yourself through one hell of an education in a short amount of time, at any age.
You go through the comments of your videos, and it's obvious that there's a real community here who feel they owe you something due to how you've helped them. Building and maintaining a community that really cares and is involved with what you do is pivotal to success on YouTube - how did you go about doing that?
With honesty, I think. We didn't really set out to do that. We never thought about building a community in terms of how it's thought of now. Not that that's a negative thing, by the way. We just never really thought about that. I did think about things like, 'If people are watching the show, maybe they'll watch the short film I’ll put out eventually.' But it wasn't really thinking in terms of, 'let's build a community!'
However, I did love the interaction right away. We started on YouTube, and then (former TV network) Revision3 picked us up, so we were broadcast through their player and Quicktime, and I lost that direct connection - seeing how many people were watching and seeing their comments and being able to comment back to them. All that went away. And I bugged them like crazy to get back on YouTube for quite a while until we finally did.
So I guess without thinking in terms of community, I was thinking in terms of community. For me, it was always just about opening the door, saying, ‘Hey, there's a party going on in here and the door's wide open. Whoever hears the music and likes those tunes can come in.’ That was kind of our thinking without consciously thinking about it. It was just an honest curiosity about questions like ‘what do you want to see next?’ but also, 'what are you working on? Send us stuff, we’ll comment on it,' and that's always been the case.
I've been terrible with Twitter lately because it got so busy that I'm rarely on it. But I still try to go on and see if anybody has sent me something to check out, so I can send my thoughts on it. I think it's just stuff like that - just honestly wanting to engage with like-minded people or people who want to be filmmakers and figuring it all out.
I think with those 2 things - passion and integrity - it might take 25 years like me, but you'll get there eventually.
What's one piece of advice you would give to anyone listening who's just starting out - whether they're looking to create a YouTube channel or just get into filmmaking. What's the one piece of advice you would tell them?
I think one thing I say all the time, and we made a slogan out of it, 'Write. Shoot. Edit. Repeat.' It's the one ultimate truth that I found within filmmaking, within any creative avenue. There are so many paths that you can take. There are so many things that you could do. There are so many approaches you can have.
Even just showing your work to someone is dicey. You've got to make sure that person understands your taste and likes it. Just because somebody hated a script I wrote doesn't mean it's bad. Look at the comment section of any one of our videos. You're going to have somebody saying this is the worst episode they've ever seen. And the following comment saying this is the best episode we ever made.
Or take our sense of humor. Every other episode has been like, 'stop with the immature, ridiculous jokes. It ruins your channel and makes me not want to watch it.' And the very next person says, 'you guys are hilarious. Your sense of humor is why I watch the show.' That's the industry we're in. So, you have the 180-degree rule, but you can break it all the time. You have pacing rules. You can totally break them. You have the 3-act structure. Forget about it! Do something totally different. Go nuts! Be experimental. It doesn't make it bad for breaking those rules.
Some people made it because they have a friend or family member in the industry. Some people made it because they went to New York and they did their college there. And then in their class was this director who ended up making it and then reached out and pulled them up. Some people started as just serving coffee on the Warner Brothers lot. You know what I mean? There are so many paths to it. But the one universal truth from everyone I've talked to is to make something and then make another one and another one and another one and another one, and just keep going. Pour every ounce of passion into this. Just keep making stuff.
And that's been true for me as well. I graduated in 2004, so if you just count from film school on...let alone all the short films I made pre-film school because I've been obsessed with this since I was 8! Then I realized directing is what I wanted to do at 11 and then went to school 9 years later…
So just from film school to Film Riot, it's 5 years. And then from Film Riot to now is 12 years. And I still haven't made my feature! But I make the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. And I never stop. I've talked about it on the show a bunch before - I made a short film called U.F.Oh Yeah. And a buddy of mine was making a feature with a huge production company at the time. So he passed it to some producers there, and a producer really liked it, but he said, 'not yet.' I could have been discouraged by that. But I took it as like, 'not no, but not yet - there's still stuff I need to work on. So let's make the next thing!' And I kept doing that until finally, I made 'BALLiSTIC.' I put 'BALLiSTIC' out there, and that blew the doors open. I got my managers. I have a lawyer now. There are 5 other potential things in the works. I'm in negotiations on something. It's only because I just kept doing. I'm 39, but I don't care if I'm 65; I'll just be making the next thing until I get there.
And along the way, you're making things, you're creating - I found that I was getting so burnt out; it was bad. Everybody was saying, 'you need to take a vacation.' This is back in 2016 or 2017. And I was like, 'Alright. Yeah, I'm just going to book a vacation.’ So I go on a week-long vacation, and I come back, and I feel a little better, but kind of the same. And what I realized was that I hadn't made anything for myself in a really long time. So we did a new short film, and I felt like myself again. I felt better again.
So I was burnt out. Film Riot is creating, but there's something different about telling some kind of story or giving some kind of experience that I'm crafting for the audience. By being able to pour yourself into that sort of thing, it's just different. It's therapeutic. And by doing that, you're also trying new things and getting better. And then you look back at it - what worked, what didn't. You're proud of what you've accomplished, but then you think about what didn't work and move on to the next thing. And eventually, something works correctly.
Maybe you don't make a short film that blows doors open, and you get managers, and it leads to something. Maybe you're so skilled and find one investor that's willing to give you $500,000 to make a feature. But it's only by the constant doing and doing for others. It can't just be all about you. It has to be about a community that you built. So the filmmakers I work with, we help each other like, 'What do you need? How can I help you? Are you making something? What can I do for you? You want me to come hold the boom? I'll hold the boom. Sure.' And then when you make your thing, they're there for you, and then you all work together in that way.
So I guess 2 pieces of advice are in there! 1) Always be creating. Always be doing the next thing. And 2) Don't be an asshole. Take care of people. Don't be selfish. Don't make it all about you. Remember that there are other people there and take care of them. Always be making something but never at the expense of other people. Always be making something that also benefits the people you're making it with as well. Don't make it just about you.
I think with those 2 things - passion and integrity - it might take 25 years like me, but you'll get there eventually.
What does YouTube look like over the next 10 years, 20 years? Where do you think YouTube is going? And what does the future hold for you?
As far as where YouTube is going, I have no idea. I don't know. I'm excited to see what people do. YouTube has had several generations of filmmakers or YouTubers that have come through already and graduated out or stayed and evolved in their own way, so it's very interesting to see.
I think you're going to see many people building up their own platforms outside of YouTube. There’s a lot of gatekeeping on YouTube, nowadays. What was awesome about YouTube at the beginning was that there was no gatekeeper, and now there's a whole lot of gatekeeping. So I think you're going to see people moving away from YouTube within the next 5 to 10 years if things don't change. I'm not 100% sure, but I think the world of online media and direct-to-an-audience media will continue to grow and evolve.
But I think we're going to see some intensely interesting filmmakers come out of this world, too, because they direct to an audience. They're crafting their own stuff without needing anyone else. What does that look like in the next 5 to 10 years? Will you see a reemergence of the Kevin Smith 'Clerks' old-school type filmmakers in a way that we never saw before because of the technology that's so available? Because of how an 8-year-old can go through a better film school than I did at 20, what will that do for future filmmakers?
Image from Kevin Smith's 'Clerks'
That really excites me - I think we're going to see some incredible stuff in the future. I say it in an upcoming episode - when we do real heavy, 'technology type' stuff, like Unreal Engine, we call it 'the future of filmmaking.' You could say it in so many different mediums (the future of storytelling, for example), but what Unreal Engine unlocks for filmmakers is pretty incredible. But you always have people that will say that 'this is the end of filmmaking, this is ruining filmmaking.' I just don't think that's true.
Things like this are unlocking avenues to where 11-year-old me could have gone into Unreal Engine, free software and crafted short films to practice and practice shots and all kinds of things. It's not that hard to learn as you can find everything you need online to learn it at the highest level with unbelievable assets, like feature film level assets. I mean, right now, a 13-year-old could make a shot that looks like it belongs in a Marvel movie and never before was that a thing!
So those things unlock abilities to allow certain filmmakers to tell stories in certain ways they never were able to before. So it's a matter of controlling the technology, not the technology controlling you, like wielding the technology to tell the story in the way you want it, to bend it to your will. And all that stuff is really, really exciting to me.
As for Film Riot? I just want to keep pushing it forward in the way that we have. We've never really lost sight of our continuous goal. There's no real end goal. It's a continuous goal to keep creating things. I want to make features, of course, I want to make series, of course. But I want to bring our audience along for the ride of all that.
We're doing Unreal Engine stuff now, and one of our recent episodes is about using CamTrack AR with the iPhone and what that could mean for the future. Not right now so much because it's in its infancy. It's really cool right now, but I can't use it on a major project right now...looking back 5 years at what I could do with the iPhone compared to right now is insanity. So what is it going to be in 5 years?
In 5 years, how will I be able to use this to tell my story on a higher level? Because 5 or 10 years ago, the only people who had keys to certain levels of filmmaking were the ones who had hundreds of millions of dollars. We're watching that bar come down to where people with a million dollars outside of Hollywood could make it look like fifty. And that's fascinating. So, again, 5 to 10 years from now, what does that look like? Are we going to have YouTubers making stuff that rivals Marvel?
I mean, if you look at Corridor, it clearly looks like yes. As people like the Corridor crew teach young kids (and hopefully us as well) how to do these things and pull back the curtain on all these things...what is that 18-year-old going to be making on YouTube in 5 years? That stuff really excites me. And I think more than anything else, I just want Film Riot to be a part of that and be a stepping stone for people like, 'Hey, can we help you get to what you're doing?' while we do our own creative works as well.
If you haven't already, check out the Film Riot YouTube channel now!
Josh Edwards is an accomplished filmmaker, industry writing veteran, storyteller based in Indonesia (by way of the UK), and industry writer in the Blade Ronner Media Writing Collective. He's passionate about travel and documents adventures and stories through his films.