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How Viral Video Contests Led to Will Blank’s Beautiful Fantasy Short, Limbo

Recently receiving its online premiere after months of plaudits on the genre festival circuit, Will Blank’s Limbo is a beautifully executed fantasy short concluding with an unexpected philosophical gut punch. Adapted from Marian Churchland’s graphic short story, the set up is simple — a man coping with the detritus of a failing relationship heads to the desert, where he comes across a dying dog able to grant him one wish. The starkness of the environment and the pathos of the situation — nobly conveyed by Sam Elliott, who voices the (skillfully animatronic) dog — elevates this simple story into something both moving and searching. The short provides answers, both for its protagonist and its viewers, although those answers are up each to discover.

Among the short’s fans are Guillermo del Toro, who, as writer/director Will Blank reveals below, responded to his online reach-out. For Blank, the short represented both something more personal than his day job — editing network television — as well as a storytelling and production advance for the work he has previously best known for. As we discuss below, Blank’s first career of sorts was making comedic shorts to enter into viral video contests. He and his partner had a certain amount of success riding the wave of viral video in throughout the mid-to-late aughts and, below, he talks about how he fell into that world, the secret of his success there, and the state of video contests today.

Watch Limbo embedded above.

Filmmaker: I want to hear about your background in winning viral video contests, but let’s start by talking about your new short, Limbo. How did you wind up connecting to the source material, Marian Churchland’s graphic novella?

Blank: It was kind of a random thing. Five or six years ago I was really broke. I had tried to parlay [my success] with the video contests into a production company, but we couldn’t get clients. We didn’t have the skill set. I was running out of money, in debt, depressed, and I decided I would go to comic book shop one day. I used to draw as a kid, so I was looking at the stuff there, looking for inspiration, and I bought a compilation of Meathaus comics because I was drawn to the cover. I remembering stumbling through one particular very short comic that was five pages long — it was over before I realized it. I reread it, and I loved the art style, the whole tone and feel of it. It had a guy wandering around alone in a desert, supernatural interactions, a dog genie, and it asked big questions in a funny, tongue-in-cheek way. It was reflective and profound while not taking itself too seriously.

So, as I looking for something to pull me out of a rut, I thought, a guy in a field with a dog — I could shoot that. But I didn’t have any money, so I shelved it.

Filmmaker: Okay, so what happened next?

Blank: I got my career together. I did a bunch of mind-numbing promo videos and commercials, and then one day rediscovered the comic. The shoot then just spun out of control in a good way. I did a Kickstarter despite myself. I wanted to take all the money I had saved and fail quietly. But my friend who produced it urged me to protect myself financially and to do a Kickstarter campaign. And Kickstarter was the way we got Sam Elliott. I made the Kickstarter, and Indiewire did a little feature. I had had this idea of using Sam’s voice, but his voiceover agent was polite but not enthusiastic. Once we got Indiewire’s Project of the Day from the Kickstarter, that was when [the agent] passed on our materials to Sam.

Filmmaker: How long was the shoot?

Blank: It was a three-day shoot. One day in the house, one day in the desert, and then one reshoot day in the desert with the dog.

Filmmaker: And you just did an online premiere. Has the film had festival exposure too?

Blank: We played a lot of the genre festivals: Fantasia, Fantastic Fest in Austin, Toronto After Dark. We played HollyShorts, and Camerimage in Poland after our DP won an award from the Cinematographer’s Guild. We won the grand prize at CineGear’s film competition as well.

Filmmaker: So your film bypassed many of the places where agents and managers congregate — Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, etc.? Have you still managed to get the exposure you’ve needed to advance your career? How has the short helped?

Blank: It actually helped me get my job editing. I was an assistant editor on this show Underground, and I used the short as [work sample], which gave me the bump to editor. And I sent the short to Guillermo del Toro through his public email address, and he got back to me and gave me great compliments and feedback. He said it was a great film. And it has helped me get meetings. I’m pitching a feature based around graphic novel by same author on the strength of the short.

Filmmaker: Okay, let’s go back in time. How did you become a consistent video contest winner, and what was that scene like back in the early aughts?

Blank: I was working as a PA. A friend and I had been making comedy sketches, like “Five Things You Shouldn’t Do in a Public Restroom.” We uploaded them to YouTube and checked back months later and saw that we had millions of views. This was 2005 — I feel like we started the whole listicle trend. At this time another friend took a video of a cat in a sombrero and won $10,000. There was this whole culture of video contests. Based on his recomendation, we submitted to a site where people would compete to be next chapter in a story. We won the grand prize — $5,000 — and that was where it all clicked. We made a thing that was a narrative, and we made money off of it. $5,000 — our heads exploded.

Filmmaker: What happened next?

Blank: My job had ended — it was 2009, I was working on a season of Heroes, and the show was over. Happyjoel had made $100,000 and had a whole website dedicated to promoting contest entries. We entered the Logitech contest and won another $5,000. We called ourselves the Video Contest Warriors, made a site and set up a mailing list. And we had followers on Facebook — people who were willing to vote for our entries. At the end of day we pulled in $15,000 or $20,000. We still weren’t earning nearly enough to make it sustainable, but we were young, and our overhead was low, so we kept buying equipment and upping our production value.

We won a meat smoker from Louisiana Hot Sauce and a huge supply of Skittles. All sorts of random stuff. But we were losing a lot. It all cost money to produce. We were trying to spend between $200 and $500 a video, mostly buying props. We were winning these contests, doing good work, but we were losing money. We thought, why don’t we do this for real — try to have a commercial production company. We actually hate commercials — Jake Bradbury, my partner, and I — and have a certain level of contempt for that culture. A lot of stuff we did was commentary, or riffs on commercials and that became our strongest work. That said, it was money for us. Crowdsourcing was becoming popular, and we landed a national commercial for Big Red Soda. Big Red was owned by Pepsi. We pitched our idea to this crowdsourcing company, Genius Rocket, and the budget was paltry — $10,000. We actually lost money doing it, but we saw it as a huge opportunity. This was in 2010.

Filmmaker: What’s this world like right now?

Blank: There’s a website called onlinevideocontests.com, but that culture I feel has died out. Doritos is the biggest contest, the Super Bowl spots. We also entered that.

Filmmaker: Why do you think it’s dying out?

Blank: I just don’t think that the commercials are that good. [The companies] are hoping for this viral content, and I’m skeptical that anything truly viral came out of those contests. It was like, “Oh, we need to jump on YouTube!” The [companies] were just grasping at this world, thinking that it could be a thing. But the second that you lace [a video] with a product, it loses its soul.

But I would say the comedy videos — the video contests — was really my boot camp for filmmaking. There was tremendous value in it. I feel like that’s where I cut my teeth, me and my collaborator.

Filmmaker: What advice do you have for others who might still want to follow in your footsteps?

Blank: We went from video contests to working with an established actor — that’s the big lesson from all of this. Just leverage whatever you have at the time to get up to the next thing. You feel small, when you’re starting out. You just don’t feel like you have power or control or that anyone will take you seriously. But you can take and use whatever you have and be shocked at how far it can get you.

Focus on having fun with your friends and executing a dumb idea. I’m trying to do that now — not to overthink things. Some of my favorite stuff is when you can see the seams, literally — like the costumes are terrible and people are fucking up their lines.

Filmmaker: And what is next for you?

Blank: I’m working on a feature based on Marian’s graphic novel Beast. It’s about a struggling female artist commissioned by demon to sculpt his portrait in marble.

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