YouTube is quietly becoming one of the best and most profitable distribution options for micro-budget feature films. At least those that fit within a certain paradigm. But how much money can your movie actually make on YouTube with ads alone?
Depending on the genre and length of your film, the answer may be more than you think.
As an experiment, last month I released two of my feature films on YouTube for free.
These films had previously been distributed through more traditional channels, and after a few years I was ready to try something new.
I had been hearing about certain feature films turning substantial profits on YouTube through Adsense revenue, and became aware of several full blown distribution outlets that release catalogs exclusively on their channels.
This was enticing to me, as my only real experience with streaming was via Amazon SVOD, where I was paid no less than $0.01 per hour the movie was streamed. I should also mention that I saw much better payout numbers via TubiTV, but the volume of people watching was relatively small.
YouTube appeared to offer a best of both worlds scenario: Global access to the world’s movie going population with net revenue that could exceed other streaming platforms.
I’m still relatively early on in the experiment, but so far the results have been very encouraging.
YouTube Channel Size & Growth
Just for some background on my channel at the onset of this process –
I’ve never put any effort into growing a YouTube channel. So at the start of this experiment, I only had a modest following of 5500 subscribers on my channel. Mainly thanks to some old camera reviews and a few short films I uploaded years ago.
I assumed this would put me at a major disadvantage when releasing my features, as larger channels would presumably get a big algorithmic boost upon upload. It turned out I was very much wrong on that front (more on that to come).
In any case, my goal was to get enough momentum with these movies to actually get the channel monetized. For those new to YouTube, you need at least 1000 subscribers and 4000 watch hours in the last year in order to qualify.
My channel was only sitting at about 900 watch hours because it was essentially dormant up until that point. With that in mind, I began the process with no expectations, but aiming to at least generate enough watch hours to monetize the channel. Within a week I had blown past that number.
Day 1: Releasing Two Features On YouTube
On day one of the experiment, I uploaded two of my feature films to YouTube:
From the get-go I was optimistic as I had some minor success with narratives on YouTube in the past. My top YouTube video of all time was a short film with 2 million views (that I barely promoted), followed by some other short narrative films with smaller, but still decent numbers.
This trend seemed to continue on as I released the two movies to my channel – both of which received thousands of views in the first 24 hours.
During this period (and for the next week) I intentionally did nothing to interfere with the process. I didn’t share links to the films, or promote them in any other way. My goal was to just observe what YouTube would do, and try to understand why these films were so quickly outperforming almost all of my other videos.
The First Week: YouTube Feature Films
In terms of the actual numbers, within the first week both films generated far more views than I would have expected. While not in the millions yet, I think they can both get there.
14 days into the process Psychosynthesis had cleared 75K and Shadows On The Road was at roughly 10K. And soon after I was notified that my channel exceeded the additional 3000 watch hours needed to be monetized.
I had never experienced these type of numbers so quickly on YouTube. Even my short film with 2 million views took much more time to build to that point.
But the growth eventually tapered off, particularly for Psychosynthesis. Here are my analytics for both films, 3 weeks in:
Shadows On The Road
Interestingly, each film had a very different distribution pattern, despite both having good initial starts.
Psychosynthesis started off faster and with bigger numbers, but eventually crashed very abruptly (within an hour or so) to just a few hundred views per day.
Shadows on the Road has been a much slower, steadier build. Currently it is still getting thousands of daily views, while Psychosynthesis is in the hundreds.
I would consider both films to be a success in that I expected far lower numbers across the board. But more importantly, seeing their performance has given me a baseline to project potential revenue with future films. And also to consider a larger business model that might incorporate YouTube more purposefully.
YouTube Feature Film Business Model
My first takeaway after running this experiment is that YouTube clearly loves long form narrative content.
If my channel with minimal prior activity could generate hundreds of thousands of views in just weeks with no promotion, it’s no wonder some businesses are built entirely around YouTube distribution.
Naturally, I started thinking about ways I could incorporate YouTube into my overall business model too. And what I quickly realized (and every YouTuber probably already knows well), is that it’s not about any one video. It’s about your overall channel performance, and the average amount of daily views you get.
The added benefit of these feature films performing well is that they boosted my other narrative shorts too. The short I mentioned with 2MM views had essentially flatlined, but now it’s getting thousands of daily views again.
With these sort of numbers, and the potential revenue associated with ads on longer format videos, there seems to be a path here for indie filmmakers. Either for those with movies that are so low / micro budget that they can recoup costs entirely via YouTube. Or for films that have already made their money back and want to tap into an additional ongoing revenue stream.
A filmmaker who owns a small catalog of 3 – 5 films can potentially build a sustainable income for themselves on YouTube alone. Especially if those films are marketed well, and optimized for the YouTube audience.
In addition to the movies themselves, the channel can generate traffic through behind the scenes videos, director’s commentaries, highlight reels, and other associated content.
With a steady enough flow of traffic (across a diverse variety of videos / films), there is certainly the potential for ongoing, semi-predictable revenue.
I was never interested in pursuing YouTube in the past, as I assumed I would need to constantly post new videos every week in order to have a viable channel.
Now, what I’m discovering – is that a handful of high performing videos (movies) can easily outperform a library of low performing videos.
So the question becomes how profitable is this model, and how many monthly views do you need to make it worthwhile?
Unfortunately, there are no clear cut answers to how much YouTube pays out in Adsense revenue.
The type of content you release, the demographics of the viewers, the length of your videos, and countless other variables play into the CPM. This of course refers to the average amount of revenue per thousand views.
At the moment, it seems that long form content will generate between $5K – $15K per 1 million views on YouTube. For the purpose of this calculation, let’s just use an average of $10K.
It’s completely reasonable for a feature film (even one with no star talent) to generate 2 million views in its first year. If a movie hits that view count over the course of 12 months, that may yield $20K in revenue. Or just over $1600 monthly.
While those numbers seem relatively small, keep in mind that is just for a single film.
Now imagine you have a body of work that consists of 5 feature films. And for each movie, you also have several other associated videos (BTS, director’s commentary, etc.) that are also generating good numbers.
Some films in your catalog might underperform, and others will over perform. But if they each average 1.5MM views / year, that brings in a total of 7.5MM views annually. With supplementary content, that could reasonably reach 10MM total views or beyond.
10MM annual views (of long form content) at $10K per million views would yield $100,000 in revenue. Not lifetime revenue, but in a single year.
These numbers are encouraging for filmmakers who can make movies very inexpensively (let’s say under $30K), and who are able to make new films every year or two.
While it may not be profitable enough for a higher budget indie films as a primary distribution outlet, it’s exactly the right niche for a DIY movie with different goals and objectives.
Each year another micro-budget film can be added to your catalog, growing the channel, the subscriber base, and the revenue – while creating stability for you as an artist.
Earlier this week I decided to take my experiment one step further. I cut a medium length version of our feature film Psychosynthesis (with a runtime of just 41 minutes), and then uploaded it to YouTube.
My hypothesis was that a shorter version of the same movie might get even bigger numbers than the full feature length cut. The cutdown version of the movie opens on a more captivating scene, cuts out some of the slower parts, and increases overall pace dramatically.
To my surprise though, the numbers initially weren’t super impressive. I got about 1000 views in the first 2 days, which is more than my average videos on YouTube, but nowhere near the full length version.
My guess is that YouTube’s algorithm is heavily biased toward films / content of a certain length. If films are under an hour (or whatever their exact metric may be), they seem to get promoted and boosted far less. Or at least that’s what I can gauge from the outside.
At the same time, as I mentioned earlier, my top performing video of all time is a short film. So feature films are clearly not the only option for narratives on YouTube. But they do seem to have an edge – at least initially – when publishing to your channel.
Overall, I’m quite intrigued by the prospect of self distributing future work via YouTube.
Not long ago, filmmakers would scoff at the idea of releasing their film on YouTube. But today multi-million dollar businesses are built off of exclusively distributing movies on the platform.
I never like to put all of my eggs in one basket – especially in the case of a platform like YouTube, where your success lives or dies by algorithms out of your control. But I do think there is a lot of potential there, and it is worthy of exploration.
For filmmakers just starting out, it seems like a no-brainer. Go out and make shorts or feature films as often as possible, upload them to your channel, use the revenue to fund more movies, and keep building your body of work one movie at a time.
Right now is the time to do it too. With tons of people fleeing streamers like Netflix, YouTube will inevitably pick up a lot of the traffic. Free feature films on YouTube are going to be in more demand than ever before.