Freeing the films: YouTube's Screening Room has been presenting short films since June, and is now turning to feature content.

SWAG: Free Feature Films On the Web

Hannah Eaves September 26, 2008

Acronyms and abbreviations occupy an ever increasing part of our modern lives. Some of us spend at least a small amount of time pretending we understand them (IMHO) and feeling proud we can actually use them in crossword puzzles (IMHO, the New York Times, Sunday September 14). But this one—SWAG—goes way back. In fact, according to Wikipedia, it’s actually a backronym. Which means it existed as a real word first and then collectively we made up a series of words for the letters. Originally, it was defined as a small bundle of stuff, and really it still is: Stuff We All Get (of course, this is how the "S" is represented in polite circles).

Every glitzy film festival is full of SWAG. One day I will need that expensive rejuvenation créme, thank you Cannes. And the web is packed full of it, too. In the online video world, several burgeoning business models live side by side, vying for our attention on boring panel conversations. Several of these involve paying for content (iTunes Movie store), but others don’t. And on those sites that don’t, the SWAG is just getting better and better.

Here are some browser-based legal zones for free online feature film viewing pleasure. No installation required.


Bay Area-based YouTube has been the unofficial host of several high profile documentary films. Academy Award nominee No End in Sight has been posted there since September 1st, and will remain up until election day (30,000 views so far). Michael Moore’s pet project Slacker Uprising looks to have been reposted on YouTube from the free download currently available from its official site. These are both election-centric releases. But YouTube’s own Screening Room has been presenting short films since June, and while it initially prompted comparisons to doomed efforts like Atom Films and iFilm, it’s now turning to feature content. And the ad revenue split combined with a "Buy the DVD" button, might make it a worthwhile proposition for independent filmmakers who need an audience. Wayne Wang’s The Princess of Nebraska will have its world premiere on YouTube. Look out for it on October 17. I could speculate that Magnolia (also No End in Sight’s distributor), who have experimented with alternative distribution methods in the past, picked up the film in a two-for-one-ish deal along with Wang’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, and realize that its odds of making any money at the box office are extremely limited. With this kind of well timed, high profile release on YouTube, what would be an obscure film could actually find an audience, especially as one of the main characters is young. The Screening Room supports itself through ads, which completely surround the videos on the page, and YouTube also allows advertisers to populate their own video section there. Full screen is available but not necessarily advisable, and embedding is turned on, but we’ll have to see if this will also be true of The Princess of Nebraska. (Cinetic’s Matt Dentler wrote to me that it’s likely, but not certain, that it will be embeddable.) DVD sales are supported on some titles through a "buy now" button.


The Los Angeles based Hulu was invented by old-school media to replicate a system they know and (apparently) love. NBC Universal and News Corp (FOX) launched Hulu in March 2007, and it streams video from FOX, NBC Universal, MGM, Sony Pictures Television, Warner Bros., and others. Hulu uses an invasive ad-supported model for feature film content, and also provides episodes from TV shows. They offer almost 200 feature length films including a few mainstream and modern classics. A sampler: Hoop Dreams, Metropolitan, Master and Commander, The Fifth Element, 28 Days Later, Planet of the Apes, Ghostbusters, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Sideways, Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Raising Arizona, Some Like it Hot, Lost Highway, Koyaanisqatsi. These are really the absolute highlights, padded out with a lot of drek, and although rumor has it that the classic so-bad-it’s-outrageously-good Troll 2 was once there, it is there no longer, because films rotate in and out (two of the titles listed above expire in five days). The quality of the videos is far superior to YouTube or Snag, and the full screen experience on an average monitor is impressively clean for streaming video, except—and here’s where the old media comes in—there are ads. Not just pre-roll ads (that play before the video loads) but ad breaks where one short ad is played, indicated in advance by small dots on the timeline. I won’t say that ads every 10 minutes for the United States Army completely destroyed my enjoyment of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, but surely they could have done better. These things are constantly changing, and there is currently an option to vote on the relative quality of ads. Is there such a thing as a good ad?

On top of dubious ad selection and a limited film library, Hulu has a curious way of dealing with so-called embeddable content. Sense and Sensibility had an embed button, so I went ahead and used it. Once embedded, a message in the player told me the film was no longer available (it was, in fact, still streaming the next tab over), but I could try one of these other great titles, thumbnails below. So I clicked on Sleepless in Seattle—sorry, not available—and several others with the same result. The only thing I could finally get to play was a short clip from The Office. Why bother with the button in the first place? It’s a universal player and it’s just easier to keep it on everything? They’re hoping the rights will catch up?


Documentaries have recently found an online home at SnagFilms, an ad-supported streaming site formed by AOL Vice Chairman Ted Leonsis, AOL founder Steve Case and others. They currently have at least ten films in their 440-ish library that Link TV has aired in one form or another including recent highlights The Pied Piper of Hutzovina (about band Gogol Bordello) and The Prisoner or: How I Tried to Kill Tony Blair. The video quality is not bad, but also not as good as a couple of its competitors, and on a couple of the videos I watched, it looked like they hadn’t dealt well with the interlacing, if at all. SnagFilms also runs ads before and during its film, along with a support window for NGOs like Global Giving. The ads are not well incorporated. On Hulu, from what I saw, there were clean dissolves in and out at ad points, but on Snag they’re thrown in as straight cuts in the middle of someone speaking, if the designated time comes. And while there’s a great selection of documentaries available, there is again confusing language when it comes to embedding the films. The site is called "Snag," and the emphasis is on dissemination of content elsewhere. When you roll over "snag," the window says, "1 click puts this film anywhere on the web." When you click on "snag," an option comes up the reads "< > embed." This is a common indicator that you can copy the video’s embed code, and the code you copy looks in its language like a video embed code. But it’s missing one essential ingredient: the video. It only embeds a slightly interactive graphic that links back to the film on Snag, which is a disappointment. Snag’s tech support confirmed that’s the case, but said that they’re actively working on an embeddable player model. Again, I’m presuming that this is infrastructure being built in for when the rights catch up. And it’s in the best interests of the filmmakers and distributors to sign on to allow embedding, because according to Cinematech, who saw Rick Allen of SnagFilms speak at the IFP Filmmaker Conference, filmmakers receive a 50/50 split on revenue, and "video advertisers pay about $25 for every thousand times their ad is shown, or .025 cents a viewing. If people press ‘Play’ on your film 10,000 times on Snag, that’s at least $125 for you." The more traffic the better, and because ads are called in the player, embedding it on more sites would mean more ad share revenue for distributors or filmmakers. But it’s also pointed out that DVD sales have a larger potential, with SnagFilms taking an 8.5 percent cut of all sales. Highlights include Dig!, Darkon, and Super Size Me (additional irony provided by the current McDonalds banner ad).

The Auteurs

Still in "stealth mode"—and how I hate that term, sexy-ing up geeks and failed entrepreneurs—is The Auteurs, a Bay Area company that’s been stirring up some buzz in film festival circles. At the Telluride Film Festival, they lifted up the curtain a little bit to reveal the work they’ve been doing with a leading distributor, the iconic Criterion Collection. By year’s end The Auteurs will be offering ad or sponsorship-supported high quality streaming of curated and underrepresented cinema gems: foreign, classic and independent. Specifically, they are building an online cinematheque for Criterion, who will curate a rotating online film festival monthly. At taste can be found online right now, in a partnership with Dell and the Telluride Film Festival. Use this link to sign up. To celebrate Telluride’s 35th Anniversary, The Auteurs and Criterion have made available a rotating collection of streaming films, and also records for other films that you can comment on, favorite and rate. There is currently no advertising to distract you from the experience of watching some excellent films online in full screen, with only slight source, scaling and interlacing issues. There are currently 15 or so films available, with highlights being Il Gredo (Antonioni), L‘Âge d’Or (Buñuel), The General (Keaton), Le Vent de la Nuit (Garrel), Les Bonnes Femmes (Chabrol) and After Life (Kore-Eda). If they can pay off on the promise of the stills additionally displayed, they will make it to my permanent bookmark list. Bonus points for excellent design: Once logged in, click here for the best place to start, or use any of the film links listed above.

Doubtless there will be others moving over to the ad-supported model of online streaming, but my impression remains that the only money being made right now is through Apple’s paid download model, and other big names share this approach (Amazon, TiVo, NetFlix through subscription). But if filmmakers can get on board with a single embeddable player, they might see an increase in ad revenues. Limited weekly free offerings are also available from Link TV’s Documentaries page, and’s Movies on Demand, and other TV stations make similar efforts but are often limited by short windows.

, if this trend continues, once I make the effort to hook my computer up to my HD projector with that DVI output, and the quality of the streams catches up, I may finally find myself with some SWAG I don’t need to throw away. Backronym or no.

Quick links to the free films mentioned in the article:

No End in Sight

Slacker Uprising
Master and Commander
The Fifth Element
28 Days Later
Planet of the Apes
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Lost in Translation
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Raising Arizona
Some Like it Hot
Lost Highway
Sense and Sensibility
The Pied Piper of Hutzovina
The Prisoner or: How I Tried to Kill Tony Blair
Super Size Me
The MEK and U.S. – Iran Relations
Our Arctic Challenge
Good Copy Bad Copy
Il Gredo
L‘Âge d’Or
The General
Le Vent de la Nuit
Les Bonnes Femmes
After Life

Hannah Eaves is a periodic film journalist with a long, steady background in film, video and new media. Her writing has appeared in SOMA magazine, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary Film, and online at GreenCine, PopMatters, Grist and elsewhere. She currently tries to keep her head above water as Senior Manager, Web & New Media at Link TV, a Peabody Award-winning national satellite television station. In her spare time she dreams about her old, "laid back" Australian life, and the healing qualities of Victoria Bitter.

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