How GRIM Is
the Future on YouTube?
by Anusha Abishegam
When we think of production houses, we think of big editing suites and loads of cameras; the muted noise of soundtracks going on behind heavy closed doors while lobbies ring with conversational laughter. The one thing that might not have crossed your mind?
GRIM FILM, known as TheGRIMFILM on YouTube, is the production company behind the success of viral short film “The Long-Distance Relationship”- a seven-minute film that traversed the Internet (and the globe) a few years back, and is still making its rounds on social media today. While many may connect the production house to the popular short film, GRIM FILM has more than a single video to back up its rep.
We had a chat with Jared Lee, Founder, Director and Producer of GRIM FILM, to find out what exactly the company is all about.
The Not-So-Grim Truth About Grim Film
First things first – why the name “Grim Film”?
I’m not very grim in person, I like grim stories and concepts but that’s not the main thing (of GRIM FILM). I wanted to start a production house, and we were going to upload films on YouTube. I didn’t want to call the YouTube channel something like… Jared Lee TV, or Jared-Lee-something. I had a few favourite words, and “grim” was one of them, then it just stuck la.
How long have you guys officially been around?
This is our fifth year, we’re five years old. Time passes too fast.
When did it become a YouTube thing? Was it a web-based idea from the start?
It wasn’t. YouTube was just for feedback, and within the first week, we hit about 70 000 views. We were like “something’s happening here”, and it just kept growing. Within those first six months, we met a lot of big people- and it was scary for us. These business people looked at us and thought, “they can get the views”, and that was a very delicate moment.
You said that you went to YouTube for feedback; what was the feedback for? Did you have a bigger plan in mind?
We wanted to see how our (first) short film would fare in the world. We also sent it in for a competition, the BMW Shorties; the YouTube thing was really a side thing.
It got into a couple of film festivals, there was one in California in which we got awarded “Best Drama”. “The Long-Distance Relationship” was selected to be screened there (and in Germany) and the Californian film festival sent us the prize.
Now that you have hindsight, what would you have done differently in starting up?
If there was one thing that I would’ve changed from the start, it’s that I would’ve chosen to learn a bit more about business rather than jumping right into it.
I was working full-time at an events company, and on the side I was freelancing as a storyboard artist because my passion was film. During the nights I’d write scripts and have my friends over to make something happen, and I guess I just took a leap of faith and said, “You know what? I’m gonna do this.” But there was a lot of running back and forth, and handling client expectations, and going,“oh, business is like… this”.
Even running a YouTube channel, there was no support at all. Five years back, YouTube was not paying attention to this part of the world. Only about two years ago, I think, new YouTubers came out locally, and that whole thing started getting support.
So stumbling in the dark, we just uploaded a short film once we made it, and making a short film takes up at least a month. We were uploading once a month, or, since ideas don’t come by very often, once every two months. Then we realized that the hype we built up from our first video – which currently has 2.2 million views and got us a lot of calls at the time- slowly dropped as our audience got less engaged with following videos.
“We realized YouTube is a platform where we must be consistent; and the struggle is that when ideas and clients start coming to you, you gotta decide between them.”
If we don’t cari makan, how to survive? The first three years were really hard, a tough decision that killed the channel a little bit. Putting clients over creativity was a mistake on my part; if we knew better then we could’ve balanced things out better.
How did you guys start out from doing one particular genre, to expanding?
Content grew because we wanted to explore with short music videos and comedies and such. Once we started learning more stuff from watching other channels (in terms of content and consistency) and how the market was starting to treat YouTube like a TV channel, we decided it was better we find a format in which we could consistently upload.
That’s how my vlogs (video blogs) started, but I wasn’t too sure about putting it up, because it was so different from our usual material. I felt that it would kill my audience. But I tried, and it’s really hard to get people to get used to a new item. You have to feed it to them instead of going, “boom, here’s something else”. Although it’s doing quite well, it’s still diverted our focus from short films, and the short film audience is lesser now than before. The good thing is that the consistency kept us going as a YouTube channel, and the client jobs opened up a different market that wasn’t too stressful.
Once we had to do seven jobs in seven weeks, including conceptualizing. After the fourth one, I was hospitalized for being overworked. No matter how miskin you are, you just gotta push away some jobs and prioritize your health. Back then we only had me and another guy, but recently we expanded and now we have more people.
How do you balance it all?
Now, it’s a good thing that I have vlogs, which are easy to make but very tiring. I’m an introverted person, so it takes up a lot to make them. But it’s easy content to put up and gives the channel life… however; I would like to get back to quality short films.
What do you think is your channel’s most popular genre?
The moment we finish doing a short film and our audience views it, we get comments like “oh okay, so when’s the next one gonna be up?” and it’s kinda sad to see that, after all the effort. It’s the vlogs and the comedies, because YouTube viewers like junk food more, I guess? [Jared: one, YouTube viewers: 0]
Which genre do you enjoy making videos for?
I definitely like making short films the most, I guess my challenge now is to make more short films that the masses can enjoy. YouTube viewers, please give me the rates! [Jared: one, YouTube viewers: one!]
Do you think YouTube is a platform that will continue to grow in media?
It will, digital is the next thing. Even in Bangkok they’ve stopped advertising on TV, and Astro has an app called Astro on the Go. But things are still evolving; Facebook has started blocking wider reach of posting YouTube links, probably because they’re starting their own video platform. This makes it trickier for us to do YouTube full-time.
One of my recent vlogs, for example, was stolen by a Facebook page, and they got more likes than our original YouTube video. The most I could do was report it, and by the time it’s taken down, I can’t upload it myself without people seeing it as old news.
How do you come up with fresh ideas for videos?
Being caught in the vicious YouTube cycle, it’s automatic- whenever I’m alone, I’m constantly thinking up ideas.
“If I have one piece of advice to people stuck in this cycle, it’s to think beyond ideas you ‘can do’.”
You get stuck in that small mindset, and when you try to write something big, it’s hard to get out of the bubble. Never ever limit yourself, always write first and then figure out how to work around what you wrote.
The Long-Distance Relationship & Other Grim Films
How do you think ‘The Long-Distance Relationship’ shot to such fame? Was there a process or was it luck?
Now that we know how YouTube works and looking back at why it did well, there are some factors that we did right as a YouTube video. Firstly, titling is important; when someone searches for “long distance relationship”, it’s probably 99% because they’re in one. It’s relatable and that song was written by the vocalist of a band I used to play in.
At this point, reminiscing about the band ‘Once Upon a Time There Was a Sausage Named Bob’ started, and conversation moved to something akin to “Strange but True” facts- the song from ‘The Long-Distance Relationship’ had been ripped out and used to play in a karaoke bar in Indonesia. In the Philippines, meanwhile, the visiting cast of ‘The Long-Distance Relationship’ was nabbed from the streets for an interview; following a misconception that GRIM FILM was a Filipino channel.
What was your inspiration for ‘The Long-Distance Relationship’?
It was one of those concepts that just came to me… a lot of things inspire me (in general), like manga and anime or real life, but this was one of those scripts that hit me and was something I just kept going on from start to finish.
I did experience long-distance (relationships) before, but it was not during that time… there are times when some ideas just come, but I can’t explain why they came. It could maybe be from some forgotten experience.
What makes ‘The Long-Distance Relationship’ stand out so much compared to your other videos, which are just as interesting and intense?
Once again, I think titling plays a big role. One of our favourite videos on the channel is “You Are Loved”, but people don’t intentionally look up the words “you are loved”. Also, it’s a pretty relatable topic.
“Sincerely, The End” deals with a lot of heavy material- what inspired that idea?
It started from a song, “Time” by American band New Heights, and although they didn’t come down as originally planned, their producer allowed us to use their song on our video. I put it on repeat and started to come up with the plot; the balloon idea at the end was from my producer at the time. Dealing with that many balloons almost killed us; the location was an old, abandoned building with twelve flights of stairs and no railing.
It was a perfect location but if you fell, you died. We went there as early as 5am, and it was a three-day shoot with only half an hour of sleep each night. We hired a truck to get eight hundred balloons on set, and shooting the final scene was important- it was the money shot, with two thousand ringgit flying up into the air. But we got our perfect take, and everyone started hugging each other afterwards.
There’s a deep emotional element in all of your films, does that come from you and is it your brand?
To me, the theory of filmmaking is- if you want to make a film, what’s your main emotion in the film? If your audience feels it, then you’ve succeeded. If you want them to be happy, and they watch your film and feel happy, then you’ve got it.
How do you find the perfect locations for your shoots?
The one from “Sincerely, The End” was from a photographer friend who posted pictures, and we went to recce the place. A lot of the time, we are limited by this, because it’s not easy to find good locations on time. Our government doesn’t allow shooting in schools, so that’s hard; my previous shoot was done in a private school. Hospitals are probably another difficult place to shoot; and once we tried to shoot at FRIM but they told us to shoot near the edge of the trees, with the signs on each tree plainly visible and everything- forcing us to rethink our camera angles.
Wrapping It up
What do you think of the media industry in Malaysia right now, film particularly?
“Malaysia is a very unique market to penetrate; brands would say this is the toughest market to crack.”
If you put out a Chinese guy, you’re eliminating your market somewhat; if he speaks in Chinese, you’re eliminating even more. If it’s in Malay, is it the right accent- urban Malay, others? As for an English-speaking Chinese guy, it’s even smaller! The banana phenomenon is like a Klang Valley thing, and there’s this segregation.
Promoting a movie with a Malay title makes it come off as a Malay film, but other people hearing about a non-Malay cast makes them think it’s a non-Malay film. We’ve seen a lot of English films in Malaysia, but they don’t usually do too well.
Another reason “The Long Distance Relationship” works so well is because there’s no dialogue. People can’t tell if they’re Chinese, Malay, Indian, or Filipino. [The one true dream of uniting all races!]
Where does your company plan to go from here?
Whether it’s fiction or real, we want to make kickass films. For the longest time, I’ve had scripts in my head that we couldn’t do; but now I see doors opening that allow us to do them. In fact, tomorrow, we start our research for a feature. We’ll be heading down to Pahang to find possible locations, and researching. If all goes well, we’ll release it in 2018; we’re still juggling it with our full-time jobs, but as long as we’re moving towards it.