In the middle of filming a climactic action sequence for his latest short film, Ryan Connolly ran into a problem: a stuntman, who had just been engulfed in flames by an explosion, wouldn’t stay on fire. “The wind was too hard,” Connolly said. “It basically was like he was not on fire at all.” His crew carefully reset the scene, ran the cameras, and blew the explosives again, but the stuntman still wouldn’t stay lit. With time running out to film that day, Connolly decided to scrap the stunt and lean on tricks he’d picked up running a film tutorial show on YouTube. “I had set people on fire digitally before, so I knew we could do it,” he said. “I could confidently just be like, ‘Don’t worry about it. Let’s move on.’”
Connolly’s YouTube show, Film Riot, turned 10 years old in May. Over the last decade, Connolly has published more than 1,000 episodes and pulled in more than 170 million views on videos explaining the secrets behind big Hollywood productions, including how to shoot magical blasts out of a wand and how to create an eerie fog that floats along the floor of a room. Connolly isn’t a Hollywood-approved director, though. When he started the show, he was living in Florida, just out of film school and trying to figure out all this stuff for himself.
“That’s kind of been the motto of Film Riot all along,” Connolly said. “It’s not ‘here’s how you do this,’ but ‘here’s what we’re discovering, here’s what I found.”
Nowadays, there are a ton of film education videos on YouTube. Several channels regularly churn out film analysis essays, there’s a community of vloggers offering tips on the latest cameras, and you can find in-depth tutorials on how to do just about anything in Adobe Premiere. Film analysis is so popular that even major publications like Vanity Fair and Wired regularly break down performances or technical aspects of how a movie is made. But in 2009, when Film Riot got its start, YouTube was much smaller, and that film community largely didn’t exist, giving Connolly’s channel the space to grow.
No other channel has been as ambitious as Connolly’s, though. He doesn’t just see Film Riot as a way to teach people about what goes into filmmaking (although, if you watch enough, you’ll start to notice the fake fires, amped-up punches, and artificial lighting effects that are used to make your favorite TV shows and movies look great). Instead, Connolly sees the show as a way to help himself grow from a filmmaker who’s just learning how things work into a confident, accomplished director who’s ready to tackle a big-budget feature.
“Eventually, the 13-year-old who’s getting into filmmaking can ... [see] this guy’s making feature films now and then go all the way back 11 years prior and start from when I was doing it with $5 at my parents’ house,” Connolly said.
Film Riot has moved increasingly closer to that goal over the last decade. The show began with rough sketches and homemade equipment, scaled to a series of quickly made shorts. In recent years, it has brought in crews, stunt teams, and digital effects artists to put together highly polished productions, like Ballistic, the recent film that had Connolly trying to light a man on fire. Ballistic was popular enough that it got Connolly managers and some interest from producers, and he’s been starting to pitch features based on its success.
There’s a clear path for Connolly to follow here. Many filmmakers before him have made the jump from viral shorts to feature films, though just getting Hollywood’s attention isn’t always enough. Some shorts are picked up and never heard of again. Others lead to fruitful careers: the director of the Maze Runner trilogy, Wes Ball, was discovered, thanks to a short film posted to Vimeo. Dan Trachtenberg, who made 10 Cloverfield Lane, broke out after a Portal fan film went viral on YouTube. And David Sandberg, who most recently made the DC adaptation Shazam!, got his start in Hollywood after a studio had him expand a two-and-a-half-minute horror film into a full-length feature. (Sandberg also had a YouTube channel where he showed the behind-the-scenes work that went into his short films, and Trachtenberg co-hosted a review series that appeared on YouTube, too.)
Connolly doesn’t want Film Riot to end once he’s graduated to features. The goal, he says, is to have the show follow along as he makes a feature film so viewers can see how all of the techniques he’s taught actually come together on an enormous set. “Hopefully with me being more honest than you’ve ever seen people be about making a feature film,” Connolly said.
Plus, Film Riot has turned into a successful business, and it’s almost entirely a family affair. Connolly’s production company, Triune Films, has seven full-time employees, and all but one are family members: Connolly’s older brother, Tim, runs the business side of things, and his younger sister, Emily, is an editor and frequent actor. His sister Ashley manages the studio, and his younger brother, Josh, is behind the camera. The Triune team also produces a comics show, Variant, which is hosted by Ryan’s brother-in-law, Arris Quinones. Variant has more than 1.9 million subscribers on YouTube, which is several hundred thousand more than Film Riot.
The typical Film Riot episode gets under 100,000 views, which is relatively small for such an established channel. It’s a dedicated following, though, and it’s been enough to support and expand the business. Both of Triune’s shows make money off of pre-roll ads run by YouTube as well as in-episode sponsorships. But much of the company’s support also comes from Triune’s web store, which sells an assortment of digital filmmaking assets, like horror film sound effects, fantasy color grading filters, and special effects for sci-fi weapons, all of which were made or commissioned by Triune. How they’re made, of course, is sometimes turned into an episode.
Recent advancements in cameras and editing software have made filmmaking more accessible and affordable than ever. But making any movie, let alone the kind of blockbuster Connolly is envisioning, still requires people: experts who can make lighting look good, designers who can bring a set together, dozens of extras to fill in scenes, and extensive crews to lug things around, set up shots, and make sure production goes as planned. Getting those resources on a large scale still means getting buy-in from established studios, which are rarely comfortable betting on unproven talent. With Film Riot, Connolly wants to prepare himself and his viewers for a future where they might have access to all of these resources — or for one where they won’t.
Connolly can’t predict whether his latest short will get him into Hollywood — he’s already at work on another to prove out one of his feature pitches — but he’s planning to plow ahead either way. Every step of the show has taught viewers, and himself, more about how to make a compelling movie, take advantage of available gear, and work with a growing crew. Ballistic, he said, was his test run of putting it all into practice at a budget level he could conceivably afford on his own, should every producer turn him down. “It was just proof that, worse comes to worse, we could definitely do this by ourselves.”