The Sad State Of Video Apps

Editor’s Note: Armando Kirwin is a filmmaker and consultant whose previous work has included Paramount Pictures, Microsoft, several startups, thirteen feature films, and a handful of TV shows. Follow him on twitter: @armandokirwin.

Most of us remember where we were the moment the world learned about the billion-dollar sale of Instagram, but amidst the pursuing flurry of tweets (“it’s too high!,”It’s too low!”, “We need to integrate filters right now!”), if you happened to browse the AppStore that day you might have noticed that the now-infamous app was actually ranked third. Sitting in the number one spot was a video app. I honestly can’t even remember which one it was, like everyone else, all I saw was a placeholder for a 1 followed by nine zeros.

During the furious race that followed, I watched from the perspective of someone who has been working in the film industry for the past eight years. I was anxious to see what the crazy kids up North were going to come up with as they turned their attention to our domain — moving pictures.

Now that the hype machine has spun down, winners have been declared, and there have been a few valuations and acquisitions to benchmark, we can clearly see that the results have been nothing short of disappointing.

I would argue that we have yet to see a startup nail ANY part of the video experience except for sharing. Apps in this category include ViddySocialCamKlipChillVodio, and more. To me, this is classic Silicon Valley just building something they’re comfortable building: platforms, social graphs, viral hooks, blah, blah, blah.

However, what I tell most non-filmmakers is that 95% of the fun/creative/important parts of the video process happen BEFORE or DURING the actual moment of capture. This phase is also where good content is generated. The analogy here is the film industry, the magic doesn’t happen during distribution, it happens looong before. By ignoring this, not only are users destined to fail, but startups are missing the real opportunity to delight them. After all, if what I’ve captured is bad, I’m not going to be inclined to share it.

If you want proof of a lack of good new user generated content on these platforms, just keep an eye out for what’s popular, you’ll see a bunch of old videos that were already available somewhere else first, but are simply being re-shared via app.

In an attempt to fill this content void, we’ve seen another group of pseudo-video startups stepping in to essentially algorithmically “salvage” already-captured material. This category includes, VidifyV.I.K.T.O.R.Magisto, and Highlightcam, and to a certain extent, the hybrid “cinematic” photo apps like KinotopicCinemagram, and Flixel, but they’re still missing 95% of the boat because they haven’t set me up for success. Why? No amount of clever programming can fix what’s already “in the can.” Period. The pinnacle of these apps will be variations of gifs and music videos that, hopefully, look like Levis commercials.

I was saddened (literally) by the post-Instagram valuations of some of these companies because it seemed to imply that the userbase was the only thing that mattered (thus spamming the Open Graph or celebrity endorsements = winning), however, I think that if you look at the main thing that Instagram did right, it wasn’t attempting to generate a false virality, it was helping users create content that they were proud of. Unfortunately, by coming in post-capture, both the platform apps and the salvage apps are missing a chance to help users do so.

Part of the difficulty is that, unlike photos, filters and gimmicks aren’t enough. Even if you ignore the massive technical hurdles, there are a lot of other factors that can cause both the user and the audience to react negatively to video content. However, if you look at GoPro and Project Glass for example, you can clearly see how clever hardware design can be used in an invisible way to help users create better content before and during capture: an emphasis on POV shots, a tendency to use the camera in exciting places, image stabilization, high-quality audio with wind filters, wide-angle lenses, etc.

Unfortunately, custom hardware isn’t enough, GoPro and Google are in the business of capturing life experiences, and their implementations are optimized for that. However, such recordings aren’t even the essence of video content. The minute you place two shots next to each other, you’re telling a story. And you better be prepared, because once you hit this point you’re going to find yourself staring at several millennia of storytelling tradition, a complex language of cinema going back a hundred years, and any number of other subjective conventions that can’t be solved programmatically (sorry Zynga).

Note: I’m NOT saying that the answer is to go into the content creation business, that’s not what startups do, and it’s not what VCs are looking for. What I’m saying is that, If you want your users to be proud of what they’ve done, you’re going to have to take story into account because that’s what video is really all about.

And the market for video-based stories is truly huge. (Raise your hand in the audience if you’ve ever wanted to make a movie.) For example, in Hollywood we create only 1% of the world’s movies, but generate between $50bn and $90bn annually depending on where you draw the line for revenue specific to content. Of course, we’re not going to make the next Ironman on an iPhone anytime soon, and you might not even agree that feature-length content is a fair example of the potential market size for the kinds of videos someone with an iPhone could create. Honestly, it’s not. My point is simply that it’s clear which side of the 95% fence the Instagram-level money is on, and it’s not where the apps are currently.

Ultimately, if a startup really wants to succeed with a video app, they’re going to have to delve into a slew of messy abstractions like storytelling, composition, and human expression. It’s possible, but it’s going to require real work and innovation, maybe even the help of Hollywood.

Photo Credit: photographerglen / Flickr Creative Commons