The movie that came out of a YouTube vlog

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CK Golding on a production he intended for a YouTube vlog, and how it became something bigger…

The terror sweeping through me when I consider how close I came to screwing up my film’s release is almost paralysing. Most embarrassing of all, looking back, the advice I received that helped me avoid said screw-up was pretty obvious. It was July 2018, and I emailed Neil – not only a great friend, but someone I trust implicitly with all things edit and production. The email contained a private link to the latest episode of my YouTube vlog series. The series – Something About Strangers – documents my unique encounters with strangers. Occasionally, these encounters feature ambitious hooks, and in the episode I sent Neil, I was challenged to leave my home and ask the first 61 strangers I met for a hug. I wasn’t feeling fancy with the episode title, so I simply called it ‘61 Hugs’.

Neil’s reply was swift. It was also direct. It read, “CK, under no circumstances release this as ‘just another CK vlog’, it’s something so much more than that. This is potentially the greatest thing you’ve ever made. You’ve made a film, albeit a short one. Market it as such.” Ironically, despite me having no idea what marketing a short film entailed, as Neil’s words digested, they made perfect sense, I mean, if there’s one thing I’ll say for the guy, it’s that his years as a music promoter have made his eye for engineering a ‘marketing hook’ razor sharp. I’ve watched Neil repeatedly make low-level independent bands look like stadium fodder during their pre-gig ticket-selling shenanigans, so I had no reason to doubt his vision for 61 Hugs. His email continued, “If you release this as just another YouTube vlog, that is exactly how it will be perceived. But, if you release it as a short film, that brings with it a more favourable mindset and perception. Plus, by calling it a short film, you might be able to get it featured by more credible media and entertainment publishers.” The more of his sage I read, the more I thanked the Lord for bringing me this Yoda.


At the time of writing this article, 15 months have passed since I released 61 Hugs (the name stuck, I guess), and it has won two documentary awards, secured three newspaper front covers, a four-date run at the UK’s biggest documentary festival [Doc/Fest] and has enjoyed a US premiere.

The technical process of crafting 61 Hugs requires little analysis. Ultimately, the entire film was shot in one take using a Samsung S6 mobile phone. That’s it. So, instead of talking production, let’s discuss the three marketing steps I took to give my film the best possible chance of capturing people’s hearts and finding an audience.

First, and most critical of all, two to three months before its release, I had a stern talk to myself, demanding that I don’t fall into my usual habit of what I call ‘artistic self-harming’. 96% of the artists I know have an ingrained reluctance to self-promote, publicise or just plain shout about their art. The shame of ‘Tweeting too much’, ‘posting too much’, ‘emailing too much’ is very real, and I was prone to this anxiety myself. Luckily, and by total fluke, I stumbled across a film starring Michael Keaton, and in it one scene changed everything. Watching the scene, my jaw dropped. The film is called The Founder, and tells the remarkable true story of how an unsuccessful milkshake salesman created the global behemoth we now know as McDonald’s. In the scene – five minutes and 27 seconds into the film – Keaton is listening to a self-help recording. The gruff narrator asserts “nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent won’t – nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius won’t – unrewarded genius is practically a cliché.” At that moment, my ‘artistic self-harming’ started to recede, and I realised that the success of 61 Hugs would have little to do with the film itself, but more likely would depend on my willingness to get out of my own way and commit to zealously promoting it – which in practical terms is less complicated than you would imagine.

Let me explain. A key reason 61 Hugs was watched and accepted by the Doc/Fest submission team, for example, is because I sent them an initial email, then followed up twice, having heard nothing back. The old me might not have even followed up once, if I’m honest. Similarly, the US premiere was a direct result of me speculatively tweeting the festival director of the International Mobile Film Festival, hoping for an online interview at best, or a retweet at worst. Well, imagine my shock when, in actual fact, she saw my tweet, watched 61 Hugs, then invited me to San Diego as a featured guest to screen it and participate in a special Q&A. (Note that the Tweet to the US festival director in itself does not demonstrate persistence, but if I showed you how many other speculative tweets I sent that day, you’d be horrified and would probably question my sanity.)


The second thing I did was try – to the best of my ability – to replicate the aesthetic behaviours of big-budget Hollywood releases. I became a branding nerd, making sure everything from the official 61 Hugs poster, to the official website, to the gifs and flyers looked as slick as Hollywood releases and as far removed from ‘indie’ as possible. I had to make peace with the brutal reality that image is everything in the entertainment game. If that wasn’t the case, the cosmetically manipulated lips of celebrities wouldn’t look so weird nowadays.

And finally, aside from distributing endless press releases, the last thing I did to maintain traction for 61 Hugs was repeatedly watch that beautifully salient scene from The Founder. Make no mistake, by month five or six of shamelessly self-promoting my film, even I started to question how unsightly I must appear to the outside world. But here’s the thing, yes, that level of sustained self-promotion felt unsavoury at times; I was producing unchartered numbers of tweets, video diaries, emails, Instagram posts and so on, but to my delight, the rewards were unchartered, too. As an unknown independent creator, three newspaper front covers is mind-boggling to me. A trip to the States is almost inconceivable, and winning two documentary awards is hard to compute. The biggest stunner of all, however, is the fact that my film achieved all these beautiful adornments despite the fact that to begin with I didn’t even know I’d made a film. That has to be a Film Stories first, surely…

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