With the YouTube generation's hunger for weird and wonderful clips and commissioning editors' need for cheap content, stock houses specializing in the quirky have never had it so good.
May 1, 2009

Have you been scouring the Web in search of extreme ironing clips? Perhaps it’s footage of the world’s largest hairdo, or rabbits getting married, that you urgently need? If so, according to those in the know, you’re not alone. Right now, odd stock is apparently where it’s at.

Asha Oberoi, content director for ITN Source, says consumer demand for weird, unusual and off-the-wall footage is insatiable, and coming from all corners of the globe. She reports that ITN’s clients in Japan, Germany, China, France, and even America and the UK, are increasingly looking for rare, bizarre and funny material in mass quantities. ‘I can’t stress this in any other way,’ she says. ‘There’s just so much demand, there’s more than we can feed.’

ITN, which represents large news companies’ libraries such as Reuters, FOX News and Granada, also represents a number of niche stock companies that specialize in the quirky. Hot Under the Collar is one of their specialty archives that contains pop cultural British imagery dating back to 1996. Content of note includes footage of ‘extreme ironing,’ a bunny wedding and the World Conker Championships, featuring costumed Brits battling each other with chestnuts on ropes. Another niche company under the ITN umbrella is Asian News International (ANI), the largest news agency in India, which delivers exotic shots from Asia that range from a man kissing a cobra to an artist who paints with his nose.

Odd content is a commissioning editor’s dream right now because it’s cheap and from a viewer’s perspective, it’s in demand. Looking to the Web for programming guidance, it’s clear that people are logging on in droves to sites like YouTube, College Humor and Ebaum’s World to catch weird stuff and send it to their friends. Oberoi is finding that the majority of clients looking for this type of content are still coming from the traditional market. Filmmakers and, in particular, documentary filmmakers, make up the majority of their business.

‘Declining advertising revenue on traditional mediums has meant that there’s a real demand for cheaper television to be made so that broadcasters see a return on their investment,’ says Oberoi, who believes that commissioning editors are looking to the Internet to see what draws viewers and are taking their leads from what’s working online. ‘And the kind of content that works online has been that quirky, ‘exploding van’- type stuff,’ she says.

Stephen Parr, head of Oddball Film + Video (a San Francisco-based stock footage house specializing in the weird and obscure), agrees. ‘With the proliferation of moving images on the Web, people have been exposed to a wider range of global images than they have ever seen on TV or in contemporary theatrical venues,’ says Parr. ‘Producers think nothing of incorporating bizarre, erotic and just plain strange footage into their productions in order to attract their media literate viewers.’

One key advantage that niche stock footage houses have, outside of the renewed demand for quirk, is that they are generally small, which makes it easier for the staff to know their content inside out, while also making it more plausible to offer all their content online. Oberoi says this is part of what attracts ITN to the smaller companies. ‘Small companies are really flexible to work with, and because there aren’t hundreds and hundreds of hours of material, our content processing team can process the material very rapidly. That means that the material is fully digitized and fully available online,’ she says, adding they’ve seen ‘a disproportionate amount of revenue coming from smaller archives online.’

Another advantage to working with smaller companies, says Oberoi, is that she’s usually only dealing with a few key staff, which in many cases are the same people filming all the clips in their catalogs. In Oberoi’s experience this usually results in easier transactions, and more willingness to sell across all platforms. ‘They’re not precious about where the material goes,’ she says. ‘They don’t have objections when it comes to YouTube; they just really want to get their stuff out there.’ While Oddball’s catalog is too large to be fully digitized (Parr estimates his archive contains over 50,000 hours of film and digital content), Parr says the advantage his company has is that he has been working with the content from day one, and the rest of his staff are also filmmakers and researchers.

Parr’s collection is founded on his interest in what makes up contemporary culture. ‘I’ve always been interested in that element of culture; the offbeat, unusual, tribal, things that are undervalued,’ he says. Oddball’s catalog includes much footage from the ’60s and ’70s, news outtakes, home movies and television commercials dating back to the ’40s. The footage has appeared in ads, documentaries and feature films (such as Blade Runner and Milk), but he sees a growth in interest coming from online and mobile. Both Oberoi and Parr feel that if any kind of material is going to fully take advantage of the viral capability of digital or mobile, it will be quirky footage.

ITN has become part of this shift into digital with the launch of Diagonal View in April 2008. The online joint venture with digital entrepreneur Matt Heiman was built completely from odd material. Using the tagline ‘the other side of normal,’ Diagonal View packages unusual content from ITN’s libraries including a number of world record-breaking people and things, such as ‘The World’s Fastest Office’ (a Monty Python-esque desk-car), ‘World’s Biggest Hairdo’ (just as it sounds, a style à la Marge Simpson that uses 22 pounds of hair and measures six feet tall) and ‘World’s Largest Pair of Jeans’ (7.5 tons of denim – pockets, belt, buttons and all). The site, which is a component of ITN Source’s digital growth strategy, received 150 million views in its first year and is available through countless social networking sites.

Oddball also has its own screening strategy, but one that lives in the world outside of the Web. It runs a weekly film series on site that screens some of its most interesting short films and clips in thematically linked programs such as: ‘Trailer Trash: B-Movie Trailers from the 1930s and 1970s’ and ‘Brainwashed: Innocent Looking Cartoons that Tell Us What to Do.’ Another series, ‘Secret Science and Bizarre Beliefs: More Films from the Moody Science Institute,’ sometimes travels across the U.S.

If web traffic and stock sales are any reflection, there are clearly a lot of odd stock appreciators. So much so, that Oberoi advises any producers planning to launch a production company to get into the business of quirky content.

‘If I had my time again I’d hire a hundred producers and send them around the world to film bizarre activities,’ she says. ‘There is a load of money to be made out of it still.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.