In a world where Ancient Aliens, Project Blue Book, and a host of other similar shows on mainstream cable, it may feel like we're living through a paranormal television renaissance. And we are. But the most interesting work isn't happening on cable or even streaming services like Netflix—it's happening on YouTube.
Many filmmakers who work with the paranormal say they can tell more authentic, unsanitized stories on YouTube than they can on streaming networks. Dana and Greg Newkirk run the successful paranormal blog and media company Planet Weird. While their work is popular in the paranormal community, their largest and most ambitious film project, directed by Karl Pfeiffer, is the eerie and beautiful six part series Hellier, which follows "goblins, UFOs, and high strangeness in Appalachia." It was released directly to YouTube.
“We had plenty of opportunities to release Hellier on television,” Greg Newkirk said. “But as we kept having production meetings, it became increasingly clear that it wouldn’t be the same project that Karl Pfeiffer envisioned and we all wanted to create, and the end result probably wouldn’t be as honest as we wanted Hellier to be.
Mainstream production companies as well as cable networks are not necessarily equipped nor prepared to dive into the general weirdness and unpredictability that the genre tends to elicit.
“We realized that we weren’t going to be able to make Hellier what it needed to be if we put it on television,” Newkirk said. “It would have just been another paranormal reality show with a singular focus, a three-act structure, and a comfortable conclusion. That’s not the reality of the anomalous.”
Hardcore UFO enthusiasts, cryptid junkies and paranormal aficionados often complain that mainstream reality TV shows don’t portray the actual subculture, nor how the various anomalous phenomena allegedly occur or exist. In my book, The UFO People: A Curious Culture, I argue that mainstream cable networks and media tends towards a more sanitized version of the paranormal that can fit into their primetime lineups.
“ Hellier is deliberately paced, honest, and open about its leads and its dead ends as they occur, and has a pretty broad-scope in both the way we investigate High Strangeness and the crossover of phenomena,” Newkirk said. “We’re looking at how UFO sightings, hauntings, cryptozoology, ritual magick, and psychic phenomena are connected. No one on traditional media is doing that. You have ghost shows, Bigfoot shows, UFO shows, and psychic shows, full stop. Had we gone the traditional route, we would have been forced into one of those boxes, and that’s just not the case with Hellier.”
While keeping the show authentic is a key focus for the Newkirks, the reality is that many audiences, especially younger viewers, are also turning away from traditional cable. Releasing Hellier for free let it reach a wide audience.
“ Hellier has been watched by more viewers than most new cable paranormal reality shows pull in a season, and it still made money from t-shirt sales, ad rolls, and donations,” Newkirk said. “We’ve recouped the first season costs and even gained a budget for season two that’s improved our gear and widened our scope.”
Hellier is only one example. Seth Breedlove, the filmmaker behind the production company Small Town Monsters and several monster documentaries, such as The Mothman of Point Pleasant and the soon to be released MOMO: The Missouri Monster, has traditionally followed a more classic distribution model. However, he decided to take a gamble with his two-part series, “On the Trail of Bigfoot” and uploaded it directly to YouTube and other free streaming sites.
“We did it to help expand the audience and because the cost of those series are so low that it limits our risk,” Breedlove said. “The biggest reason was just to put the content in front of as large an audience as possible, which clearly has paid off since its being viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.”
Dave Beaty is an Emmy award winning filmmaker and a senior producer at the Florida based Dreamtime Entertainment. With decades of experience, he understands why cash strapped filmmakers release their work on YouTube.
“One of the roadblocks to many independent filmmakers who want to present their films to Netflix, Apple, Hulu, and other pay services and cable networks is that they often require film distributor company agreements with the film maker,” Beaty said. “This often means paying for a distributor that has an established relationship with the service to represent your film.”
The paranormal category is a relatively niche market, and big upfront costs can kill a project. Beaty explained that “this same agent/distribution representation is needed to sell a film property to a cable network, for theatrical release or even internationally. Fees and commissions are part of the upfront contracts to even get started.”
Beaty's film project, The Nimitz Encounters, is a free, 30-minute documentary about the famous 2004 USS Nimitz UFO Incident, which was featured in an article in the New York Times. He uploaded to YouTube in November 2018, and it's already been viewed nearly 3 million times.
“I decided to distribute my film The Nimitz Encounters for free in a non-traditional release on YouTube and Facebook,” Beaty stated. “My main reason was that this was not a sponsored film and I wanted to give it to the UFO community as a contribution to understanding the complex nature of the Nimitz sightings of 2004.”
By using this new free model, these indie filmmakers build loyalty within the community which leads, in some anomalous way, to money which funds the next project. Paranormal communities are very much insular subcultures that function within their own ideological frameworks, and authentic content and text is an important facet of their collective narratives and identities. It doesn’t matter if aliens or ghosts are objectively real, only the media that portrays them needs to be.