It was 6:45 am in Austin, and instead of posting yesterday afternoon’s material before having to schlep down to the Austin Convention Center to snag a front-of-the-line pass for tonight’s screening of The Beaver, I watched the first 10-plus minutes of Sebastian Guiterrez‘s Girl Walks Into A Bar, which is now playing entirely free on YouTube. That indicates something, right?

For a film driven by a series of stories about people conning, scheming and playing each other, it didn’t seem half bad. Good but not-quite-Mamet-level repartee. Taut, brittle. Or at least, the opening scene with Carla Gugino and Zachary Quinto felt that way; ditto the pool-playing scene that followed.

Girl Walks Into A Bar was watched by more than 250,000 people last weekend, which is “more viewers than some of the ten biggest grossers from the 3.11.11 weekend,” according to the Wiki page.

“Gutierrez claimed at the South by Southwest Film Festival premiere of Elektra Luxx that Girl Walks Into a Bar is the first major motion picture with a cast of notable stars created exclusively for Web distribution.

“‘We want to prove that web distribution is a viable medium for theatrical quality movies which rely on story, characters and dialogue as opposed to special effects,” he said in a release. “For many reasons the theatrical indie landscape has changed drastically in the last few years, leaving many potential breakout hits without an audience. We are excited to break the rules of feature films by letting people watch our movie for free online.”

“Shangri-La Entertainment has entered into an agreement with YouTube and Lexus to present Girl Walks Into a Bar free, exclusively in the YouTube Screening Room, a platform designed to showcase top films from around the world, premiering March 11, 2011 at The presentation marks the first time a major motion picture was created exclusively for web distribution.

“With Girl Walks Into a Bar, the cast and crew came together to create something different – a high quality, really fun character-driven film that we could present to audiences for free using a new distribution model,” said Gutierrez. “We found great partners in Lexus and YouTube to support the film while providing us with the stage to draw the largest audience possible.”

The bottom line is that audiences generally don’t respect “free.” Obviously 250,000 viewers indicates interest and possibly good word-of-mouth, but there has to be some level of cost or difficulty in seeing a film, or it probably isn’t worth it. That, at least, is the thinking in my circles. Take The Beaver, for instance. A lot of time and effort have gone into being here in Austin for tonight’s showing, and more effort is still required.