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The New Auteur

Independent Film in Times of the Internet

I got two papers accepted for conferences in 2011 – one more is waiting for a reply. That’s it for my conference activities 2011. I think the next step would be to publish those three papers. Speaking of which: My paper on the Ethics of Piracy is considered for the Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics.

These are the abstracts of the two accepted papers – quite repetitive, I just realised. But then again, it is about two aspects of the same research project.

Abstract accepted for MeCCSA 2011 here at Salford:

    Not just a Money Game
    Defining ‘Sustainability’ in terms of Independent Filmmaking

The internet has brought new hope to independent filmmakers – hope of turning filmmaking into a sustainable undertaking. We see films like The Hunt for Gollum, recreating and extending a blockbuster movie on little financial resources but still reaching millions of people. We find films like The Age of Stupid engaging in crowd-funding. We find films like Steal this Film that are given away for free. Other films experiment with new forms of story telling or tools for collaborative production.
Meanwhile, the question how we can use this new technology to systematically sustain independent film is still unanswered. The attempt to sustain the arts is an old one. Discussions and approaches concentrate mainly on monetary solutions.
This paper questions the notion that ‘sustaining filmmaking’ simply means ‘financing’ it. It finds that the situation is much more complex than we might expect. Parker’s (2002) suggestion that a film needs to earn back the production costs of the next film in order to sustain a filmmaker seems unnecessarily limiting.
In this paper, I will present the results of research undertaken to define the meaning of sustainability in terms of independent filmmaking. Eight independent filmmakers were consulted, using semi-structured interviews following McCracken’s (1988) method of the Long Interview.
The paper concludes: 1) The notion of money as sole sustaining factor of independent film needs to be rejected. Instead, an alternative, more complex, model is presented. 2) This means that we need to think about alternative/additional strategies if we want to sustain independent films.

Abstract accepted for Film and Media 2011 in London:

    Sustaining Independent Film
    Case Studies on Online Audience Building

The internet has brought new hope to independent filmmakers – hope of turning filmmaking into a sustainable undertaking. Films like The Hunt for Gollum recreate and extend a blockbuster movie on little financial resources but still reach millions of people. The Age of Stupid engages in crowd-funding. Steal this Film is given away for free. Yet other films experiment with new forms of story telling or tools for collaborative production.
Meanwhile, most debates about sustaining the arts still stress the importance of monetary matters. This paper does not follow this assumption. Instead, it is grounded in the belief that the audience, not financial considerations, is at the heart of sustainable independent filmmaking and, therefore, asks: In the digital age of content abundance, how can an independent film find an audience?
The paper discusses case studies of six independent films that used the internet to build their audiences. Semi-structured interviews with the filmmakers of studied films were chosen as the main method for data collection.
The paper concludes with the suggestion of ten principles how independent filmmakers can use the internet to build an audience and, hopefully, sustain their filmmaking in the digital age.


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Wow, my blogging goes crazy today – the output matches that of the past 3 months. Incredible.

I found two interesting projects when I prepared for teaching in Tampere. Water Life is a very calming (the music surely) example of an interactive cross-media storytelling approach. A very creative way of making people discover the topic of a film – well, at least it worked for me. I spent a lot of time clicking around those little water bars (?).

Conspiracy for Good takes interactive story-telling a bit further. It tries to make the audience take action in real life. While this can be said about a lot of good films, Conspiracy for Good goes a step further and includes the audience’s action into the story. They call it “Social Benefit Storytelling”.

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Two weeks ago, I went to Tampere University of Applied Science in Tampere, Finland, to deliver a one-week workshop on sustaining independent film with the help of the internet. Tampere is a great little city with, apparently, the best doughnuts in the northern hemisphere (I wonder how the best doughnuts of the southern hemisphere would compare). Well. The School of Arts and Media, who were my hosts, have a blog in English – I quite liked to see how many different things they are doing. Quite interesting. Oh, they put me up there too. I’m honored.

I had a great time. Apart from getting to know nice people and a very laid back city, I was being treated to good food every day by the expenses account of my University – thanks Erasmus program. The teaching was great too. It made me think of how I can bring my research to those people who practice in the field; which is always a good thing to do.

Here are the slideshows of the four lectures.

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I presented a paper at ETICA 2010. The conference was on ethical considerations of emerging ICTs. Since the Internet is an information and communication technology – and kind of emerging too – I took the chance and submitted a paper. Next thing I knew is that they accepted it and I went off to Barcelona. That was in April. As I got quite some comments (especially from Kai Kimppa from the University of Turku, thanks for that) I revised the paper – until yesterday.

The paper explores ethical considerations surrounding file-sharing of digital films. I argue that, though one can come to the conclusion that illegal file-sharing is ethically questionable, it is rather the actions, or better non-actions, of the entertainment industry that are morally wrong. For the interested reader:

  • Film once was a private good; excludable and rivalrous (I had to buy a DVD/cinema ticket to watch a film. If someone else watched the DVD, I couldn’t watch it at the same time. If all cinema seats were taken, I had to wait). The Internet turned films into public goods; they are non-excludable and non-rivalrous.
  • Every public good brings with it what economists call a ‘free-rider problem’. We call it polemically ‘piracy’.
  • There are endless studies on the impact of piracy. They, of course, also contradict each other. One side argues that there is a substitution effect (every pirated copy equals a certain number of missed sales) – e.g. Siwek 2006, Oxford Economics 2009 or Rob and Waldfogel 2006. Others argue that piracy leads to a sampling effect (sharing media leads to discovery; if we like what we discovered, we are more likely to buy products of the author) – e.g. Oberholzer and Strumpf 2004, Andersen and Frenz 2007 or Blackburn 2004.
  • People seem to think that mainstream titles suffer a substitution effect while non-mainstream products experience a sampling effect.
  • Looking at Kant (Of the Injustice of Counterfeiting Books & Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals), we can come to the conclusion that:
    1. Authors who seek recognition or impact (i.e. a maximum audience) benefit from piracy. So do authors who have commercial interests and experience a sampling effect.
    2. Authors who seek financial profits but suffer a substitution effect are harmed by piracy.
    3. Audience members clearly benefit from piracy since they have access to an abundance of films.
    4. With piracy being a universal law (i.e. everybody doing it) – which is one of Kant’s tests for morally right behavior – audiences would profit as they have access to all films. However, those films that seek maximum profits but suffer a substitution effect will, most likely, vanish. Since those are the films we are, judged by cinema attendance, most interested in, audience will also suffer.
    5. Ergo: Piracy has good sides (access, benefiting authors who seek recognition or impact or experience a sampling effect), but one bad side (substitution effect).
    6. It would thus be morally right to find models that try to prevent the negative effects of piracy without eliminating the positive effects.
  • One economic solution to the free-rider problem is to turn public goods into club goods. Coase argued that if people who benefit from a product would easily find each other, they would regulate the market output. Doctorow, Cuban, Kelly (among others) hence suggest a one-stop shop. This is a place were all films are available. Such a one-stop shop combines the advantages of traditional sales (reliable, legal, metadata, fast, easy to use) with those of file-sharing (variety of content).
  • Chris Anderson and Kevin Kelly suggest to give things away for free and earn with immediacy, personalization, interpretation, authenticity, accessibility, embodiment, patronage, findability, freemium, advertising, cross-subsidies (all things that cannot be copied)
  • I believe that both strategies, Free and a One-Stop Shop, mimic the advantages of file-sharing – i.e. they would allow for a bigger audience (mainly due to simple availability of titles and ease to find them) and thus for more recognition and impact as well as for a better chance to experience a sampling effect. At the same time, they offer a legal alternative to file-sharing and, with it, a way to earn money, hence helping to overcome the substitution effect.
  • Those solutions are also in line with other ethical principles like personal benefit, social benefit, benevolence, paternalism, harm, honesty, autonomy and lawfulness.
  • But, and here lies the problem, Free and/or a One-Stop Shop can only be implemented on a universal scale if the film industry sets it up. Only they have the market power to do so. But they don’t seem to want it and, instead, rather protect old revenue streams and earn money with law suits against pirates.
  • As long as the film industry does not implement alternative distribution strategies (some that are more in line with 21st century media and consumer behavior), they will be ethically responsible for illegal file-sharing. Their inaction causes what they claim destroys them.

So there we go. It is quite hard to summarize a complicated topic like this within a few bullet points. That’s why I attached the whole revised paper here; just in case.

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I’m trying to prepare a paper on how independent film making, distribution and exhibition was handled in the past – especially in the UK. I think that we can learn a lot when we look at documentaries in the 1930s (above all, the independent film units and the workers film movement), the Free Cinema movement, the Workshop movement or film Co-Ops.

There are of course others too, but even by just looking at the ones I mentioned above, we could find some things filmmakers could take into consideration today:

  • Collaborate: A lot of those movements I am looking at share equipment, collaborate in the writing and/or production process or simply just support another when needed. There are too many people who try to be auteurs. Filmmaking is collaboration. That does not just make the films better, but this way, filmmakers can share fans among each other and, consequently, attract larger audiences.
  • Cooperate: Know who your audience is. Collaborate with organisations who share your vision, goals and, most importantly, audience. The workers film movement made films for workers. They exhibited them via workers film clubs. Exhibition in commercial cinemas was impossible to achieve.
  • Manifesto: Have something to say. Stand for something. Or better, be against something. This can be political (demonstrating against the establishment) or related to film (condemning common filmmaking practice and film language). Having something to say will make people listen. Write down what you stand for.
  • Niche: Hollywood is for everyone. They are too good in it. Independent filmmakers cannot compete here. But independents can cater for niche audiences. This can be geographical (local/regional/national) or topical niches. Make films about the problems of working class people in the north-west of England and you will have a build-in audience.
  • Love: Be in it for the love of it. Love the medium, the stories, your subjects.

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There wasn’t much of  a blogging routine over the past – what was it? – 6 months? That needs to change. In the coming weeks, I’ll update the blog with the things I have been working on lately:

  • A paper on defining the term ‘Sustaining’ in sustaining independent filmmaking
  • A paper I have given at ETICA 2010
  • A paper in development about McLuhan and the Internet
  • Another paper in development about the history of independent film distribution and exhibition in the UK and what today’s filmmakers can learn from it
  • Thoughts on my Interim Assessment, which I successfully passed in January

Well, that should keep me busy and help me to digest what I have written during the past months. And also, I’m in the second half of my PhD. So it’s downhill now – and time to get organized.

Finally some experimenting with “Giving it away for free” from a UK cinema chain: Slackers Club (probably Michael Moore fans). Picturehouse Cinemas has teamed up with E4 to let students watch films for free – ones a month – and force everyone who shows up into alcoholism by providing them with a free Stella Artois – so they even got some sponsoring money.

This goes a bit against the notion of freely giving away infinite goods and charging for scarce goods. It follows another strategy: Create a free event and earn with ancillaries – sponsoring, food, drinks, etc. – and hope to create a future audience.

I wonder why cinemas don’t experiment more with free stuff:

  • Everyone who pays for the online premiere of a film (preferably a local indie production) will be able to watch it for free in the cinema.
  • Watch a film at the cinema (and pay for it) and get a free download (to rent or own) of that film.
  • Pay for a new film of a filmmaker and download an older film for free.
  • Pay a monthly subscription fee to have online access (probably streaming) to all films that are shown in the cinema this month (okay, there is not really a free option here).
  • Let people watch a basic version for free online and charge for an extended cut of the film in HD plus Q&A with the filmmaker at the cinema.
  • Give away deleted scenes and Making Of documentary online and charge for film.
  • Create an online audience and earn with advertising.

In general, I think, cinemas should try to use the internet much more to attach the audience to them. Create online events or contests. Have additional content online – not just a synopsis of the film but also trailer, deleted scenes, making of, director’s commentary, I-don’t-know-what. Let audiences vote on films they want to watch. Let them comment on films they have seen. Attract the audiences of local filmmakers by having slots for their films (Manchester Monday, Territorial Tuesday, Community Wednesday – I’m sure someone can put it much better).

Speaking of local: You are a cinema. You are a local thing. Sure, the blockbusters bring in cash – and that’s how it should be. So show them. But remember, everyone shows them. Start getting an identity by being part of your community. Bring together local film fans with local films and their filmmakers. Be special. Get a face.

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