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The New Auteur

Independent Film in Times of the Internet

Monthly Archives: September 2009

I just found Ameibo.com – a video download site. They are quite interesting. They pay users some money in exchange with bandwidth. You basically download a movie and then just leave it in your BitTorrent manager to share with others. Apparently, you only share legal copies – i.e. with people who also buy/rent the movie via Ameibo. It’s a pretty cool way to use BitTorrent. Probably you won’t earn much buy sharing a movie, but at least Ameibo keeps their costs down and hopefully passes it on to the users (by charging less for the films). Most films seem to costs between 3.50 and 4.50 Euro, so not too much. For sharing, people usually get 0.64 Euro per film (that is if only one person shares. If more than one person share a film, the 64 cents will be divided through the number of people sharing).

Oh, and most importantly, they also allow filmmakers to distribute their films via their ContentBay. They don’t even seem to act as gatekeepers. At least they are saying that everyone can upload. I’m not sure if no quality control works for such portals. But lets see how they are doing.

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Just read Sujewa Ekanayake’s post about Mark Cuban’s post on TV Everywhere. To quote Cuban:

many people think tv programming should be widely available for free on the internet. Of course the content is never free. Someone has to pay to create it and we purchasers of cable and satellite services pay the subscription fees that pay the content companies and allow them to create all that content. Someone always must pay for free. Its unfortunate that there are some incredibly greedy people who think their entertainment needs should be subsidized.

To be fair, I think Cuban talks about piracy (which is a nasty little habit of people with an interest in media products but without the necessary funds to pay for them). But I can’t help it and am always reminded of Chris Anderson’s new book when people talk about free entertainment online. I think that Mark Cuban (though being the boss of the coolest Basketball player) misses some things here:

  • I wrote about Anderson’s book before and can just repeat that there seem to be business models around giving things away for free. Direct payment is not the only possible income for entertainment products. When things are given away for free, they create new business opportunities (advertising, merchandise, live shows, superior products and so on – check out my earlier post for more examples). So free not always equals free. But, okay, let’s say that this is not so much for TV but rather a business opportunity for single entertainment products.
  • But even when looking at TV, we know that there is not only Pay-TV (in which case we directly pay for the content). But there is, and this is probably something rather European, also Free-TV, which is – like one can guess from its name – basically free. Money is earned through advertising or a license fees. Those things could also work when giving TV away for free online (though, I doubt that US TV will ever see license fees like we do in Europe). So, again, free doesn’t need to equal free.
  • One more remark about license fees: We have to face it that entertainment products, in a digital world, are public goods (we can’t exclude people from using it and owning/using a product doesn’t mean someone else can’t own/use it). Public goods create the chance to free-ride (in this case “piracy”). One way to deal with free-riding is a taxation system (this works in health care, defence, partially in public transport and education). License fees are just such a taxation system.

I don’t try to defend piracy (though it is also not right to absolutely condemn it either). But saying that direct payment is the only way of financing entertainment products is just wrong.

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Just found those blog(posts)/websites:

  • Kino-Eye’s Resources for Documentary Film
  • Online Degree Hub’s Top 100 Film Studies Blogs
  • This list is a bit frustrating. Why are so many people writing about the form? Is there not more to Film Studies than discussing the content and form of old and contemporary movies? I fear this mirrors film related teaching. At least the courses (mostly film production courses) that I know of, do not teach much else. Making films and understanding the form is one thing. But what about preparing students for life after education? Why are there not more courses/classes on film entrepreneurship? The internet opens so many doors. It would be time to teach about it.

  • Bigger Picture Research
  • At least I found this blog, which covers the business side of films. And of course there are more (most of the ones I know of are in my blogroll).

  • Magic Bullet Mojo
  • As an editor in my spare time, I love all of those how-to posts/videos online. I think they are great resources for anyone trying to learn more about video editing.

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Do we need independent film? Or is it just a hobby for a few rich kids and/or an interest of even fewer upper middle class intellectuals? Maybe. But maybe we should consider a few other things:
 

Independent film is of economic importance because it supports the commercial film sector.

First, in the UK (and probably in most western countries) the film sector is an important industry. Statistics of the UK Film Council reveal that in 2006 the UK film sector accounted for 0.5 % of the overall UK GDP, turned over £5.3 bn and, in 2007, employed 38,634 people. The independent sector now supports the commercial sector by:

  • Providing training for talent and crew. Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Doug Liman, Quentin Tarantino, Todd Haynes, Larry Clark, David O. Russell, Robert Rodriguez, Guy Ritchie, Mike Marsh, Terence Davies and probably countless others all started their directing career with independent films.
  • Innovating the form. Slow motion (first used in Kurasawa’s The Seven Samurai), jump cuts (first used as stylistic device in Battleship Potemkin) and freeze frames (Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups) were all first used as stylistic devices outside of Hollywood. So was non-continuity editing. CGI was first used in Richard Heffron’s Future World and, a year later, Star Wars. More recently, Diary of a Camper was the first Machinima film. All independent films.
  • Acting as R&D. The Last Broadcast was the first digitally shot and distributed feature film, Slumdog Millionaire the first digitally shot movie winning an academy award for best cinematography. On the distribution front, Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack first successfully made use of saturated advertising campaigns and a nationwide simultaneous opening at theatres. Today, innovation in digital distribution is mainly driven by independent films.
  • Turning over money. Of course, independent filmmakers also pay for equipment rental, DVD production, art work, colour grading and all the other things needed to make a film. This helps to financially sustain a supporting industry, which is vital for the commercial sector.



Independent films help to ensure diversity in our media, which is critical for true freedom of information.

As the ever-brilliant Noam Chomsky pointed out in his 1988 book Manufacturing Consent, governments and big media control what we get to know. They control the stories that are told and hence the knowledge available. Alternative voices are needed. Independent media is an alternative voice.

I just did a very basic analyzes of the programming of four of the leading free TV channels in the UK (BBC 1, ITV 1, Channel 4, Five) during one week in July 2009 as well as openings in three of Manchester’s major cinemas (Odeon, AMC Great Northern, Cornerhouse) in August 2009. I compared those with the 2008 programming of two of the UK’s best known film festivals: Sheffield Documentary Festival and Raindance.

In a world that becomes an ever-smaller global village, can we speak of diversity if 93 % of the stories we are presented with in mainstream media (TV, cinema) were made in only two countries? Why are the storytellers from whole continents completely ignored? Sure, we hear about some countries in Africa, central Asia or South America – but from UK/US filmmakers! There are only 10 different countries that deliver programmes to British TV; 17 to cinema. On the other hand we find storytellers from 43 different countries in only 190 festival films.

In a second step, I looked at factual programming (Documentaries, Reality TV, Docu Soaps, etc.) and the countries that were covered by those programmes. Again, we find two dominating content deliverers in TV and cinema (91% of factual programming covers the UK or USA). Is that diversity? Overall, in 172 productions, only 17 different countries/regions were covered in mainstream media (plus 1 show covering the Internet, 2 covering the world at large and 3 covering general wildlife). Compare this to the 38 covered countries/regions in festival documentaries (in only 135 films). There are 4 TV/cinema-programmes on Afghanistan but not a single one on China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria or Japan – 8 of the world’s 10 most populated countries). Why is Afghanistan so important? News value of course – 5 of our soldiers dead surely attracts more viewers than 50 people starved to death in Taka-Tuka Land. But will a selection of stories based on their news value lead to diversity? Probably not.

In order to wrap up, this last graph is just meant to demonstrate the problem of missing diversity in mainstream media. The pie-charts before failed a little bit (because of co-productions – especially in cinema – or multiple countries being covered in one programme) to demonstrated the dominance of single countries in programme production as well as programme content.

 

So we can conclude that, of course, independent film is important. It is surely not the most important thing in the world – but it is also not just a hobby that should limited to a minority. Independent film is relevant; not only in its supporting role for the commercial sector but also, and possibly much more significantly, as diversity-ensuring medium that has the capability to serve the right to freedom of information much more sufficiently than profit-driven commercial media will ever be able to.

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I just watched this video of a panel at DIY Days in Philadelphia. The discussion was around independent filmmaking and the internet, and, like so often, the question came up: How do we uses the internet to be successful? Nina Paley (who made Sita Sings the Blues) summarized her winning method with: luck. Well, that’s very selfless too say but not really what a researcher – who believes a bit more in measuring things – wants to hear. No luck for me here.

Arin Crumley (For Eyed Monsters) put it a bit better. He said that, in the future, the audience might decide how high the budget of a movie is. And I think that might be a great thing. Surely this might not happen for every film. Big budget productions will still rather control the audience taste through marketing than the audience controling them. But for low budget films this might just be the case. Though this still is not an answer to ‘how do we earn back our production money online and also make a living?’, Arin’s thought forbids this question. Maybe filmmakers should not put idea and script first and then raise the money they need to make their idea come to life. Maybe filmmakers should rather see what an audience wants. Let the idea be there first but then lets see who really wants to see such a film. And then decide about the budget. In other words, let the audience decide the budget (not literally though, but check the interest before deciding on the money part).

I like that thought for two reasons: First, it democratizes the film process a bit more. It is not a filmmaker who decides what story is told in what way but it is a decision based on interaction between a bigger group of people. Secondly, it might lead to less financial failures in filmmaking and more financially responsible movies.

Here is the video:
[blip.tv ?posts_id=2573078&dest=-1]

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A week ago, I was trying to write a chapter on culture as a commodity and all the things concerning payment for creative products. What always struck me as a bit weird was that nearly everyone takes it for granted to be paid for their creations. This is something I don’t understand. I would like to teach much more, but the university doesn’t seem to have any vacancies. So should I just teach without getting paid? Maybe. As a filmmaker, I want to make a film. So I will. But why do I expect the world to be waiting for my film and people line up to pay for it?

A lot of the criticism of Chris Anderson’s (not so new anymore) book Free (of which there is a lot: Shooting People members, Malcom Gladwell, John Taplin and in the comments of this Techdirt post) is this weird sense of expecting to be paid for something that nobody asked for, paired with sticking to old, and possibly outdated, business models of the analogue world.

I do think that Chris Anderson made some valid observations and that there are business models around giving products away for free. And his argument is backed up by simple economics:

  • Competition in a free market always drives the price of a product to its marginal costs.
  • Infinite goods will have marginal costs of almost zero and will thus be available for free.
  • Scarce goods, on the other hand, can be sold for a price above their marginal costs.
  • When giving things away for free, those things stop generating income. They can no longer be considered a product. But they become a free resource for other products, which then create a new market.

All of this is nicely laid out in Michael Mesnik’s post on Techdirt – and discussed ad nauseam in the comments.

I think, most of the criticism is motivated by protectionism of old businesses. But the internet puts artists into a new environment. Digital products are no longer scarce – they are abundant. Whereas before the internet, access to films was restricted through cinema admission, TV license or DVD rental/purchase and owning a copy/seat meant that someone else couldn’t own this copy/seat, today those limitations do not apply anymore. What once was a private good (excludable and rivalrous) is now a public good (non-excludable and non-rivalrous). Films will never ever again be private goods – if copyright protections will start to work (or if people decide to follow legal offerings like iTunes), films might become club goods; at best. But the times of a film being a private good are over.

This now doesn’t mean that people will not pay for films anymore. They will; just as people pay for other public goods (train fares, NHS in the UK). But there will also be free-riders – pirates.

A friend of mine is a booker and publisher for independent music. He clearly profits from advertising shows and bands online – for free. Those bands are able to play live and even earn some money from their shows (though not enough to make a living). But still he complains about the internet and piracy. Nobody buys CDs anymore. Well that might be true. But on the other hand, marketing is free. It is much easier for smaller bands to attract fans and to get known.

That all goes together with people complaining about Anderson’s Free. What is it that we want? Do we want an internet that allows us to communicate freely and widely or do we want a pre-internet world where access is scarce and expensive? I would rather like people to see the internet as a chance and embrace the new opportunities than complaining about some free-riders. And if those pirates are such a big problem, then maybe we should follow the suggestions of Chris Anderson, Brian Newman or Kevin Kelly, who seems to have spoken about this first.

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