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The New Auteur

Independent Film in Times of the Internet

Category Archives: Theory & Research

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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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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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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