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The New Auteur

Independent Film in Times of the Internet

NewTeeVee has a post on VideoWTF, a video-related Wiki/Yahoo-Answers like site. From what I’ve seen, I think it looks clean and tidy – something that is usually a problem when a lot of questions and answers of a lot of people come together. But will we rather seek help from VideoWTF than asking Google?

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Here is an interesting new project. Arin Crumley already used the Web to find audiences for his own film Four Eyed Monsters. Now he helps building a bigger platform for other filmmakers.

OpenIndie basically allows fans (and the filmmakers themselves) to request any kind of screening of any film on the site where ever they want. Once a screening is requested, emails will be send out to fans nearby, informing them about it. At the screening, donations can be collected for the filmmakers. All participating filmmakers will add their email lists to the database of emails (and zip codes – I’m guessing this is US only in the beginning). A pretty cool collaboration tool between filmmakers and film fans. Lets hope it will work.

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I love to discover watchable films online (and yes, I do watch long-form content online). Whether it is the brilliant Keith Loutit and his technical masterpieces or 45356 – the 2009 SXSW winner that was available for free on SnagFilms. Just yesterday, I finished watching For Love & Stacie. A cleverly made film, I would definitely not have seen if it weren’t for the internet.

Those kind of films always put me in a dilemma: Did I enjoy them? Without a doubt. Are they good calling cards for their directors? Hopefully. Did the filmmakers make money with them? Possibly not. So the internet seems to hold good things for me as part of the audience but screws over the makers of those good things. But then again, I always wonder if money is the only thing that matters. Those films are out there, telling their makers’ stories and are appreciated. Is that not also important for artists? And for the business man: If those films lead to new business options for the makers (either new films or even merchandize/advertising/short theatrical runs of the films that already found an audience online) that would be great. So the business-half of our brain might see them as investments. And then everybody wins (audience, artist, businessman).

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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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