Monday, August 14, 2006

Leaders Leaving

The great film programmer and festival director Shane Danielsen of the Edinburgh Film Festival will be leaving the festival after this year's edition, which wraps on August 27th (it started today). IndieWire reports the news with an interview with Shane where he comments on his leaving after five years:

I think that five years is an ideal time: long enough to put your stamp upon the festival, but not so long that you - or it - become stale. I made a point of saying I'd do five years when I took the gig in 2001, and I actually believe that there should be a compulsory five-year limit on these things - it should be written into the contract. Otherwise you become one of these desperate old men (and they are invariably men), clinging on forever to something which, frankly, would be better off without them: renewed, regenerated and revitalised. As Edinburgh now will be, under Hannah McGill. And rightly so.

(It may not surprise you, however, to learn that this is not a popular view among my peers: during a dinner in Cannes last year, sitting at a table of other film festival directors, when I tried gently to outline this point-of-view they stared at me with the expression akin to Cardinal Bellarmine listening to Galileo propose the heliocentric cosmos.) (italics mine)

Way to go Shane! I agree completely, and I practice what I preach, having left the Atlanta Film Festival after getting close to my five year anniversary. I wish more people in the world felt this way, especially in arts and film. All of us can think of festivals that are doing great jobs, but that could move in new directions with new blood. And this doesn't always mean young blood, just a fresh look at the direction. It applies to things other than festivals as well - nonprofits, program officers at foundations, curators, distribution execs and critics, to name a few.

I've explained this thinking many times over the years, and with a few exceptions, I have always gotten the same expression that Shane so eloquently describes. There is this odd sense of holding on to these careers, instead of viewing them, as I feel they should be seen, as steps on a journey.

This attitude would be fine, but it is contributing to great problems in the field. People are holding on to jobs and not allowing a new generation to move forward. Leading festivals, which set the agenda in many ways for the field, don't change and adapt to the times - and this means that we see the same films, the same players and the same themes instead of going in new directions.

Thank you Shane for leaving - now, I just hope that your move to Berlin takes you to another five years somehow involved with the cultural sphere, so that we can all run into your (new) work again.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Copyright and Education

Harvard's Berkman Center has recently released a white-paper/study by Bill McGeveran and Terry Fisher on the impact of copyright related issues on innovation in education.
From the abstract:
Drawing on research, interviews, two participatory workshops with experts in the field, and the lessons drawn from four detailed case studies, the white paper identifies four obstacles as particularly serious ones:

* Unclear or inadequate copyright law relating to crucial provisions such as fair use and educational use;
* Extensive adoption of digital rights management technology to lock up content;
* Practical difficulties obtaining rights to use content when licenses are necessary;
* Undue caution by gatekeepers such as publishers or educational administrators.

The white paper concludes with some discussion of paths toward reform that might improve the situation, including certain types of legal reform, technological improvements in the rights clearance process, educator agreement on best practices, and increased use of open access distribution.

Glad to see this study, as this is an important issue for the use of video and other media arts in the classroom as well.

Small Screens

Matt Dentler, whose blog I always like, makes one of his most interesting posts today about the popularity of small screens - watching video on cellphones, etc. According to a recent article in the LA Times, a survey showed that not a lot of teens and young adults were interested in watching such content on their phones - which, theoretically, means that all of the companies making their content available in this fashion may have an uphill battle getting consumers to adopt this form of consumption. As teens/young adults are supposed to be early adopters, and are a major target demographic, the article presupposes that we have something to learn from this response.

Dentler points out, quite correctly, that early adopters are usually from an even younger demographic. His story puts it best:

Another personal anecdote: one of the biggest fans I know of video iPod content is Harper Cummings. Harper Cummings is 3 years old. When on trips with her family, Harper loves to watch episodes of Dora the Explorer, downloaded to the video iPod. You have to think that by the time Harper is 13 years old, her and her friends will have much greater comfort and ease with greater and greater resources of mobile video material. That's why Apple, Viacom, News Corp. and Nokia are buying up real estate in this industry of short-form, digital video. Because not today and not tomorrow, but by the time Harper Cummings is earning spare cash waiting tables at Chuy's, this stuff will be everywhere. So, while I have nothing but respect for the polling of the L.A. Times and Bloomberg... maybe they should try asking around at the elementary schools, for a more accurate picture.

Dentler is quite correct - the elementary set are much more the demographic. But I think the study and the article are flawed in numerous other ways. For one, a lot of this content can get expensive, so I actually know more adults who watch videos on iPods than teens. Yes, teens buy music, but music has more of a hip cachet still, and it's easier to listen (say, when driving, every teen's favorite activity) than to watch. Second, while we've known this type of stuff was coming since 1992 (or earlier), the idea of watching on a small screen is still very new to most people - most never thought about it until they saw the video ipod. Even for teens, there hasn't been enough time, or good content for a good price, to really drive change. It took awhile for big screen tv's and HD to catch on as well.

But, even more, the writer misses the latent potential which will soon be realized when people can more easily watch intermittently and wirelessly. Some people undoubtedly do this already in some fashion, but pretty soon, we'll all be able to start watching content at home on the big screen, pause the film, start watching it at the same position on your cellphone from the subway, and then finish the film at the office. Or start watching something wirelessly downloaded to your cell and finish at home....etc. Not everyone will want to watch a feature film this way, but some will. I would, if it wasn't a masterpiece, but something I just wanted to entertain me. It will also be used for tv shows, news, personal video, how-to video, etc. This will all start to happen, but companies are taking baby steps in getting there (largely because of rights issues, but that's another post).

The idea that people won't eventually make money from this is ridiculous. And smart filmmakers should already be thinking about this in designing their films, trailers, etc.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Jesus and Michael Moore

A recent article in IndieWire reports that Magnolia Films, which had recently acquired the film Jesus Camp, got in a bit of a spat with Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival for playing the film. As the editor of IndieWire points out, it's a bit hard to tell who is telling the truth, but the basic story is probably that:

1. Jesus Camp was submitted in some fashion to the festival. It may have been solicited, someone involved in some way with the film may have begged to be shown, or someone may have just thought that it wouldn't hurt to show the film at another festival for publicity. It was accepted and programmed and possibly began to sell-out all seats;
2. Jesus Camp was acquired by Magnolia for distribution, and at some point they asked Traverse City to not show they film. They claim this was because they didn't want a fair and balanced film to be pegged as a liberal piece of junk by being endorsed by Michael Moore. This wasn't their wording, but you get the drift.
3. The festival said tough luck and showed the film anyway.

Most of the story is pretty obvious here - could be a publicity stunt on the part of Magnolia; could be bad business on the part of the festival; was definitely a delight to residents who saw the film.

In the article, the writers ask many a festival programmer what they thought, and this is what's interesting - none of them could possibly speak the truth. Matt Dentler of SXSW was pretty open in saying they walk the line, and at the end of the day, try to keep everyone happy, but must acquiesce to the distributor's demands. Christian Gaines of AFI was quite right to point out that generally speaking, this doesn't happen to major festivals. In a comment, Jeff Abramson of GenArt, points out an example where he couldn't accomodate the distributor, but was able to get them to understand his festival's perspective and work with him.

None, however, could tell the bigger picture and still run their festivals. As a former festival person, I can tell you that this happens more than you would think. Usually, such requests are made solely because a film enters a festival, later gets picked up for distribution and then the distributor thinks that anyone who saw the film at that fest is a lost potential customer, so they'd better pull the film from the festival. Unless that fest screening is at a major festival, or can get them press in a major city. The filmmakers are usually left out of this decision, and often can't even sway the distributor - as its no longer their film.

This is maddening to the filmmakers, the festival and the audience (aren't these the three folks who should matter at all??) but two of the three have sucked up to the teet of the distributor so much that they can't break free. Say no, I'm enforcing my contract with the filmmaker (usually part of the application) and potentially forever lose the right to show that distributor's films. Try as a filmmaker to broker peace, and be thought of as the problematic filmmaker getting in the way of the distributor's brilliant plan... The audience, of course, doesn't know any of this, but gets mad at the festival because they bought tickets and can't see the film they want to see.

I'm sure this particular case has its nuances, but it strikes me as another example of what's best for the distributor not always being what's best for the filmmaker, the film, the support system (festivals) or the audience. And something is wrong with that.