Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Top Ten Stories for Indies and Resolutions

I’ve seen lots of year-end film lists, and even participated in some. What I haven’t seen, however, is a list of the top stories that matter to indie filmmakers. I wouldn’t say this is my definitive list, but it’s the top ten things that come to mind, in reverse order, along with New Year resolution suggestions.

10. Mermigas Firing proves Hollywood is still out of touch.
Diane Mermigas was the best writer in the film world. Who, you may be asking? Mermigas wrote a column on technology for the Hollywood Reporter - how it was disrupting business models and where things may be going. As most indie folks can’t afford the HR, very few may have read her column, but work picked up the tab for me, and I was a fan. Her last prediction - that Google might buy the NY Times (original) and she could be right. This only makes the top ten list because it would be like the Washington Post getting rid of Bob Woodward during Watergate – you don’t get rid of the one reporter that really knows what’s going on when your ship is sinking. Geeky blogs always thought she was old-fashioned (or worse), but she was the only columnist in film land who consistently understood the shifting landscape, and the Hollywood Reporter letting her go recently shows how out of touch old media remains about how the changes that are affecting them now are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Resolution suggestion: Independent filmmakers should pay more attention to the geeky business news about the industry, because its going to affect your world as much as it will Hollywood, and you might just be able to use the changes to your advantage. Start with Mermigas’ old columns.

9. Orphan works proposals show there is some hope in copyright land.
An orphan work is one whose author can’t be found, even after extensive searching. In film, this usually affects documentaries that use rare footage, and with an orphan work, no one can authorize you as a filmmaker to use the footage in your film. Even though the rights-holder probably died years ago, no E&O Insurer will insure your film, and thus no one would distribute or broadcast it if it contained this footage. This year, a coalition of groups representing filmmakers (disclaimer: including the one I work for) made recommendations to the copyright office for a fair system to allow such works to be used, while maintaining safeguards for rights-holders. The proposal is now being considered by Congress, and could represent a nice change for filmmakers.
Resolution Suggestion: Click here to take action.

8. FCC acts indecent

Think that Janet Jackson’s breasts are unrelated to your issues as a filmmaker? Think again. Her exposure in the Super Bowl is just one example of the things that led the FCC to begin cracking down on things they consider “indecent.” Well, that and a bunch of right wing nuts, but the FCC’s actions have led PBS stations to not broadcast films due to fears of large fines, and while most of the films affected have been big (Saving Private Ryan, Ken Burns), this has huge implications for indie filmmakers. All broadcasters need is one more excuse to not show your unrated film.
Resolution suggestion: Marjorie Heins of the Free Expression Policy Project at NYU is leading the charge against this nonsense, and you should take an interest.

7. AIVF collapsed/Others Didn’t (yet?)
When AIVF started to go under, a group of us met to debate whether we cared. The consensus was, I think, that now more than ever, filmmakers needed a place like AIVF, but that the situation had deteriorated to the point that it couldn’t be salvaged. In early 2006, the board finally pulled the plug, and AIVF no longer exists. As I wrote then, the ideals of AIVF (it could no longer serve them) were still needed – in-depth information, advocacy, and a national community among the many needs. AIVF could have been the place to unite the UGC and Indie worlds and make a powerful lobby for creative concerns on the net; they could have been active in the recent debates about Showtime and the Smithsonian; they could have thrown a real awards for independent filmmakers (maybe in Brooklyn), when other awards shows departed from indies. On the plus side, my prediction that they were the first of many to go was either early or just wrong. IDA, IFP and others are surviving, IMAGE and Film Arts have new leaders and may rise from the (near) ashes. On the other hand, none seem to have taken the place of AIVF. Perhaps more will be clear when I moderate a panel on this subject at SXSW in March of 2007. (photo credit:
Resolution suggestion: Make your organization accountable by letting your voice be heard – let their executive directors know how you feel. Me included.

6. Fair Use gets a boost, and a manual
Fair Use is the legal concept that allows you to utilize copyrighted material, under certain conditions without asking for it. For example, Kirby Dick used this concept to make his recent doc This Film Is Not Yet Rated… because it allowed him to comment on the way the MPAA treated certain films, without having to pay large fees to show certain clips. For years, however, there was no clear system for filmmakers to follow in utilizing fair use, so Pat Aufderheide, a professor at American University and Peter Jaszi, a law professor, got together with filmmakers and their organizations (again, we participated) and crafted a Filmmakers guide to Fair Use. IFC used it in deciding to distribute Dick’s film, and rumor has it that Arthur Dong will be using the principles to release his new work The Chinese in Hollywood Project.
Resolution suggestion: Read the manual and stay informed via Agnes Varnum’s blog for the Center for Social Media.

5. New Distribution Models (and reminders of some old ones)
It still boggles the mind that anyone debates whether the windows model of releasing is a bad idea. Yes, Bubble didn’t work, but it’s clear to everyone that consumers want their media when they want it, where they want it, when they want it and on whatever device they want to see it on. The key will be versioning – having different versions, so that you can show one version at fests or theatres while the download is available, and possibly sell the extended (or educational) version later. While Holly/Indy-Wood distributors debated this, many simply threw up their hands in disgust and started their own distribution. Four Eyed Monsters showed the best way to use the internet to build buzz, Lance Weiler self-distributed to success and blogged about it, Sujewa focused his blog on self-distribution, Landmark made four-walling a little easier, and even David Lynch took to the streets to promote his own self-distribution (photo credit: It was also fun to listen to filmmakers propose a self-distribution collective or system, when one already exists with New Day, and it was great to see filmmakers opening their eyes to the simple truth that getting a distributor can often be the worst thing that can happen to your film.
Resolution suggestion: Use fests to find an audience, instead of a distributor. Start here or here.

4. Death of VHS goes unnoticed

In November, Variety ran the obituary for VHS. Yes, you can still find them, but Hollywood and all but a handful of small distributors have abandoned them altogether. VHS lasted around 30 years, but no one expects DVD to last nearly that long. While people continue to debate whether consumers will switch to digital downloads or streaming, there are clear signs that DVD sales are slowing, and this has huge implications for indies. While every other technological advancement showed such promise in the past only to be closed down, we once again have the chance that indies can get their films to a wider audience through digital downloads, TiVO, Revver, or even through your Xbox. With the Long Tail model changing business, and with everyone from Amazon to Wal-Mart (I would go all the way to Z with Zune, but it’s such a bad player) getting in the digital download business, 2007 should be a interesting year.
Resolution suggestion: Read up about the implications with this report we produced, and check out your options for self-distribution online.

3. Google/Youtube and future implications

This one has been talked about enough online that I don’t need to add much more. Any way you look at it, however, it’s one of the most important media stories of 2006, with huge implications (still being sorted out) for distribution, copyright, revenue models for new media, etc. My hopes for 2007 – that independent filmmakers realize their kinship with the supposed amateurs of UGC, especially in regards to reaching audiences. This is about participatory culture and your audience finding your content more easily, not just finding videos of a frat boy falling down the stairs. You can use it to get people interested in your work, promote films you are trying to raise money for (advanced trailers) and to find your audience before your film is completed. Gootube is, of course, just one part of the story, but every filmmaker should be thinking about how to use online video to their advantage.
Resolution suggestion: Post teasers or trailers for all of your films online for free – even better, put a Creative Commons license on them, and read the book about your opportunities by Scott Kirsner.

2. Sundance Channel opens a Screening Room in Second Life
I’ve been suggesting for a long time that filmmakers need to get a presence in Second Life, and I wasn’t the only one. Recently, Sundance Channel announced they will launch a Second Life screening room and will premiere Four Eyed Monsters online in January of 2007. Second Life is a growing phenomenon, and people are making real money there. More importantly to filmmakers – it’s another place to find an audience for your work.
Resolution suggestion: I’m willing to bet that some media artists can make something more creative than some suits at Sundance Channel (okay, I know many people there who don’t wear suits), so get online, create an avatar and corner the market for cool visuals in Second Life.

1. Net Neutrality
Unfortunately, much of the above-mentioned promise for indies is threatened by the possible end of the internet as we know it. That’s what net neutrality means – saving the internet. I could go on and on about this, but many people have made great videos about it, like this one:

Resolution Suggestion: Educate yourself on Net Neutrality, get active in the debate and stop big media from ruining our possible future(s) online.

And Happy New Year!

Monday, December 18, 2006

More on net freedom

Great new video from the Save the Internet folks.
click on their site to take action.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Big Brother FIND and piracy

I got an email yesterday from FIND about how I could watch screeners of the Spirit Award nominees through Netflix. Great, I thought, and saved it to follow-up on later. Then I got this draconian email from them (see below) making extra sure that I know not to pirate any of these DVDs. My main beef is with the erroneous claim: "As you are aware, piracy is a threat to the entire industry."
Oh really? I guess that FIND and IFP are now in bed a little too often with the MPAA if they are buying this garbage. The MPAA (and Netflix, etc) are trying to protect a certain business model, but its more about making sure they control distribution than it is about protecting any indie filmmakers rights. Several serious studies have shown that the statistical effect of illegal downloading on the industry is....a lot, a little...actually, nil. The one linked here is just one of many regarding the music industry - as Harvard's website puts it: "Professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee and co-author Koleman Strumpf floored the disbelieving music industry with their findings that illegal music downloads don’t hurt CD sales. Oberholzer discusses what the industry should do next." You can read the whole article, but what he suggests is that online trading actually helps push sales, and that the industry should develop new models.

I won't go on and on, like most of my posts, but I do suggest that film people read Oberholzer-Gee's study and think about what it means for independent film instead of just echoing the MPAA's BS. In fact, a long time ago, we would have expected film orgs like these to do it for us, and help us think about new possibilities afforded by new technologies instead of pushing for old, tired ones. As I've heard someone else say - If these filmmakers haven't gotten distribution or are no longer screening in theatres, then they have bigger worries than piracy - try obscurity.

In all fairness to FIND, they are probably just protecting their asses, but the letter is a bit too much:

Dear Film Independent and IFP members:

The Spirit Awards and Netflix are pleased to be able to send you DVDs of the 2007 Spirit Award nominated films. (By now, you should have received the email from Netflix with your special offer code.) Please read this letter carefully—it contains important information about your screeners.

As you are aware, piracy is a threat to the entire industry. Netflix and the Spirit Awards have special permission to provide screener copies of nominated films for your personal viewing. Many of these DVDs are individually coded with invisible, unique watermarks that identify the screener and any copies of the screener. If any unauthorized copies (including internet uploads) of the film are traced back to your screener, you risk civil and criminal penalties. We ask you to be especially careful while the screener is in your possession, and do not circulate, transfer, distribute, loan, sell, reproduce, or give the screener to anyone else.

This special site created by Netflix solely for the Spirit Awards voters is a privilege for members that is invaluable to the nominees and to the voting process. Many of the nominated films have not had distribution or are no longer screening in theaters. The Neflix site ensures that these films can be seen by our voting members. Any abuse of this privilege may result in criminal penalties against you and the discontinuation of this program.

Thank you in advance for helping us all protect the rights of filmmakers in our fight against piracy.

Second Life Screening Room

The Sundance Channel announced yesterday that they will open a screening room in Second Life: Studio 4A. The studio will open with the Second Life premiere of Four Eyed Monsters, followed by a live Q&A session with film creators Arin Crumley and Susan Buice plus an after party.
I've been wondering when someone (that I know) would make such a move on Second Life. While many web-readers may consider this old news, I learned this weekend just how few filmmakers are even thinking about this right now. We were hosting a retreat for 15 filmmakers in Los Angeles, and I gave a presentation on using the web for marketing through the web and forming communities for independent films. I used Four Eyed Monsters as an example of people doing a great job, and then showed Second Life and suggested to the attendees that they put down a footprint there, and think of how it could build community for their films. Only one attendee had even heard of Second Life, and only two had heard of Four Eyed Monsters. This isn't to say they were behind the times, or that I am up to speed with it, but does show that the field is changing rapidly enough for many filmmakers that what some people take for granted is news to many others.
Sundance Channel is a corporate entity, and the Four Eyed Monsters gang are pretty savvy, so it's no surprise they had the resources and the web know-how to pull this off quicker than many others. At the recent National Black Programming Consortium conference, many black filmmakers discovered and discussed Second Life and its potential for building an audience for their films. It's becoming a great place for filmmakers to find audiences for their films. We'll see a lot more of this soon.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Re:Sources Blog

My day job - the one that keeps getting in the way of my writing on this blog - is running Renew Media (formerly NVR). We've been going through a lot of change in the last six months, and part of this change is the launch of our new blog - Re:Sources. The blog arises directly from the feeling that in this post-AIVF era, someone needed to fill the gaps left behind, such as advocacy, in-depth information on creativity, distribution, policy, etc. It's a small step, but one which we hope grows into a much bigger source for filmmakers.
The blog just launched, hosted and edited by Agnes Varnum, who also has her own fine blog. She'll be making regular posts, as well as inviting guest bloggers for certain topics. This week, for example, Parul Desai of Media Access Project posted on why net neutrality matters to filmmakers.