Sunday, September 23, 2007

First Take, VOD and Better Ideas

My last post on First Take sure stirred things up – wow. Who knew it was this easy to get indies to rally in support of corporate America? Times have changed. Time was, indies knew their audiences were slim, but would fight smartly to find them. I guess now, we’ve all become so desperate for anything resembling distribution that we’ve lost sight of reality.

I wasn’t arguing that First Take had no potential audience, or that VOD was bad. I was simply arguing that IFC’s spin on the failure of their bigger vision was flawed and that as good as I believe these models are, they are being driven more by cable companies wanting lots of content on demand than any altruistic aims. That’s all.

Quite contrary to what everyone misunderstood about my IFC First Take post, I am actually a believer in the future of VOD, digital download and similar models. I’m also a proponent of shrinking windows, even day & date, for many films (perhaps all films someday, but not quite yet). As such, I think that whatever the real reasons behind First Take, it is a good thing for indies, and hopefully just the first step on the path to better distribution options. In fact, half the reason I think their model is kind of lame is because I am so sure these models are right, that I envision even better models taking hold soon.

I thought the benefits of these models are so self-evident that it almost seemed silly to mention this when writing that post, and it still seems silly to list the benefits now. If, however, people felt they needed to rise up in support of IFC for First Take, there must be enough uncertainty, or at least controversy, remaining in the field to cause some doubt. So maybe this is worth further conversation.

First, let’s just call it all VOD – whether its actually video-on-demand, a TiVO model, Slingbox, digital download to own or rent, streaming or anything similar. Technically, these are all different but it all boils down to some key things: watching what you want when you want it; on the device you want (TV, computer, phone, IPhone, etc) either for some cost or for free.

The what you want part is crucial, and is what makes this so extraordinary, because in theory, and with more time, you should be able to access almost any content you want. This means not just indie films on IFC, but also foreign cinema that even cinephiles have never seen, underground films, old films - even those shot on nitrate perhaps, or ones that have been unavailable for years, and pretty much everything else. In theory, I’ll be able to purchase a lost Sergei Paradjanov film at my convenience as easily as finding rare footage of Bird in concert, or that indie film rejected by every festival other than NYIIFF.

There are some technical issues and lots of copyright issues, not to mention old films disappearing hourly from lack of proper preservation, but I think we all understand that just about anything could be ordered on-demand someday, in theory. As nearly everyone under the sun has already proclaimed, this is potentially a really good thing for filmmakers and consumers.

Some people think this will eliminate the gatekeepers and middle-men, and let indies and others go directly to their audiences. Perhaps in a perfect world, this would be true, but I doubt that we live in a perfect world and I’m not so sure this would be perfect, so I’d bet everything I own against this possibility coming to fruition. Why? Partly because human nature doesn’t often lead us to realizing cool visions, but mainly because the history of technology is pretty much the history of second-best options becoming dominant.

There are a lot of people quite afraid about what these possibilities mean for the future, and that fear can kill many good ideas. Some are scared of what it means for theatres and the communal experience; others about what it means for quality and standards; some about what it means for their business models; some because they have no clue what they are talking about and just want everyone to slow down while they catch up with DVDs and email.

There’s a very real chance that all of these fears could shut down all of the potential futures we read about daily. Cable operators, phone companies, distributors and other “gate-keepers” are scared by these new models. These are real threats to their dominance, and history gives the gate-keepers a very good chance of winning – every other new technology started as a potential open platform for citizens to become participants, not just consumers, and each was shut down, or turned into walled gardens at best. Sheet music, the phonograph, radio, film, broadcast tv – all were supposed to be just as liberating as we think the internet will be now – allowing for two-way participation and the spreading of niche content; yet each was turned into predominantly one-way delivery machine, and mainly a delivery machine for pop culture, not niche content. The internet almost went this way quickly (remember when most people used AOL’s crappy walled-internet?), but even now, companies are pushing against net neutrality and arguing that big companies should have preference on delivering their content over the little guys.

The biggest threats, however, will probably come from our own stupidity, our lack of imagination and inability to dream. If all we get from this paradigm shift is that every film ever made becomes available for purchase on demand, anytime, forever, at a fair cost, we will have failed. We’ll have just created a better TV. If all we get is that indies finally have access to larger audiences, we’ll feel self-satisfied, but will still have failed.

The technology already exists for us to do so much more than we are doing or dreaming. New ways to watch, to teach and learn, not to mention to think, with and through these materials (films) and technologies, have been available to us since the early 90s. New ways to create – for anyone who wants to, using these materials, are possible. New ways to juxtapose images and think differently about our world, discover new possibilities and (quite frankly) evolve are now easily at hand, but we limit ourselves to thinking under old models. I could go on, but I think anyone who has made it thus far can probably imagine even greater possibilities than I am mentioning.

Unfortunately, many people will be so shocked with all the films they can choose from on their fancy AppleTiVoSlingboxHDTVs that few will keep imagining these futures and we’ll settle for less. Powers-that-be won’t see the profit potential (it’s there, alright), or will be scared and slow and even those that can benefit most (filmmakers, for example) seem thus far intent on getting into Sundance, finding someone to “distribute” their film to theaters and maybe put them on platforms like IFC First Take, when they should be thinking much, much further about what is possible. So, we’ll probably settle for much less than we deserve, but this is not to fault IFC. One shouldn’t expect a bunch of suits (even if suits aren’t fashionable anymore, it’s the same types of people in these offices as back in the 50’s) to really be innovative. Seriously. In fact, in my earlier post, I was faulting IFC for failing at other, grand ideas and for being fast and loose with their spin, but I wasn’t faulting them for using the First Take model, or for filmmakers liking it. We’ll take what we can get, but let’s hope we can slowly learn not to settle for so little.