Thursday, December 31, 2009

10 Things I'm thinking about for Twenty10

Ok, now I'm on this damn list machine, luckily there's less than 12 hrs left for making end of year lists. I don't have any predictions for film and media in 2010, but I am wondering about a few things:

1. Who will be the exciting new storytellers? 
Who will we be talking about post Sun/Slamdance, Berlin, etc.? I'm always excited to discover new talent, and while there's always great new works by established folks, I can predict with confidence that there will be at least one new discovery this year. But I also predict that like the last couple of years, the new voices I discover won't come from a fest or even a proper film, but from mash-ups, remix, machinima and plain old viral video online. Can't wait.

2. OpenIndie. 
What will it be? I donated to this thing and I still don't completely understand it. But, I have faith that the two folks behind it will make something cool that probably won't change the world (as they hope) but will likely change it just enough to matter.

3. Will fest launches work?
This is the year that many people think filmmakers will really start thinking of festivals as their path to finding an audience instead of finding a distributor. At least one filmmaker is using Sundance as their launch. I can't wait to see how many others do this and what degree of success they have.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

10 Film Trends that spell success and doom

This has been the year of new experiments in film and media. Whereas there used to be a few of us touting the new models, it now seems to be a cacophony of voices all extolling how the new tools available to us will change the world and make indie film successful. Ok, there's been a lot of gloom and doom talk as well, but as my reading list shows, there's been a lot of great new models proposed. But whenever a crowd agrees on something, well, something's wrong. So, here below are ten of the most promising developments of the year and a few words about why I think each one is also worrisome. Or rather, why the future remains uncertain. Note in advance - I really believe in the good side of many of these things, but I'm always contrarian...

1. Direct connection with your fans. Earn 1000 Fans and you can make a career. You can now connect directly with your audience and make a living. But to quote Matt Rosoff of CNET - "The common wisdom today dictates that musicians need a personal connection with their fans. They must blog, tweet, maintain their MySpace and Facebook profiles, and generally act like your next door neighbor who's always pestering you to see his band. There's a word for receiving "personal" messages from your favorite 100 bands--it's called "spam." Eventually, this cloud of self-promotional noise will dissipate, and will be replaced by old-fashioned word of mouth." I can't say it better. So, remember, as every other filmmaker catches up with audience-connection - and this means Hollywood too - you've got more emails, more requests for micro-funding and a lot more noise. Who do you think will drown in this noise....?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Recommended Reads

There's been a lot of great writing both in print and online (and at times, both) for filmmakers this year. It's late in the year, but I thought I'd give my quick summary of some great titles that I think are required reading for any filmmaker - or any person in the film business, really - and most are good for other artists as well. These are in no particular order, and while I know some of the authors and am quoted in some of these, I tried to be unbiased and stand to make no financial gain. Most were written this year, but some came out earlier (even much earlier) but I just got around to reading them, and near the end are a few that aren't even film/media books but that I still highly recommend.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Phantom Menace Review and the Future of Film Criticism

As usual, I was late to the game in discovering the latest viral video sensation - this wonderful 70 minute review of The Phantom Menace. It's hilarious, and if you haven't seen it yet, I think it's worth watching all 70 minutes, as some of the best stuff is buried in the end. Ironically, I finally got around to seeing it after gazillions of tweets came my way when I was doing some research into the current state of film and media studies. Ok, I was wasting time on that instead of anything productive, but I did find something great from Eric Faden, the Bucknell professor who made the Fair(y) Use Tale video a few years ago. It's a great "Manifesto for Critical Media" published in the online journal Mediascape where he renounces traditional criticism/theory for something more robust. As he puts it: "I vow to abstain from that most sacred but restricted of intellectual practices-the literary academic essay-no matter the temptation. From here forward I put my faith in media over text, screen over paper."

Monday, December 21, 2009

Future of Film - Punk Rock or Classical Music?

A common refrain in the indie/arthouse film world these days is that the field needs to act more punk rock in how we think about audience engagement. It’s something I say often, and I’ve been reading/hearing people say it more often lately. The idea being that back in the day, punk bands (and to be technically accurate, this would be the more modern hardcore punk, or even garage bands, not the earlier, official “P” punk) would reach audiences by going around the country in a van playing small gigs to loyal audiences who would then support them directly and while they couldn’t make a fortune they could make a living. The famous case-study being Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat. The argument continues that with the tools we have today to directly reach audiences and avoid middle-men, and given that audiences are increasingly downloading films for free or cheap, that perhaps we can offer more value, and thus make a bit more money, by connecting directly to our fans who will pay to meet us with our film in person and support an authentic experience.

But the notion also has something to do with the excitement a subset of us felt - the connection and being in the “now” sense of punk rock. The tearing down the walls (even self-consciously) feeling. Being a fan, you felt part of a visceral experience that mattered. For many of us, this led to lots of learning about music. My interest in punk led me to noise rock, to obscure forms of jazz and even to electonica, rap and even in an odd way, the same music that punk was originally against - disco. That’s not to say that everyone knew how to play their instruments, but that was the other liberating sense of the music - anyone could pick up an instrument and play (and frankly, have better odds of getting laid than from most other adolescent hobbies). People collaborated a lot - from making bands, to sharing tips for the road, couches to sleep on, etc. There was another similarity we could learn from as well - you learned about the music not from the mainstream press (at least not at first), but from your friends and from local experts (now called curators) - the local pub, the house that someone turned into a venue, the local record store clerk. Walking into a record store, you were overwhelmed with records, but you never thought “wow, there’s too many records in here.” Instead you thought, “awesome, lots of music to discover, I just have to flip through the bins for things I’ve heard of, or ask someone in the room what they think.” More often, you’d already listened to a band and were there to buy it because you had heard them on a mix tape you got for free (and this being a mix tape, not a disc, you could throw it on the ground and stomp on it and it would still play in your stereo). You had already sampled the music, possibly heard them live at a show, and wanted to own it. For the most part, this sense of excitement still exists in music, for most people, even if it’s not as strong as when you were an adolescent.

I think we can see most of the potential parallels for film today. Instead of elaborating on this more, I think it’s better to admit we may instead need to turn to what seems like a more apt metaphor for the future of film - classical music. Our continual evocation of punk rock is a way for us to romanticize the potential future of film, but I think a more sober assessment would place us squarely in the classical music camp, and looking at what’s going on there is not pretty. Analogies only last so far as arguments, but humor me for a moment as we compare the fate of classical music with the current state of and possible future for indie/arthouse film.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Paramount, Clips and Fair Use/micropayment questions

I was fascinated to see that Paramount is the first studio - or really first film entity of any import - to start a video clip service. I'm not going to describe it in detail, you can read about it here, but it's essentially a marketplace for clips from famous Hollywood films. It's a great idea that I've been waiting to see someone launch. At first I was surprised to see a studio do this first, but on second thought, I think this is going to be an ongoing trend - movie studios embracing things indies have been talking about doing for years in the digital space but with real monetary backing and different aims.

When we were developing Reframe, we tried to launch it with just such a clip model - the idea being that filmmakers could not just sell their entire film, but also license clips for use. But, we were going to allow not just selling it to other filmmakers as clips, but also consumers and also allow for alternate licensing - Creative Commons or free even, and try to accommodate fair use principles etc. We didn't get very far, as many filmmakers and rights-holders literally flipped, and we realized it would be easier to start small with just a digitization and access place for entire films.

We even held a two day meeting with many filmmakers, lawyers, professors, and other industry to discuss how this could be done, ramifications,etc. This process, while helpful in some ways, is the perfect example of how nonprofits don't innovate - they brainstorm ideas with constituents and end up never building the right thing while some for profit builds it without taking any of your concerns into consideration. But that's another article.

What I find very interesting to contemplate is what this means for the future of a couple bigger ideas - fair use and micropayments as a practice. Obviously, this development is also interesting for what it means to the industry, to audience participation, to reuse in general, viewing habits, etc. but these other two are potentially more important.

First, one of the very real concerns raised when we held the Reframe panel was what would such a system mean for fair use? The Paramount system is obviously based on a heavy DRM type system. This helps them theoretically combat piracy (in reality all DRM now and in the future can and will be broken), but it breaks your legal right to reuse a clip in a fair use setting. Now obviously you can go grab the clip from somewhere else and use it in a fair use setting, but there's apparently (according to the legal scholars I spoke with) a problem with setting a precedent for a market. In other words, a studio could claim there's no need to allow a fair use argument because there exists a micro-payment system that could solve the problem. I'd love to hear more wisdom on this from other legal people, but it definitely will have an impact.

Second, this is a pretty clear move towards a micro-payment world. This is something every old school media person, be it film, tv, print or music - really wants to work. But up until now, it's been just a pipe-dream. Al such schemes usually fail and many take it as a given truth of the internet now that micro-payments won't work. (itunes not being considered a true micro payment, as I understand it, because it's not for song segments but entire songs) So, will Paramount's scheme fail? Will it lead to more robust clip piracy and really cool video mash-ups (oh, of this I really hope yes)? Or, is this the beginning of the big media squeeze that finally makes a web world where we pay in tiny slices for every little bit of media we consume?

I've not thought about this enough to answer either of these questions, but I've realized that if I wait to fully form an opinion for a blog post, then I'll keep posting at this once a month rate, which isn't a great trade-off. So, I hope to think more about this and post more later. Or send me your thoughts.