Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Ten Great Things about Indie Film

I do a fair bit of complaining about the state of things on this blog, so I thought I’d take a moment to post about some good things for once. Riffing off Ted Hope’s list(s) of bad things in the industry, in a friendly manner, here’s my top ten list for good things going on. Sure, there’s more than ten, but I didn’t want to come up with 38 (much less 75), so I thought ten was a nice round number.

  1. Ch-ch-changes: There’s been a lot of change at the top in the industry lately. We’ve seen big change at the New York Film Festival, MoMA, AFI, Full-Frame, LA Film Festival, Sundance and Indiewire to name just a few. That’s a great thing - new perspectives are needed and all of these organizations will probably be stronger for it in the long run. This is nothing against the people who left - in most cases, I know them and like them, but I like a little shake-out in the sector. It would be great to see a little more shake-out amongst the other “gate-keepers” in the industry, but hey, this is a start.
  2. Sharing: It’s much easier for filmmakers to communicate and collaborate on projects now. While not all of the data I’d like to see is available, it is much easier for me, and everyone else, to communicate with one another and see what’s working and what isn’t working. It’s much easier to share and promote info on one’s film, to crowd-source production, funding and even audience building. As more tools are built to facilitate collaboration and sharing, we’ll see even greater things built - and anything that makes us less truly alone as an indie is a good thing.
  3. Tools: Following on the sharing, we have some pretty cool new tools at our disposal - Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, Crowd-Controls, Open Indie, Top-Spin, Good Screenings, WireWax and Wreck-a-movie being just a few worthy of mention. There’s plenty more (even the big ones like Facebook and Twitter are helpful to indies), and new things being developed everyday. Not to mention the DSLR revolution and other production tech changes - all helping indies to make a better film, often more cheaply.
  4. The return of small: There’s always been a vibrant regional film festival scene, and while there has been a little shake-out, there’s also been a few smaller festivals rising up that promise good things - Indie Memphis, Flyway Film Fest and Camden to name just a few. Even the new Vimeo Festival (owned by a decidedly not small company) showed how well a “small” fest could work this year. Then we have the rise of indie film clubs and screening series, such as Cinema Speakeasy, Cinefist, the Pretentious Film Society, UnionDocs and similar efforts. I can’t even begin to name them all, and they make for a much more vibrant film culture. They’re also a great way for emerging filmmakers to build a support network, get exposure early on and develop a fan base - all good things.
  5. Doc-everything: The doc world is growing up, in so many ways. From an evolution in pitching markets (the GoodPitch) to new funding mechanisms (Gucci, Impact, Fledgling, etc) and old (Sundance, Participant, Ford) and outreach support (Film Sprout, Working Films) and even new festivals (DocNYC) taking stage while older ones (Sheffield, IDFA, HotDocs) continue to thrive, while new blogs (What not to Doc) enter to give great advice - the field is alright. Sure, it’s still tough to make a doc, and yes, there’s a bit too much focus on social issue docs, but this is arguably the healthiest part of the sector. Note: I am leaving off at least a hundred names that are part of this vibrant scene, and I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings. This is a testament to the health of the sector.
  6. We’re figuring out distribution: For real. You can’t go to a festival anymore without some panel on distribution. There’s a plethora of experts to help you (Broderick and Reiss, amongst others); lots of alternative options to explore (Argot, Tuckman, Variance, Cinema Purgatorio); new avenues for VOD and digital (Gravitas, Brainstorm Media); a few web platforms trying new models (IndieFlix) and yes, even some of those supposed dinosaurs, traditional distributors, are figuring out how to make some things work (trust me, ask a few people like Magnolia, for example). We haven’t solved this puzzle yet, but we have more minds focused on it than ever before, and many more options to explore.
  7. We’re thinking beyond the film: Sure, you might not be hip to transmedia, or may even hate it, but more and more artists are realizing that they are often creating a project, of which a film is just one component. This helps with expanding the story, giving more avenues for audience engagement and opening up potential revenue streams. While not everyone will be a Lance Weiler or Jeff Gomez, all of us can benefit from trying some new storytelling methods.
  8. VoDo: I’ve explained it here before, but essentially VoDo is a simple way to support filmmakers on pirate networks. But piracy is a bad thing, you say. “Waah” says I. Keep bashing your head against the wall hoping it will go away. In the meantime, smarter people have thought up a way to turn a possible negative into a definite positive - we could use more of such creative thinking.
  9. Filmmaker Magazine: Scott Macaulay somehow keeps improving this magazine, in spite of the competition and in spite of his busy producing schedule. Without picking on anyone, ahem, Filmmaker Magazine is quite literally the only trade publication worth reading anymore as an indie (I am not counting little guys like HTN (etc) in this mix, they rock). While the website could use some modernization (the content is good though), the magazine overall continues to serve up a great mix of reviews, news, analysis, new faces and new ideas. Thank goodness for that, because very few others are looking good in this race (to the bottom for most).
  10. Variety is behind a paywall. Boy, I’ve never heard people gripe more than when Variety cut off their free access. But here’s the deal folks - the same 5,000 people or so (maybe more, just guessing) that paid for this in the past will pay for access now. Does it make their Tweets pointless? Yes. Did it open up even more room for their new rivals? Yes. Did it get thousands of indies to stop obsessing over sh-t that they don’t need to know about? Yes, and that’s a darn good thing.
So, tell me what you think of these ten things - are they good? What did I miss? 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Upcoming NYFA Panel

Next week I'll be speaking at the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), and this talk will be more broadly about how artists can use new technology (as opposed to my usual focus on just filmmaker artists).  I highly recommend you check out NYFA's website for other great resources for both artists and organizations - job postings, fiscal sponsorship, education, arts advocacy, an artists directory, studio space, funding notices and more. They're a really great organization, with a lot of cred in the art world. Here's the description of the panel from their website, and registration info is below.

Brian will survey some key changes in the arts due to digital technology, and will give practical advice for using new technology for art making, dissemination of one’s work and building a sustainable career.
• How has culture changed, past and present, as a result of technology? 
• What are the new tools artists can use to experiment and put forth their vision? 
• What is transmedia, and how might it be used by filmmakers and other artists? 
• How have artists built sustainable careers, selling directly through social media? 
• What have been successful strategies for the use of these new tools? 

Most importantly, this seminar will argue that artists must harness new technology so that they shape the future of our field, instead of it being shaped for them. 

Date: October 28 Time: 6:00 to 8:00 PM 
$10 NYFA Artists (in advance) $15 General Admission (at the door only)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I'm Still Here as Transmedia

I know the news on this film has largely subsided, but here goes anyway:
I’m Still Here is not only a transmedia project, but it’s also one of the more successful ones ever made...at least this year.

I’m ready for the mobs of trans-experts to attack, but let me (for once) be brief. Wikipedia defines transmedia storytelling as:

In Transmedia storytelling, content becomes invasive and fully permeates the audience's lifestyle. A transmedia project develops storytelling across multiple forms of media in order to have different "entry points" in the story; entry-points with a unique and independent lifespan but with a definite role in the big narrative scheme.

Now we can argue if this is correct, but since we can all contribute to the definition at Wikipedia, for now, this definition will be considered communal. So, to me, I’m Still Here was a story that unfolded across multiple media - television shows, tabloid news, websites, traditional newspapers and eventually a movie. There were rap songs, poems, drug-filled ARG, er, escapades.  Joaquin’s performance was ongoing, pervasive and in a sense it was an ultimate ARG that no one was even sure whether they were participating in it or not. I haven’t looked too far, but I’m sure someone has even created a comic or animation about it. Each of these things was a story entry-point, and could engage audiences with the story in different ways. At minimum, it engaged many audiences in trying to figure out whether it was real, fiction, a bad drug trip or some combination of all of these.

So, how is this not transmedia? (I’m sure I’ll hear in the comments or offline....)

One of the most successful? Definitely not in terms of box office. But if we also look at success by how well people believed in and interacted with (even debated) the story-line, it was a huge success. Same with criteria such as media impressions, entering the cultural conversation, being uber-meta, etc.

Some might say it’s just a hoax, or a mock-u-mentary or doc or just plain stupid. But I think transmedia can be many things, and it might just be that something like I’m Still Here qualifies. Sure, this was an artful hoax, but why can’t a hoax be transmedia? Does the creator have to personally create all the platforms the story unfolds upon for it to be transmedia? Or can they create a situation where even the news as “reported” by someone else becomes part of the experience? Some might argue that the story has to motivate you to participate, but I think plenty of people participated in this by talking about it, sharing it with others and paying for a ticket (ok, maybe 5 people did that).

I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise, so please disabuse me of this notion if you think I’m terribly wrong. To be honest, I’ve been wondering for a month why no one has written about this yet - in my googling, I’ve not found anything (but again, tell me if I’m wrong). The closest thing I’ve found on this subject was Henry Jenkins writing about LonelyGirl 15 (back in 2006, mind you) and the relation of the “hoax” story to epistolary fiction. He wrote:

The content of earlier epistolary novels turned readers into armchair detectives and amateur psychologists, piecing together the events of the story from multiple, fragmentary, and sometimes contradictory, always subjective, accounts. These ARGs take on a more public dimension, exploring conspiracies or mysteries which exploit the expansive potential of the transmedia environment. Though read in private, these early novels became the focus of parlor room discussions as people compared notes about the characters and their situations. ARGS today offer a very similar experience of mutual debate and collaborative interpretation for a society just beginning to experiment with what cybertheorist Pierre Levy calls collective intelligence.

He too brought up that most people would think you need to push the audience to act, to do something.  As he wrote:

This is the nature of art (fictional or nonfictional) in the age of collective intelligence: the work provokes us, incites us into action. Indeed, as an art project, Lonelygirl15 seems designed to encourage our participation. Yet we don't know what we are supposed to do if we do not correctly identify the genre within which the text operates: do we dig deeper into the text in search of clues (as in the case of an ARG) or do we go beyond the text in search of reality (as in the case of reality spoiling)? In this case, the public's uncertainty about the status of these images made figuring out the source of these messages the central task. The mystery overwhelmed the content -- perhaps more than the art students anticipated and forced them to out themselves so that we might hopefully engage with their work on another level.

In fact, we’ve been seeing a lot of these “in-between” docs that straddle the line of documentary and fiction, and thereby require us to get more involved as viewers in figuring out the “puzzle” of just how real they are. Jenkins noted: “In other words, there seems to be a fascination with blurry categories at moments of media in transition -- it is one of the ways we try to apply evolving skills in a context where the categories that organize our culture are in flux.” So perhaps as we straddle this line, we’ll get some hybrid forms that become more than just a movie and straddle into transmedia territory.

In a hypothetical debate, I can see arguing the other side - that it’s not transmedia, just a good performance, but more than anything I think arguing this point might help better define the term for all of us.

Until then, I’m calling this one transmedia.

Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mimi and Eunice and Nina Paley

I bumped into Nina Paley the other night and she handed me a cool new comic she's doing called Mimi and Eunice. Like her past work, it's pretty amazing. Here's one of my favorite panels:


But don't worry, they aren't all about piracy. Here's another great one:


Per usual, Nina is releasing this work naturally. Some would call it through creative commons, or copy-left, but I say naturally because it's just the common-sensical, natural way such creativity should be put out there, shared and (hopefully) when liked, compensated. Exploring the site, I also found this great video she did for the EFF. What a creative way to summate many of the troubles of the web today. Check it out and if you like it, support her work! (honesty alert: I haven't yet, but plan to do so myself). If I ran a foundation that supported freedom of expression, artistry, innovation, creativity and culture, public service media and had an emphasis on policy, I'd give her a huge grant since she covers all my bases....creatively. But I don't.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Pixel Cross Media Forum

I'm en route to the Power to the Pixel Cross Media Forum right now. It's a great event, one of a kind really, focused on Cross Media or Transmedia practice. There are lots of great speakers, people pitching projects, workshops and meetings and even a think-tank later in the week. You can watch it live here. I've been meaning to give it a plug for awhile, and now that my flight is delayed for about..oh...4 hours due to crazy hail in NYC, I guess I get to plug it more now!

I've written about the Pixel Lab a couple of times. I've also spoken there a bit, with this presentation on new business models being my most recent. I'm a big fan of everything the Pixel folks do, and highly recommend that you follow them online and try to attend an event in the future. I'm not speaking, but I am meeting with several producers, catching up with my friends/class from the Lab this summer and doing some meetings in London. I also hope to attend the amazing show by Ai Weiwei at the Tate Modern before I leave. I can say it's amazing already, as I've seen some video footage already from this film that's launching soon from Muse Film & Television. If you are based in London, check out the Pixel Lab, the Ai Weiwei show and drop me a note on Twitter to catch up!

Vimeo Fest speech on collaboration

I had a great time speaking with Ted Hope at the Vimeo Festival and Awards this Saturday. I'm sure they will post video of our talks and conversation soon, but until then here's a rough transcript of my speech. Ted and I both spoke for 10 minutes, conversed for about 30 and then opened it up to Q&A, which was documented here (thanks to No Film School). I didn't read directly from this speech, so this is just a close approximation. A quick other note: Jeremy Boxer did a great job of curating some really great talks, panels and workshops. Kudos to him and the entire Vimeo team. The awards were spectacular, and I highly recommend checking them out online. I can't wait to see Bruce Sterling's speech on video and the awards ceremony and outdoor projections on the IAC center were pretty amazing as well. Here's the speech:

Thanks to Vimeo and Jeremy Boxer for having me here today, to talk about the future of film and media. We’ll probably get to the future soon, but I want to take a quick detour to the past. Today is about inspiration, yesterday was about innovation. When I look to get inspired about innovation, I look back at the history of avant-garde art and how they uniquely combined technology, theory, artistic practice and new business models to make something innovative and inspiring.

As I look back at all of the art work that engages me, that I find innovative, inspiring and transformative, I realize that they all share some common traits. Whether it’s Impressionism, Surrealism, Dada, Fluxus, the French New Wave or early American indie cinema - I find a few common traits -
Technology - using the latest tech;
Obsession with the art form;
Quoting, remix;
Dialogue with the community;
Participation - these works demand more of the audience.

Let’s look at the auteurs of the French New Wave. People associate the term “auteur” with the single genius. But let’s look at just one of those singular geniuses - Godard. He started as an obsessive watcher of films. He watched everything, was in the cinema all day, could quote his favorite scenes to his cinematographer. He was a critic first, commenting on the films, and then a filmmaker. He made his films in dialogue with the whole of film history - quoting it, sampling it really. (Note - today he is supporting a French pirate, because Godard says there is no such thing as intellectual property.) He used the latest technology - smaller, lightweight 16mm cameras that allowed him to shoot in new ways and tight quarters. He made up a new style by mashing together everyone else’s.

It was also very much about collaboration. He couldn’t raise money for Breathless so he had to go begging for money and a story from Truffaut. He critiqued his friend’s films, they critiqued his. The entire French New Wave worked this way. They were collaborating, watching movies together, sharing scripts, sharing actors and story devices and they were participatory. An audience member couldn’t watch the films the same lazy way - you had to get involved. They were jarring, new and meant for dialogue. And they sparked a genuine dialogue about the cinema, one that was passionate and in dialogue with the auteurs themselves, even if it was carried out in print not online.

This dialogue circled back on itself - filmmakers responding to other filmmakers, to the news, to culture, to the critics to their audiences. The cinema it created was cumulative, iterative and collaborative.

I was reading Lewis Hyde’s Common as Air the other day, and he notes that creativity in science is “almost always cumulative and collaborative. It proceeds collectively and thus thrives when barriers to collectivity are reduced.” And what has happened online is nothing if not  the removing of barriers to our collaboration and our creativity.

Hyde goes on to talk about how we are “collective beings .... who will thrive if there is a lively commons of art and ideas and who will disappear if there isn’t.”

That’s what we have today. It’s what Vimeo allows - a community of creators, collaborating, sharing, building a cumulative art form that comments on everything that came before it and creates something still new and worth sharing. Your audience is other creators and as creators we are also the audience.

We have access to tools to tell our stories for cheaper than ever before, and we can get it to an audience cheaper than ever before. We can talk to one another about the art form, about new technologies and about new artistic practices. We can find our fans, build them into an audience and enter into a dialogue with them about our art. We can involve them in the story through transmedia in entirely new ways. We can build a community, if not a movement.

This is what Hollywood fears - you aren’t independent anymore. You are a collective and you can collaborate and create things that rival what they can make - not in special effects or stars, but in creativity and reach. You don’t need them anymore - that doesn’t mean they’re gonna go away, but rather that we can build an ecosystem of creativity where they aren’t irrelevant, but where their output is just more fodder for us to build upon.

While many have been wringing their hands for the last two years about the bad business of film, we’re actually facing a great moment of opportunity. Never before have so many forces come together to allow creators to reach their audience. Never before could audiences participate with creators as they can now.

But this will only work if you take on the responsibilities that come with these new opportunities. You can’t just talk to your audience - you have to actually talk with them, be participatory. You also have to be vigilant - lots of powerful interests don’t like all this new stuff. It might suck to learn about and get involved with policy, but if you want this creativity to flourish you have to fight against the building of barriers -  and that means being active in the fight for net neutrality.

Most importantly, however, you need to collaborate. Is indie film dead? Who knows, who cares. What this festival has shown, however is that creativity is live and well. If we all act together, nothing can stop us from building a much more exciting future than what we’ve thus far had. I think we need a collaborative movement to change indie film and I think we’re already building that here today.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Adventures in Plymptoons!

Thanks to the power of social networking, I was alerted that one of my online "friends" - someone I've never met, but hope to someday - is doing a pretty cool documentary project on the great animator (and real world acquaintance, if not friend) Bill Plympton. The filmmaker, Alexia Anastasio, sent me to her Kickstarter campaign where she is trying to raise funds for the film.

I get a lot of these emails, and while I check them all out, I rarely have time to give a plug even to the good ones, but I watched her video and I really like it. It's also clear that she has the support of Plympton - he's very much a part of her campaign, so I figured I'd tweet about it soon. Today I woke up, however, and saw this great post from Bill himself over at Ted Hope's blog where he talks about being a serious animator and the trials and tribulations of releasing a good, grown-up animation today. I highly recommend you read his post, and it made me decide to give a plug today to this documentary.

So, check out the Kickstarter campaign. Kick in some dough (as opposed to Do) if you have the inclination. Then, go out to the IFC Center and spend some dough watching Bill's film, Idiots and Angels. If you like it, tell others, so they spend their dough and Bill can make back the money he is spending on the release. You'll get an added treat - the film is prefaced by a short Bill made called The Cow who wanted to be a Hamburger, which I saw when I was on the jury for short films at the Florida Film Festival. I loved it, the jury loved it - we gave it a prize, which qualified it for Academy consideration. You'll like the whole thing and will, hopefully, decide to go back and give more money to Alexia's Kickstarter campaign and then see Idiots and Angels again. Or so I hope.

Here's her campaign:

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Made to Persuade - Orphans 8

My friend Dan Streible over at the NYU MIAP program has sent out the call for proposals for the 8th Orphan Film Symposium - Made to Persuade. The Orphan Film Symposium has quickly become a must-attend event for all cinephiles, showcasing many interesting "neglected" films and videos. If you are a scholar or just anyone interested in this area, I recommend sending in a proposal. 

If you are a filmmaker, make sure to check out the Helen Hill award - which gives you a travel stipend to come to the conference and present your work.  Pretty cool.

From the press release: 

NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Department of Cinema Studies and the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program present the

8th Orphan Film Symposium
April 11-14, 2012
Museum of the Moving Image
Astoria, NY

NYU and Museum of the Moving Image host the 8th Orphan Film Symposium, the biennial gathering of scholars, archivists, curators, and media artists devoted to saving, screening, and studying neglected moving images. The renovated museum houses a 264-seat theater, video galleries, and digital projection areas throughout its new space.

Call  for  Presentations:   “Made to Persuade”

The theme of “Orphans 8” is persuasion. What neglected film and video productions have influenced thought, opinion, behavior, and perception (or tried to)? What “pictures in our heads” come from moving pictures and sounds that were made to persuade?

Among the many forms under consideration are: political campaign ads, advertising films, television commercials, newsreels, newsfilm, religious pictures, sponsored and sales films, promos, PR, PSAs, EPKs, military productions, clandestine or subversive work, trailers, teasers, snipes, documentaries, essay films, public affairs and public access programs, activist and advocacy pieces, propaganda, issue ads, culture jamming, intelligence work, stereotypes and counterstereotypes, censored footage, indoctrination and training films, triggers, guidance and educational films, amateur samizdat, and related orphan films and media.

Selected speakers will lead presentations, screenings, and discussions. Proposals that include the screening of rare, rediscovered, or recently preserved works are highly encouraged. New media productions using archival material are sought as well, as are presentations about copyright issues and technical aspects of moving image archiving and preservation.

Send proposals (500 words or less) to dan dot streible at nyu dot edu

Mail proposals that include DVDs to
Dan Streible, NYU Cinema Studies
721 Broadway, 6th floor, New York, NY 10003
Early review begins 1.11.11.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Vo.Do and Distribution

I had the distinct pleasure to moderate a post-screening discussion and Q and A with director Gregory Bayne and screenwriter and actor J. Reuben Appelman after the screening of their film Person of Interest at the Open Video Conference. I highly recommend both the film and the conference (it's over, so check it out next year if you missed it), but what I really liked was all of the news from VoDo - the P2P distribution system for indies.

In the spirit of seeing opportunity where others see a threat, Jamie King and friends have created a pretty spectacular little system for harnessing the power of P2P file sharing, the generosity of the Commons and the apparently ubiquitous human desire to collect meaningless rewards in order to benefit those indies who give their films away for free. On purpose, that is, because all of you give them away for free like it or not. Once a film is shot it will be pirated. If it isn't, you have proof that it sucks because no one bothered to pirate it. With VoDo, however, all hand-wringing over this situation stops.