Wednesday, February 23, 2011

DIY Days - Reclaiming DIY: it’s not JUST a business model

I'll be speaking on March 5, 2011 at DIY Days in New York City at the New School. It's a great event, and I'm really looking forward to this year's conference. Best of all - it's free! That's right, but you have to register. There are a lot of great speakers, and then you have me. Lance Weiler, the organizer, asked me to do something that really pushes people a bit, and I chose this topic:

Reclaiming DIY: It's not JUST a business model.

Soon after the recent film business implosion, a lot of people came to see that DIY made pretty good sense as a business model. But DIY was never JUST a way to make money: it’s always been an inherently political act tied intimately to the ideologies of punk rock. Doing DIY without the politics isn’t DIY. As the world changes in numerous ways before our eyes, the voices of true DIY artists are needed more than ever before. This talk will put the politics back in DIY.

That's the description we're putting online soon. I didn't add this, but I'll also be speaking a bit about how I think all DIY artists need to think of grabbing the social issue mantle back from the doc world. Not that docs aren't great, and I do love them, but it bugs me that anytime you talk about social action, or covering something of social importance, everyone thinks it has to be a doc. DIY is also about breaking down barriers , and DIY makers who aren't doc makers can bust these confines and do serious social change media without being so serious. Or, so I think. Tell me what you think, and/or what you'd like to hear more about. I'm planning my talk now, so it would be great to hear from you while I'm developing it.

Want to learn more about DIY Days? Watch the trailer:

DIY Days from The Sabi Company on Vimeo.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Making it Happen: Vimeo Conversation

Late last year, Vimeo invited Ted Hope and I to speak at their awesome Vimeo Festival. We decided to each give a brief speech followed by a conversation about the future of film and media - or a few of those possible futures. The whole thing was one hour long, and is embedded below, but for those of you with less time on your hands, the trusty folks at Vimeo have edited together a little highlights reel that clocks in under ten minutes. If you take the time to watch either video, I'd welcome your thoughts and feedback.

Making it Happen (Highlights) from Vimeo Festival on Vimeo.

Here's the full length version

Making it Happen from Vimeo Festival on Vimeo.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Save the NEA

It's that time again, when we get to play another round of "Culture Wars: Extreme Nincompoop, Edition X." That's right, you thought that we were done with the cretins who think the arts are a bunch of fluff and that they shouldn't be supported by tax payers money, but we're not. They were just napping, folks, and the culture war still rages.

I'm not going to explain why the arts matter, how little of our money goes to support the arts, how they finally have a rocking staff in place at the NEA or any of those things. I'm assuming my readers aren't dumb (try getting that respect from the regular media) and that you're up to speed on such matters, but perhaps have been so consumed keeping track of the revolutions going on in the Middle East via Al Jazeera English that you have missed the latest developments. That's the only reason I can think of for why we're not hearing more about this from the arts community. Hmmm, what's going on here.

Okay, anyway, here's the quick and dirty: Many State arts agencies have been recently cut - yes, entirely - in a few states and a few more are rumored to be following shortly. Now, the Republicans are threatening to eliminate the NEA entirely (and CPB) from the budget. Yes, it's true. You can read about it here and get active here (just don't expect a hip website or interesting campaign, mind you). I'm also linking some text Sundance sent out about it below.

You should care, you should get active, but I think we need to do more. I'm worried, however, that we can't or won't have much real impact, even if we keep their funding. I've been arguing that arts organizations need to prepare for this for quite some time, and I even wrote a chapter about it recently. I've suggested the field needs to make radical change, because such cuts aren't going to stop. I believe this strongly, yet I consistently get responses back from otherwise rational beings that I am supporting the Republican's arguments by calling attention to these problems and arguing we should change our business models. Good grief people - pointing out reality is not supporting their arguments, it is being practical. Part of that realism involves noticing things like the fact that when Obama came to office he appointed a big, gigantic brain trust of arts people to suggest policy changes. They recommended big things. Nothing happened. It means realizing that if Americans for the Arts only has an email campaign list of 50,000 people (thanks Leonard), we're in serious trouble. It means that everything we've done in terms of advocacy for the arts has largely been a waste of time.

We need more creative responses. Perhaps we need to put the artists in charge for once. Perhaps we need to recognize that not only do we need to rally and support the NEA, but that culture might just be the only thing that can pull us out of the continuing malaise in this country (you know, the one everyone but Wall Street is still in) and will definitely be the only thing remembered about this country when we're no longer relevant (I give that about 50 years, if it didn't pass 5 years ago....).

Yes, that's why the Republicans want to kill art - because it truly matters more than any of their bloviating nonsense. So, I'd really like to hear some good ideas for how to change the conversation. How to win this war. How to get a video about the need for the arts to go as viral as some kid biting his brother's finger. How to get a Kickstarter campaign started for a new, true Endowment for the Arts untouched by the grubby hands of either party.

That would be pretty cool.

In the meantime, listen to Keri Putnam of Sundance and do the following (from her email blast):


What you and I can and must do:

  1. Call your member of Congress NOW at 202-225-3121 and tell your representative that you oppose any and all amendments to cut NEA funding.

    If you are uncertain as to who represents you in Congress, click here.

    Remember! Congress is made up of ELECTED officials. They are there to represent us.

  2. Share this email with your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues... everyone.

On behalf of the staff, alumni and Board of Trustees of Sundance Institute, and artists everywhere, thank you for taking action."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Beyond the Game, VoDo and Cinema Purgatorio

As I've mentioned before, I am a big fan of VoDo - the folks who are using PTP sharing as a way to get money to filmmakers. If you haven't checked them out, you should, but the short version is that you can get their films for free, just like a pirate does, but they've built an easy mechanism for you to donate money to that film. They've also built a reward system, the Do, for those who share these films via social networks, spend money on films, etc.

I've not written as much (at all?) about another company I like, called Cinema Purgatorio (CP for short). CP was founded by Ray Privett, a very smart, capable distributor who is a true filmmaker's friend. He has done everything from running the Pioneer Theater (and making sure filmmakers got paid there before it went downhill (without him)), to working with distributors, theaters, etc. CP is a filmmaker friendly distributor - a very rare thing - and he prefers to work with the quirky, little films (usually) that need special care and attention in finding their way in the marketplace. And he does an amazing job with these films. Check out his website, he's currently working on Zenith, a great transmedia project by Vlad Nikolic, and he's done films like Christmas on Mars featuring the Flaming Lips and Bjork's Voltaic concert film. His website sums up his company like this:

"Cinema Purgatorio brings movies to select audiences via custom-crafted theatrical and semi-theatrical releases (including press campaigns), and mass audiences via output VOD and disc deals. Every season, Cinema Purgatorio films screen publicly in more than 40 cities; be on the VOD menus of over 10 million homes; and are released far and wide on DVD and Blu-Ray."

Well, now these two great companies are working together and CP also brings films to bajillions of homes through VoDo! You can now get the CP film Beyond the Game by Jos de Putter on Vodo. The film, which I haven't yet seen, follows two of the best players of World of Warcraft....and that's no easy feat to accomplish. Here's the film's description:

"Warcraft III is the most popular real-time strategy computer game, thrilling over 2.5 million North Americans and 10 million people worldwide everyday. The game creates an alternate universe, where players challenge each other with a mythically-charged online world of humans, orcs, the undead, knights, and elves.

In Beyond the Game, we meet - in real life and within the game - two of the game's leading figures, known as Grubby and Sky. Acclaimed filmmaker Jos de Putter tracks these Kasparovs of a new generation and a new game across the world all the way to the world championships in Seattle."

I really like that Ray is willing to take a chance and experiment with this new distribution model. Most people are afraid of piracy and PTP, but let's face it, your film is going to get pirated no matter what - fighting it won't help, so you might as well turn it into a business model. It also gets a film seen: Beyond the Game already has had over 300,000 downloads! That's some serious viewer numbers for a doc, and by using VoDO, they have a chance to help invent new business models as well. As Ray/CP describes on the VoDo page:

"Support of this release helps Cinema Purgatorio with its next generation strategies to bring movies to theatres, discs, and downloads, seeing downloads (and torrents) as a "legitimate" release method."

Amen. I hope it works!

You can get the film at VoDo or pay for it directly, and support a filmmaker and a film curator/distributor/innovator at Cinema Purgatorio.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Nonprofit Arts Zombies

For those of you not following the conversation about the state of the arts in the US, you may not realize that a big war is raging right now with the hashtag #SupplyDemand. Say what?? You ask. That's the running hash-tag due to the bomb (s) that NEA chairman Rocco Landesman dropped during a recent conversation at a convening called #NewPlay Convening. Now, just because this hasn't run up the hashtag pole on Twitter doesn't mean it hasn't been heated. Sitting in front of tons of performing arts professionals, Landesman thought it would be a good time to point out that perhaps we have too many nonprofit theaters in the country. He was right, but he didn't go far enough - there's too many arts nonprofits period.

Trisha Mead sums up the conversation best at the Arena Stage blog, and here's the relevant excerpt:

"Here's a recipe for a hell of a conceptual fist fight. Convene 100 or so people from around the nation, each of whose mission in life is to grow the field of new work for the theater. Each of whom represents an organization that is fighting to generate new audiences, new ideas, new structures for expanding the American theater.

Then place a guy in cowboy boots in front of them (who happens to control the largest pool of public arts funding in the U.S.) and have him baldly state, "Look. You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply."" (italics mine)

He went on to cite some statistics and explain his comments further in a blog post....yes, the NEA has a blog, who knew?! The post is worth reading, and if you care about this stuff, you should probably also read the good responses from Diane Ragsdale, Edward Clapp, and Aaron Andersen (and the negative reactions). But most of the reactions I've found online seem to be that Landesman should never have thought such thoughts, especially as someone in a public role of supporter of the Nation's art, and that no one should ever believe we have too many nonprofits in theater-ville.

Many people argued against Landesman that you can increase demand, and perhaps this is true. I tend to believe so in my little indie film world, so let's just concede that yes, perhaps you can increase demand. Doesn't matter though, as you'd have to completely reshape the sector, if not the world, to increase demand to a level that would sustainably support the number of nonprofit theaters we have in the US. On top of that, the same can be said about nonprofit arts organizations generally - again, too many.

Let's just look at my arena - media arts. By my count, there are thirty-nine media arts organizations in New York City alone that are members of NAMAC, the organization which represents nonprofit media arts organizations. Not every media arts organization joins NAMAC, however, and some of the bigger names in the sector aren't on the list. Neither are the majority of the many, many film festivals in the City. Now, we can all probably agree that having a diversity of voices is great, and that audiences and filmmakers in NYC are well-served by having so many options for seeing work or getting support. But more than a few of these organizations are on a constant near-death watch, struggling financially and yes, artistically. A few are doing well, but trust me, that's a very few and even some you might think are healthy will tell you off the record that they struggle to make payroll regularly. I'm also willing to bet that there are more than a few that are doing fine, and doing good work, but work that is duplicative of something being done by someone else and that might be stronger if done together.

I've often wished that a foundation, or group of foundations, would put forth a fund to support one big roll-up in the sector. That's right, merge multiple organizations together, and even let one organization acquire the good assets of a few others and shut the rest of their business(es) down. There's quite simply no financial incentive for this now, and nonprofits are hard to put to rest. I wrote a bit about this in my chapter for 20 Under 40. Here's an excerpt from that:

"Unfortunately, it’s not a stretch to say the nonprofit arts sector looks like a field of zombies—undead, potentially harmful shells of their former selves, haunting the landscape, unable to live or to die. Quite simply, funders, board members, and leaders in the arts need to take a hard look at reality and make some painful decisions. More organizations need to merge to save costs, end duplicative services, and achieve greater impact. Many more organizations need to be shut down entirely, having either served their mission well or having long ago abandoned any real hope of having a meaningful impact. These conversations aren’t easy, but they need to be had on a field-wide level. Even those organizations that are healthy enough to survive will need to consider downsizing their costs and refocusing their energies as the dwindling support for the cultural sector is likely a permanent shift away from robust public, foundation, and individual financing of the arts."

That's right - things aren't getting better anytime soon. I'm not a fan of it, and I explain my reasoning more fully in the chapter, but the arts will continue to attract less support from all sectors, even as the US economy stabilizes. We need to have these hard conversations, and Landesman was right to kick start the debate. I'd much rather have it started within the sector, and for us to find a solution, than for us to be forced into a solution - and that time is coming near. I'm not arguing that every nonprofit arts organization needs to be merged or shut down, nor am I willing to publicly share which ones I think should go. These decisions need to be made by the leadership of the arts organizations themselves. They can be prodded and funded in these endeavors by foundations, but they shouldn't be forced. That doesn't mean, however, that we shouldn't have the conversation.

It's not necessarily a bad conversation to be in the middle of either. As I also say in my chapter, "Mergers are often thought of as drastic measures to cut expenses or end duplicative services, but they can also be planned for to better prepare organizations to face new economic and cultural realities, fill strategic gaps, and lead to new programming and greater services. In fact, a downsized arts sector does not necessarily equal less artistic programming. As many arts administrators know, budget tightening can often help one to focus on mission and expand services and programming through new, creative solutions." (Italics added). That's what we need to focus on - new, creative solutions - in these conversations. I'll be adding my own ideas to the debate, and hopefully the conversation, as it moves forward, but welcome your ideas in the comments below.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

I Want My AJE

Al Jazeera in Americaphoto © 2011 Mike Licht | more info (via: Wylio)While I'm on this whole Egypt obsession, let me bring up another new obsession of mine - Al Jazeera English. Yes, I've known about it before - they've actually been active in the indie doc space for awhile, aside from the other reasons to know about them - but I've never watched them as much as I have this past week. And....they're good. I want them on my cable line-up now.

In fact, AJE has not just had great coverage, it's been just about the only coverage you can find that is consistent, on the ground and not moderated by a bunch of doughy white people sitting in America. Jeesh. (and I'm allowed to say that because I am one). Seriously, couldn't any of the networks or news channels have found a few more Egyptian experts. You know, there's a rumor that some of them speak English and have degrees and what not. Look, we're not talking about some out of the way place that hasn't been our ally for like decades with just a few people running around up in arms. 80+ Million people are protesting in a modern country that has loads of good journalists, and we can only find a handful to put on the air.....shameful.

But not as embarrassing as having to watch CNN, Fox and MSNBC in comparison to the professionalism of AJE. I know that everyone already knows just how bad cable news is, but this week really put some extra perspective on the situation. I turn on AJE - live coverage of the most important news event of the week, if not the decade, and with great commentary and coverage. Heck, they even cut off important topics to cover....more important topics happening elsewhere in Cairo or some other Egyptian location, as opposed to some inane topic like Charlie Sheen doing more blow on some hooker's back. They ask the interviewees tough questions and act something like reporters.

I turn on CNN, and I got 5 minutes of former US Ambassadors sitting on the ground here pontificating about things they don't understand and an interview with an American who was so relieved to get out of the country. Then, a big pitch for me to vote on what story makes the news. Wow, CNN is with it man, they crowd-source the news? Who knew? And my story options....
Vote for:
1. Babies addicted to opium
2. Man sleeps with tiger
3. Nude woman protesters in the Ukraine.

I'm not making this up. They even tossed to the commercial with a quick set of images of those nude women protesters just in case I wasn't sure what to vote for. I forgot all about Cairo. Cured.

I don't generally watch any of our news networks unless there is a major global event. Even then, I usually switch over to the BBC or Guardian online for a better take on affairs. The important thing is, however, if I wanted to watch them, I could. Al Jazeera English....nope. I haven't researched this, but my understanding is there's been a lot of politics behind keeping them off most cable networks. While it has great carriage everywhere else, here in the good ol' democratic US of A it is limited pretty much to one satellite network. This is ridiculous and I hope they make progress in getting more carriage now that millions of Americans have been watching them online during these events. As I was writing this, I couldn't help thinking how much this state of affairs underlines the importance of net neutrality. I could write something pithy about it, but I found this on Wendy Seltzer's blog today and think she says it best:

"Moreover, the situation illustrates the value of open Internet here at home. Al Jazeera English, the television broadcaster giving the most thorough coverage of the Egyptian events — despite having its Cairo bureau closed and six of its journalists jailed — is not available through most US cable providers. Ryan Grim on Huffington Post calls this a “blackout”, but thanks to the Internet, that need not be a barrier. I’m watching Al Jazeera English on my computer, through pipes that can carry video, audio, and text of my choice. (So it’s disturbing to see Chris Sacca tweet that he “worked at an Akamai competitor when Al-Jazeera sought CDN [content delivery network: local caching that can help improve network delliery] help in 2002. US Gov made clear to us that we would suffer.” Cable’s limited-purpose pipe, where subscribers get only bundles chosen from among the channels their providers offer, seems an anachronism in the Internet age. We may still want to watch video (and not only create it ourselves), but we need Net neutrality’s assurance that we can get it from any source: peer, professional, or dissident."

Now, I have to note that many people complain about their anti-Israel bias. This is likely true and shameful, but to be expected given their base. I haven't witnessed this during my watching, but I believe this could happen. That said, it shouldn't stop our ability to watch it in the US. I've heard lots of horrible things, and seen lots of bias, on our existing channels, so we shouldn't stop AJE just because of this. The NYT mentions this in an article which came out today. I wrote this piece yesterday, but think the article is a good read if you want to contemplate what we do and don't allow on US television a bit more.

Watch the protests live on Al Jazeera English here.
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