Archive for January, 2010

Sundance and Digital Distribution Links

There continues to be even more conversation about the changing models of digital distribution and their implications for independent film.  A number of people in my daily blog reads cited Brooks Barnes’ New York Times article about new distribution models and the challenges that indie filmmakers have in reaching niche audiences.  Specifically, the discussion focuses on the decision of many filmmakers to bypass the traditional plan of playing to theaters first before going online or on-demand.  Meanwhile, Ted Hope continues to discuss his optimism that indie filmmakers can create “event” films that will inspire conversation and ongoing engagement, long after the film has screened, whether through transmedia storytelling, or through other forms of participation.

NewTeeVee reports that the agreement between YouTube and Sundance to offer streaming rentals of some recent Sundance faves seems to have been a “failure,” as the five available films received a combined 1,500 views.  At $3.99/per view, that works out to about $1,200 per movie.  There are other factors to consider here: many users may have regarded YouTube as an undesirable venue for watching feature-length indie films. It’s also worth considering the idea that these YouTube screenings could serve as promotion for future distribution, especially if there was strong word-of-mouth for some of the films.  I didn’t have time to see any of the five, which may suggest that the viewing “window” of 48 hours was too short.  One of the complaints about theatrical is that indie films are often only given a day or two to build an audience in theaters before being pulled.  Films shown online may need similar time to build an audience.  Just a hunch.

Via Scott Macauley, a reminder that Cinetic Film Buff, the distribution label for Cinetic Rights Management, has launched.  The site helps direct you to independent films, such as Lemonade, Owning the Weather, and Big Fan, that are available online or on-demand.  Macauley also points to the site’s blog, which covers issues pertaining to digital distribution.

But as some of these conversations continue to play out (and even though I’d like to see many of these distribution models work), I’m beginning to find Deenah Vollmer’s observation about Sundance lingo a little more convincing, especially her redefinition of “cinematic rebellion,” It is “the theme of Sundance this year and apparently means, at least some of the time, what happens when reasonably known filmmakers make medium-budget films using A-list actors about hegemonic countercultural figures or people who smoke and swear a lot.”  This should not imply that there aren’t many truly great indie films playing there this year, but that the attempt to reclaim the language of “rebellion” sometimes seems to ring a little false.  Maybe we need a new Devil’s Dictionary for the entertainment industry.

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Blogs, Twitter, and Wikis: eCitizenship at Fayetteville State

Just a quick reminder that tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 PM, I will be giving a revised version of my talk, “Blogs, Twitter, and Wikis” in Fayetteville State’s Continuing Education Building.  If you are a student or faculty member interested in these issues, I’d be delighted for you to drop by.  I gave a much shorter version of this talk at our Mid-Year Conference, but this will allow me to cover quite a bit more material.

It will also allow me to show the legendary Stephen Colbert commentary on “wikiality,” which still holds up incredibly well, three and a half years after it first appeared on the air (hard to believe it was that long ago).  Hope to see some of you there.

Update: I’m also hoping to bounce briefly off of the debates about the Siegenthaler controversy before moving into a more specific discussion about wikis and even Wikipedia can be used productively as teaching tools in the college classroom.

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Education and Participatory Documentary

As many readers will know, one of the documentaries at this year’s Sundance is Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman, which traces and seeks to explain the crisis in public education in the United States.  Given my role as a professor who often works with future teachers, I’m acutely aware of many of the debates swirling around public education in this country, so I’ll be interested to see how the film plays out.  The doc has already been picked up by Paramount Vantage, so it should hopefully gain a fairly wide release.

Guggenheim was also interviewed for a short video on Sundance’s YouTube channel where he discusses his own reluctance to put his children in public schools despite his belief in their importance and his focus on the educational methods of Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Also worth noting, Participant Media, which also supported Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth, is already preparing the social and political activism component of the film.

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Rethinking Indie Distribution

This year at both Sundance and Slamdance, many of the discussions have focused on the issue of the changing distribution landscape, a conversation that has been playing out in a variety of venues over the last several years, both in response to the crisis in the Indiewood model and to the multiplication of distribution channels.

One of the most thorough explorations of these discussions comes from Scott Macauley in the Filmmaker Magazine blog, where he reports on the Slamdance/Open Video Coalition summit.  Among other details, Scott points out what seems to becoming conventional wisdom about the changing role of festivals as more and more films receive “online premieres” or use social networking tools in order to build interest, with Slamdance director Paul Rachman arguing that film festivals should serve as educational and networking opportunities: “Filmmakers should come to a film festival and leave completely educated the morning after they return home… A filmmaker should go back home, start emailing, picking up the phone, getting in a van and going somewhere with their film.”

But as usual, one of the major emphases from Jon Reiss, Lance Weiler, and others was the emphasis on transmedia storytelling and the need for indie filmmakers to create experiences that will operate on multiple platforms.  Christy Dena cited Peter Greenaway as an example to suggest that this can include art installations, in addition to web series.

Scott also reports on the New Breed videos, which are also asking a number of similar questions about the future of distribution.  Interview subjects include Brian Newman, Dan Mirvish, Jon Reiss and Ira Deutchman (here is part one).

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Documenting Haiti

Like most people, my attention in recent days has been directed toward the earthquakes in Haiti and their aftermath: the rescue efforts, the struggles to survive, and the discussions of how to rebuild.  But although I find myself following the story attentively, I have been unable to shake my frustration with the exploitative coverage seen on U.S. television, both on national and cable news stations, and the lack of historical context offered in many of the stories we get.  Much of this has to do with the “liveness” of the story, the fact that the crisis is unfolding in real time, but as Melissa Click points out, once the initial crisis wears off, it is questionable whether the news media will continue to cover the story and provide vital historical background that could provide better information about the country’s political and economic history, details that are essential in garnering support for providing foreign aid.

With that in mind, I found Andrew O’Hehir’s discussion of Haiti’s Ciné Institute in Salon to be especially interesting. Ciné Institute is Haiti’s only existing film school, and although most of the school’s buildings were destroyed, the students have been filming virtually around the clock to help make people aware of the conditions in that country.  Their videos are anthologized on their Vimeo channel, creating what might be described as a “distributed documentary” about the earthquake, and although many of them are available only in the country’s native language, others include subtitles and other forms of English translation.

O’Hehir’s article is especially interesting in that he reports that the school seeks to “encourage the development of an indigenous and distinctive brand of Haitian cinema,” a task linked to the school’s attempts to avoid focusing merely on the “poverty and chaos,” but instead to focus on the nation’s resiliency.  As Haiti’s rebuilding efforts continue, we will need more stories and more institutions like these to keep the spotlight focused on the country, even after the aftershocks have subsided.

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Reinventing Film Festivals, Year Two

During last year’s Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals, I began to take notice of how both festivals were making tentative moves toward serving not merely as showcases for new independent films seeking distribution but as virtual distributors in their own right, providing online or video-on-demand access to selected films playing at their festivals.  The practice was a response to a struggling market for independent films and to the viability of online platforms such as YouTube, while traditional video retailers such as Blockbuster continue to struggle.  Now, in 2010, both festivals seem primed to expand their role as distributors, a change that may have intriguing implications for those of us who follow independent film.

Some of this change can be measured in the Sundance Next program, which highlights a number of ultra-low-budget and DIY films.  But there are a number of other changes worth tracking, including Slamdance’s decision to offer four films on demand via Microsoft’s Zune and Xbox systems.  Robert Redford’s keynote address also helped to define this new direction, highlighting the ability of Sundance to shape online distribution practices, essentially calling them “the future” of independent film.

To some extent, I am a little skeptical about this attempt to redefine Sundance.  Roger Ebert offers an astute reading of the Sundance program and promotional materials as an attempt to rebrand the festival as a “distribution business,” one that has its eyes set well beyond the Park City slopes where the festival is held, although it is important to note that the image of thousands of snow-covered indie film buffs crowding into theaters to catch the latest new discovery remains an important part of the “Sundance brand.”  Karina Longworth is even more explicit in identifying the NEXT sidebar as an attempt for Sundance to reclaim lost indie credibility:

If NEXT is partly a marketing gimmick — an institutional intervention to make it easier for a press corps easily distracted by shiny objects to care about starless films — perhaps it’s fitting that its first incarnation feels less like a revolution than a rebranding.

Karina goes on to criticize the NEXT selections for selecting films that already have a well-established pedigree–including Katie Aselton’s (The Puffy Chair) The Freebie–and that conform to relatively traditional indie film cliches including “sad-eyed boys on twinkly-scored road trips” (among others).

Matt Dentler is a little more optimistic and points to the recent New York Times article reporting on the deal between Sundance and YouTube to offer rentals of a small selection of films shown at the festival.  YouTube’s participation is connected to their emerging “Filmmakers Wanted” program that would allow budding filmmakers to make their content available for rental online.  And given that it’s often difficult for me to attend festivals or to have access to the wide array of independent films available in bigger cities, it’s certainly exciting to have what appears to be more options available than in the recent past.

On the one hand, all of these changes seem to fulfill the promise of “the long tail,” the idea that the web will open up distribution, allowing the independent artist to reach new audiences in unprecedented ways.  YouTube joins Netflix and other sites in building an immense online film library, but like Karina, I find myself feeling skeptical about how these new changes are being framed.  Robert Redford has described NEXT and online distribution as expanding the marketplace of ideas and providing documentaries more leverage for getting their ideas out to the world, and yet access to these films remains uneven in many cases.

Some of these questions have been addressed in a recent Baffler column by Astra Taylor, who challenges the ideologies of consumer and artistic liberation expressed by Chris Anderson (The Long Tail and Free) and others, and I find myself sympathetic to many of her claims about the “unlikely alliance” between “big business evangelists and smash-the-state anarchists,” a relationship that has often made me uneasy when I assess the narratives of freedom expressed in DIY film cultures. Taylor’s article is a sobering read, but it’s well worth examining as the conversations about digital distribution continue to unfold.  I don’t pretend to agree with Taylor across the board, but her voice should be heard in the midst of the digital utopianism that tends to dominate these conversations.

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Wednesday Links

I’m still in the midst of lots of early-semester prep work, but here are a couple of recent articles worth mentioning:

  • YouTube has tentatively joined the movie rental business by making a small number of independent films available on its site.  The rental plan was created in conjunction with the Sundance Film Festival.  Available films include The Cove, an award-winning documentary about dolphin hunting.  Although there are already a number of online rental options, this news is more intriguing because it reflects a change in the role of film festivals in offering to distribute some of their content online.
  • Because of the graduate course I’m teaching on Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom, I’ve become more interested in discussions of how K-12 students are using technology.  If this New York Times article is to be believed, they are using it ALL THE TIME.  According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, students spend 7.5 hours a day using these tools, often multitasking so that their “real” media technology use approaches 11.5 hours a day.
  • Speaking of media technologies, Nicholas Carr recently put in perspective how much people spend on a monthly basis to keep themselves connected, arguing that many people can spend as much on information subscription and fees as they do on food.

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After several weeks of following the Avatar (IMDB) press, I finally got a chance to see the film itself, in 3-D, last night at a local megaplex.  I’ve been fascinated by the degree to which the film has simultaneously become a means for fantasizing about the reinvention of cinematic language, for reintroducing the concept of the cinematic auteur, and for digging out political allegories of one kind or another.  Many others seem to be watching box office numbers with the breathless hope that Avatar will supplant Titanic as the highest-grossing film (domestically and world-wide) of all-time. In a media environment typically characterized by niche cultures, it is an improbably mass-culture event, one that seems to demand that we engage with it on some level.

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Jay, Conan, and the Downfall Meme

I’ve been a fan of the “Downfall meme” for nearly two years now.  Because righteous indignation and mock outrage are such common idioms on the internet, the Downfall scenes depicting Hitler in a fit of rage–resubtitled to comment on anything from not getting Billy Elliott tickets to the Taylor Swift-Kanye West feud–is incredibly pliable. Now with the Downfall meme taking on the Jay-Conan late night war, New York Magazine’s Vulture blog got in touch with Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel and found out that he is a big fan of the meme, even though it seems like a fairly irreverent take on his movie.  Hirschbiegel commented that he had seen nearly 150 versions of the meme, named some of his favorites and added that, “The point of the film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons, making them real and their actions into reality….I think it’s only fair if now it’s taken as part of our history, and used for whatever purposes people like….If only I got royalties for it, then I’d be even happier.”

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Cinema Eye Honors 2010

Just a quick pointer to the list of this year’s winners at the Cinema Eye Honors documentary awards.  Although the winter often seems to be overloaded with excessive award ceremonies, the Cinema Eye Honors help call attention to the often unrecognized genre of documentary filmmaking and, more crucially, remind us that documentary, like fiction filmmaking is a craft.

This year’s winner, The Cove, a film that explores the often inhumane practices of dolphin hunting, took top honors, winning for best feature, production, and cinematography, and a quick glance at the trailer makes me really wish I’d seen the film when it played at Full Frame.  One of my personal favorites, Agnes Varda’s Beaches of Agnes (trailer), won a well-deserved award for outstanding direction, and Burma VJ also won multiple awards.  Congrats to all of the winners.

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“Sell it Yourself”

The challenges and opportunities facing a new era of independent and DIY filmmakers have been with us for a while now.  The “first” Mumblecore film, Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha, came out in 2002.  The term itself was coined in 2005, at South by Southwest.  Mark Gill famously claimed that “the sky really is falling” for independent cinema back in the summer of 2008.  And with all of the hype around digital distribution, it’s easy to forget that past filmmakers, most famously, John Cassavetes, were facing many of the these problems a generation earlier.  But in the era of digital cinema, with its cheap production and distribution tools, these questions seem to have gained a new visibility.

With that in mind, I found Manohla Dargis’s recent New York Times article on USC’s Distribution U workshop to be an especially compelling read of the DIY culture as it exists today.  As Scott Kirsner notes, the article gives special attention to indie film consultants and practitioners Peter Broderick and Jon Reiss, while citing examples ranging from Bujalski to David Lynch.  It’s a pretty thorough article, especially in covering the range of practices that DIY filmmakers have begun to use in order to engage with audiences.  Reiss, for example, cites the ned to experiment with what Henry Jenkins refers to as “transmedia storytelling,” by taking a page from Hollywood franchises.

The article also sets up, building upon a lecture by Broderick, what seems like a crude opposition between “Old” and “New World” approaches to film promotion.  Expensive newspaper ads are “out.” Facebook, Twitter, and social media tools are “in.”  Instead of paying for expensive ads that likely won’t reach your target audience, use the free tools that are already out there.  Although I agree with the basics of Broderick’s argument, it’s worth noting that past generations of filmmakers used similar word-of-mouth techniques, albeit in ways that are less visible and archivable than today’s social media tools (I tried to make a similar point last month when discussing social media and fandom on  But that’s a minor quibble, really, given that these tools can, theoretically at least, be used to spread messages much more quickly than in the past.

But I think the key observation of the article comes when Dargis discusses the networked nature of the emerging DIY film distribution culture:

These new-era distribution participants are not engaging in blog-rolling. By sharing information and building on one another’s ideas, they are in effect creating a virtual infrastructure. This infrastructure doesn’t compete with Hollywood; this isn’t about vying with products released by multinational corporations. It is instead about the creation and sustenance of a viable, artist-based alternative — one that, at this stage, looks markedly different from what has often been passed off as independent cinema over the past 20 years.

This concept of a “virtual infrastructure” is an especially astute observation.  As Dargis points out, many of the DIY filmmakers cite each other as examples in conversations and blog posts.  Many of the key figures involved in the DIY film culture are consultants who charge fees for services rather than making films themselves.  But the essential point is that a new model of indie filmmaking is beginning to emerge alongside of Hollywood, one built on ad hoc, temporary coalitions, but an enduring one none the less.

Dargis also points out that these new DIY models confront the “downside” that filmmakers may be forced to spend “more hours hawking their wares than creating new work,” a problem that Reiss acknowledges.  This is certainly a major question, although it’s possible that once the “virtual infrastructure” becomes more entrenched, filmmakers may not be required to reinvent a distribution model for every film they make.  At the same time, because independent film is often situated at the uneasy nexus between art and commerce, I view the efforts to build these new models as a form of creativity that often goes unacknowledged or underappreciated.  The article is certainly an interesting read, especially as a discussion of how DIY filmmakers continue to define and develop new distribution tools and practices.

Update: One of the case studies that comes up in Dargis’s article is Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil: The Story of Anvil, so via Movie City News, here is an interview with Gervasi discussing the film’s somewhat unorthodox distribution, which depended heavily on widespread festival screenings.

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Repetition Compulsions

I’ve mentioned a couple of times here that the first movie I ever “owned” on VHS was an edited-for-TV version of The Karate Kid, which my sister and I must have watched at least twenty times, to the point that the tape itself was completely degraded (in fact, I’d argue that I’ve seen the film more often, though less recently, than legendary KK-watcher and ESPN Sports Guy, Bill Simmons).  I’m not terribly proud of this fact about myself, but as a child of the 1980s trapped in suburbia, my options were somewhat limited, and as a sports-meets-coming-of-age movie, it’s not half-bad.  So, I greeted the news of a remake featuring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith with mild derision.

It sounded like a bad idea, an unnecessary and silly remake, but nothing that would occlude my memories of the original film.  On principle, I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea of remakes or reimaginings of older cultural texts, whether adaptations of novels or plays, so why be so protective of an older movie?  Plus, it’s not as if I felt the need to defend the Macchio-Morita version.  It satisfied some vague repetition compulsion when I was a teenager, but I no longer want to revisit it, so when I found out about the trailer for the remake (via a Fayetteville Observer blog), I watched it more out of a sense of curiosity than anything else.

And although I still find the remake completely unnecessary, I found the trailer oddly intriguing.  like many popular remakes, the new film borrows heavily from the older one: the kid moves far from home to a “foreign” environment (more on that in a minute), he gets bullied by a gang of karate thugs, and his mentor teaches him karate using a variety of unorthodox methods.  Many of the shots–the Kid riding away from his old ‘hood looking out the window of a car, a high-angle shot of the mentor’s garden–directly echo the original film.  But the context is a little off.  Instead of moving to LA and getting bullied by a bunch of WASPy jerks, Jaden moves to China instead, perhaps suggesting the film has its eyes trained on international markets.  But although the film has a professional polish, part of me felt as if I was watching a “sweded” version of Karate Kid, rather than a Hollywood remake, as if someone who half-remembered the original film took some of the more memorable scenes and threw them together and made up the rest.  Mocking the “wax on-wax off” scenes in the original with new moves (“take off jacket”) was mildly funny, but the rest seems like an extremely expensive fan production, albeit one trained toward launching one career and reviving another.

I still have almost no interest in seeing the remake, but seeing the uncanny echoes of the original in the trailer had the obvious effect of reminding me about my childhood pleasure at watching the original while also illustrating just how much things have changed since the original came out, twenty-five or so years ago.

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Technology in the Language Arts Classroom

Here is the syllabus for the most recent version of my graduate course, Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom, a course required for the M.A.T. and M.Ed. here at Fayetteville State (I’ll post a link to the course website later).  Teaching (and then reworking) this course has pushed me to think a little more carefully each time I’ve taught it about the needs of K-12 educators, an approach that I hope is somewhat reflected in the most recent version of the course.  Luckily I’ve had the opportunity to learn from others who have taught similar courses or who have created syllabi that touch on similar issues of digital production.  Laura’s syllabus for her Instructional Communications course was especially helpful, as was David Silver’s Digital Media Production syllabus.  With that in mind, here is my syllabus below the fold:

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Netflix Maps Revisited

A few years ago, I wrote a post discussing my fascination with the “Netflix Neighbors” phenomenon, a tool on Netflix that showed what films were most popular by zip code.  My Fayetteville neighborhood, as I noted at the time, seemed to favor children’s movies, Tyler Perry films, and to a lesser extent, action movies, all of which seem to conform to a small city with a large African-American population near a military base.  Now, thanks to an interactive map created by The New York Times (and discussed in this blog post), these questions about mapping cinematic taste are being revisited.

The interactive map traces ten metropolitan areas, including New York, Boston, Washington, Austin, and Atlanta, among others, against some of the most rented films and their rankings on Metacritic, a popular review site.  The differences between neighborhoods are interesting.  A quick glance at my old Decatur, GA, neighborhood, for example, shows that zip code’s taste for Oscar bait from Slumdog Millionaire to Frost/Nixon and critically-acclaimed directors such as Jonathan Demme and the Coen brothers.  A similar list emerges in my parents’ zip code in Roswell, but with Seven Pounds and Twilight cracking the top ten.

Because the map is limited to ten cities, the maps may not tell us much about movie tastes beyond urban centers, but it can help to visualize how geography and cultural tastes may be related (and how popular taste may diverge from–or coincide with–critical taste).  To be clear, I don’t think that films that are “most rented” should be equated with films that are considered the “best” by a group of people, but it’s fun to see how these patterns form.

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More Avatar Links

Three weeks after hitting theaters and film critics still can’t stop talking about it, even to say that they are refusing to talk about it:

  • Dave Kehr offers a nice critique of the claims that Avatar is a game-changing film, thanks to its success in popularizing 3D.  As Kerr notes, a transition in cinema, whether digital 3D or the introduction of sound, is typically “not something that happened overnight, but a gradual process.”  As he observes, 3D will require not only the technological tools but will also require the social acceptance of 3D as a viable format for a variety of film genres.
  • Jonathan Gray has a good analysis on the extratextual frames through which audiences view Avatar.  Like Jonathan, I think Avatar offers an intriguing example of how expectations for a film are typically established before the viewer actually enters the theater, but Jonathan offers an especially useful read of how Avatar’s anti-fans seem to “enjoy” their status as critics.
  • This knowledge likely informs Michael Atkinson’s decision to save himself three hours and skip Avatar.  Atkinson’s explanation prompts Jim Emerson to ask whether it’s OK for a critic to skip this month’s version of The Most Important Film Ever.  The quick answer is, sure, he can avoid any movie he chooses.  But I think Atkinson misses the point when he offers a simple opposition between the film’s story and its visuals, suggesting that the visual pleasure offered by a film like Avatar is mere childhood fantasy or that visuals and the technological mastery of them by Cameron are somehow outside the “story.”
  • Meanwhile, Emerson also has a nice round-up over the debates about Avatar’s politics, sparking a pretty intriguing debate about the film’s politics in the comments section.

Update: I don’t think I’ve mentioned it elsewhere, but Michael Cieply offers a similar argument to David Kehr that Avatar’s influence on future filmmaking practices isn’t fully clear.  Yeah, there are some 3D films in production, but few with the scope of Cameron’s film.  Cipely’s article comes with a nice graphic timeline tracing the long history of 3D film experimentation.

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