Category Archives: Reeling and Dealing – Maria D.

Ars Est Pecunia – Copyright in the Internet Age – Jan 2, 2012

Ars Est Pecunia – Copyright in the Internet Age – Jan 2, 2012

Maria Datch

This year we are fortunate enough to have Les Blank participate in the festival. While telling my children a bit about the trailblazing documentarian, I mentioned “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” – one of his most famous productions – in which Werner Herzog, having lost a bet with a fellow filmmaker, spends 20 minutes cooking and eating his shoe.

The kids, like children everywhere, thought their mother was full of crap. So to prove it to them I did a quick Google search, found what looked like several clips of the documentary, and played one of them. To my delight, I realized that we were watching not just a clip, but the full 20 minute documentary! I had just finished mentally congratulating the internet for helping to introduce a great filmmaker to the next generation when I noticed a comment posted (three years ago) to the page from Les Blank himself…asking that the film be removed from the page, as he supports himself by distributing his work and illegally putting his film online makes it impossible for him to do that.

And there, in a nutshell, is the promise and the peril of the internet for the independent filmmaker. The same thing that allows anyone, anywhere to have instant access to your work also makes it that much harder to actually pay your bills.

Copyright protection is important to artists. It allows them to produce work with the confidence that they will have the opportunity to make a living from their efforts. Without that assurance, they have no incentive to devote their lives to artistic pursuits and would instead have to take up more profitable professions, removing innumerable threads from the tapestry of human understanding.

But putting events in their proper perspective is important as well. The internet is only the latest in a long line of technologies that was supposed to have killed the (film / recording / music publishing) industry, joining the VCR, cassette tapes, and radio as the enemies of artists in their day.

In the 1930s, songwriters (under the aegis of ASCAP) fretted that radio stations were providing “free music” and pressed for larger and larger royalty fees from radio stations. The result was that the main radio networks formed a rival songwriters’ organization (BMI), and not only did the established songwriters of ASCAP see their royalty fees cut, but lost ground to the newer sound of the BMI songwriters, out of whose ranks came the pioneers of rock and roll.

The music recording industry has since gone on to survive the rise of the cassette tape and advent of the recordable CD. The same has been true of the visual arts. The facts have not been kind to Jack Valenti’s famous assertion that “the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone”, as home video distribution became not a threat to, but a vital part of studios’ marketing strategy. Netflix now provides an online alternative to piracy, accounting for 30% of all evening internet traffic (on the other hand, BitTorrent, the peer-to-peer filesharing network, generates 21% of traffic) and is set to pay almost $2 billion in licensing fees to studios next year.

To be sure, there have been losers along the way. Songwriters may have come through the radio age battered but still afloat, but vaudeville theater did not fare so well. Vinyl manufacturers have had to find new outlets for their product (but for some reason I’m not too worried about them), and CD production will likely go the same way, as digital sales are forecast to surpass CD sales sometime in 2012 (ironically, that’s also when a majority of theater screens are predicted to have been converted to digital projection). And, following a year of decreased audiences and decreased profits, it is possible that the theater as a means for distributing film will soon be feeling the pinch.

Granted, tools are still needed to address copyright infringement in the digital age. The internet is definitely better, faster, and more efficient than anything seen before when it comes to distributing unauthorized copies of media. But if the past is a guide, we stand at the edge of another shift in how the media we love is delivered to us,
not the death of the art that we love.

Money, Money, Money Dec 15, 2011

Money, Money, Money Dec 15, 2011

Maria Datch

With the festival just over three months away – and the 2012 submission deadline coming up in a mere 3 weeks – the DCIFF staff has been busy reviewing films in an effort to produce a lineup worthy of the festival. As DCIFF is a juried film festival, a portion of our time is spent vetting the submitted projects to make sure that they meet DCIFF’s screening criteria (is this film making its DC debut, is it original, is it independent, etc.).

In the course of doing this research, we’ve stumbled across something that seems to be endemic in independent film production – the need for filmmakers to rely on nontraditional funding sources to get their films produced. After all, with a recession wreaking havoc on people’s basic needs it’s hard to convince donors that your film project is more important than hungry children or homeless families.

Because of this, initiatives which rely on donations to survive (including many independent films) are using social media-based e-financing (AKA crowdsourced funding). We’ve all admired (and many of us have participated in) the efforts of social media-propelled fundraisers such as Chase Community Giving, which apportions funds according to users’ “votes” for the most worthy recipients, and Give to the Max DC, which organizes a campaign around a dedicated day of giving. Give to the Max, whose latest push raised over $2 million for local charities in just 24 hours, also has a mission of helping other organizations get the tools and information they need in order to more effectively raise funds on their own, providing a series of free online tutorials (which I have taken advantage of and have found to be very helpful).

Indie films which are not nonprofits often make use of sources such as Kickstarter (one of Give to the Max’s partner organizations), Rockethub, IndieGoGo, IndieVest, and Pledgie. These sites allow people who want to support filmmakers’ efforts – but who may only be able to spare five or ten dollars – the opportunity to help out and remain connected to these artistic endeavors. And despite the Internet’s global reach, these online tools are often used by artists to search for local funding, which allows these small donors to make a direct investment in the artistic life of their own communities.

This strategy can definitely bear fruit. A neighbor of mine recently sent our neighborhood mailing list a plea for donations to a film that she is producing. This direct appeal to her neighbors (with the help of Kickstarter’s banner on her website) was enough to meet her modest budgetary goal ($30,000) within an hour. Of course, we’ll never know if it was fond memories of the annual marshmallow roasts and summer film screenings on her front lawn or if it was the tick-tock of Kickstarter’s virtual clock that lit a fire under all of us donors. But, in the end, it doesn’t really matter–she made her budget and is now able to produce her film.

Crowd sourcing and social media will not replace foundation grants and underwriting, distribution deals, and (an old standby despite everything we were taught in film school) maxed-out credit cards as ways to fund independent films. But it can be a virtual “Salvation Army Santa” for the indie film producer, working one dollar at a time.