My godfather is a writer. Thus, like many of the writers I know, he is full of quotes about writing.
During one of our many conversations about how much I Iove it, how much peace it gives me, how triumphant it makes me feel, how engaging it is to me, as a woman and as an intelligent human being, I remember us debating over the Dorothy Parker quote:
“I hate writing. I love having written.”
I, myself, am not this way in the least. I love the process of putting a piece together. Much like the three witches in Macbeth, I take great pleasure in my cauldron and my word “soup,” I love the way that I am allowed to make things “flowery” if I wish or casual and quirky if that is my intended goal. I love putting my voice in there because writing is my chosen artistic expression.
My little brother is a DJ up in San Francisco (and a very good one, she adds, with devoted sisterly pride). The sweat that pours off the dancers and enthusiastic fans that flock to his booth and to him is inspirational. I can only hope that my writings can inspire that kind of excitement in a reader someday. I say areader because as a teenage HIV/AIDS educator, I was taught one very important lesson that, 22 years later, I have kept with me and remember daily, if not hourly: if you reach at least ONE person, your work is done.
This is a very difficult thing to remember in a world such as ours where we are dead set on the monetization of artforms and we are in positions where instead of reveling in our positions as writers/creators/film critics, we must choose situations that are exhausting and do not leave us enough time or energy to realize the WHY of our work, only the how and the when-does-this-need-to-be-in-by.
Last night I accompanied my godfather to the Writers Guild of America, West for an event presented by their Gay & Lesbian Writers Committee. There were many reasons that I wanted to go. For one thing, it was focused on participants from the OUTFEST Film Festival, a film engagement that I passionately believe in and have enjoyed works from consistently over the years.Additionally, it was looking at several aspects of Outfest beyond the film festival itself: the writers, participation and development of the Outfest Screenwriting Lab, and indie filmmaking in the queer community. Furthermore, it was moderated by Alonso Duralde, someone who is not only someone I personally think is fantastic, but highly admire in a professional context.
Alonso Duralde, Senior Programmer of Outfest, Senior Film Critic at The Wrap, co-host for Linoleum Knife podcast and regular on What the Flick?! (Young Turks Network)
The program gave me more than what I bargained for and is partially why I am sitting here. But I will get to that later. First, a few issues came up that not only fascinated me but made perfect (if tragic) sense. To lay it out best and relate what I feel are the most critical points of my experience last night, as a writer, as an archivist, and as a woman, I am going to catalog it using sections.
Marginalization Within Marginalization
There was a fascinating discussion about the idea of “whiteness” in the queer moving image community and whether certain writers were working to change that and how. Doug Spearman (Hot Guys with Guns) spoke to this issue, while he mentioned his TV work on Noah’s Arc, what I found particularly important was the mention of breaking boundaries and representations of realities that were not single-ethnicity-ed. Spearman mentioned interracial relationships as part of work he had been involved with and that extending those ideas could only extend diverse concepts of the queer world thusly giving a far more realistic view of the world that we live in. Listening to this, it was hard. It’s unfortunate to consider that many of our filmic materials, whether queer or straight narratives, seem to stay well within the lines of ethnic and cultural groups “sticking to their own.” It reinforces ideologies and tropes that we should breaking free from.
Adelina Anthony‘s perspective was wonderful in this perspective. She spoke of the usefulness of the theater community and the stage when the moving image world was, to be perfectly frank, trying to pack her wonderfully expansive ideas into their small cages. She spoke of being told to make things “less Latina” or being asked to “tone down the Lesbianism” and other situations requiring her to completely remove her identity from her creative work. Anthony said that the stage and her work with theater has never required her to do so. While she is preparing to move back into moving image/filmic realms, she also mentioned her significant pride in being able to maintain her own identity the whole way through. And the fact that Genevieve Turner (another panelist)’s movie Go Fish was an inspiration to her own coming out story (I have to say- that part was really adorable!).
Outfest as a Writerly Tooland Growing Force
The panel discussed the Outfest Screenwriting Lab, which various people had participated in as mentors (some, as Guinevere Turner quipped, referring to herself, for many years) and others had as “mentees.” The process was laid out clearly and while it was reminiscent to me of the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and it had crucial differences. One of the differences was laid out in the first few minutes of the panel when each filmmaker was talking about their early experiences of queer cinema. Issues such as first viewings of William Friedkin’s Boys in the Band (1970) and panelist Barry Sandler’s pioneering Making Love (1982). What was vital in this instance was not only the experience of seeing queer representation on a screen that had been either underrepresenting or poorly representing the LGBT community for its entire history being able to carry that experience over into future creative endeavors. While the Sundance Screenwriters Lab has a focus on independent cinema, and I have some certainty that the participants may have had life-changing experiences with independent films that also deal with marginalized groups, when I sat there last night…I felt the importance of Outfest itself and this lab.
There is a saying that someone told me when I was a kid and doing all my peer education work. I have no idea how to source the quote – all the information I can find on it seems iffy at best – but someone nice told me it. And it’s a good saying: “Each one reach on, each one teach one.” To me, this seems to be the ethos of Outfest, especially how it was displayed on that panel.
During the question and answer section part of the evening, a young man stood up and asked a question. He was from Outset, the youth filmmaking division of Outfest. It struck me at that point that not only was Outfest a festival where one could find entertainment and access to marginalized images on the big screen, it is, for many film professionals, a centralized agent of personal entry to the larger media world. For a community that has never had that before, being able to start from the ground (teens), move upwards (young professionals) and possibly make to the silver screen is pretty exciting. Unlike Hollywood on the whole, what I noticed on this panel, when discussing people’s experiences with the Lab or the applause for the young man from Outset or sharing of information about what works/doesn’t work for crowdsourcing a film, was support and positive reinforcement.
It was inspirational to hear June Diane Raphael talk about not completely giving up on her project when it was delayed for two years or when folks in Hollywood told her that horrific thing that I have heard many times before: well, women will follow a male narrative, but men will very rarely follow a female narrative, and there’s really no market for that so…you may want to rethink things. The men and women on this panel were not only experienced and informative but smart and clearly cared about the work. To me, there is nothing more beautiful. So many people seem to make things that they clearly don’t care about. In a perfect Ariel World, we would all be able to get paid to make these amazing works that are full of the passion and determination that has been with us since we were children. Damn the box office! The box office is not a gauge of film calibre! Then again, I also wish to live in the Shangri-La of Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon most days too, so…ya know…
The queer film community needs Outfest and Outfest is growing. This can only be good. The effect that they have on queer youth and creative people in the LGBT community through their various projects can only help and from what I was able to grasp last night and see in the way people engaged each other on the panel, this structure is one that can only flourish. I believe this will do the entire film festival community a hellovalotta good. Outfest puts out work for everyone and work everyone should be seeing, queer, straight, asexual, pink-polkadotted fetishes, who cares.
Writing the Don Roos Way
One of the many times I went to go see John Waters do his speaking engagements, he described his writing ritual. He gets up every morning, puts on a particular set of comfortable clothes, goes and sits at his computer (might’ve been a typewriter, but I think computer…I think I’m wishing it was a typewriter. More romantic!), and writes for a few hours. Then he shuts it down, and begins his day. EVERY DAY.
I said to myself: WOW. I should totally try to do that. Write at least a little bit every day. A journal entry. Something. Just ritualize it, make it happen, just do it. But make it part of my chores. Because then I’ll have at least accomplished something. Plus…going back to the Dorothy Parker quote, I love the hell outta writing. So, however many months later it is now, and…I have not made this part of my ritual.
SURE, I have had graduate school and I had a regular weekly column where I was writing a ton (which both counted in their own ways) but I was not writing every day. Nor was I reading every day. But that’s another entry. Tomorrow?
Skip forward to the last question of the evening last night, put forth by Kristen Pepe (KP), director of programming at Outfest. She inquired of the panel about their writing processes. The discussion had shifted from filmmaking and screenwriting and begun to focus quite a bit on monetary issues and KP brought up a very salient point: without the talents and writing skills of each of the individuals on the panel, they would not be in a position to go ask for monies for their films or attempt the projects in the first place. How did each of them write?
Everyone had different answers and different methods that worked for them, many of which were small edits on things I had heard before. However, when Don Roos discussed his writing process, something clicked and I liked it. A lot. He stated that as writers, one of the hardest things that we deal with is being able to feel good, feel accomplished, feel 100% on top of the world on a regular basis. He gave the example of a dry-cleaner. As a writer, it’s not like we have anything concrete that we can do/look at/see at the end of the day and say, “man! I finished dry-cleaning all those shirts! I’ve had a great day!” Our successes are far more infrequent, far-between, personal and amorphous.
OH MY GOD. Hello, 80,000 lightbulbs dinging above my head. Don, you are speaking my language!!
He went on to say that in order to combat this, you really DO have to write every day. [Well, now that you put it that way…]
He said that he puts a timer on and for an hour he has two things up on his computer: whatever project he’s working on and a “journal/blank page.” And he writes. For an hour. No phone, no internet, no interruptions. That blank page could be filled with stuff like “I hate writing, screw today, ugh this is dumb, I don’t want to go grocery shopping, I’m pissed of at so-and-so” or whatever. But eventually, he says, he gets so tired of writing over there that he returns to the project page and gets work done.
The other panelists had some variations on this process, but the one thing that almost all of them agreed on was writing every day. While I don’t want to be a filmmaker or Hollywood successful, I would be happy to be a better writer. I think it would do my head good too. So this is my first day of Writing The Don Roos Way. I have been writing since 11:08am. It is now 2:00pm.
I’d say it works. It also works because I also was able to get my thoughts out about a great experience I had last night and document them properly. As many of you know, I am a soon-to-be-graduated moving image archivist, so documentation is of the utmost importance to me. Listening to Don’s words had significant value to me as far as the documentation of my life or historical events are concerned. In this virtual/weblog world, we now have the capacity to do multimedia documentation. Writing every day also means collecting images and doing research.
It may become a challenge for me to keep it down to an hour. But perhaps that is my challenge. And as anyone who knows me well knows, I’m always up for a challenge!
In 1983, Canadian musician Trans-X sang about what “living on video” might be like. A “computer fairyland” he murmured, all the while his bandmates slipping VHS tapes into VCRs and playing with other kinds of “new” equipment in the background. While the music video format dates back much further than the early 1980’s, the biggest music video aggregator in the world, MTV, had just begun in 1981 and Trans-X was clearly playing to that market. Not only was this song a synth-y piece of self-reflexivity and music media-awareness, but it expressed the massive influx of “new media” that was happening around that time as the moving image market expanded with the onset of home entertainment at large. While the world had been gradually dipping its feet into the waters of Video Cassette Recorders since 1974, it boomed in the early 80’s. By 1984, VHS had won the format war over Betamax, controlled 85% of the market (Total Rewind: The Virtual Map of Vintage VCRs), and home entertainment itself had blossomed to the point of threatening theatrical film exhibition.
As Jeff Ulin notes, “[b]y 1986…combined video rental and sales revenues ($4.38B) exceeded the theatrical box office ($3.78B) for the first time. By 1988, rental revenues alone ($5.15B) exceeded the theatrical box office ($4.46B)…It was the VHS format that took hold and by the mid-1980’s dominated.” (Ulin) While the ease and simplicity of the VCR may not have seemed like a big deal to the general populous, it rocked every layer of the moving image industry, all the way from production to archival institutions. Clearly, if the box office was being affected, things were going to have to change in the studios, and they knew it. What were they to do? Like the advent of television, this new technology had torn the audience away from the theater seats and the studios were going to have to do something to fix that. Unfortunately, Cinerama had already been invented. So much for that idea! So production was in a quandary.
On the other end of things, the moving image archive world’s take on video was a little different. It wasn’t necessarily about the money being lost as a result of the change in exhibition formats as much as the information caliber on the formats themselves. As usual it was about preservation of materials. Moving image archivists were already well-aware of the problematic nature of videotape as they had been working with those elements for quite a few years. While VHS may have been the “new kid on the block” so to speak, television studios had been using video tape itself since the late 1950’s. In other words, this was a format that the archival field was familiar with. With the introduction of the VHS (Video Home System), archives now were given an alternative manner in which to provide certain materials. From this point forward until the onset of the DVD market, the VHS proved to be the primary visual tool used for education in many classrooms and was an inexpensive and simple means of distribution for moving image access copies. Equally as important, VHS and its equipment became another tool used by many experimental/independent filmmakers because of its cost, ease of use and “instant” nature.
"High Tech Baby" (1987) by Korean artist, Nam Jun Paik, considered to be the "Father of Video Art." 13 5-inch color TV monitors, aluminum, painted wood cabinet and Heart Channel VHS video tape.
So what does all of this have to do with Video-On-Demand? After all, it’s no longer on video anymore. It’s a digitized format. There’s no real video that is being demanded, if we are going to get literal. Right now, in the moving image archiving field and the film industry we are going through a massive set of growing pains. While others might label it something nicer, there are too many unanswered questions and difficult situations for it to be anything less than painful at this particular juncture. But, like any growth spurt, the outcome should be much more fun than puberty and look nicer too. It’s just a little uncomfortable right now. Similar to the onset of the VHS revolution, everyone’s technology is changing. There’s 35mm going to digital. Films are being offered at home on the very same day that they are being released theatrically (VOD). Technology and business models are changing drastically just like they did 30 years ago. This time, however, it’s at a far more rapid pace than it was in 1984. Also, it seems to have taken on a very Bizarro-world feel to it. Whereas the 1980’s technology switch seemed to favor the everyman/public by furnishing them with access to moving images in a more affordable manner and allowing archives to provide access in a more inexpensive and reasonable way, this time it seems to be (at least partially) behind the folks with the bigger wallets who have the funding to support higher technology on all fronts, cable and its glories, and the higher echelon of goods. Halting to look and see some of the repercussions or wayside issues has not been of the highest priority. While the progress in the digital domain has been impressive, equally as essential are the issues that might get left behind.
This technological change has been functioning a bit like adolescence. It doesn’t seem to be the most organized process, as the communication between certain factions is non-existent (but who really communicated well when they were a teen?) and some moving image areas seem to be in a bit of a predicament due to that, but other areas seem to be doing exceptionally well as a result. Like being 15 years old, this entire situation of new technology seems to be a bit rocky. The moving image community, whether it’s production, distribution, or archiving is getting a new body and we’re all getting used to the way it works. Anatomy is a funny thing. Let’s look at what our new physiognomy is developing into, shall we?
Putting the Festive in Festival: Festivals and Archives
So what happens to all those films after you watch them at the Los Angeles Film Festival? And after you leave Park City or the last presentation at AFI, where do those films go? Have you ever stopped to wonder where all the used and unused festival submissions might end up? Many people will respond in an abrasive manner to this inquiry. “Probably in the trash,” (to which I may not disagree) they might say, “and if they didn’t bother to back it up or save it, well…that’s the filmmaker’s own fault!” At this point I might bristle. Can we ethically be thrilled upon hearing that John Carpenter’s student film was discovered and yet consciously disregard a person’s submission to a film festival because of their personal data management policies? I call shenanigans, pure and simple. We have no idea who that person might end up being, what the material may contain, and, according to archival principles, it just doesn’t matter. The submissions of a film festival, regardless of where they came from, are unintentional creative sampling. This is also the reason why they should maintain their provenance and be archived properly.
It seems that with some film festivals, the term “archive” is a very loose term, even when they are dealing with actual film elements. While some festivals do indeed recognize the word, they do not seem to apply it to the materials that they collect. The Raindance Film Festival in London has an “archives” area on their website, but unfortunately it is only to showcase past festivals. When you look into the Frequently Asked Questions, and see about what happens to leftover festival submissions, there are two options: the filmmaker will pay for the return of the submission (with no clear-cut guarantee on how the element will be shipped) or simply leave the materials to be “recycled.” (Raindance Film Festival) While other places like the Regent Park Film Festival actually seem to have an archive for their works (their site specifically states that “select preview tapes will be added to the RPFF’s archives for consideration to our year-round community screenings”) (Regent Park Film Festival) and the Dance Media Film Festival’s specifications hold for the custody of the preview DVDs (the “screening media” will be returned to the filmmaker after the festival) (Dance Camera West), it is frighteningly obvious that the vast majority of film festivals simply return or “recycle” most of their submissions post-festival.
Clearly, there is a severe disconnect between the festival circuit and the moving image archiving world, and the responsibility is as much ours as it is theirs. However, regardless of fault, we are both missing out on a golden opportunity to a) save valuable media objects (our responsibility) and b) have past events be maintained in a retrievable and accessible manner (their responsibility). While it is very likely that many of the larger film festivals (Sundance, L.A. Film Festival, Toronto, etc) do have vaults or libraries for a certain amount of items, it is far more likely that they do not have enough space. Thus their participants are forced to keep their materials elsewhere which could be home, the back of their car, lost, or simply at another vaulting facility. There is no way of knowing. What is known is that once materials are lost, if there is no secondary copy or if the piece is not somehow backed up… they are lost for good. These materials could be analogue, digital, or both. However, as we have previously noted, the world is continuing to move forward with technology, and festival submissions are more and more likely to be born-digital which makes them even more fragile than filmic submissions in certain ways.
Indeed, when it comes to preservation, the difference between analogue and digital is quite notable. Preserving digital materials is much like babysitting small children: they need to be properly cared for and checked in on frequently, lest they end up “dysfunctional.” The preservation of analogue materials, while no less meticulous, is more like the maintenance of a good relationship with a friend: make sure it is in good shape, the information is always correct, and it remains protected (should the situation arise).
One of the most important studies to have come out recently, the Digital Dilemma 2, took a serious look at film festivals and surveyed independent filmmakers. They noted that film preservation was “not a topic requested by film festival attendees.” Indeed, the concerns of the filmmakers were reflected in the statistics. Their films were simply not getting picked up or distributed. The 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival alone received 4,521 submissions and screened 153 (3 percent) while the 2011 Chicago Film Festival got 3,640 and screened 194 (5 percent). The 2011 New York Film Festival topped the list, including avant-garde shorts, screening 138 films out of 1700 submissions (8 percent). (Science & Technology Council) With figures like that, preservation of materials may not be the first thing on a filmmaker’s mind. Very likely, the most immediate thought in a submitting filmmaker’s head would be: my work didn’t get into Telluride- where can I submit it next? How can I still make this piece live?
Independent Demands: VOD and Independent Cinema
In many ways, Video-on-Demand has been the answer to many independent filmmakers’ desperate prayers. Initially, the changing film landscape looked grim for the “little people.” An independent filmmaker’s row has never been an easy one to manage. What were they to do now about the fact that, similar to the mid-1980’s, home entertainment was now making a serious comeback, and rocking the exhibition business model down to its chewy center? In this day and age, it seems to be a case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Theatrical exhibition may have seemed preferable at one time, but what if you could have your cake and eat it too? What if you were offered a deal where you could have your work displayed on all media platforms at the same time (televisual and theatrical) and still have the right to submit work to festivals?
VOD has been extremely successful with independent cinema. Strikingly so, in fact. As the Wall Street Journal reported in January of 2011,
Independent studios , including the small budget “specialty” divisions of the major studios, saw their share of box-office decline to 19% in 2010 from 33% in 2001…but video on demand has exploded and is beginning to edge out trips to the video store…consumer spending on VOD totaled $1.8 billion in 2010, up 21% from 2009. Sales of movies via digital download services like Apple, Inc.’s iTunes Store and Amazon.com Inc grew 16% in 2010, to $683 million. (Smith and Schuker)
Independent cinema has been a huge part of this growth. If it wasn’t for this market trend, films like 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, 2011), Melancholia (Lars Von Trier, 2011) and Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011) would have remained silenced. Their participation in the Video-on-Demand market, however, created more steam for everyone else, not to mention their own coffers. Margin Call was one of Sundance’s biggest VOD success stories. Handled by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, this “financial thriller” had a budget that was a bit under $3.4 million, was bought for $1 million, made $5.3 million domestically…and made another $5 million on Video-on-Demand. (Miller) And it seems that they weren’t alone in their triumph. The early VOD release of Melancholia blossomed into the most economically successful film director Lars Von Trier had seen since Dancer in the Dark (2000): $2 million gross to a $3 million theatrical take, in total. And Takashi Miike? He strutted away with $4 million from the VOD release, while theatrical only produced $1 million. Another director, Sean Bean, made $22,000 in theaters for his film Black Death and did a “Miike.” He too walked away with $4 million. (Lyttelton) Clearly there is a market for this brand of entertainment.
There have been various concerns raised about the Video-on-Demand process and there seems to be a kind of “format war” again; theaters and other industry voices are echoing sentiments not heard since the disappearance of Betamax. “It’s cannibalism,” they’re saying, “these films! The introduction of this new technology has horrific repercussions! Theatrical will suffer! What are we going to do?” And they are not fretting for nothing. Exhibitors have valid apprehensions. According to current statistics, “theater owners usually divide profits 50-50 or 60-40, but cable companies typically allow distributors and their partners to pocket about 70 percent of a film’s VOD profits.” (Lang) While this makes Video-on-Demand an incredibly tasty morsel for independent filmmakers who have a small budget to begin with, it makes it quite difficult for theaters who are already suffering great losses due to the fact that audiences are lessening all the time. According to the New York Times, there has now been “four consecutive summers of eroding attendance, a cause for alarm for both studios and the publicly traded theater chains. One or two soft years can be dismissed as an aberration; four signal real trouble.” (Barnes) While it is highly unlikely that it is solely the VOD market that is responsible for this change in the viewing landscape, it is not difficult to see why exhibitors might have a slight problem with films that are released to a waiting public, in their homes, either before the theatrical release date or on the same date-and-day.
In many ways, they are absolutely right. Aside from the economic implications, a film like Melancholia really has no business being displayed on a television. It was designed for a huge visual canvas, made to be watched in a large roomy area surrounded by other silent people contemplating the moving images on the screen. As someone who was blissfully shaken by that film, I can attest to this fact. That piece dearly wants to be on a big screen. However, as Susan Jackson of Freestyle Digital Media notes, “There are a lot of films that are not critical darlings and won’t break through to the masses so [Video-on-Demand] becomes a great way for people to see them.” (Lang)
The 2011 New York Film Festival advertisement featuring Lars Von Trier's Melancholia
It’s rough to try to navigate the Video-on-Demand world. On one hand, everyone should have access to these films and watch them. In that sense, VOD has opened up worlds that no one ever dreamed possible. On the other hand, some of these films, as Jackson stated, are not exactly “standard fare” thus will benefit from the Video-on-Demand format. Independent cinema has never been a mass audience affair, thus a smaller and more personal technology like VOD suits the genre of “indie.” In addition, the outreach implications are tremendous. People in the middle of small towns can watch whatever they wish. Certain films that they might not be able to take their families to or tell their friends that they have an interest in, such as Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl (2010), which opened up Outfest in 2010 can now be viewed in the safe space of one’s own home. The “flyover states” are privy to the same works that those of us in big metropolitan areas have. The same night that I go out with a girlfriend to watch Kill List by Ben Wheatley here in Los Angeles in the theaters, someone in the middle of Idaho could be accessing the same film via Video-on-Demand.
There is something to be said for this, and yet it may have changed our entire outlook on the film-viewing process. One must stop and think: is the ability to have films catered directly to us affecting the manner in which we affect the filmic process?
In discussions on the Video-on-Demand process, John Schloss of Cinetic Media stated, “There’s much less overall preciousness about the theatrical experience…there’s a long history of filmmakers who want their movies to appear on a big screen, but that’s less and less the case. The quality of the home entertainment experience has gotten so much better, there are new screens and equipment.” (Lang) I feel that this quote begs the question: has the theatrical experience gotten less precious? Does the influx of new toys mean that a night out has lessened in meaning and/or quality? Is this the reason that people treat the movie theaters as though it were their living room, making phone calls, texting friends, carrying on extended conversations throughout the film? Has bringing the theater into our homes meant that we, in turn, bring our homes into the theater?
I believe this to be the case, and I believe this to be the most dangerous outgrowth of a technological advancement such as Video-on-Demand. While it certainly platforms the work of independent filmmakers and assists them in ways that they would never have dreamed possible, the new home entertainment technologies rip us away from what moving image entertainment is designed to be, and forces studios to come up with higher ticket prices, and IMAX 3D to the nth power just to get audiences to “return home.” The content is not the issue in this circumstance. It is the method through which the content is communicated and the lack of balance and structure that these organizations have created between home and live viewing. We are at a film industry crossroads at the moment, much of it due to over-excitement about new toys and poor planning/education about options. As an archivist in training, I see a time when the present technology will change too. And when this occurs, what then?
You Don’t Have to Go Home, But You Can’t Stay Here: VOD and the Archive
So what happens to all these films after they get shown “on-demand”? Do they suffer the same fate as the festival films and get “recycled”? Chances are, the original materials are returned to the filmmakers after digitization. However, once again, there is the chance that those may disappear and never get seen again. Realistically, many VOD titles are actually born from festivals. If you talk to someone like Michael Murphy, SVP of Gravitas Ventures, entertainment “aggregator,” he’ll tell you that Video-on-Demand is the best thing that has ever happened to independent and festival cinema. He would likely have a small army of small-budget filmmakers behind him to back him up, agreeing wholeheartedly. They have made money and livelihoods that they never would have made otherwise, simply by getting his company’s assistance. Murphy’s stance is simple: judging by the way that the market is at the current time, you want to get while the getting’s good. The minute you have “buzz” on your film, get it to Gravitas. They will then do a cross-platform release (television and theater) all at once, and you will at least be able to say that your work was in 50,000,000 homes across the US. In the meantime, you can still submit it to festivals, and wait for it to have a theatrical date. While the films mentioned earlier (Assassins, Melancholia, etc) could be considered independent on a technical level, they are nothing like the kinds of films that Murphy works with on a regular basis. Those are the real indie films. But, as he will tell you himself, Gravitas Ventures is simply a programmer and distributer. They “don’t handle physical goods.” (Murphy)
In an interview with Adam Benic of the Sundance Institute, he states, “Often times, films have left our festival without any distribution. Artist Services was born out of the need to get those films out there and VOD is the most direct and cost-effective way to do so.” (Benic) The Sundance Artist Services department was started in order to assist in funding, distribution, marketing and theatrical support for filmmakers related to Sundance. One of their more modern, media-savvy projects has been their Video-on-Demand push. It may not be associated with the cable arena, but it’s hooked up to work perfectly with all the online distribution methods: iTunes, Netflix streaming, Hulu, Amazon VOD, SundanceNOW, Xbox, Playstation and Vudu. Benic emphasized that VOD itself has actually assisted in promoting Sundance’s mission, and if you study the structure of the organization, the Sundance Artist Services Initiative offers an automatic digital distribution deal through all the aforementioned avenues in order to assist their artists. Benic underscores the importance of this new technology to the work that is received at Sundance, and how crucial it is for access purposes. He states that VOD is the conduit for the “niche films that often have trouble acquiring traditional distribution…This has strengthened the independent market because it encourages more innovative (and cost-effective) distribution strategies, and distribution is the ultimate end goal for any filmmaker- they want their stuff seen!”
From Gravitas to IFC, the Video-on-Demand world has made the moving image archive landscape extremely complicated. Not only is there concern over the preservation of the various different types of festival submissions (and festivals!), but there is ample disquiet about the materials that have moved through the ranks and made it to the honored position of Video-on-Demand. While this is clearly a step in the right direction for the creative talent, what does this mean for the archives? Why is it that there is not an open communication between professional moving image archives and professional organizations that are, in fact, aggregating the materials? It seems to this moving image archivist that there is something rotten in the state of VOD. The reality of the situation is that not only are the original materials used for the VOD broadcasts in need of an archival home, but in the process of migrating each element to a form that is “demand-able” new materials are being made, thus creating more materials for each title. My question here is…who is caring for them and where are they going afterwards?
Judging by the study that came out this year (Digital Dilemma 2), there does not seem to be a great deal of preservation concern amongst the VOD-independent cinema community. This is cause for alarm. While the success of independent cinema due to the VOD-strategy should be celebrated, it will mean nothing if there are no films to be watched down the line. This is a unique opportunity for moving image archivists, film industry professionals, and Video-on-Demand experts to come together in a consortium in order to create unique collections for the filmmakers, the festivals, the VOD companies, and the archives themselves. The preservation of these materials at an archive means long-term care and access, and not simply for the filmmakers themselves. Depending on the donor/deposit agreement, the placement of these materials could grant scholarly admission and perhaps the eventuality of future requests to license said materials for financial compensation. Additionally, if there were ever to be a festival retrospective of any sort, all the elements would be in one location and not dispersed or, heaven forbid, non-existent.
They Said It Couldn’t Be Done: Examples of Film Festival Archives
Opening the lines of communication with filmmakers and other professionals is not always easy. But in this circumstance, it is necessary. As Lynne Kirste wrote in her discussion of the Outfest Legacy Collection, “amateur and independent productions are rarely widely distributed, [and] typically only a few elements exist of each title. If these elements remain in filmmakers’ closets and basements, they will eventually deteriorate, suffer damage, or be discarded and lost. In the meantime, only the filmmaker has access to the materials. To make these images viewable now and in the future, archival outreach is essential.” (Kirste) What Kirste wrote in regards to Outfest is sadly accurate about all independent and festival cinema and is particularly applicable in this situation. These independent filmmakers are the only ones who have access to the preservation copies of their work. As for any newly-produced VOD-digital copies, it is hard to say who might be in the possession of those. Whatever the case may be, for the same reasons that Kirste writes about, these elements need to be located, collected, and organized into collections. While it may sound difficult now, it will be much harder further down the road when someone is doing a retrospective on a famous director, finds out that his/her first work was a festival film that was direct-to-video/Video-on-Demand, and the digital copy produced for IFC was not preserved. To avoid situations as the one just described, it is crucial to impress upon both the creative talent as well as the business side that it is in their best interests to coordinate with a professional moving image archive for storage, preservation and access purposes.
There is precedence for this activity. The Outfest Film Festival archives its materials at the UCLA Film and Television Archive as does the Sundance Institute. Both of these film festivals made this choice for a reason. They decided that forming a strong relationship with a moving image archive when dealing with that much cultural heritage on a daily basis could only benefit their organizations. Both institutions archive films that get shown at their festivals, but each project has a different goal that they are trying to achieve by housing their collection with UCLA. Sundance’s goal is quite clear. As stated in the Digital Dilemma 2,
While long-term preservation is a consideration for the Sundance Collection, its primary emphasis is to support the Sundance Institute’s broader mission that includes enabling artists to reach a wider audience. Since most distribution deals for independent films are for a finite period of time, providing archival resources increases the chances that these films and their source elements will survive long enough to secure follow-on distribution. (Science & Technology Council)
By working with UCLA, the Sundance Institute has managed to secure a location where they know, without a doubt, their materials will be kept safely. This way they can continue working on their main goals and build their archive. Indeed, through their partnership with UCLA, Sundance’s goals are being met in two ways: 1) the simple act of preservation/archiving of materials and 2) by UCLA’s ability to provide access for a more extensive audience of students, scholars and possible business opportunities.
The UCLA Film & Television Archive is, after the Library of Congress, the largest collection of media materials in the United States, with more than 220,000 film and television titles and 27 million feet of newsreel footage.
Outfest is going in the same direction with slightly different objectives. While their festival films are also housed within UCLA’s vaults, they are done so under the designation of the Legacy Project. The Outfest Legacy Project is a “collaboration between Outfest and the UCLA Film and Television Archive [and] is the only program in the world devoted to saving and preserving lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender moving images.” (Outfest) While the festival materials are clearly intrinsic to the Outfest collection, so is everything else. This is a festival that saw an opportunity and grabbed it. Not only have they housed the festival items with a welcoming archive and provided access to the public but they have gone one step further: they have transformed the collection into what it was named for- a legacy.
As stated on their 5th Anniversary History page,
There is no system in place to restore or save independent, orphan or films made for and by people on the margins of the Hollywood canon. Very, very few major LGBT titles of the last 30 years have ever been preserved…The Legacy Project was created to protect films that do not have a studio’s support or other financial means in place to support it…. Our goal is to collect and conserve a diverse range of LGBT film and media in order to make access copies available for research viewing on the UCLA campus. As of January 2010, Outfest and UCLA have established the largest publicly accessible and comprehensive collection of LGBT moving images for research and study (over 13,000 items and growing). (Outfest)
Although Sundance’s relationship with the archive is meant to support its primary mission of “wider audience” and Outfest is more preservation-bound, both organizations are perfect examples of what can be achieved through the right kinds of communication and outreach. Kirste writes “[m]ost archival repositories share the same mission: to gather materials that fall within their collecting mandate; protect their holdings from harm and damage; identify, organize and catalogue materials; preserve deteriorated items; and make their collections publicly accessible.” (Kirste) The UCLA Film and Television Archive holds true to those standards. These are its primary goals and these are also reasons why Sundance and Outfest selected this location to house their collections. Out of all the archives where they could have placed their materials, UCLA has one of the best research facilities for moving images in the country, let alone the world. In addition to the obvious benefits of preservation, respect and care, having students, scholars and other noted individuals be able to access their moving image materials will only benefit these organizations in the long run.
The Sundance Institute's Web Banner in support of their archive and independent film preservation!
Who’s On First?: Getting Festivals and VOD off the Bench
In layman’s terms, this situation is like a baseball game where all the disenfranchised players are kept sitting in the dugout- not for one inning or for two, but for the entire game. Heavy hitters like Spielberg or Lucas no longer have these troubles, but they’re not in the minor leagues anymore nor do they traffic in difficult subject matter (or if they do, it has only been after they made a grip of cash!). While every filmmaker should ideally be responsible for the preservation and survival of his/her own creative work, once you become a contributing artist, you have made a commitment to your work’s transition in identity. Whether it is to a film festival or a series of On-Demand titles, the materials have migrated from a singularly-created piece to being part of a larger collective body. Regardless of where the termination point is, these materials have a need to be preserved and archived.
As organizations like Sundance and Outfest have shown, it is entirely possible to have the best of all possible worlds. It simply requires communication on both ends- archival and institutional/business. Both Sundance and Outfest have On-Demand titles, and both organizations have partnerships with a major moving image archive in order to assure that all the blood, sweat and tears that their filmmakers have put into the festival submissions get preserved in the best way possible. If we use these as models, who is to say that we cannot create further archives and/or collections for all the materials currently being created?
It is not unseemly for regional film festivals to work with regional film archives, nor would it be unseemly for funds from the VOD market to be filtered back into the preservation of their own newly-created digital materials. Partnerships between Video-on-Demand aggregators and larger moving image archives would only seem to make sense, as the housing and care of digital materials is a delicate process. As Strother Martin said in Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967), “What we’ve got here is, failure to communicate,” and that is the state that we are in currently. It is not the state that we will always be in, nor will it be the state that we should always be in. The fact that organizations such as Gravitas Ventures are currently collecting Video-On-Demand titles and serving in a programming capacity means that they want to support independent filmmakers and would like to make sure that they succeed. However, it is the lack of preservation concern that is of concern, not unlike the survey that was the subject of this year’s Digital Dilemma. For an industry that is quickly transitioning to one of the most delicate forms of information storage in history, it is certainly fascinating that no one was anxious about the state of preservation.
To this end, I believe it important to remember that balance is essential in this equation. Balance is what drives good communication (a good conversation is 50/50), balance is what will allow our moving image culture to remain healthy (let’s not let our living room become our theater and our theater become our living room), and balance will give our moving image heritage a chance to have a decent future (let’s not let the onset of new technologies affect our desire for preservation, shall we?). In the end, I have faith that it will be the strength of our relationships and the determination of a film community that refuses to let technological hiccups stand in the way of silver screen enjoyment. After more than 100 years of the moving image, one would be hard pressed to imagine a world without it.
Science & Technology Council. The Digital Dilemma 2: Perspectives From Independent Filmmakers, Documentarians, and Nonprofit Audiovisual Archives. Technology. Los Angeles: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2012.
Smith, Ethan and Lauren A. E. Schuker. “For Indie Films, Video-on-Demand Fills in Revenue Gap.” Wall Street Journal 10 January 2011.