Sorry to be relatively absent from the conversation. While I've been occupied with other things, I've been reading these entries about distribution with fascination, and not entirely sure of how to respond. One thought that crosses my mind is how relevant (or prophetic?) these comments will be a year or two from now. Nothing is fixed; everything is in flux, moreso than at any point in the history of movie watching. With that in mind, and lacking a grand narrative arc with which to tie everything together, I'll offer some scattered observations and anecdotes from the past week or two:
- I read with great interest the article by David Pogue in the New York Times congratulating Netflix for essentially turning the corner with what Pogue calls "any movie, any time" on-demand home video rental. This was a market that everyone was eagerly anticipating to but no-one, not even Netflix, was certain how to crack. Now it looks like Netflix has pulled it off by leveraging its immense catalog and partnering with the likes of TiVo and Microsoft. So far over 12,000 titles are now instantly accessible via Netflix's "all-you-can watch for $9 a month" plan, with more added every day. The plan itself, as Pogue points out, has radical implications for the act of movie watching. Basically you are no longer constrained to whatever movie you have rented for the day or the week—theoretically you can bring up a movie and then skip to another, or another, or another, or even jump to specific scenes within movies. It's like what you're able to do with your personal video collection multiplied by several hundred magnitudes. It's just another step in the continuum of power over the experience of watching a film that is increasingly being transferred from the original creator of the work to the increasingly active spectator.
- This presents a nice segue to a recent experience of mine that by now has been well-documented, the temporary suspension of my YouTube account, which holds 150 videos, many of which are critical video essays on other films. I've already written about the ordeal on my blog. All in all, I'm glad it happened for the education I received on the immense gulf that divides the theories and practices of fair use, and that one shouldn't take anything for granted. I didn't feel so much victimized by what happened as annoyed by the defensive position adopted by Big Media, which as Edwin suggested in his post reflects an immense ignorance as to both the reality and future potential of interactive media creation and distribution channels to transform media culture. After all, this sort of critical video work isn't going away any time soon—if anything we'll be seeing much more of it due to the new, increasingly participative forms of film and media watching that technologies like the new Netflix, YouTube and the blogosphere afford us.
- The issue of distribution technologies was brought up at the Q&A session of a recent screening of Chinese independent cinema that my company dGenerate organized. Someone asked if Chinese filmmakers utilize something akin to YouTube in China, or if file sharing technologies exist. I don't have a verifiable answer (though I'm working on it) but my hunch tells me that Rapidshare technologies probably do exist, but only for a relative minority who have access to the bandwidth to make file sharing possible. The real action remains in the realm of pirated DVD sales and DVD screenings and at film festivals and similar gatherings.
Both Andrew and Edwin asked me about the relationship between dGenerate and the Chinese filmmakers we endeavor to distribute in the US, and what sort of expectations and understanding Chinese filmmakers have for distribution outside their country. I expect the answer to be very different a year or two from now, but it seems that in many cases Chinese filmmakers are struggling to settle on a set of values to define their goals both artistically and commercially. Many of these filmmakers are self-financed and initially only seek to express themselves as artists. They are grateful when they find their work worthy of attention outside of their country, let alone with a domestic audience. I know of at least one instance when films were being distributed by another party with no clear agreement as to revenue share, and the initial gratitude of the artist gave way to mistrust and accusations of exploitation. Needless to say, it's a nascent market and much needs to be done in terms of establishing standards for expectations, guidelines and fair practices, something that we at dGenerate try to exemplify in our deals with filmmakers from the very beginning.
But I can only imagine what Chinese filmmakers will do should they ever gain direct access to a channel such as YouTube to distribute their films to a worldwide audience, not unlike those two Chinese college students who lipsynched to the Backstreet Boys from their dormroom to an audience of millions. A couple of my video essays were recently turned down from a highly respected film festival, and yet I didn't feel the sting of rejection as I had in years past, partly because I had already experienced via YouTube the kind of audience feedback/response gratification one gets from film festival screenings (indeed, it's possible that the availability of my videos had something to do with their rejection). We've previously mentioned Tribeca's scaled down lineup this year, which is by no means an isolated case, due to the scaling back of funds in the current economic crisis. One wonders if the boom of film festivals triggered by the overabundance in films produced in the first wave of digital filmmaking has now busted, and more importantly, if it will ever come back.
Lastly, since this has been such a dense (and somewhat dour) series of comments, I'd like to end on a note that is both a bit light and forward-looking (and yet backward-looking at the same time). I'm conducting a year-long project to revisit several films from this decade as I prepare for the inevitable onslaught of "Best of the Decade" top ten lists to close out the era. I'd like to ask my esteemed colleagues to recommend one film from this past decade that will almost certainly be on their top ten list and that I should make sure should be on my own. (In Andrew's case, it can be one other than Synecdoche, New York ;-)).
And with that I'm off to Berlin. Cheers everyone!