The 401st Blow :: Thoughts On Media

The Soft Tyranny Of Bad Exemplars

Posted in Distribution, Rant by Noah Harlan on February 10, 2010

Reed Martin from NYU has a post over at YouTube’s Biz Blog about the YouTube movie rental experiment during Sundance.  While the actual numbers were disappointing (probably not least of which to the producers participating – though they did get great exposure), Reed is making the case that this is a harbinger of successes to come.  I agree with him. This is the future for small indie films. Get your film out there on as many platforms as possible and grab what revenue you can.  But Reed then says this:

From now on, the Lee Daniels’ (“Precious”) and Kathryn Bigelow’s (“The Hurt Locker”) of tomorrow will be able to bypass traditional gatekeepers and monetize their hard work and creativity using only an HD camera, a fast laptop and a decent Internet connection. Indeed, the day when nearly everyone has made an independent film, in the same way that most people today have both an e-mail address and a Facebook page (and perhaps a blog and a Twitter account), may not be far off.

What?  I mean… what?

Those two statements are just bizarre.  Let’s look at them.

First, looking at PRECIOUS and THE HURT LOCKER (both very, very good films that I am thrilled got made and are having success), why on earth would those films want to bypass traditional gatekeepers. Reed is acting as though those films have been somehow hurt financially by the gatekeepers. Nothing could be further from the truth.  PRECIOUS was acquired in a multi-million dollar sale at Sundance by Lionsgate – one of the few remaining traditional distributors that still acquires. THE HURT LOCKER was made and released by Summit (yes, the same Summit of TWILIGHT) and directed by the woman who made POINT BREAK.  Neither of these films suffered from being independents. They are the wonderful exceptions to the rules. The films that did very well because the traditional system worked, not in spite of it. Why use them as examples in this discussion? Why would anyone looking at the performance of those films want to embrace new alternatives?

Second, what on earth does Reed mean that “nearly everyone has made an independent film”. Is this implying that any video clip put on YouTube is an independent film? Is Reed actually arguing the equivalent of saying that anyone who does a Facebook status update is a professional author or blogger? This makes absolutely zero sense. Is he implying that anyone who uploads anything will be earning money from that and thus we have the basis for an industry? That’s completely counter to every law of economics and reason. If everyone is a professional filmmaker (by ‘professional’ I mean seeking to earn a living at it) then the market becomes vastly over saturated and, assuming the amount of media consumed & paid for remains relatively constant (most people aren’t suddenly going to be watching & paying for vastly more movies) that money will get divided across far more films and the viability of films economically will plummet. I think Reed just undermined his own argument.

Suffice to say, I applaud YouTube and those filmmakers who participated (especially Tze & Mynette’s CHILDREN OF INVENTION) but articles like this that simultaneously point to the outliers and the unrefined masses are missing the point. These systems will allow the wonderful films that traditional gatekeepers deemed too challenging to sponsor to finally find an audience and will allow artists with their 1,000 True Fans, to effectively marshal those fans and create a sustainable ecosystem.

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