Barbarians at the Gate

by Shaun Huston

26 February 2007

In addition to enabling collaboration and sharing, recently developed social open sourcing technologies -- sometimes called Web 2.0 or the read-write web -- make it possible to cultivate communities of interest around a particular film and even short-circuit normal promotional efforts and theatrical distribution.

The concept of open source, which originally referred to the programmer’s practice of sharing code and allowing others to refine or rewrite it, has grown beyond its computer roots to refer to all forms of digital media where some significant portion is left open for use and manipulation by anyone who can access it. Just as Hollywood is desperately seeking ways to lock down and control content, preventing its free distribution on the Internet, the fruits of open-source programming are helping aspiring filmmakers pool their resources—artistic, intellectual, and financial—to produce and distribute cinematic works independently, undermining Hollywood’s monopoly on the movie business. Widespread access to digital media and the means of its production, combined with social software that allows people to communicate and work collectively online, holds out the promise of a truly alternative film economy.

The animated short film Elephants Dream is an early example what these changes may yield. The primary production tool used on the film is Blender, an open-source 3-D modeling and animation program. Produced by the Blender Foundation and available as a free download, Elephants Dream was created by members of the Blender user community, including producer Ton Roosendaal, director Bassam Kurdali, and art director Andreas Goralczyk. Not only was it made with open-source software, Elephants Dream follows the open-source model, using Creative Commons licenses to enable others to legally share the movie and related materials, and making its base video and audio freely available for others to manipulate. And the project also adopts the open-source method of financing, soliciting donations from satisfied visitors.

Even more radical is a project that, were it to work, would make it possible for individuals around the world to effectively become movie producers. A Swarm of Angels, a UK-based project, is attempting to raise £1 million ($1.8 million) to produce a feature film with a professional crew by selling £25 ($47) memberships. Organizers include writer and director Matt Hanson, author and technology activist Cory Doctorow (of fame), and comic-book writer Warren Ellis. Depending on when they join, members will have a range of privileges, including the right to vote on scripts and other creative decisions, working on peripheral materials and promotional videos, and becoming part of the film crew (if you can call that a privilege). The project is currently developing two scripts, and members will choose which one to put into production. The final film will be licensed through Creative Commons and will be freely available to download, watch, share, excerpt, and remix. A Swarm of Angels is not-for-profit, but should any profit result from the production, it will be used to invest in a second feature.

Like A Swarm of Angels, Stray Cinema is a project that invites participation from aspiring filmmakers from around the world. However, while ASOA is based on opening the filmmaking process from the ground up, Stray Cinema is focused on editing and postproduction. Potential participants are invited to download raw footage from an already completed shoot, as well as sound and music, and submit their own edits, which are then to be screened on YouTube. Credits on the original film include director Michelle Hughes, photographer Johanna MacDonald, and actress Maame Valenkamp. The organizers also have an open call for music that can be matched with the video. Ultimately, Stray Cinema hopes for 30 submissions and an eventual London screening of the film and the top five alternate cuts, as chosen by the Stray Cinema community. All submissions will ultimately be made part of a “festival cut” for submission to festivals around the world. Stray Cinema, like Elephants Dream and ASOA, is using Creative Commons to license their raw footage and protect submissions.

In addition to enabling collaboration and sharing, recently developed social technologies—sometimes called Web 2.0 or the read-write web—make it possible to cultivate communities of interest around a particular film and even short-circuit normal promotional efforts and theatrical distribution. Susan Buice and Arin Crumley have built a fan base through a combination of festival screenings and an active web presence for their film Four Eyed Monsters, (2005) including a traditional website, a MySpace page and perhaps most critically, a series of video podcasts about the film, its production, its successes, its failures, and its fandom. The podcasts incorporate music, video and audio messages from fans, many of whom may not have even seen the film itself but have been drawn to the production through its online presence. More important, supporters are encouraged to lobby for screenings in their city via a Requests page, which can then be used to demonstrate local interest in the film and to persuade theaters to book screenings. Fans cal also promote the film with pasting promotional links on websites, blogs, and MySpace pages and by printing out and distributing posters and flyers for screenings. In spite of its lack of a traditional distributor, Four Eyed Monsters has secured theatrical screenings in several cities, including New York, LA, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle, and has been nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards. It previously won the 2006 Sundance Channel Audience Award in the indieWire: Undiscovered Gems film series.

What the projects profiled here have in common is that they open up some part of the filmmaking process and some measure of ownership in their films to the entire networked world. Their success depends on the passion and creativity of strangers. It is doubtful that Disney execs are losing much sleep over Elephants Dream or that distributors are sweating over Four Eyed Monsters picking up another screening or two, but there are signs that the Hollywood business establishment grasps at least some of the power and allure of openness. Sane studios and rights holders, for example, have decided that allowing fan fiction to live online is worth more in audience goodwill than seeking to kill it is worth in dollars. More important are experiments with the simultaneous or quick release of films in multiple formats, most recently seen with 10 Items or Less (2006), which was made available via broadband two weeks after its theatrical release on ClickStar, an enterprise of actor Morgan Freeman, and David Lynch’s decision to control distribution of Inland Empire (2006). Efforts such as these are significant because they break ground towards a more open system of distribution.

However, the open-source ethic is unlikely to sweep the old order aside anytime soon, and it may never. In some ways, the ideal situation would be one where open-source strategies and practices become prominent enough to push those invested in the closed world to make better movies. Filmmaking in the United States, especially, has always been shaped by the interplay of commercial and artistic imperatives. By making the art of film easier to practice, share and enjoy, open-source experiments have the potential to raise the creative stakes for all movies. The easier it becomes for people with passion and skill to collaborate and distribute and promote what they create, the harder it will be for others to peddle films that that are essentially sloppy, hollow and boring—words that can be all too easily applied to too much of Hollywood’s current output.

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