[30 October 2007]
Tiffany Shlain’s movie, The Tribe, is the number one short film on i-Tunes. In a New York Times article last week she said that “iTunes had actually made it advantageous, in a way, to make short films. “It’s one of these beautiful moments in time,” Ms. Shlain said. “People aren’t trained yet to download a feature and watch it” on their television, she added. “Most people are going to watch on their iPod or a computer. The technology really isn’t there yet to move it over to TV. And people are much more apt to download shorts, because of YouTube and iTunes.”
Tiffany’s early short films can be found on You Tube. They’re a collage of found images and archival footage spliced with images she’s created. Tiffany describes her films as ‘fast paced’ but it’s the smooth glide of exhilaration not an edgy adrenalin rush. The Tribe – an essay on “what it means to be an American Jew in the 21st Century” –added extra elements, narration, bits of performance, animated dioramas using dolls (in this case Barbie, the iconic doll created by a Jewish American woman) and “avant-garde visual techniques”. They have elements of humour as well as poignancy, an approach that Tiffany’s husband Ken Goldberg, an artist and scientist who co-wrote The Tribe, has described as “using humour and play to disarm our preconceptions.” Tiffany created a book and flash cards to go with The Tribe and described the film as “the appetiser” and the discussions as “the main course”.
Ken is a pioneer of telerobotic art projects conducted over the internet and these installations, that create an art project as a way of commenting on the tool and critiquing it while it’s being developed, will be wrapped around the experience of the films they’ll be producing with their new company, The Moxie Institute. It has a still-to be-announced structural mix of non-profit services (a ‘think tank’, white papers) and the sale of the films, which have a strong social message “focusing on the power of film and the web to make social change”. Ken and Tiffany are investigating ”the intersection between these worlds and how the rules are changing. We hope to share the ideas that work and form bridges with leaders in the respective industries to achieve better financial and social returns.”
There are now many film-makers taking on big environmental, social, humanitarian, and cultural questions. At the recent Sundance Film Festival Tiffany co-hosted a ‘think tank’ on the intersection of film, the internet and social change. Highlights from The Movies That Matter panel were intercut with an interview with Tiffany from the think tank.
Directors, writers and producers on Monday’s Movies that Matter Panel have influenced everything from AIDS policy, to the phase-out of PVC packaging, to the global warming debate. Participants included: Sean Fine War / Dance, Judith Helfand Everything’s Cool, Rory Kennedy Ghost’s of Abu Graib, Eric Schlosser Fast Food Nation, Gayle Smith (The Center for American Progress), Diane Weyermann Participant Productions, and Brian Steidle (subject of The Devil Came on Horseback), Helene Cooper of the New York Times (who became an anti-Apartheid activist after seeing Cry Freedom) moderated. While everyone agreed that the movies can matter, there were a variety of approaches to how and why. We’ve all seen the effects of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. My mom’s cat knows about it. Weyermann noted, “The idea was to try to reach as many people as possible to incite change.” Participant Productions clearly carried this out successfully through non-profit partnerships and savvy marketing. To head off doubters, a “bible of science” was provided to press along with the film’s initial release. A year after the Sundance premiere, “The debate about whether global warming exists is over,” said Weyermann. “Now it’s ‘what can we do?’”
Report from Treehugger.
Tiffany’s movies don’t have a plot they have a perspective, where they are philosophically matters as much as what they are. Natural Connection, a short film Tiffany made in 2001 begins with the camera going in through an eye, and the way that the images slide together, morph into one another, and spark off one another makes it seem as if we’re watching the process of thinking, impressions deepening into ideas. Questioning the permeable borders between art and science, considering the reasoning of the scientist, something observable and measurable, and the mystery and intuition that fuels the artist, is also something that underpins all of Ken’s telerobotic art projects. And Tiffany’s father, Leonard Shlain, has written several books that study the intersection between art and science. His book Art and Physics proposes, “…that the visionary artist is the first member of a culture to see the world in a new way. Then, nearly simultaneously, a revolutionary physicist discovers a new way to think about the world.” I think of Tiffany’s movies as demonstrating what happens when this seeing and thinking collide.
Tiffany was the founder of the Webby Awards and a few years ago stepped away from the day-to-day running of the company to concentrate again on film making. Her invention that receives the most attention is the Zen koan-like five word acceptance speech: e.g. Al Gore saying “please don’t recount this vote”. But she also made the awards democratic with a People’s Voice award, able to be voted on by anyone who’s connected to the internet, running alongside the official award made by industry innovators and practitioners. What’s genuinely popular now is able to be celebrated along with technical breakthroughs that are yet to move into widespread use. Tiffany formed the Digital Academy of Arts and Sciences to vote on the official awards.
Tiffany has always been guided by the notion that the internet is a communications medium that has the responsibility to provide the kind of information as a public trust that traditional media companies find it difficult to do in a time of declining revenues. Recently the Webby Awards held a summit to look at the message of the media, with internet co-inventor Vint Cerf, Arianna Huffington the publisher of The Huffington Post, Biz Stone, Co-Founder of Twitter, and Shawn Gold of MySpace, and del.icio.us founder Joshua Schachter among the presenters. There are papers from the conference at the Webby’s site.
On her own blog Arianna Huffington talked about the value of community.
Over at WebbyConnect, the talk was about a trend that is already happening: the realization by a growing number of major media companies that the best way to succeed—and make money—in the Brave New Media World is to give away your content. Forward thinking companies are now adopting long-term growth strategies, and moving away from short-term profit-seeking.
“Make as much as you can, any way you can” was the approach many big companies had taken to monetizing the web. The New York Times stuck some of its most popular content behind a pay wall, and Microsoft stuck 30-second pre-roll ads on its MSN Video videos.
Neither of these strategies paid off: online readership of the Times’ columnists dropped, and users at MSN complained of a negative user experience.
So now TimesSelect is dead. MSN is cutting way back on pre-roll ads. And, elsewhere, CBS has made a major u-turn away from the notion of hording its content on its own site, instead letting its material be available all over the web. Quincy Smith, the new president of CBS Interactive put it this way: “CBS is all about open, nonexclusive, multiple partnerships.”
The conclusion is inescapable: online, promiscuity can be profitable. And not just when it comes to porn!
To its credit, CBS and other major players are finally realizing that the key to online success is community, community, community.