net.wars: The way we were
by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 24 April 2009
The math: Champaign-Urbana's Virginia Theater seats 1,600 ("I saw all the Star Wars movies in this theater," said the guy behind me). Audience skews somewhat to Baby Boom and older. Mostly white. Half a million people at Woodstock. Hard to know, but the guy sitting next to me and I agreed: two feels right.
This week is Roger Ebert's Film Festival, a small, personal event likely to remain so because of its location: his Illinois home town. A nice, Midwestern town, chiefly known for the university whence came Mosaic. People outside the US may not know Ebert's work as well as those inside it: a Pulitzer Prize-winning print critic, he and fellow Chicago newspaper critic Gene Siskel invented TV movie criticism. The festival is a personal love letter to movie fans, to his home town, and to the movies he picks because he feels they deserve to be more widely known and/or appreciated.
This is what it's like: the second day the parents of one of the featured directors casually pull me to lunch in the student union cafeteria. "I used to sit at this table when I was a student here," said the wife. She pointed across the cafeteria. "Roger Ebert used to sit at that table over there." Her husband pointed in a third direction and added, "And that table over there is where we met."
People come because they love movies – and also love seeing them in a fine theater with perfect sound and projection filled with the ultimate in appreciative audiences. Watching Woodstock last night, people so much forgot that they weren't at a live concert that they applauded each act in turn. And when Country Joe yelled, "What does it spell?" they yelled back "FUCK" at increasingly high volume.
I will remind you that this is America's heartland; these are supposed to be the people whose sensibilities are too delicate for Janet Jackson's nipple. Hah.
The next morning, at a panel about the tribulations of movie distribution in these troubled times, I found I was back at work. Woodstock Michael Wadleigh – who's heavy into saving the planet now – told a quaint story about the film's release. His contract gave him final cut. Warner Brothers saw his finished length – four hours – and was ready to ignore it and cut it down to one hour 50 minutes. Received wisdom: successful movies aren't longer than that. Received wisdom: rock and roll documentaries are not successful movies anyway. Received wisdom: we have more lawyers than you. Nyaaah. Come and sue us. This attitude toward artists seems familiar, somehow.
So Wadleigh and his producers stole back his film, just like in S.O.B.. The producer then called the studios and convinced them that Wadleigh was deranged enough to actually set fire to himself and all the footage if the studio didn't release the film exactly as he'd cut it. Studio relents (that probably wouldn't happen now either). Film is released at nearly four hours. Still the biggest-grossing documentary in history. Now remastered, cleaned up, sound digitized, etc. for a new DVD. That was, like flower power, then..
Cut to Nina Paley, sitting a few directors down the panel from Wadleigh. Paley, like most of the others here – Guy Madden (My Winnipeg), Karen Gehres (Begging Naked), Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (Trouble the Water) – can't find distribution. Unlike Lessin, who reacted with some umbrage to the notion of giving stuff away, Paley decided that rather than sign away effectively all rights to her movie for five or ten years she turned it over to her audience to distribute for her. Yes, she put all the movie's files on the Internet for free under a share-alike Creative Commons licence. Go ye and download. I'll wait.
And what happened? People downloaded! People shared! People started inviting her to speak! People started demanding to buy DVDs. She started making money.
Boggle, MPAA, boggle.
That doesn't mean to say that movie distribution isn't in trouble: it is. Wadleigh and the Warner Brothers publicity person, Ronnee Sass, next to him, may have a mutual admiration society, but even films that have won top prizes at Cannes and Sundance are having trouble getting seen. Art theaters are shutting down and the small distributors that service them are going out of business.
"Why?" I was asked over lunch. A dozen reasons. People have more entertainment options. Corporate-owned studios would rather gamble on blockbusters. Theaters got unpleasant – carved-up, badly angled, out-of-focus screening rooms with sticky floors and too-loud, distorted sound. To people who were watching movies on small TV screena with commercial disruptions, home theaters look like an improvement – you can talk to your friends, eat what you want, pick your own movies, and pause whenever you like. More, in fact, like reading a novel or listening to music than going to a movie in the old sense, when you didn't – couldn't – yawn halfway through the magic and say, "I'll finish it tomorrow.".
What people have forgotten is the way a theater filled with audience response changes the experience. Would Woodstock have been the same if everyone had stayed home and watched it on TV?
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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).
net.wars: The way we were