Reinventing Cinema: An Interview with Chuck Tryon (Part Two)

Below is the second installment of my interview with Chuck Tryon, author of em> Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence

Your chapter on digital distribution has much to say about Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films, especially about their model of organizing house parties around viewing of their progressive documentaries. What does digital distribution offer such filmmakers? Greenwald is increasingly moving from the distribution of full length documentaries to the much more rapid dispersal of short videos via YouTube and Facebook. How might this shift reflect changes in the way independent and documentary filmmakers are relating to digital distribution?

Robert Greenwald has been a brilliant innovator when it comes to skillfully using social media for political purposes, and I find his work fascinating because he has typically managed to navigate between detailed, but accessible, policy analyses and using available social media tools, from email lists to blogs and web video, to build an audience for his work (and for Brave New Films in general).

To some extent, I think his initial success grew out of the alienation and anger felt by many on the left at the beginning of the Iraq War and, later, after George W. Bush was reelected in 2004, so he was able to build an impressive infrastructure using the “house party” model, but at some point, I think it became difficult to sustain the sense that these new documentaries were unique events, so I’ve been impressed with his attempts to craft shorter and more timely responses to ongoing events, such as the war in Afghanistan and more recently, the oil spill in the Gulf. These videos can circulate quickly and can often have a more immediate impact through tools such as Twitter and Facebook, and because new videos are available on a daily basis, it can encourage the people who watch and share his videos to see political participation as an ongoing, daily process, rather than an occasional activity.

Although I think these rapid responses are incredibly powerful, other independent and documentary filmmakers still focus on creating special events, using tools such as OpenIndie and similar tools to invite audiences to request that a film play at a local theater. One of the most successful films to use the OpenIndie model was Franny Armstrong’s environmental documentary, The Age of Stupid, which used the service to build demand for simultaneous screenings in over 500 theaters in at least 45 countries. Thus, in addition to building and sustaining an audience online through short videos, many filmmakers are seeking to turn their screenings into unique experiences where audiences will feel more like participants than viewers

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In the book, you describe a splintering of independent films with South by Southwest becoming the key festival for filmmakers who do not wish or are not able to compete at Sundance. What can you tell us about the current status of these “mumblecore” filmmakers?

The mumblecore label was always somewhat amorphous, but it illustrated the power of collaboration in an era democratized media production. This sense of collaboration, or incestuousness, depending on your perspective, is illustrated in a series of charts designed by mumblecore filmmaker Aaron Hillis, showing the degree to which these filmmakers have cooperated with–and learned from–each other.

Some of my favorite filmmakers from the movement, including Andrew Bujalski, continue to produce engaging work outside of the Hollywood system, while others, such as the Duplass brothers, have had films, including Baghead and Cyrus, distributed by studio specialty divisions such as Picturehouse and Sony Pictures Classics. Arin Crumley, one of the filmmakers behind Four Eyed Monsters, has joined forces with Lance Weiler to participate in the creation of tools that will help independent filmmakers promote and exhibit their films. But one of the more significant compliments to mumblecore’s influence came from New York Times film critic, A.O. Scott, who argued that mumblecore actress, Greta Geriwg, might be one of the most significant actresses of this generation in his assessment of her “naturalistic” performance in the Ben Stiller film, Greenberg. So, even though the mumblecore label is less widely used, many of the filmmakers in the movement have been able to develop successful careers either within Hollywood or as independent filmmakers.

Much has been written about the fact that there is no longer a Pauline Kael among film critics. Instead, our most well known critic today is Roger Ebert, who has moved from television to the blogs and Twitter as platforms for sharing his views on film. Behind Ebert, there is an army of film bloggers who are sharing their thoughts about cinema. Is the result a stronger or weaker film culture? What do you see as the strengths and limitations of these two configurations of film criticism?

To some extent, I think it’s easy to romanticize the past and the contributions of critics such as Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and Susan Sontag, especially when so many newspapers and magazines are either firing their film critics or relying upon freelance writers for their reviews. But this nostalgia for an earlier form of film criticism obscures some of the ways in which film blogs are helping to reinvent film culture.

Because of my own experiences as a film blogger, I’m probably biased on this point, but I think that film blogs have strengthened film culture immensely, in part because those critics are now held accountable by the bloggers who read and respond to their reviews in highly public ways. But although there may be thousands of dedicated film bloggers, I think the blogosphere is structured in such a way that a small number of critics still wield a huge influence, such as Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott, and Harry Knowles. Similarly, many film bloggers, such as Karina Longworth and Matt Zoller Seitz, are often incorporated into more mainstream venues. At the same time, bloggers such as David Hudson aggregate the most significant film news on the web, directing the attention of readers to the most significant film news of the day, ensuring that most film critics and cinephiles will continue to have access to significant ideas about film as they are unfolding.

Ebert’s remarkable transformation through social media is fascinating. Ebert has always been engaged with his audience, though his “Answer Man” column, but blogging and Twitter have deepened that engagement. One recent example of this engagement is Ebert’s recent column (http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/07/okay_kids_play_on_my_lawn.html) in which he rethought an earlier column where he claimed that video games, by definition, cannot be art. His original column provoked thousands of comments, many of them offering sophisticated arguments about the definition of art or about video game aesthetics, challenging Ebert to at least acknowledge some of the limitations of his original argument

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As you note, many of those producing short films for YouTube see them as “calling cards,” which they hope will open doors for them inside the film industry. Five years into its history, how well has YouTube functioned as a pipeline for promoting and developing new filmmaking talent?

I’m probably not as attentive to these “calling card” stories as I ought to be, but I’ve been able to trace a small number of filmmakers who have been able to use YouTube as a means of opening doors inside the film industry. One of the more famous examples is a Uruguayan visual effects specialist, Fede Alvarez, who created a short, Panic Attack, that has generated nearly 5 million views and, along with it, an agreement from Mandate Pictures to back a $30 million film.

Other success stories would certainly include Paranormal Activity, where a group of do-it-yourself filmmakers succeeded in developing grassroots enthusiasm for their movie online before seeing the film get picked up by Paramount, initially with the purpose of remaking it, before realizing that the filmmakers had already succeeded in creating enormous demand for their film.

Some of the more successful YouTube “calling cards” rely on humor, including parody of more familiar texts, in order to build an audience familiar with the original. One of the best examples here is High School Sucks The Musical, which was picked up for distribution by Lakeshore Entertainment after the filmmakers were able to generate interest in the film through their YouTube channel.

A number of other filmmakers, many of them living outside the US, have managed to raise some funding for their films online, operating outside of the Hollywood industry with the hope of securing some combination of theatrical, DVD, and television distribution. The Finnish filmmakers behind the satirical Star Wreck web series have used their web popularity to raise funding for their Iron Sky film, while the Madrid-based Riot Cinema Collective is working on The Cosmonaut. Many of these filmmakers invite viewers to support in a film project by buying a CD of songs “inspired by” the film or a t-shirt featuring the film’s logo, encouraging those audiences not only to become “invested” in the film’s success but also to become participants in a word-of-mouth campaign to get others to watch it.

There are certainly other cases that I’m forgetting, but these are a few that have crossed my radar. These cases seem to show that YouTube (or any other video sharing site) can be used to develop and promote a wide range of new talent.

Cineastes worry about young people who are watching films on their iPod, iPhone, and we presume now, their iPad. To what degree is this a red herring? What do we know about the consumption of films on such mobile devices?


From what I can tell, the alarmism over youthful audiences consuming movies on mobile devices is considerably exaggerated. Certainly people, including many adults, will sometimes watch movies on mobile devices during times of enforced waiting, such as a long plane trip (note the presence of Redbox kiosks in airport terminals), but I’m pretty skeptical of arguments such as those by older critics, who depict today’s youth as enthralled by watching movies on their iPods. In fact, according to a recent study by the Kaiser Foundation, TV consumption on an iPod represents only a small slice of overall media consumption. Further, teens and young adults remain avid moviegoers, as a quick visit to a local multiplex will confirm, and there is some evidence, including a recent study by the Nielsen Company, that teen media consumption may be more traditional than we typically assume. Many of these assumptions about teen media practices seem related to a combination of fears about youth and about new technologies.

The Pew Internet and American Life studies also do an excellent job of tracking practices of online video viewing habits, but at this point, the perception that people are dropping cable TV for online video seems overstated, part of what NewTeeVee refers to as the “cord-cutting myth”. While this may change thanks to Hulu Plus and other online TV subscription services, it seems clear that people will continue to consume media on multiple platforms.

What new platforms or practices do you see as having the most likelyhood of “reinventing cinema” in the next few years?

I typically shy away from predicting future trends, and in some ways, I think we will continue to see some forms of stability within the film industry: people will still go to blockbuster films at local multiplexes or watch movies on whatever home screens are available. And fans will still blog about and remix those movies in order to participate in a wider cultural conversation. I have been fascinated by the degree to which Redbox initially placed the industry in turmoil through its dollar-per-day rentals, but it appears that the industry response to Redbox is now relatively settled, but I do think that Redbox is symptomatic of a declining emphasis on collecting or owning DVDs, especially among casual movie fans who are seeking a night’s entertainment. Redbox also illustrates the fact that residual technologies such as the DVD may have a longer future than we might have initially predicted.

I’m also interested in the streaming video service, Mubi, which initially marketed itself toward a globalized cinephile culture by distributing a number of American indie and international art house movies online in high-quality streaming versions. They have recently contracted with Playstation to stream movies through their PS3 game console and seem to be positioning themselves as a go-to site for socially-networked cinephiles. Both of these phenomena point to the ways in which non-theatrical audiences are consuming movies in new ways. Rather than collecting DVDs that may only be viewed a couple of times, if at all, Redbox and Mubi illustrate an ongoing trend towards temporary access to a movie.

I am optimistic that DIY and independent filmmakers will continue to build a more effective distribution network through the technologies and tools available to them, whether through crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter or sites such as OpenIndie that allow filmmakers to map the location of their audience in order to schedule theatrical screenings. The best filmmakers will find creative ways to use transmedia storytelling techniques to build an engaged audience. Film bloggers will continue to serve a curatorial function, identifying movies that their readers will find interesting or entertaining. Rather than a single dramatic change, the medium of film will continue to evolve as filmmakers, scholars, critics, and fans continue to engage with social and technological change.

Chuck Tryon is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Fayetteville State University, where his teaching and research has focused on various aspects of film, television, and convergent media, including digital cinema, documentary studies, political video, and on using technology in the language arts classroom. He is the author of Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence (Rutgers UP, 2009). He has also written several essays on the role of YouTube in the 2008 election, including “Political Video Mashups as Allegories of Citizen Empowerment (http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2617/2305)” (with Richard L. Edwards) for First Monday, and “Pop Politics: Online Parody Videos, Intertextuality, and Political Participation” for Popular Communication.

He has also written about Twitter for AlterNet and published an early essay on using blogs in the first-year composition classroom for the journal Pedagogy . He frequently writes about film and media at The Chutry Experiment where he has been blogging since 2003.

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