The Indie Film Community’s Attitudes About the Web

by |

Amanda HirschFreelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her weekly column, Outside the Frame.

I’ve been to Sundance. Yes, me! I’m no filmmaker, no deal-maker, no publicist — heck, I don’t even own a pair of Uggs — but I’ve had the incredible, memorable and exhilarating experience of attending the Sundance Film Festival, not once, but twice: in 2005, and again in 2006. Here’s a picture to prove it: that’s me in the glamorous white knit hat:
Amanda Hirsch at the Sundance Film Festival

Amanda Hirsch at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

I was there on behalf of PBS Interactive, the PBS department focused on extending the reach and impact of PBS content online and on other digital platforms. As someone who worked with dozens of talented interactive producers — people who poured their creativity into telling stories online — it was incredibly frustrating to find interactive storytelling absent from the agenda. There was an excellent session on video on demand, I remember, and one about blogging, but they were discussions about business models, not storytelling. Not to mention, the festival’s website that year was horrible — it was impossible to navigate. It pretty clear that to the festival’s organizers, the web was still an unimportant stepchild.

In other words, the message I got was: indie filmmakers are creative heroes who sacrifice everything for their art; the web is just about distribution and marketing.

Four years later, I wonder, how far have we come? How many people with backgrounds in film or television really accept that the Web is a rich creative outlet, instead of a place where a filmmaker or media company just needs to have a presence in order to be “hip” or “relevant”?

Don’t get me wrong — I understand that Sundance is a film festival, not a Web or media festival; it has no obligation to celebrate the art of online storytelling. I use it merely as an example, and take the occasion of Sundance ’09 as an opportunity to check in on the film community’s attitudes towards the Web.

If this year’s Sundance website is any indication, the indie film world is beginning to embrace the power of the Web beyond marketing and distribution. This year’s site is well-designed and, dare I say, content-rich: there’s a gallery of posters and photos from festivals past, a Twitter feed, a blog and other features that not only promote festival fare, but help bring the experience — the story — of the festival to life online. I was most intrigued by the Storytime feature — profiles of festival attendees ranging from ordinary audience members to VIPs. I love the spirit behind this, even though I’d say its execution is pretty flat — I’d rather see something like the visual thesaurus that could embody the relationships and shared interests of the masses of people involved with the fest.

What do you think — has the Web sparked the creative interest of the film community, or is it still seen as primarily a vehicle for marketing and distribution? If you were at Sundance this year, what were your impressions of attendees’ attitudes towards the Web? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch is former editorial director of PBS Interactive.
  • http://wiredformusic.blogspot.com/ Jordan

    FOREIGNID: 18188
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    What do you think — has the Web sparked the creative interest of the film community, or is it still seen as primarily a vehicle for marketing and distribution?
    I think the web has sparked the creative interest of the non-film community in many wonderful (and of course many mundane) ways. The massive growth of so-called “user-generated” film online says (to me, anyway) that there is a critical mass of people out there who want to use video in some way to tell their story – and they’re not waiting around to go through film school or get discovered to do it. I think to the “film community” the web will always be a secondary destination, and/or a tool for marketing & distribution. But they are the “film community,” their focus is film…as opposed to the “web community” who are using film to enhance their online experience, using video as a tool to tell their story.
    Film and the web are both just tools, not end-points. They are what we make of them, and I think it’s great that people are using them together to spread their stories far and wide in ways that simply were not possible a decade ago. I don’t think they are in competition because they do different things – but at their best, they can complement each other to make both mediums better.

  • http://www.creativedc.org Amanda

    FOREIGNID: 18189
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Jordan – I definitely hear what you’re saying, but what I’m trying to get at is that if, at root, documentary filmmakers are storytellers, then aren’t they missing incredible creative opportunities to tell stories online? Why is it inevitable that, in your words, “to the ‘film community’ the web will always be a secondary destination, and/or a tool for marketing & distribution”? In many cases, film isn’t even film anymore, it’s bits and bytes – so is web content. When we craft stories online, we determine what we want our content to do, first, before identifying the right tools/technology for the job; what is keeping people who think of themselves as filmmakers from thinking of themselves as storytellers first and foremost, and embracing a wider swath of tools (online and otherwise) with which to tell their stories? Is it a literacy barrier? As someone who believes documentaries can change lives, it kills me to see some of our most passionate, dedicated, creative storytellers limiting themselves…

  • http://www.debtsettlementcompanyhelp.com/ Kira Lennox

    FOREIGNID: 18190
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Hmm, very interesting. I think you are right, and film makers should not exclude the web in their endeavors. The web is the future of marketing and advertisement!

  • http://www.liminalworlds.com LarryC

    FOREIGNID: 18191
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    It seems inevitable that more web-based documentaries will be made. I think there is still a certain prejudice, somewhat justified, that the web is not a medium for serious topics. I say “justified” because of the typical content of sites like Youtube. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s nothing to stop people from making great documentaries, or any other kind of film, and creating their own site. This is actually happening in some ways, especially with certain “underground” type films like Loose Change and Zeitgeist. It can only get bigger and more diverse, regardless of what the traditional film community does or neglects to do.

  • http://twitter.com/TruthtoTellBlog Truth2Tell

    Agreed Tom. I would add that the value-add of a “critic” is in contextualising and analysing a doco, discussing its issues from an educated perspective and using the doco’s subject and treatment of it to broaden that topic. I’ve just launched a blog at crikey.com.au in Australia called Truth to Tell (“Looking for truth and telling you what I found”) which aims to do just that

  • Docunewsroundup

    Your points are well taken, but the
    relationship between film critic and film producer/distributor can also
    veer into the corrupt, for example if they have hidden 501(c)(3) or (c)(4) funding and amplify their message through paid or free media or, as occurred with some Participant Media documentaries, an undisclosed
    longstanding personal relationship with a prominent reviewer. A former Doc Mogul and NY Film
    Critics Circle Pres. allegedly engaged in such conduct for years.

  • NotWaitingforSuperman

    The story alleging possible
    corruption arising from an affair between a documentary company
    executive producer and her film critic lover was posted for a long time
    by a public education blog which believed Davis Guggenheim, Diane Weyermann and Participant had marketed a misleading, anti-teacher’s union film, using $6 million in funding from the Gates Foundation. A version of the story, subsequently removed from the news
    site, but apparently based upon undisputed information and public
    records, can still be located the internet Wayback machine at the url noted above.

  • NotWaitingforSuperman

    (Corrected-cross post) The news story http://web.archive.org/web/20120905214844/http://transparencynewsservice.tumblr.com/ alleging possible
    corruption arising from an affair between a documentary company
    executive producer and her film critic lover was posted for a long time
    by
    a public education blog which believed Davis Guggenheim, Diane
    Weyermann and Participant had marketed a misleading, anti-teacher’s
    union film, using $6 million in funding from the Gates Foundation. A
    version of the story, subsequently removed from the news
    site, but apparently based upon undisputed information and public
    records, can still be located the internet Wayback machine at the url noted above.

  • Mavis Cohen

    As noted in my crosspost on potential mischief involving critics and film distributors, the Participant Media scandal was exposed in 2012 — it involved Participant Exec. Producer
    Diane Weyermann and film critic John Anderson. He hasn’t reviewed any Weyermann produced Participant documentary films for news publication since then, although he did write a general puff piece last year in the NY Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/27/movies/kim-roberts-kate-amend-and-other-female-film-editors.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

  • sundanceobserver

    There does appear to be some sort of link between critic support and box office outcomes. http://faculty-staff.ou.edu/B/
    From looking at the previous comments, it is difficult to assess the
    objectivity of the commentators. But it does look like Producer Diane
    Weyermann and film critic John Anderson did try to game the system, and
    if so, why didn’t anyone notice it — Participant had 4 or 5 films only a
    few years after she ran the documentary fund there. Doesn’t seem like a
    cooincidence. And she had her boyfriend writing super favorable film
    reviews of her films? Come on….

  • SundanceObserver

    Oops, URL isn’t showing up, but readers of Tom’s piece should Google “box office results and critic reviews”–the links show some of the articles about how positive critic reviews can affect box office results. There appears to be some history of attempted manipulation by Hollywood studios, but results aren’t too clear. Tom’s post about how positive critic reviews affect the success of documentaries provides some really interesting new evidence about the correlation between reviews and distributor’s success for documentaries in a crowded field. Pretty odd if companies like Participant and Sundance were involved, but Diane Weyermann had a reputation for sharp elbows as an exec. producer so if she tried to help her films by arranging for initial positive reviews, it would be fairly clever if she was never caught and no rules were broken. Were they?

  • MonicaP27Docs

    Wow. Are you asking whether it was ethical to for film critic John Anderson to write reviews about films that were financed and produced by his former live-in girlfriend Diane Weyermann? Many newspapers and critics organizations have rules that require disclosure of a close personal relationship so the readers can determine for themselves how to factor in the bias. Anderson’s favorable reviews (google them) of documentaries exec. produced by Weyermann & Participant never disclosed his personal relationship to her. It looks like the two of them cut if out after a blogger looked at Anderson’s review of Waiting for Superman in Variety http://variety.com/2010/film/reviews/waiting-for-superman-1117941947/ and finally busted them. The mainstream Hollywood press has avoided saying anything (what a surprise). Her company, which is all about social justice, appears to have no problem with it, which seems weird IMHO. But they get a lot of their film production funds from overseas so maybe the rules are different there.

  • client9

    The documentary film industry is just as bad as the feature film industry and the music industry when it comes to financial razzle dazzle and cute ethics. So the film critic issue is just the tip of an iceberg. People in the industry have heard Diane Weyermann repeatedly belittle her boss, CEO Jim Berk at Participant as a “used lawn furniture salesman.” Apparently, he once ran a vacation ownership company, implying he wasn’t qualified to run a film company. He seems to have done rather well, though.

  • TheGreaterInvisible58

    Believe this is the link to the Participant Media – Diane Weyermann – Qatar connection documentary film funding story: http://participantwatch.tumblr.com