As funding opportunities dry up in the UK for new filmmakers, the internet beckons. A panel convened by Billy Wiz chewed over the possibilities and challenges offered by new media while an audience packed with filmmakers debated the pros and cons.
Who wasn't there also proved illuminating; in response to an audience comment on the male domination of the panel, Wiz revealed that an invited female guest who developed the BBC i-player was asked by the corporation not to attend, while the UK Film Council claimed not to have anyone qualified to participate. Questions might well be asked as to why those organisations chose not to participate in such a forum.
The panel took its name from Wiz's new site, New Queer Underground , a "front-end aggregator of new queer work" or, in less jargony language, one which shows work taken from other sites. Clips appearing on the site were shown, as were those from other sites of interest to the panellists.
Simon McCallum of the BFI Mediatheque discussed his organisation's budding online presence and the limitations of uploading copyrighted work. Currently, Mediatheque has some 70 clips up on You Tube but can't put the bulk of its archive online as it doesn't own the rights. In future, it may have more limits as the mooted Kangaroo Project of TV broadcasters may tighten restrictions.
Dr Chris Pullen of Bournemouth Uni, who is doing research on bullying at schools, chose a clip showing an activist discussing the murder of a gay schoolboy in USA who urged viewers to press for more media coverage of the incident. For Pullen it illustrates "news stories and intimacies", i.e., members of the public expressing themselves through You Tube and other sites on issues they find personally important and thus telling their own stories.
Ben Cohen, technology correspondent for Channel 4 News, discussed technological advances that may help filmmakers: increased bandwidth and peer-to-peer services. He mentioned changes being made to the BBC i-player. No doubt we could have learned more about this, had the missing panellist turned up. Cohen suggested that as TV and net converge, You Tube will work with TIVO to allow clips to be downloaded to TV, making for more competition for audiences.
Mark Harriott, of A2Z Films, had some insights into possibilities for filmmakers selling their work online. Currently, porn seems to be the most saleable but he said that Eurocream, which streams porn, is looking for other types of film to distribute and is offering makers a cut of revenue. He also noted that YouTube is paying some filmmakers who have had over a million hits.
Revenue proved a contentious issue with some in the audience keen to know more on how to make money from their work while others considered any mention of money to be polluting the artistic environment. Wiz made clear that NQU is peer-curated and open source and generates no revenue. Cohen added that YouTube is starting to attach ads to clips, which could change the message intended by filmmakers.
Another issue raised was that of access, the digital divide between those who have access to shooting, editing and uploading tools and those who don't. While it was pointed out that teenagers are shooting on their mobiles, that ITV News and Sky regularly use clips shot by viewers, and that digital technology is far cheaper than film, this was still a concern to some and led to an interesting debate on egalitarianism and the web. Does more hits equal greater quality? And what does this mean for interesting, edgy, marginal work of the kind that may well be produced by sexual minorities?
Meanwhile, the studios are moving to get in on the action. Much as record companies have woken up to the possibilities and threats of the net as a rival and are cherry-picking it looking for new artists, all the big Hollywood studios and talent agencies have committed digital content departments scouring the net looking for new filmmaking talent.
Christopher, a US film producer in the audience, told me that he is working with a director he found online who uses the net to workshop material and fine-tune it in response to viewers' comments. Meanwhile, US cable companies such as Logo and here! have funded web serials in the hopes that these might make the jump to terrestrial TV. For these companies the web has replaced the traditional development stage of filmmaking. Instead of paying money to develop scripts, companies fund filmmakers to quickly and cheaply shoot bits of them and put them online to gauge audience reaction before continuing the process.
Christopher was enthusiastic about this practice while others worried this might water down the work produced. Filmmaker Campbell Blackman questioned the notion of the "wisdom of crowds" while another audience member decried the net's reliance on hits to measure success: "Does that push us toward a culture of junk?"
Another question raised was what the rise of the net meant for film festivals. In a virtual world, will they become redundant? McCallum asked, "As it becomes more ephemeral, do we lose our screen heritage?" Wiz thought the curatorial aspect was what differentiated the net from festivals, while Harriott felt the opportunity to meet was a draw for festivals, although he acknowledged that many net companies are now pushing the front ends of sites as communities.
With so many issues about, conclusions were hard to find. Wiz commented: "Porn and academia have a 20-year headstart on filmmakers using the internet." Surely, technology makes strange, ahem, bedfellows...