Living On Video: Festival Cinema, Archiving and the Exploding World of Video-On-Demand (VOD)

In 1983, Canadian musician Trans-X sang about what “living on video” might be like. A “computer fairyland” he murmured, all the while his bandmates slipping VHS tapes into VCRs and playing with other kinds of “new” equipment in the background. While the music video format dates back much further than the early 1980’s, the biggest music video aggregator in the world, MTV, had just begun in 1981 and Trans-X was clearly playing to that market. Not only was this song a synth-y piece of self-reflexivity and music media-awareness, but it expressed the massive influx of “new media” that was happening around that time as the moving image market expanded with the onset of home entertainment at large. While the world had been gradually dipping its feet into the waters of Video Cassette Recorders since 1974, it boomed in the early 80’s. By 1984, VHS had won the format war over Betamax, controlled 85% of the market (Total Rewind: The Virtual Map of Vintage VCRs), and home entertainment itself had blossomed to the point of threatening theatrical film exhibition.

As Jeff Ulin notes, “[b]y 1986…combined video rental and sales revenues ($4.38B) exceeded the theatrical box office ($3.78B) for the first time. By 1988, rental revenues alone ($5.15B) exceeded the theatrical box office ($4.46B)…It was the VHS format that took hold and by the mid-1980’s dominated.” (Ulin) While the ease and simplicity of the VCR may not have seemed like a big deal to the general populous, it rocked every layer of the moving image industry, all the way from production to archival institutions. Clearly, if the box office was being affected, things were going to have to change in the studios, and they knew it. What were they to do?  Like the advent of television, this new technology had torn the audience away from the theater seats and the studios were going to have to do something to fix that. Unfortunately, Cinerama had already been invented. So much for that idea! So production was in a quandary.

On the other end of things, the moving image archive world’s take on video was a little different. It wasn’t necessarily about the money being lost as a result of the change in exhibition formats as much as the information caliber on the formats themselves. As usual it was about preservation of materials. Moving image archivists were already well-aware of the problematic nature of videotape as they had been working with those elements for quite a few years. While VHS may have been the “new kid on the block” so to speak, television studios had been using video tape itself since the late 1950’s. In other words, this was a format that the archival field was familiar with. With the introduction of the VHS (Video Home System), archives now were given an alternative manner in which to provide certain materials. From this point forward until the onset of the DVD market, the VHS proved to be the primary visual tool used for education in many classrooms and was an inexpensive and simple means of distribution for moving image access copies. Equally as important, VHS and its equipment became another tool used by many experimental/independent filmmakers because of its cost, ease of use and “instant” nature.

"High Tech Baby" (1987) by Korean artist, Nam Jun Paik, considered to be the "Father of Video Art." 13 5-inch color TV monitors, aluminum, painted wood cabinet and Heart Channel VHS video tape.

So what does all of this have to do with Video-On-Demand? After all, it’s no longer on video anymore. It’s a digitized format. There’s no real video that is being demanded, if we are going to get literal. Right now, in the moving image archiving field and the film industry we are going through a massive set of growing pains. While others might label it something nicer, there are too many unanswered questions and difficult situations for it to be anything less than painful at this particular juncture. But, like any growth spurt, the outcome should be much more fun than puberty and look nicer too. It’s just a little uncomfortable right now. Similar to the onset of the VHS revolution, everyone’s technology is changing. There’s 35mm going to digital. Films are being offered at home on the very same day that they are being released theatrically (VOD). Technology and business models are changing drastically just like they did 30 years ago. This time, however, it’s at a far more rapid pace than it was in 1984. Also, it seems to have taken on a very Bizarro-world feel to it. Whereas the 1980’s technology switch seemed to favor the everyman/public by furnishing them with access to moving images in a more affordable manner and allowing archives to provide access in a more inexpensive and reasonable way, this time it seems to be (at least partially) behind the folks with the bigger wallets who have the funding to support higher technology on all fronts, cable and its glories, and the higher echelon of goods. Halting to look and see some of the repercussions or wayside issues has not been of the highest priority. While the progress in the digital domain has been impressive, equally as essential are the issues that might get left behind.

This technological change has been functioning a bit like adolescence. It doesn’t seem to be the most organized process, as the communication between certain factions is non-existent (but who really communicated well when they were a teen?) and some moving image areas seem to be in a bit of a predicament due to that, but other areas seem to be doing exceptionally well as a result. Like being 15 years old, this entire situation of new technology seems to be a bit rocky. The moving image community, whether it’s production, distribution, or archiving is getting a new body and we’re all getting used to the way it works. Anatomy is a funny thing. Let’s look at what our new physiognomy is developing into, shall we?

Putting the Festive in Festival:  Festivals and Archives

So what happens to all those films after you watch them at the Los Angeles Film Festival? And after you leave Park City or the last presentation at AFI, where do those films go? Have you ever stopped to wonder where all the used and unused festival submissions might end up? Many people will respond in an abrasive manner to this inquiry. “Probably in the trash,” (to which I may not disagree) they might say, “and if they didn’t bother to back it up or save it, well…that’s the filmmaker’s own fault!” At this point I might bristle.  Can we ethically be thrilled upon hearing that John Carpenter’s student film was discovered and yet consciously disregard a person’s submission to a film festival because of their personal data management policies? I call shenanigans, pure and simple. We have no idea who that person might end up being, what the material may contain, and, according to archival principles, it just doesn’t matter. The submissions of a film festival, regardless of where they came from, are unintentional creative sampling. This is also the reason why they should maintain their provenance and be archived properly.

It seems that with some film festivals, the term “archive” is a very loose term, even when they are dealing with actual film elements. While some festivals do indeed recognize the word, they do not seem to apply it to the materials that they collect. The Raindance Film Festival in London has an “archives” area on their website, but unfortunately it is only to showcase past festivals. When you look into the Frequently Asked Questions, and see about what happens to leftover festival submissions, there are two options: the filmmaker will pay for the return of the submission (with no clear-cut guarantee on how the element will be shipped) or simply leave the materials to be “recycled.” (Raindance Film Festival)   While other places like the Regent Park Film Festival actually seem to have an archive for their works (their site specifically states that “select preview tapes will be added to the RPFF’s archives for consideration to our year-round community screenings”) (Regent Park Film Festival) and the Dance Media Film Festival’s specifications hold for the custody of the preview DVDs (the “screening media” will be returned to the filmmaker after the festival) (Dance Camera West), it is frighteningly obvious that the vast majority of film festivals simply return or “recycle” most of their submissions post-festival.

Clearly, there is a severe disconnect between the festival circuit and the moving image archiving world, and the responsibility is as much ours as it is theirs. However, regardless of fault, we are both missing out on a golden opportunity to a) save valuable media objects (our responsibility) and b) have past events be maintained in a retrievable and accessible manner (their responsibility). While it is very likely that many of the larger film festivals (Sundance, L.A. Film Festival, Toronto, etc) do have vaults or libraries for a certain amount of items, it is far more likely that they do not have enough space. Thus their participants are forced to keep their materials elsewhere which could be home, the back of their car, lost, or simply at another vaulting facility. There is no way of knowing. What is known is that once materials are lost, if there is no secondary copy or if the piece is not somehow backed up… they are lost for good. These materials could be analogue, digital, or both. However, as we have previously noted, the world is continuing to move forward with technology, and festival submissions are more and more likely to be born-digital which makes them even more fragile than filmic submissions in certain ways.

Indeed, when it comes to preservation, the difference between analogue and digital is quite notable. Preserving digital materials is much like babysitting small children: they need to be properly cared for and checked in on frequently, lest they end up “dysfunctional.” The preservation of analogue materials, while no less meticulous, is more like the maintenance of a good relationship with a friend: make sure it is in good shape, the information is always correct, and it remains protected (should the situation arise).

One of the most important studies to have come out recently, the Digital Dilemma 2, took a serious look at film festivals and surveyed independent filmmakers. They noted that film preservation was “not a topic requested by film festival attendees.” Indeed, the concerns of the filmmakers were reflected in the statistics. Their films were simply not getting picked up or distributed. The 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival alone received 4,521 submissions and screened 153 (3 percent) while the 2011 Chicago Film Festival got 3,640 and screened 194 (5 percent). The 2011 New York Film Festival topped the list, including avant-garde shorts, screening 138 films out of 1700 submissions (8 percent). (Science & Technology Council) With figures like that, preservation of materials may not be the first thing on a filmmaker’s mind. Very likely, the most immediate thought in a submitting filmmaker’s head would be: my work didn’t get into Telluride- where can I submit it next? How can I still make this piece live?

Independent Demands: VOD and Independent Cinema

In many ways, Video-on-Demand has been the answer to many independent filmmakers’ desperate prayers. Initially, the changing film landscape looked grim for the “little people.” An independent filmmaker’s row has never been an easy one to manage. What were they to do now about the fact that, similar to the mid-1980’s, home entertainment was now making a serious comeback, and rocking the exhibition business model down to its chewy center? In this day and age, it seems to be a case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”  Theatrical exhibition may have seemed preferable at one time, but what if you could have your cake and eat it too? What if you were offered a deal where you could have your work displayed on all media platforms at the same time (televisual and theatrical) and still have the right to submit work to festivals?

VOD has been extremely successful with independent cinema. Strikingly so, in fact. As the Wall Street Journal reported in January of 2011,

Independent studios , including the small budget “specialty” divisions of the major studios, saw their share of box-office decline to 19% in 2010 from 33% in 2001…but video on demand has exploded and is beginning to edge out trips to the video store…consumer spending on VOD totaled $1.8 billion in 2010, up 21% from 2009. Sales of movies via digital download services like Apple, Inc.’s iTunes Store and Amazon.com Inc grew 16% in 2010, to $683 million. (Smith and Schuker)

Independent cinema has been a huge part of this growth. If it wasn’t for this market trend, films like 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, 2011), Melancholia (Lars Von Trier, 2011) and Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011) would have remained silenced. Their participation in the Video-on-Demand market, however, created more steam for everyone else, not to mention their own coffers. Margin Call was one of Sundance’s biggest VOD success stories. Handled by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, this “financial thriller” had a budget that was a bit under $3.4 million, was bought for $1 million,  made $5.3 million domestically…and made another $5 million on Video-on-Demand. (Miller)  And it seems that they weren’t alone in their triumph. The early VOD release of Melancholia blossomed into the most economically successful film director Lars Von Trier had seen since Dancer in the Dark (2000): $2 million gross to a $3 million theatrical take, in total. And Takashi Miike? He strutted away with $4 million from the VOD release, while theatrical only produced $1 million. Another director, Sean Bean, made $22,000 in theaters for his film Black Death and did a “Miike.” He too walked away with $4 million. (Lyttelton) Clearly there is a market for this brand of entertainment.

There have been various concerns raised about the Video-on-Demand process and there seems to be a kind of “format war” again; theaters and other industry voices are echoing sentiments not heard since the disappearance of Betamax. “It’s cannibalism,” they’re saying, “these films! The introduction of this new technology has horrific repercussions! Theatrical will suffer! What are we going to do?”  And they are not fretting for nothing. Exhibitors have valid apprehensions.  According to current statistics, “theater owners usually divide profits 50-50 or 60-40, but cable companies typically allow distributors and their partners to pocket about 70 percent of a film’s VOD profits.” (Lang) While this makes Video-on-Demand an incredibly tasty morsel for independent filmmakers who have a small budget to begin with, it makes it quite difficult for theaters who are already suffering great losses due to the fact that audiences are lessening all the time.  According to the New York Times, there has now been “four consecutive summers of eroding attendance, a cause for alarm for both studios and the publicly traded theater chains. One or two soft years can be dismissed as an aberration; four signal real trouble.” (Barnes) While it is highly unlikely that it is solely the VOD market that is responsible for this change in the viewing landscape, it is not difficult to see why exhibitors might have a slight problem with films that are released to a waiting public, in their homes, either before the theatrical release date or on the same date-and-day.

In many ways, they are absolutely right. Aside from the economic implications, a film like Melancholia really has no business being displayed on a television. It was designed for a huge visual canvas, made to be watched in a large roomy area surrounded by other silent people contemplating the moving images on the screen. As someone who was blissfully shaken by that film, I can attest to this fact. That piece dearly wants to be on a big screen. However, as Susan Jackson of Freestyle Digital Media notes, “There are a lot of films that are not critical darlings and won’t break through to the masses so [Video-on-Demand] becomes a great way for people to see them.” (Lang)

The 2011 New York Film Festival advertisement featuring Lars Von Trier's Melancholia

It’s rough to try to navigate the Video-on-Demand world. On one hand, everyone should have access to these films and watch them. In that sense, VOD has opened up worlds that no one ever dreamed possible. On the other hand, some of these films, as Jackson stated, are not exactly “standard fare” thus will benefit from the Video-on-Demand format. Independent cinema has never been a mass audience affair, thus a smaller and more personal technology like VOD suits the genre of “indie.” In addition, the outreach implications are tremendous. People in the middle of small towns can watch whatever they wish. Certain films that they might not be able to take their families to or tell their friends that they have an interest in, such as Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl (2010), which opened up Outfest in 2010 can now be viewed in the safe space of one’s own home. The “flyover states” are privy to the same works that those of us in big metropolitan areas have. The same night that I go out with a girlfriend to watch Kill List by Ben Wheatley here in Los Angeles in the theaters, someone in the middle of Idaho could be accessing the same film via Video-on-Demand.

There is something to be said for this, and yet it may have changed our entire outlook on the film-viewing process. One must stop and think: is the ability to have films catered directly to us affecting the manner in which we affect the filmic process?

In discussions on the Video-on-Demand process, John Schloss of Cinetic Media stated, “There’s much less overall preciousness about the theatrical experience…there’s a long history of filmmakers who want their movies to appear on a big screen, but that’s less and less the case. The quality of the home entertainment experience has gotten so much better, there are new screens and equipment.” (Lang) I feel that this quote begs the question: has the theatrical experience gotten less precious? Does the influx of new toys mean that a night out has lessened in meaning and/or quality? Is this the reason that people treat the movie theaters as though it were their living room, making phone calls, texting friends, carrying on extended conversations throughout the film? Has bringing the theater into our homes meant that we, in turn, bring our homes into the theater?

I believe this to be the case, and I believe this to be the most dangerous outgrowth of a technological advancement such as Video-on-Demand. While it certainly platforms the work of independent filmmakers and assists them in ways that they would never have dreamed possible, the new home entertainment technologies rip us away from what moving image entertainment is designed to be, and forces studios to come up with higher ticket prices, and IMAX 3D to the nth power just to get audiences to “return home.”  The content is not the issue in this circumstance. It is the method through which the content is communicated and the lack of balance and structure that these organizations have created between home and live viewing. We are at a film industry crossroads at the moment, much of it due to over-excitement about new toys and poor planning/education about options.  As an archivist in training, I see a time when the present technology will change too. And when this occurs, what then?

You Don’t Have to Go Home, But You Can’t Stay Here: VOD and the Archive

So what happens to all these films after they get shown “on-demand”?  Do they suffer the same fate as the festival films and get “recycled”? Chances are, the original materials are returned to the filmmakers after digitization. However, once again, there is the chance that those may disappear and never get seen again. Realistically, many VOD titles are actually born from festivals. If you talk to someone like Michael Murphy, SVP of Gravitas Ventures, entertainment “aggregator,” he’ll tell you that Video-on-Demand is the best thing that has ever happened to independent and festival cinema. He would likely have a small army of small-budget filmmakers behind him to back him up, agreeing wholeheartedly. They have made money and livelihoods that they never would have made otherwise, simply by getting his company’s assistance. Murphy’s stance is simple: judging by the way that the market is at the current time, you want to get while the getting’s good. The minute you have “buzz” on your film, get it to Gravitas. They will then do a cross-platform release (television and theater) all at once, and you will at least be able to say that your work was in 50,000,000 homes across the US. In the meantime, you can still submit it to festivals, and wait for it to have a theatrical date. While the films mentioned earlier (Assassins, Melancholia, etc) could be considered independent on a technical level, they are nothing like the kinds of films that Murphy works with on a regular basis. Those are the real indie films. But, as he will tell you himself, Gravitas Ventures is simply a programmer and distributer. They “don’t handle physical goods.” (Murphy)

In an interview with Adam Benic of the Sundance Institute, he states, “Often times, films have left our festival without any distribution. Artist Services was born out of the need to get those films out there and VOD is the most direct and cost-effective way to do so.” (Benic) The Sundance Artist Services department was started in order to assist in funding, distribution, marketing and theatrical support for filmmakers related to Sundance. One of their more modern, media-savvy projects has been their Video-on-Demand push. It may not be associated with the cable arena, but it’s hooked up to work perfectly with all the online distribution methods: iTunes, Netflix streaming, Hulu, Amazon VOD, SundanceNOW, Xbox, Playstation and Vudu. Benic emphasized that VOD itself has actually assisted in promoting Sundance’s mission, and if you study the structure of the organization, the Sundance Artist Services Initiative offers an automatic digital distribution deal through all the aforementioned avenues in order to assist their artists. Benic underscores the importance of this new technology to the work that is received at Sundance, and how crucial it is for access purposes.  He states that VOD is the conduit for the “niche films that often have trouble acquiring traditional distribution…This has strengthened the independent market because it encourages more innovative (and cost-effective) distribution strategies, and distribution is the ultimate end goal for any filmmaker- they want their stuff seen!”

From Gravitas to IFC, the Video-on-Demand world has made the moving image archive landscape extremely complicated. Not only is there concern over the preservation of the various different types of festival submissions (and festivals!), but there is ample disquiet about the materials that have moved through the ranks and made it to the honored position of Video-on-Demand. While this is clearly a step in the right direction for the creative talent, what does this mean for the archives? Why is it that there is not an open communication between professional moving image archives and professional organizations that are, in fact, aggregating the materials? It seems to this moving image archivist that there is something rotten in the state of VOD. The reality of the situation is that not only are the original materials used for the VOD broadcasts in need of an archival home, but in the process of migrating each element to a form that is “demand-able” new materials are being made, thus creating more materials for each title. My question here is…who is caring for them and where are they going afterwards?

Judging by the study that came out this year (Digital Dilemma 2), there does not seem to be a great deal of preservation concern amongst the VOD-independent cinema community. This is cause for alarm. While the success of independent cinema due to the VOD-strategy should be celebrated, it will mean nothing if there are no films to be watched down the line.  This is a unique opportunity for moving image archivists, film industry professionals, and Video-on-Demand experts to come together in a consortium in order to create unique collections for the filmmakers, the festivals, the VOD companies, and the archives themselves. The preservation of these materials at an archive means long-term care and access, and not simply for the filmmakers themselves. Depending on the donor/deposit agreement, the placement of these materials could grant scholarly admission and perhaps the eventuality of future requests to license said materials for financial compensation. Additionally, if there were ever to be a festival retrospective of any sort, all the elements would be in one location and not dispersed or, heaven forbid, non-existent.

They Said It Couldn’t Be Done: Examples of Film Festival Archives

Opening the lines of communication with filmmakers and other professionals is not always easy. But in this circumstance, it is necessary.  As Lynne Kirste wrote in her discussion of the Outfest Legacy Collection, “amateur and independent productions are rarely widely distributed, [and] typically only a few elements exist of each title. If these elements remain in filmmakers’ closets and basements, they will eventually deteriorate, suffer damage, or be discarded and lost. In the meantime, only the filmmaker has access to the materials. To make these images viewable now and in the future, archival outreach is essential.” (Kirste) What Kirste wrote in regards to Outfest is sadly accurate about all independent and festival cinema and is particularly applicable in this situation. These independent filmmakers are the only ones who have access to the preservation copies of their work. As for any newly-produced VOD-digital copies, it is hard to say who might be in the possession of those. Whatever the case may be, for the same reasons that Kirste writes about, these elements need to be located, collected, and organized into collections. While it may sound difficult now, it will be much harder further down the road when someone is doing a retrospective on a famous director, finds out that his/her first work was a festival film that was direct-to-video/Video-on-Demand, and the digital copy produced for IFC was not preserved. To avoid situations as the one just described, it is crucial to impress upon both the creative talent as well as the business side that it is in their best interests to coordinate with a professional moving image archive for storage, preservation and access purposes.

There is precedence for this activity. The Outfest Film Festival archives its materials at the UCLA Film and Television Archive as does the Sundance Institute. Both of these film festivals made this choice for a reason. They decided that forming a strong relationship with a moving image archive when dealing with that much cultural heritage on a daily basis could only benefit their organizations. Both institutions archive films that get shown at their festivals, but each project has a different goal that they are trying to achieve by housing their collection with UCLA.  Sundance’s goal is quite clear. As stated in the Digital Dilemma 2,

While long-term preservation is a consideration for the Sundance Collection, its primary emphasis is to support the Sundance Institute’s broader mission that includes enabling artists to reach a wider audience. Since most distribution deals for independent films are for a finite period of time, providing archival resources increases the chances that these films and their source elements will survive long enough to secure follow-on distribution. (Science & Technology Council)

By working with UCLA, the Sundance Institute has managed to secure a location where they know, without a doubt, their materials will be kept safely. This way they can continue working on their main goals and build their archive. Indeed, through their partnership with UCLA, Sundance’s goals are being met in two ways: 1) the simple act of preservation/archiving of materials and 2) by UCLA’s ability to provide access for a more extensive audience of students, scholars and possible business opportunities.

The UCLA Film & Television Archive is, after the Library of Congress, the largest collection of media materials in the United States, with more than 220,000 film and television titles and 27 million feet of newsreel footage.

Outfest is going in the same direction with slightly different objectives. While their festival films are also housed within UCLA’s vaults, they are done so under the designation of the Legacy Project. The Outfest Legacy Project is a “collaboration between Outfest and the UCLA Film and Television Archive [and] is the only program in the world devoted  to saving and preserving lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender moving images.” (Outfest) While the festival materials are clearly intrinsic to the Outfest collection, so is everything else. This is a festival that saw an opportunity and grabbed it. Not only have they housed the festival items with a welcoming archive and provided access to the public but they have gone one step further: they have transformed the collection into what it was named for- a legacy.

As stated on their 5th Anniversary History page,

There is no system in place to restore or save independent, orphan or films made for and by people on the margins of the Hollywood canon.  Very, very few major LGBT titles of the last 30 years have ever been preserved…The Legacy Project was created to protect films that do not have a studio’s support or other financial means in place to support it…. Our goal is to collect and conserve a diverse range of LGBT film and media in order to make access copies available for research viewing on the UCLA campus.  As of January 2010, Outfest and UCLA have established the largest publicly accessible and comprehensive collection of LGBT moving images for research and study (over 13,000 items and growing). (Outfest)

Outfest embarked upon the Legacy Project to try and solve a moving image crisis that had been discouraging at best. However, through open communications with UCLA and a partnership that set out goals, desires and plans, what was once simply a deteriorating print of Parting Glances (Bill Sherwood, 1986) has led to full restorations of 35mm, 16mm and beyond.

Although Sundance’s relationship with the archive is meant to support its primary mission of “wider audience” and Outfest is more preservation-bound, both organizations are perfect examples of what can be achieved through the right kinds of communication and outreach. Kirste writes “[m]ost archival repositories share the same mission: to gather materials that fall within their collecting mandate; protect their holdings from harm and damage; identify, organize and catalogue materials; preserve deteriorated items; and make their collections publicly accessible.” (Kirste) The UCLA Film and Television Archive holds true to those standards. These are its primary goals and these are also reasons why Sundance and Outfest selected this location to house their collections. Out of all the archives where they could have placed their materials, UCLA has one of the best research facilities for moving images in the country, let alone the world. In addition to the obvious benefits of preservation, respect and care, having students, scholars and other noted individuals be able to access their moving image materials will only benefit these organizations in the long run.

The Sundance Institute's Web Banner in support of their archive and independent film preservation!

Who’s On First?: Getting Festivals and VOD off the Bench

In layman’s terms, this situation is like a baseball game where all the disenfranchised players are kept sitting in the dugout- not for one inning or for two, but for the entire game. Heavy hitters like Spielberg or Lucas no longer have these troubles, but they’re not in the minor leagues anymore nor do they traffic in difficult subject matter (or if they do, it has only been after they made a grip of cash!). While every filmmaker should ideally be responsible for the preservation and survival of his/her own creative work, once you become a contributing artist, you have made a commitment to your work’s transition in identity. Whether it is to a film festival or a series of On-Demand titles, the materials have migrated from a singularly-created piece to being part of a larger collective body.  Regardless of where the termination point is, these materials have a need to be preserved and archived.

As organizations like Sundance and Outfest have shown, it is entirely possible to have the best of all possible worlds. It simply requires communication on both ends- archival and institutional/business. Both Sundance and Outfest have On-Demand titles, and both organizations have partnerships with a major moving image archive in order to assure that all the blood, sweat and tears that their filmmakers have put into the festival submissions get preserved in the best way possible. If we use these as models, who is to say that we cannot create further archives and/or collections for all the materials currently being created?

It is not unseemly for regional film festivals to work with regional film archives, nor would it be unseemly for funds from the VOD market to be filtered back into the preservation of their own newly-created digital materials. Partnerships between Video-on-Demand aggregators and larger moving image archives would only seem to make sense, as the housing and care of digital materials is a delicate process. As Strother Martin said in Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967), “What we’ve got here is, failure to communicate,” and that is the state that we are in currently. It is not the state that we will always be in, nor will it be the state that we should always be in. The fact that organizations such as Gravitas Ventures are currently collecting Video-On-Demand titles and serving in a programming capacity means that they want to support independent filmmakers and would like to make sure that they succeed. However, it is the lack of preservation concern that is of concern, not unlike the survey that was the subject of this year’s Digital Dilemma. For an industry that is quickly transitioning to one of the most delicate forms of information storage in history, it is certainly fascinating that no one was anxious about the state of preservation.

To this end, I believe it important to remember that balance is essential in this equation. Balance is what drives good communication (a good conversation is 50/50), balance is what will allow our moving image culture to remain healthy (let’s not let our living room become our theater and our theater become our living room), and balance will give our moving image heritage a chance to have a decent future (let’s not let the onset of new technologies affect our desire for preservation, shall we?). In the end, I have faith that it will be the strength of our relationships and the determination of a film community that refuses to let technological hiccups stand in the way of silver screen enjoyment. After more than 100 years of the moving image, one would be hard pressed to imagine a world without it.

Works Cited

Barnes, Brooks. “Neither Smurf Nor Wizard Could Save Summer Movie Attendance.” New York Times 4 September 2011: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/05/business/media/summer-movie-attendance-continues-to-erode.html?_r=3&pagewanted=all.

Benic, Adam. Email Interview with Adam Benic Ariel Schudson. 16 March 2012.

Dance Camera West. Dance Camera West: Submission. 2012. 20 March 2012 <http://www.dancecamerawest.org/submit.htm >.

Fritz, Ben. “”Margin Call” Approaching Nearly 250,000 Video-on-Demand Rentals.” L.A. Times 10 November 2011: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/entertainmentnewsbuzz/2011/11/margin-call-video-on-demand.html.

Gracy, Karen and Michele Cloonan. “Preservation of Moving Images.” Advances in Librarianship (2004).

Kirste, Lynne. “Collective Effort: Archiving LGBT Moving Images.” Cinema Journal (2007): 134-140.

Lang, Brent. “VOD Rides to the Rescue of Indie Film (Updated) .” The Wrap February 2012: http://www.thewrap.com/movies/article/vod-rescue-how-one-format-saving-indie-film-33085?page=0,0.

Lyttelton, Oliver. “As Mel Gibson’s Latest Film Goes Straight to VOD, Is This a Glimpse of the Future of Distribution?” Indiewire: The Playlist 3 February 2012: http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/as-mel-gibsons-latest-film-goes-straight-to-vod-is-this-a-glimpse-of-the-future-of-distribution.

Miller, Daniel. “Sundance 2012: The Day-And-Date Success Story of ‘Margin Call’.” The Hollywood Reporter 18 January 2012: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/sundance-2012-margin-call-video-on-demand-zach-quinto-283033.

Murphy, Michael. Making VOD Distribution Work for You: An Expert Series Seminar with Michael Murphy from Gravitas Ventures Stacey Parks. http://www.filmspecific.com/public/1157.cfm.

Outfest. Outfest: Legacy Project. 2011. 21 March 2012 <http://www.outfest.org/legacy/&gt;.

—. Outfest: Legacy: Anniversary. 21 March 2012 <http://www.outfest.org/legacy/anniversary/&gt;.

Raindance Film Festival. Raindaince: Submission FAQs. 21 March 2012 <http://www.raindance.co.uk/site/index.php?id=533,6984,0,0,1,0#q30&gt;.

Regent Park Film Festival. Regent Park Film Festival: Submissions. 21 March 2012 <http://www.regentparkfilmfestival.com/submissions.html&gt;.

Science & Technology Council. The Digital Dilemma 2: Perspectives From Independent Filmmakers, Documentarians, and Nonprofit Audiovisual Archives. Technology. Los Angeles: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2012.

Smith, Ethan and Lauren A. E. Schuker. “For Indie Films, Video-on-Demand Fills in Revenue Gap.” Wall Street Journal 10 January 2011.

Total Rewind: The Virtual Map of Vintage VCRs. Total Rewind: Format War. 21 March 2012 <http://www.totalrewind.org/sidebars/F_data_frame.htm&gt;.

Ulin, Jeff. The Business of Media Distribution: Monetizing Film, TV and Video Content. Oxford: Focal Press, 2009.

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We Are Nobodies: 13 Assassins and the Elegance of Miike

Elegance of Miike?

The hell you say.

The man who gave us Ichi The Killer? The man who shocked people’s delicate sensibilities with Visitor Q? No, surely no. You must have the wrong guy. You mean to say that he made a film that gestured with grace and style towards the works of Kurosawa? Are you…saying that a Takashi Miike film was…restrained?

Yes. That is precisely what I am saying.

While other posters exist for this film, I actually prefer this one. It seems to express the duality of Miike perfectly.

Is that what I liked about it. YES. Is that what I loved about it YES. Did I miss all the usual “Miike-isms”? No, because they were absolutely there, you just had to look a little harder for some of them. They were studied, intentional, and entirely present. Yet, during the course of the film, I came to believe that  it was entirely possible that some of the things that we have come to take for granted as being part-and-parcel of a Miike film have been subsumed into this film under the guise of narrative and character development.

13 Assassins is not just a good film, it is a wise film that pays homage to Japanese cinema on the whole and yet also makes raging commentary on it and it is not in a soft voice. Miike can be accused

of many things but having a soft directorial presence on-screen is not one of them. People know who the man is and not only that…they know what he is capable of. In a sense, Miike is like one of the characters within his own film- but not the reserved, trained, samurai variety. No. Miike is the loose cannon-character.

The character of Makino almost seems to serve as Miike's surrogate within the film, commenting on various situation in a beautifully challenging manner.

He is the one who, when you see him on-screen, your first thought (if you’ve seen a couple of samurai epics from the “good old days” of Japanese cinema) is: Ah hah! This would be the Toshiro Mifune role!

Now, due to my stubborn refusal to give away spoilers, I don’t want to go into too much heavy detail on the actual narrative. Details-wise, this film involves samurais, the shogunate of feudal Japan(in particular the Edo period), and a future leader of the shogunate who is relentless in his sadism.

Lord Naritsugu- historically based upon Matsudaira Narakoto, the 25th son of the 11th shogunate, Tokogawa Ienari. While I'm only assuming the same about Matsudaira, I can tell you this much for certain: Lord Naritsugu is *not* the guy you wanna bring home to dinner.

Here is the story’s bottom-line: Dear awesome samurai guys, please get rid of the raging prick who will be taking over the country in a few years. Regardless of the fact that we’re in a “time of peace” and your samurai-status has been rendered practically irrelevant, we know you can do a good job…or at least die trying? OKTHXBYE.

So you have your standard underdog samurai picture. However, this film is far from standard. While it may rely on the well-worn path of honor and the Samurai Way, it deals in issues that are much further reaching. Upon viewing 13 Assassins, I was honestly blown away due to the shattering number of things that it tackles without being preachy or hitting you over the head.

While Miike can place politics in his films, they are, many times, too balls-out crazy to grab them on the first (or fifth) go around. And, unlike many of my good friends, I’m not always in the mood to watch and/or study Miike. Thus I will openly admit: no, I have not looked for political insignias in Dead or Alive and I have not done a full psychoanalytic and historical perspective run-through of Visitor Q. I honestly have no doubt that the stuff is there. But it is much more…well…subtle. Due to the high-shock and/or hyperbolically violent nature of his films, any substantial messages seem to be the subtle aspects in a non-subtle text. But that’s Miike. He’s not a stupid man.

Not only does is this film displayed in a manner that is breath-takingly gorgeous and intensely well-constructed, it is a high-adrenaline ballet that will leave you gasping for air, and prying your hands from the seats. Tension, drama, EPIC (and I’m not using that word lightly) action, all condensed into a historically-based Japanese samurai film.

While ideas of war and peace are investigated, there are other concepts that are even more fascinating. Miike uses the rhetoric of the samurai film to investigate the state of Japanese cinema today. Wildgrounds.com quotes Miike as saying that “Maybe older japanese films have much more energy and are just much more interesting than films that are currently being made now (…) When it comes to making movies, we [Japanese people] sort of lost a lot of things over the years and we had a feeling that if we try to get back to, try to make movies the way they used to make them, we might learn, gain something.” In a sense, what Miike does through various character compositions and structures is rip apart modern Japanese cinema and let us know exactly what he thinks. In order to do this in the most effective manner, he chose to use the samurai film to do so.

Miike is not a fan of standard/traditional cinematic tropes, so one might find it curious for him to do a picture like 13 Assassins. But looked upon more closely, this seemingly traditional film plays more like Yojimbo with a machine gun. Not literally, of course, but in the content. Every choice that Miike makes in this film is careful and considered, meticulous and studied. However, he seems to be attacking more than just the fictional enemy in the narrative.

What I found the most attractive in this film is that while he celebrated the Old Guard, he ripped it apart. 13 Assassins felt to me like a type of Trojan Horse of Japanese cinema. While Miike certainly wanted to bring a reverential treatment to those that went before him, he also wished to inspire critical thought. But this is being done by working from inside the system.

The juxtaposition of older and younger samurai within the picture and their individual experiences underscores this intention quite nicely. In what I see as one of the most seminal sequences, some of the elders look on as the younger men deal with their first kills. The pregnant pause that follows this action is telling. Not only does it speak of the older men’s high level of experience and familiarity with the act of killing (they are clearly more seasoned professionals at the task) but it also illuminates the position and mentality of the younger men. While these young men may be good at what they do and brave as hell, they have not yet had to, as they say, “withstand the slings and arrows” of Real Action. Facing the reality of what they were about to engage in was a very important feature of this film. It is almost as though Miike was making a kind of commentary about older/younger filmmakers. Both are strong assets to the film community as a whole and bring essential components to the “film battle.” But if we follow Miike logic, the younger filmmakers take some influence and what they need from the elders but will still do it their own way and manage to kick the living crap out of the enemy, no matter how scared they are to do so.

For Miike, film is not a light, airy subject. It is not simple entertainment to be tossed off in the manner of an overblown comedy or a fluffy melodrama. His take on cinema is not unlike that of the Russians in the late 1920’s. What I’m about to say may seem far-fetched, but work with me a little. If you know your history, Russia in this period was a slightly crazy place to be. They were moving and shifting a whole lotta stuff around, and one of the things that they had to make some decisions on was the film industry,  a very popular part of Russian culture. The politicians were no dummies. They knew what they

Anatoly Lunacharsky, art critic, journalist, all-around pretty neat guy!

had. But how to figure this out? What was crucial for them was the technological aspect that was coming into play alongside their incessant politics. They realized that with sound pictures, they could get the message across with more fervor and, to be frank, easier. In addition, Anatoly Lunacharsky, who, as the People’s Commissar for Enlightment from 1917 until his forced resignment (yes, due to the very same lovely politics) in 1929, recognized one of the other major Catch-22 issues about film that we still deal with today. He stated, “Cinema is an industry, and, what is more, a popular industry.” (1)

Additionally, at this same time, in March of 1928, part of the Soviet desire to get things “together” with the cinematic world was to construct some kind of set of rules and regulations (they were into that kinda thing- then again, seeing the Hayes Code in the USA a few years later, seems like we were too…). So a bunch of folks, including industry professionals such as Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin, went to the Party Conference on Cinema and tried to participate. They were able to do so…but only to an extent. Due to the Soviet way of thinking about the film industry, it became a full-on policed machine, commercialized and propagandized mercilessly.

One of the key sentiments put forth within the statements that evolved from this Conference was what cinema was really for and what it really did. While the Soviet mentality geared it towards political intent, the facts, as stated, were not entirely incorrect. As Richard Taylor writes, quoting some of the Soviet documentation, “Party leadership had been determined to develop a Soviet cinema that was ‘the most powerful weapon for the deepening of the class-consciousness of the workers, for the political re-education of all the non-proletarian strata of the population and above all the peasantry.'” Cinema for the Soviet Union was a weapon. But it wasn’t just the Soviets who then realized this. They were just some of the first to put two and two together. Say what you like about communism and the rest of it, but they were no fools when it came to media practice.

So I’m sure you’re wondering at this point what any of this has to do with Takashi Miike and/or 13 Assassins. I argue that it all does, in some funny way. Perhaps not down to political detail, but on a larger scale. See, Miike is down with Lunacharsky’s struggle. He gets it. To date, Miike has directed 83 films in 20 years. That’s off the charts. He knows he can make a bit of change making movies, so he does. But he also has the mentality that was sculpted from all of the different filmic and political practitioners of Soviet Russia: film is a weapon. And he can wield it any way he wants. And he does exactly that.

When asked about making the audience happy, Miike was quoted as saying that he doesn’t even think about it. He said, “there’s no way for me to know. To try to think of what makes for entertainment is a very Japanese thing. The people who think like this are old-fashioned. They think of the audience as a mass, but in fact every person in the audience is different. So entertainment for everyone doesn’t exist…” (2) He also added that even as hard as he works, it is that hard work that motivates him. It doesn’t necessarily wear him out. He sees it differently. He states,

We have to change the negative things into positive. In today’s Japanese film industry we always say we don’t have enough budget, that people don’t go to see the films. But we can think of it in a positive way, meaning that if audiences don’t go to the cinema we can make any movie we want. After all, no matter what kind of movie you make it’s never a hit, so we can make a really bold, daring movie. There are many talented actors and crew, but many Japanese movies aren’t interesting. Many films are made with the image of what a Japanese film should be like. Some films venture outside those expectations a little bit, but I feel we should break them. (3)

Miike’s philosophies on the audience and the Japanese film industry are the essence of 13 Assassins and why it is so beautiful and why it works. He went into the film to do a remake, an undergoing he had taken on before with Happiness of the Katakuris (and possibly more- I will openly admit I have not seen all 83 things the man has directed!), but did it his way. What was his way? Traditionally bound, with a heavy Miike visual lens and narrative cradle.

I refuse to use the word “mature” here (it’s condescending- that phrase “his most mature work to date” makes me want to throw things). But I’ve seen it used in other reviews and I wish that people could see what his actual point in creating this masterpiece was. There is no maturity here. He didn’t all of a sudden go from a kid to a grown-up due to a FILM. And frankly, Audition is a quite lovely film, Katakuris is incredibly skilled and Ichi‘s chaos requires a very defined sensibility. I don’t think we’ll be seeing a mess of costume dramas out of Miike anytime soon. THANK GOD.

See, 13 Assassins requires that you look a little closer. This film has teeth- and they’re sharp. Like the Soviet Party in the late 1920’s, Miike has a cinematic gun and he knows how to use it.  This film’s careful deliberation was like a slow-acting poison that was more of a commentary on the pretentiousness of modern “art” cinema or any overdone/overpriced cinematic exploits than anything else. I have a feeling he’s not a fan. While there was clearly money spent on this film, none of it was wasted. Which makes me even more glad that there’s a guy like Miike around to show us how to do things right and properly, while everyone else is failing so miserably.

If you can see this film on the big screen PLEASE DO. It is way more affective. Laugh, hoot, holler, JUMP UP AND DOWN IN YOUR SEAT!! I know I did. In fact, I will probably go see it again just to get that same adrenaline rush. 13 Assassins– the samurai movie that provides your body with the same endorphin-like energy as heavy exercise and sexual attraction. Yeah, I liked this movie.

(1) Anatoly Lunacharsky as quoted in Taylor, Richard. “A ‘Cinema for the Millions’: Soviet Social Realism and Film Comedy.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 18, No. 3.  Historians and Movies: The State of the Art: Part 1 (Jul. 1983). p439-461.

(2) Interview with Takashi Miike, Midnight Eye.com. http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/takashi_miike.shtml

(3) Interview with Takashi Miike, Midnight Eye.com. http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/takashi_miike.shtml

Let Your Seoul Glow: My Journey to Korean Cinema

This will be my last and final piece for the Korean Blogathon. It has been a pleasure to participate in it, and I can’t wait to watch a slew of the films that have been written about by everyone else! Thanks to everyone that put this together and to Martin for designing such a lovely page to showcase our writing! It’s been fantastic. So, in conclusion…..

I live in a city where everyone is obsessed with the motion picture industry. If you aren’t pitching a script or don’t have one on the backburner, then you’re on your way to a meeting or to meet with your agent. If not that, then you are location-scouting or bitching about budgets or other production issues. Yes, that’s right folks, I live in the Devil’s Playground- Hollywood, CA. I was born and raised here, and it’s what I know. Is it always what I enjoy? Not by a longshot. But it’s where I’m from, for better or for worse.

In any case, try as I might, I was unable to get away from the cinema. It was like the siren’s call to me, although not in the same way as everyone else. While I fought anything and everything cinematic up until college (I was going to be a social worker, dammit!), I was unable to distance myself from the silver screen any longer, and got several degrees in it- but all in theoretical writing. Not as useful as building construction per se, but I loved it, and still do.

Within my film education, I encountered several kinds of Asian cinemas from my professors- but never Korean cinema. So I became very fond of Japanese cinema, and Hong Kong cinema and different Chinese filmmakers. From there, it was all up to me. So, being a rather exploratory person, I dove in head-first and didn’t come up for air for a very, very, very long time.

The first filmmaker I fell for was Wong Kar-Wai. His films came highly recommended by a friend, and that friend could not have been more correct. They were beautiful, sensual, graceful and smart. Some were action-type films and still contained the afore-mentioned descriptions. Wong Kar-Wai sold me, and got me involved.

About the same time, I developed a keen fascination with the Japanese New Wave and wondered intensely why no one knew more about it or was writing more about it. From there, I found Kenji Mizoguchi and became deeply obsessed with his work as well. To compliment the highly sexualized New Wave and the historical-yet-feminist-tinged-Mizoguchi, I was then introduced to my first slightly Korean figure- Takashi Miike. While born in Japan, he was from an area that was dominated by Korean immigrants. In addition, his father was actually born in Seoul. Miike had multiple Korean connections, a fact I was not aware of until a little while ago. He was still, however, a Japanese filmmaker, more or less, and so I added him to my bundle. However, his style added to the New Wave and Mizoguchi really made the kettle start to boil.

Miike has been described as “controversial and prolific” (both of which he is) and his films have been described as being “perverse and extremely violent” and also “dramatic and family-friendly.” Watching Miike’s work made me interested in seeing what else the Asian world had to offer.

Takashi Miike's film "The Happiness of the Katakuris" (2001) was a remake of the Korean film "The Quiet Family" (1998) by Kim Ji-woon

It was not until much later that I became aware of Korean cinema and what it had to offer, but I have to say that the previous films mentioned were the items that whetted my appetite. J-horror and all of its various offerings was starting to get a little repetitous, tragically, and I was not always a fan of how perverse Miike could get. Or at least not his methodologies. It wasn’t my bag, baby.To quote Huey Lewis and the News, I was in the cinematic mindset of: “I want a new drug.”

And lucky for me, I found one: Korean cinema. While doing my research and writing for this blogathon, I remembered that the first Korean film I ever saw was Tell Me Something (1999). To be honest, I have to congratulate Chang Yoon-hyun. While I may forget things about movies I saw last week or last month, I saw this movie over 10 years ago and it still stuck with me. I have thought about the film over the last few years, not remembering the title, but vaguely sure of the storyline and definitely remembering the imagery, and always thinking: “Damn. I need to find that movie and see it again.” So thanks, Chang Yoon-hyun. I’ll be making that purchase soon.

"Tell Me Something" really told me something about Korean cinema...

Continuing onwards, what I have discovered about this country’s cinema is that it has the unique ability to pull the rug out from under me in every single movie I have seen. Just when I think I know what’s going on, I don’t. I can’t think of another country that does that as well as Korea. Really, sometimes the content itself pulls the rug out from under the viewers feet. Look at Oldboy!

But that is what I like the most about Korean cinema and why I cannot stop watching it. My good friend (and fabulous writer) Dennis Cozzalio just recently pointed me in the way of a Korean cinema in my city. The CGV. It looks great. Some American films with Korean subtitles and recent Korean films with English subtitles. It’s got a little cafe, apparently, and I happen to know that it is surrounded by really great (and inexpensive) local food establishments. I’m sold, hook, line and sinker.

When I saw Mother (2009) and Memories of Murder (2003) on a double bill at the New Beverly Cinema, all I could think was that Good Suspense Films had returned to the silver screen. Alfred Hitchcock would be proud. I could just imagine him, sitting in the back, smirking away. I was astounded at how good they were.

July 6, 2010- New Beverly Cinema, Los Angeles, CA

Every time I see a new piece of Korean filmmaking I am blown away. I’ve seen Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw The Devil twice now, and I finally feel like I may be ready to write something coherent on it. It’s a pretty fascinating piece to me. I think what I am seeing come out of Korea is what Japan has not been able to do for me. There is something unexpected, every time. And living in a land where I have come to call almost everything in every film I see, it is a more than welcome facet to a film.

In addition, the humor makes me happy as a bird in springtime. It is so damn dark. This is a characteristic that I find endearing. Here in the US we find cynicism and sadism enjoyable, especially in our “dark” humor. I find that pathetic and super unfunny. I’m not a fan of Todd Solondz. I think he intentionally tortures his audience. But the Korean sense of humor comes from a pretty nasty history anyway, so why not laugh? If one looks at the random aside comments that are made in certain films, or the things that we are asked to find funny…not everyone I’ve been in the theater with has laughed, but I think that they are being played for fun. Almost all of the films that are serious films have a great deal of humor in them.

I know I’m new. I know I haven’t seen everything. But you know what? I’m really damn lucky.Now I get to go and watch all these other films that all the other folks in the blogathon have written about (and ones I’ve found while I’ve been researching for my writing) for the first time. And to me, watching a film you’re really excited about for the first time is like kissing someone you are really attracted to for the first time: you can only do it once, and it is destined to be amazing, even if it might seem a little sloppy at first.

I’m glad that I started out with my background in the Japanese New Wave and ghost stories, John Woo, Wong Kar-Wai, Miike, and all that. It was great stuff. There are aspects within those cinemas (especially horror-wise) that are shared. However, I am mostly glad to have seen those films/those cinemas so that I can appreciate  the Korean cinema on its own terms.