How Old World Assumptions Stand In the Way of New World Filmmakers

At IFP Week in September of 2012, James Schamus, a producer of many award-winning films, a professor at Columbia University and CEO of Focus Features, lamented the changes in "film culture" that the shift to digital circulation has brought. Specifically, James Schamus was quoted in a Sept. 16th, 2012 Filmmaker article written by Scott Macaulay:

"“The power is moving from the people who distribute to the people with the algorithms.” James, of course, was referring to Big Data and the Information Age companies (Google, Facebook, et al) whose business models are based on it. Every time you click — on a “like” button, or a download link — you are producing, said James. You’re producing “exhaust data,” information about yourself that is then used to market to you and others like you. “Filmmakers need to be aware of this new model,” said James. “Other people are monetizing it now, but they don’t have the same relationship to film culture” as the previous generation of distributors" (emphasis added).

In response to James Schamus' comments, digital media consultant Chris Dorr wrote a simultaneously provocative (probably unfairly so) and insightful October 7th, 2012 post to his Digital Dorr blog:

"Instead of deeply investigating and shaping this new world — [James Schamus] mourns the world that is passing."

While it's true that others may be more active than James Schamus in "investigating" the New World of online storytelling, it's not clear to me that James Schamus deserves to stand as the example of all that is counter-revolutionary in indie film today. Or that the independent films that James Schamus has championed (and will champion) and the filmmakers that he is currently training at Columbia won't have an enormous influence - "shaping" the New World of motion pictures.

In defense of James Schamus - I'd ask Chris Dorr, exactly how much investigating and shaping is one producer expected to accomplish? With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain alone, Schamus has been a profoundly influential film producer. And Schamus is also an important teacher of young filmmakers at Columbia. I suspect that no producer alive could live up to the standards that Chris Dorr's article implies.

Also, I think James Schamus (who I've only met once - but whose work I obviously admire) is just too deep a thinker to be summed-up based on a few comments made at an IFP panel. For example, I suspect Mr. Schamus doesn't really categorically believe (as Mr. Dorr says) "that passivity is the only response to our present dilemma."

Still, (leaving aside the question of whether James Schamus is a passive Luddite - or simply a great producer and teacher, with feet in both worlds, who might have suffered from being quoted out of context) the Oct. 7th, 2012 Chris Dorr post does go on to distill what is happening in indie film in a very interesting way.

According to Chris Dorr: "What Schamus misses, along with his mass media brethren, is that the Internet is making it possible for anyone in media to get close to consumers and their dollars. (And by doing so also get consumers close to them.)"

Even if Chris Dorr is putting words into James Schamus' mouth (which I suspect he is, in an effort to create a straw man for his argument), Chris Dorr does get to the heart of a debate I've been (reluctantly) having recently with several former colleagues...

It seems to me that many of my former indie film friends are so concerned with what has been lost that they just can't appreciate the good things that the New World of online circulation offers...

So... even though I think he's given James Schamus a raw deal, I agree with Chris Dorr (and James Schamus) that we're in the middle of a fundamental power shift. The old system of centralized control is being disrupted. The big media conglomerates are fighting mightily, but the old centers of "distribution" are losing power. And access to the internet is creating unprecedented opportunities for New World storytellers. (Note: Only a few indie filmmaker have really tapped into their new power. So far, only a few storytellers have figured out how to use the new tools to successfully circulate their films online. And - perhaps as it should be - the online films with the biggest impact have become known for their unusual messages - and not for the novelty of how they were circulated.)

In the New World (in addition to a useful or entertaining story and all the rest) what ALSO matters is whether you know how to use the new tools to find your niche. Often this means interpreting the data through algorithms.

And, as Chris Dorr explains: "Everyone can be “the people with the algorithms”. This is not restricted to Amazon, Apple or Google. Algorithms can be shaped to benefit those who create, market and distribute films whether big or small. As [author Steve] Johnson points out [in his new book, Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age], “software interfaces are possibility spaces”."

You don't even need to write your own software. Almost every day there's another example of an "amateur" filmmaker who has figured out how to use existing social media tools to reach tens of thousands - if not millions - of avid viewers.

As Chris Dorr concludes (again probably being unfair to James Schamus - but getting the central point right): "It is logical that mass media companies (like the company for which Schamus works [Universal owns Focus]) see [the Internet... making it possible for anyone to get close to consumers and their dollars] as a threat. They have traditionally acted as the exclusive gateways to the consumer. They have been comfortable with the rules and they have profited by them. Now they have to work within a new universe where the “rules are up for grabs”."

UPDATE: 10/8/12 10:30am Sheri Candler has kindly informed me that a video of Christine Vachon and James Schamus speaking at IFP Week (the panel that sparked this post) is available in its entirety on YouTube. See the 52:45 minute mark below for James Schamus' full comments on the power shift in film distribution:

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