A recent article in the New Yorker about how certain historic developments in public health and medical practice (for example, the widespread use of anesthesia) came about seems ostensibly to have very little to do with our topic of grassroots distribution. However, as it is a portrait of monumental shifts that a certain industry experienced, we couldn't help but see some parallels and investigate what could be learned. Taking a step back, it often looks like the film industry is constantly in the middle of a massive tectonic plate style shift. But how can that be true? How can articles come out consistently for the last 10 years heralding the "death" or completely changing face of cinema (see statements by Soderbergh, Lucas, and Spielberg as the most recent examples)? If it has been going through revolutionary change for the last ten years and continues to change, when does the revolution end and what does it look like? Is the change different every year, or each year a chapter of the same (apparently gradual, not revolutionary) shift? For example, some people have predicted the end of theaters as venues to watch films since the early 2000's, yet their profits go up and down year by year with no real science to it.
An example of an industry where there has been a completely discernible and visible revolution that has at least reached a plateau is the music business. Napster, then iTunes, then further music sharing via the internet has brought a sea change in how music is bought and consumed, shuttering businesses and opening others, affecting how personnel at every level (from artist to executive) makes profit, and upending traditional power hierarchies.
For the most part, this hasn't quite happened in film. The internet affords us numerous new ways to watch film, but the marketing machinery of film (which is a huge part of the industry) looks largely the same, with just more of a sandbox to play in (social media sites, online press outlets, etc.). In many ways our study reflects an attempt to look hard at the problem that has not quite been solved for independent filmmakers: how to make the modern landscape of film distribution, with what technology affords it, work in a sustainable way for them? Production is happening, but how do use what we know and have now (because of the internet) to make the distribution system work for us? With the old guard and old channels of Hollywood (and even, arguably, independent film) still in place -- no recording industry style revolution having happened -- how do we take this moment and run with it?
With the stage set like that, such quotations from the article might as well be describing the film industry right now: "many ideas that violate prior beliefs are harder to embrace"... "this has been the pattern of many important but stalled ideas. They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them work can be tedious, if not outright painful." The plight of the independent filmmaker is largely invisible. Most Americans do not live in an area with automatic access to independent film; "automatic" here is a lazy word signifying basically that it is not in their proximity through an art house, or on one of their basic cable channels. Is it on the internet? Yes, but the internet is an intentional medium -- a user has to choose to search for something to find it. "As with most difficulties in global health care, lack of adequate technology is not the biggest problem." In other words, we have the tools, now how do we get people to use them?
"To create new norms," says the article, "you have to understand people's existing norms and barriers to change. You have to understand what's getting in their way." The norms, as we've explored in our blog, are the traditional gatekeepers. The festivals, the usual distributors, and the bottleneck effect of everyone aiming their films at them, with only a lucky few penetrating the fortress.
A conclusion of the article is that ironically, large scale change needed to happen hand-to-hand, door-to-door. The article leads off with an anecdote about anesthesia: "Proponents of anesthesia overcame [common] belief by encouraging surgeons to try ether on a patient and witness the results for themselves - to take a test drive." But a larger challenge came a century later, and not from the top down; the article spends much time with situations in which a solution has been established but just not popularized. For example, in oral rehydration therapy, it was found that a couple practices could significantly decrease the diarrhea caused by cholera in certain northern Indian areas. Then the challenge was making those practices common. The organization involved "didn't launch a mass-media campaign... It attacked the problem in a way that is routinely dismissed as impractical and inefficient: by going door to door, person by person, and just talking."
This is something we talk about a lot in grassroots ideas, as it is one crucial way that an unprecedented amount of voter contact happened in the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012. In this study, we are constantly toying with the idea that a similar thing could be enacted to make up for the gaps in data or knowledge about audiences that independent filmmakers run into. But the New Yorker article is actually an example of something else -- this isn't just about "contacting" users, it's about getting them to change practices through a hands-on show-and-tell demonstration.
What are the practices that could be changed through something like this in film? Are they on the viewer side or in the distributor world? Is there a way to show the viewer that they could watch quality content if they only knew where to go on the internet? The idea of guiding a stranger through using their computer seems odd, but probably so did the idea of a stranger teaching women in India how to deal with a choleric child. Where are the opportunities in the fractured, arguably "constantly changing" landscape of independent film for door-to-door or user-to-user or filmmaker-to-filmmaker demonstrations that prove that new methods can bear fruit? Is it about lowering the barrier to entry to new websites that give access to data? Or provide premium, targeted low cost content? Or creating an anti-festival festival, where curation is democratically executed?
The point of this post is just to raise these questions, about where these opportunities could be, using the article as an indication that these kinds of things can occur on the very lowest level, one by one, to create large scale change. Instead of making large scale commentary and hoping the industry hears us and reacts accordingly, perhaps finding some small solutions and popularizing them through grassroots tactics will make more of a difference. At the very least, let this study be a rallying cry for independent filmmakers to share their best grassroots practices with their colleagues. We are all trying to answer the same big questions; but some of us must already have answers to the smaller ones.