Filmmakers and Others Petition Against Smithsonian's Showtime Deal
By LORNE MANLY
Published: April 18, 2006 [excerpted]
As the recent coupling between the Smithsonian Institution and Showtime Networks continues to roil the documentary film world, more than 215 filmmakers, television executives and academics have signed a letter demanding that the Smithsonian, a publicly financed museum, not only reveal financial details of the joint venture but also abandon it.
The signers of the letter, delivered yesterday to a Smithsonian official, include the filmmakers Michael Moore ("Fahrenheit 9/11"), R. J. Cutler ("The War Room") and Alex Gibney ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"); the actress and writer Anna Deavere Smith ("Twilight: Los Angeles"); the law professor Lawrence Lessig; and Jacoba Atlas, a senior PBS executive.
The uproar was set off last month when Showtime and the Smithsonian announced the creation of Smithsonian Networks, a joint venture for original television programming on scientific, cultural and historical subjects whose first service would be an on-demand cable channel beginning this December. As part of the deal, Smithsonian Networks was to get the right of first refusal on commercial documentaries that relied significantly on the museum's archives, curators or scientists.
The underfinanced Smithsonian has argued that while the agreement might restrict some commercial filmmakers from selling their handiwork elsewhere, it would affect only a limited number of projects. [...]
[...] the idea of a public institution's granting preferential treatment to a commercial entity has alarmed many in the documentary and academic worlds, who worry that the venture will discourage independent filmmakers from taking their projects to other outlets or from putting their work on the Internet on a noncommercial basis.
The letter states that it is a troubling prospect to require independent filmmakers, video bloggers, historians or educators who make nonincidental use of the Smithsonian's collections or staff to offer their projects commercially to "this new business venture."
Such a requirement, the letter says, is "an anticompetitive practice that is extremely troubling." Put together by the Center for American Progress, a liberal research organization, the letter was sent to Lawrence M. Small, secretary of the Smithsonian..
"Closing off one of the most important collections of source materials and limiting access to staff," the letter adds, "will have a chilling effect on creativity, will create disincentives for digitization of the collections for access by all Americans, and violates the mission and purpose of the Smithsonian Institution."
Also angering the letter writers is the secrecy about the contract details, which the Smithsonian has declined to publicize for competitive reasons. "It just doesn't seem to be the way a public trust should operate," said Carl Malamud, a senior fellow and chief technology officer for the Center for American Progress, who has spearheaded the letter-writing campaign and a Freedom of Information Act request for contract details. The letter writers also demand that the Smithsonian hold public hearings before it undertakes any similar efforts in the future. [read on...]