I finally got a chance to watch this great documentary on my flight home from Berlin yesterday -- perfectly fitting after participating in the ECLA State of the World Week conference on the Politics of Cultural Ownership, and then catching the surprise talk by Lessig at the Sophiensaele along with some of "my" students on my last night in town.
(I'll be remixing some screen grabs from this film for my powerpoint keynote at Iona College's inaugural Conference on Intellectual Property in June -- more on that soon!)
When it comes to remix culture, copyfight and crowd-sourcing, Brett Gaylor walks the walk. The director of “open source documentary” RiP: A Remix Manifesto released his feature-length film under a Creative Commons license and even adopted Radiohead’s name-your-own-price business model when he made the movie available online.
“We’ve gone to really great lengths to make this film as accessible as possible,” Gaylor explained in an e-mail interview conducted after announcing the download Monday. “It’s already on the Pirate Bay, and that’s great — it’s another delivery format. We didn’t put it there ourselves, though; we didn’t need to. Had we gone that route, it’s fairly likely, given the realities of the film-distribution universe, that we wouldn’t have these other opportunities to get the film to people who still watch TV, rent DVDs or go to movies, which is, in fact, most people. We wanted those people to watch this movie.”
Featuring mashup artist Girl Talk and luminaries like Lawrence Lessig, Gilberto Gil and Cory Doctorow, RiP: A Remix Manifesto debuted in Amsterdam and Canada last year and in North America last month. It opens theatrically Friday in New York.
The movie’s compelling analysis of sampling, sharing and copyfighting was pieced together over six years, during which Gaylor shared his raw footage with other filmmakers, some of whose remixes he spliced into the film. Given the realities of remix culture, where there is no such thing as a final cut, Gaylor subsequently offered the movie online as a remix experiment at Open Source Cinema, which he founded and beta-launched in 2004.
Since then, the little doc that could has nabbed awards, screened at panels and walked the tightrope between theatrical and internet distribution, original art and open-sourced amalgam, without falling off.
Gaylor talks about copyfight crusaders, the trials and tribulations of the distribution war, and the joys of messing with the media.
Wired.com: The pay-what-you-want initiative makes perfect sense for this film, but I’m betting it wasn’t easy to pull off from a business perspective.
Brett Gaylor: It’s been a peculiar road to get to the point where we could release the film as a download, because obviously this is something we wanted to do right from the get go. But since we have so many partners that helped us make the film, including theatrical and television distributors, it was a delicate balancing act to make sure the good faith they showed in making the film would be rewarded, that we wouldn’t undercut their efforts to promote and recoup on the film by giving it away. So we waited a while before launching the various online permutations. The National Film Board [of Canada] put up a chaptered version during our U.S. premiere at South by Southwest in March, and we embedded calls to action into each chapter.
Around SXSW, we partnered with two American partners — Disinformation for our DVD release, and BSide for the theatrical side of things. And at the first meeting I had with them, it became clear that we needed to go down this road. We knew the film would appear on file-sharing networks immediately and we knew the audience for the film wanted and expected it to be online. So knowing that, we wanted there to be a method for those who wanted to pay to do so.
Wired.com: Are you satisfied with the arrangement so far?
Gaylor: It’s still not moving as fast as I’d ultimately like. The pay-what-you-can is at the moment just available for those in the U.S., while some of the other world territories do their thing theatrically or on DVD. And we, being the National Film Board of Canada, and our production company EyeSteelFilm, want those territories to be able to have a chance to define their own business model, so it’s fair. Its been a lot of tricky e-mails.
Wired.com: How has the theatrical run gone, and how are you feeling about the New York City opening?
Gaylor: The theatrical run so far has been amazing. In Canada, it played literally coast to coast, and there is something immensely satisfying as a filmmaker to see your film’s title on a marquee and have people watch it together on a big screen. We went to a lot of lengths for it to work well in that format; it’s got big sound, beautiful graphics and animation, and the cinematographer Mark Ellam did an amazing job.
It’s also really challenging to engage the public in theaters, because you’re playing your film to this broad demographic. We had people in the lineups at the AMC trying to decide if they’d go see Benjamin Button or this crazy copyright remix movie, so that was a surreal pleasure. It also generated a ton of press for the film, mostly great, but the film enraged the right-wing papers in the country who took a lot of umbrage with its central themes.
Wired.com: Tell us about the New York screening, which coincides with a panel from the Open Video Alliance about standards and practices.
Gaylor: We’re doing a sneak preview on Friday and then following up with the launch at the Open Video Conference, which I’m extremely excited to participate in. I was part of the initial planning sessions for this group back in the fall, and it really feels like a culmination of all this disparate work that has been going on in the free culture world for years. Filmmakers, free software geeks, remixers, lawyers, academics — all these different people who have been working on these parallel tracks are starting to feed their work into one another, and I find it incredibly inspiring. So it will be an honor to show the film there. It’s a tough crowd, too!
Wired.com: What are your thoughts on the future of open video?
Gaylor: I’m generally optimistic about it. There are a lot of challenges, for sure: Lack of universal standards, third-party rights, bandwidth, access for the developing world, and a lack of basic media literacy among users. On the flip side, I think the internet will very quickly overtake TV as the content-delivery medium of choice, and with that comes the opportunity for a genuine participatory experience. I think the time is now for developing the tools, standards and practices to make sure we don’t just see TV 2.0.
Wired.com: Talk about working with Girl Talk’s Gregg Gillis and Negativland’s Mark Hosler on this film and its various openings. What role have both played in the evolution of remix culture?
Gaylor: Working with Gregg was a lot of fun. One of the reasons I wanted to include him in the film is because he doesn’t see himself as a copyright crusader. He’s a serious musician whose work points out a lot of flaws, contradictions and challenges in current copyright law. The fact that he’s been able to reach such a level of success without a lawsuit has created a lot of elbow room for musicians.
When you think about Negativland, which had a fairly major lawsuit filed against them over a decade ago, it’s obvious that things are changing. Negativland had a huge influence on my life. Watching it take such an intelligent, activist stance was very inspiring, and you could tell they were taking such joy in fucking with the media. It was something I looked at and said, “Yeah, I could do that! I want to do that!”
Wired.com: How about Lessig and Doctorow?
Gaylor: Their writing put some meat on the bones, and framed the debate for a whole generation of copyright activists. For a lot of people, it was like suddenly realizing: “That’s what kind of activist I am.”
Wired.com: You’ve said in your blog that “theatrical distribution is a war.” Can you elaborate? And what does internet distribution, legal and otherwise, offer in terms of an olive branch?
Gaylor: It’s a war in that you have to do so much to get the proverbial butts in the seats. It’s extremely costly and the stakes are high, whereas I think the internet gives some opportunities to speak directly to an audience. With RiP, we tried to have the best of both worlds. It was important that folks who weren’t exposed to these issues were able to see it, but we also wanted to try and lower the friction as much as possible to those who were active online and who would really see themselves in the film.
Wired.com: Now that you’ve made a film on these issues, has your mind changed about intellectual property or ownership? What’s the tightrope there?
Gaylor: The classic copyright ones: Providing an incentive, while at the same time ensuring the public’s access to the work. Ultimately, that’s what I, and most people in this movement, are pushing for — a balance. So the film release was a lot more “free as in speech” than it was “free as in beer,” because it was important for me that average folks could see the film on TV or in theaters. And eventually, after a limited term (measured in months!), the film will fall into the public/pirate domain and be copied freely.
Wired.com: Do you envision a day when theatrical distribution is a dinosaur, and we’re all paying to stream films online?
Gaylor: We’ll see how I feel about that in a year. The remixing is just starting to take off, and I envision a time when these sorts of interactions will create an environment where a theatrical screening is to filmmakers what live performances are to musicians. The ability to create something unique for a particular screening or event allows you to offer an added value to that audience member, as well as have something unique that’s different from what you can get on a DVD or online.