What is Hollywood, you ask, dear children? A quorum of whores babbling endlessly on about fucking while the bordello is razed for a penny arcade -- Paul Bern

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


File this one under uncertain pronouncements from the Ministry of New Media:

“Algorithms and social media replacing the work of Publishers & Editors; network socially-generated texts replacing individually-authored texts.”

OK. So, in the bad old media world you only had to convince maybe 5-10 people to give you the money to make a film. These gatekeeping people carefully maintain the fiction that they are careful surrogates for the audience, when in fact, they are just the whorish face of Capital. (Which must, like Voltaire’s garden, grow or die.) So the filmmaker was put into a position not unlike that of the culture worker in the Stalinist era – she must “fool” the authorities into sponsoring the film, which if not complete hackwork done cynically, might possess negligible content vis-a-vis socialist realism, but might connect with the audience, and bring in those desperate roubles for the state. You then must fight, dialectically, with your sponsors, your collective, actors, cinematographers, etc. to get the film you want. This friction is called the creative process. Art needs privations, conditions, etc.; Only a child would argue this elementary conception.

Here’s the story behind that mythic title card in Shadows:  “Presented by Jean Shepherd’s Night People” It’s 1957. Cassavetes goes on Night People, the Jean Shepherd radio show, and, canny populist that he is, says “Wouldn’t it be terrific if people could make movies instead of all these Hollywood Big-wigs who are only interested in business…?”  and then “…if people really want to see a movie about people, they should contribute money. Just a dollar each would do it, if enough people contributed.” So by the end of the week, he’s got $2,500 bucks, enough to start the ball rolling. He went to work, and Jean Shepherd hyped & tweeted the premiere to the prime demographic, the very hip & sophisticated bunch of Night People listeners. About 2,000 people showed up for 3 midnight shows. A lot of these night people walked out, into the night. Humbled, Cassavetes took feedback, spent more money, re-shot and re-edited his film, and came out with his “Mekas” version – the mythic film that invented American Independent Cinema. But then, Cassavetes broke and reconstructed the film once more, out of perversity, or to please himself – and that is the version of Shadows that we have (1). In all, he spent about $30,000, most of it his own money. What is obscured in this story, due to the eventual gilded legend of Cassavetes, is that the action of the Night People was a thing of PURE WHIMSY, one of many channeled prankish happenings available to the supposedly repressed denizen of the late fifties.  Let’s note that whimsy is not one of the acknowledged categories of economic activity. But then, usually, neither is Art.

Now, even today, it’s entirely possible to make a very good feature, with the right resources for 10-20K. So, with crowdfunding, you are suddenly in the position of having to convince 2,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 people to sponsor “your” film. They are your audience, avant la lettre, and so you, like Cassavetes, make representations, promises, you lay out the idea, perhaps even the script for the film, you make an implied contract, you are quite literally “giving the people what they want”. Leaving aside the level of conceptualization (let’s call this mix of vagueness and hyper-specificity, Sky-high Concept Filmmaking) that you would have to achieve to attract your audience before the fact (that is, if you were an unknown filmmaker) because any particular micro-element of your presentation could “turn off” a prospective sponsor. At the very least, let’s say that it would be harder than just saying you wanted to make “a film about people.”(2)  And most importantly, how many “acts of pure whimsy” @ 5-10 euros a pop, can you count on from said crowd before their reserve of whimsy is depleted...?

Like every good pyramid scheme, there is a bit of cynicism underlying crowdfunding. You truly have to believe that a sucker breaks water every minute. There is no reason to suppose that pyramid scams mayn’t be adapted expertly to social media, seeing as, at heart, social networking is a pyramid scheme of attention, which only sometimes involves money. “During a wave of pyramid activity, a surge frequently develops once a significant fraction of people know someone personally who exited with a payout (of attention). This spurs others to seek to get in on one of the many pyramids before the wave collapses.”(3)  And when the wave collapses, then so does the social network, and the cycle repeats on newer, more desirable social networks. 

Congratulations! You have been fortunate, solicitous & diligent enough to be funded. You, as filmmaker, have a few options:

1) You could then, Godard-style, turn around and betray the good faith of your pre-audience and make the film you “really” want.

2) You could slavishly follow “the audience” concept to its dreary end.

3) You could even further involve the audience ad absurdum (“which take do you like, dear sponsors…?”) in the making of the film, somewhat like Cassavetes, when he needed the audience to see what went wrong.

4) Make some interesting process-discoveries that substantially impact the nature of the film as you go, but perhaps leaving your original audience behind. Again, this is also like Cassavetes, but after he had found his way as an artist, which involved pissing Mekas off.  

It seems to me that “social networking” does not easily co-exist with cultural activity. It’s an alternative of negation; You can either hop on the Avatar juggernaut before it crushes you, or as a free exercise of your taste, champion James Cameron, the auteur -- you can’t do both. Cultural production needs a certain sclerotic focusing; a tension – the diffuse nebula-nature of the internet makes for cultural low blood pressure, its blood choked with valium on top of the usual chronic issues. I’m making it sound lame, but maybe this is – somehow -- good. Let people write with water and nothing ever hit a mark, like one of those rubber playrooms where no one ever got hurt. (4) It somehow strikes me funny that manufacturing and surfing a wave or cult of “popular” excitement for an artifact of dubious cultural value -- is exactly what the studios do. We usually, politely, call it showmanship. But usually, you don’t ask people to pay for their “suckering” upfront. With crowdfunding, you’re just nickel and dimeing it.  So, fine then. But be warned, there are no fixed loyalties in the vast ocean of Attention Deficit Disorder. Night People, after all, come and go.

With apologies, of course, for any future Undying Masterpieces of the Cinema created by crowdfunding.


1) A few years back, Ray Carney dug up one of these intermediary Shadows – but is, I think, enjoined from showing it around.

2)  Here’s how to make crowdfunding more ludic, and less boring. Let the crowd, if they can agree, like the Kommissars of old, give the filmmaker 5-10 Obstructions (in the Von Trier style) or Material Condtions that she must fulfill.

3) From Wikipedia, Pyramid Scheme entry.

4) Diffusion is an even better marginalizer than the market. Another weird instance – I was talking to someone the other day about Duke Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant. Smart, adequately pop-cultured, mid 20s. He had no idea about the Ferrara film. It’s not so much Ferrara who is vanishing into the ether here, it is cinema itself.

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