BIZ: How's Your Dotcom Treating You? Part 10
by Alan and Smithee
[Well, it all hit the fan this past week, didn't it? With the announced merger of Pop.com and IFilm, then the breakdown of the deal, and finally, the official announcement that Pop.com -- the high profile Hollywood-based web portal -- would never come to be. So now what of poor Smithee, the short filmmaker, who debated long and hard over the past month in our ongoing correspondence column called "How's Your Dotcom Treating You?" who finally chose to bring his baby to Pop.com just a couple weeks ago? And his colleague Alan, the stern, skeptical anti-Pop-er with a deal at AtomFilms, who advised him against it? In this latest installment, Alan and Smithee, two filmmakers who have chosen to remained anonymous, exchanged e-mails day by day as the news broke this week, reflecting on Pop's demise, the media scavengers surrounding the breakdown, and the practice of showing shorts in theaters verses the increasingly perilous online world.]
Welcome back. All sorts of exciting things have been happening while you were away in Yugoslavia.
The main news is that the people who own the rights to your film seem to have given up the idea of launching an entertainment portal on the Internet, after all. According to... well everyone, they have entered talks to sell their assets -- including your film -- to the altogether more successful IFilm.
Seems my skepticism about Pop.com was well founded, and your optimism, well. . . Let's just say, too optimistic.
So...another dotcom puts on its bib, and gets ready to bite the dust. As it turns out, your colleagues at Pop were blowing hot air up your ass when they reassured you about their situation. And did they call you to tell you before it hit the papers, or are you hearing it from me first? Not entirely honorable behavior. Perhaps you should remember their individual names and, when they reappear in other Hollywood functions... don't work with them again.
This has caused quite a stir in the movie and Internet business. Even mainstream newspapers are clamoring to get a story. Yesterday, the New York Post called indieWIRE, requesting an interview with Smithee (yes, that's you), of "Alan and Smithee" fame. But as you were absent and incommunicado, your faithful partner in crime stepped in to tell them what you might be thinking -- that is, if you had known anything about all this. A pale imitation of your eloquent self, I hope you'll find I did you justice. See the article in Friday's paper (Sept. 1).
Have a look at your contract, Smithee. Do it now. Look and see what it says about what happens to your film if the company is swallowed whole. Is there anyway to get your film rights back? Maybe IFilm will be great for you, but it would be much more reassuring if they had bought your film because they believed in it, rather than having it thrown in as part of a doomed company that is regretting too many bad choices.
Well, I said I was gamblin' when I made this decision, and maybe I sat at the wrong card table. I'm a little confused, a little overwhelmed, a little jetlagged, and I can't say you know for sure what you're talking about. Maybe IFilm is buying Pop, as you say, but maybe they're not. Everybody is reading the press and frankly the press is guessing, as far as I can tell. They say a deal with IFilm is a fact, then they say it isn't. They do seem to be sniffing in a circle around trouble, but to make assumptions about how that trouble is going to be handled is unfair. You assume the worst of the people I met with at Pop, that they have misled me. My sense is that they are as in-the-dark as I am about the machinations at the top levels of their company. That is a problem, if they really don't know. But they are continuing to work, trying to ignore the press, in the hopes that the launch will take place as planned. And maybe it won't. But maybe it will. At this writing I keep my fingers crossed.
But it does point out the issue that anyone signing with an Internet company better damn well have an escape clause. To sign away your film without one is stupid, and if everything goes up in flames, I'm hoping there will be a way I can get out alive. It's difficult to word this "escape clause," though -- what movie studio buys an indie film on a provisional basis? (Then again, what movie studio pays such piddling rates?) It makes it hard for a company to market a film if they know the filmmaker can pull the plug if she or he isn't satisfied.
I am, of course, wondering if I shouldn't have signed with MediaTrip, or Atom, or somebody who's already out there with some proven experience. But the real question that comes to me is, why not self-distribute? Or, follow the example of a company like Blackchair, which is setting up a model of "microcinema" exhibition, where they take films to far-flung corners of the planet and project them, whether on videobeam onto a sheet, or on a borrowed bigscreen TV, or anywhere they can, to a hungry LIVE audience? Isn't that, finally, the way films should be seen?
I just presented my films to 300 people in Subotica, Yugoslavia, courtesy of the Yugoslav Cheap Film Festival and Lo-Fi Video (Belgrade). The response, live Q & A, and palpable sense that the audience cared was worth more to me than any web counter could be (not that I've ever been on the web... ahem.). Immediately, two other cities -- Novi Sad and Belgrade -- requested screenings. In Novi Sad my films were projected one night in a city park onto a giant sheet at a youth-fest, a stone's throw from the Danube where a destroyed bridge still litters the water. In Belgrade, with 12 hours notice, Lo-Fi Video was able to garner an audience of 150 people who crowded, one sticky hot night, into a tiny room with no air conditioning, all to see the films of this American filmmaker. They spilled out onto the rooftop and peered into the windows to glimpse the tiny projected video image. This was the past of cinema, the way cinema was first presented to the masses 100 years ago.
Maybe the Internet is one future, but it's not the whole story. The past of cinema distribution can also be a part of its future. The Internet is a complete denial of the collective experience that is an essential part of cinema, and for that reason, it may never be enough to satisfy an audience. There's no doubt it ain't enough to satisfy me. Lo-Fi Video in Belgrade, God bless them, taught me that.
That said, I keep my fingers crossed, wish my friends at Pop luck, and lament that the press turns a flurry of real problems and unreal rumors into an excuse for gleefully bashing a company. By the time you write back we will know more... let's see.
My head is spinning. . . Latest news is that the IFilm deal is off.
What's going to happen next? Apparently neither AtomFilms nor CreativePlanet.com are interested in a relationship. Will they find a buyer or try to brave the storm and launch their website after all? Hard to do, after so much negative publicity.
You are being "Mr. Positive," Smithee. I sense some political meandering in your kind tone. You know the people at Pop will be reading this, and maybe you are afraid they might one day come to know your true identity. You, Smithee the filmmaker, will very probably be around a lot longer than Pop.com. It's good to stay friendly with people, and I admire your patience and benevolence -- as long as it's not just a spin technique used to hide your frustration.
Your experiences in Yugoslavia must have been amazing. But it's very hard to compare the present situation to the atmosphere and gratification you felt from a war-beaten audience reveling in a rare appearance by an American who had not come to drop bombs on them, but who came to show them his movies. I agree with what you say about the collective experience (our recent "open letter" said it all) -- and you just got a dose of the best kind. But we live and work in a business that now includes the Internet, and that Internet might grow to provide an income that allows us to continue making the films we want to, rather than becoming someone's employees.
Gleeful bashing only happens when a company starts out with big guns, makes arrogant claims and projections -- using the very press which is bashing them now -- then can't deliver. The difference between Pop.com and other non-Hollywood Internet start-ups is that your guys are the only ones who supposedly know all about how to use the press. . .
They are screwing up.
I agree that Pop's relationship with the press is for shit. I think they've been regretting their press releases a year ago -- they should have kept quiet until the site was about to launch. You'd think that they would have understood that.
I guess I just don't know at this point how dire the Troubles really are. A lot of dedicated people have been working for months to get the site ready, and it's amazing to me to think the top players would now pull the plug. Of course I'm concerned and disappointed, but until something concrete happens, I'm going to continue to hope for the best. (Can you believe I went OFF Prozac a few months ago?) Being in Yugoslavia reminded me how much spin the papers can give to everything/ I take the "news" with a grain of salt. And this holiday weekend, it's tough to find out anything beyond the conjecture the news provides.
I see your point about the Internet's power -- and after all, my invitation to Yugoslavia and all the screenings there were made possible by email/mailing lists, the one "free press" -- but I just think as independent filmmakers, we should realize that "microcinemas" may be part of our future. They may not make much money, but how much money have you honestly made off of Atom? And microcinemas are certainly more fun than dropping your film into the digital ether.
Then again, I hope Pop -- or whatever becomes of Pop -- proves me wrong.
With baited breath,
[After reading the news on Wednesday -- the announcement of Pop's official closing -- Smithee adds another correspondence.]
What's that scent coming from the kitchen? Is that cocoa beans, freshly roasted?
Did I just wake up and smell the coffee? By God, I think I did! And guess what? It smells like poop!
Did I just say "poop"? I meant something else.
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