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Why Live Performance Could Save the Experimental Documentary

By David D'Arcy | Indiewire May 1, 2012 at 1:10PM

This twist on the bio-doc genre is not just a film, but a performance, with narration from Green and music from the band Yo La Tengo. Perhaps most importantly: Both May 1 live shows are sold out.
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Buckminster Fuller's car design.
Buckminster Fuller's car design.

“It’s a better business plan, but it’s also better for the audience,”  said Brent Green, a musician who tours with his films as he would with a band. "A live performance with people in front of you really gives you that experience. With film, where it’s easier to download and share and pirate stuff, that way of making a living is going to phase out, so filmmakers have to figure out new ways to do that. Doing live films isn’t necessarily the answer for everyone, but in some situations, it’s a good solution.”

Sam Green stressed that it’s not just about art for art’s sake. “It sounds completely counterintuitive, but honestly doing live things the economics are much better than if I were making an experimental documentary about utopia or Buckminster Fuller,” he said. “If we did something at the Walker Art Center, the Wexner Art Center or the Kitchen, they pay performance fees, rather than screening fees. The difference between performance fees and screening fees is one or two figures. That world is still set up for people to get paid decently.”

Sam Green noted that “The Weather Underground,” budgeted at around $250,000, was a relative success by doc box office standards – more than $564,000 in the US theatrically, distributed by Shadow Distribution and TV sales worldwide handled by Annie Roney of ro*co films international.  

"For experimental or art movies, there’s not a lot of great options these days," he said. “My great friend the filmmaker Sarah Jacobson once said to me, ‘Movies are always a couple years behind music, in terms of distribution and economics’ – it’s already happened in music that unless you’re a huge artist, you’re not going to make money selling your music. So people make money doing live stuff, touring. That’s how you make money as a musician now.”

Still, it would seem that there are fewer performing spaces available to filmmakers doing live shows than there are screens for theatrical indie release. Not a problem, said Brent Green, who regularly improvises spaces to perform, including an abandoned drive-in in upstate New York.  Venues are like audiences, he said. “You have to earn them – no one owes you their money or their space or their time.”

Sam Green made “The Love Song of Buckminster Fuller” for around $50,000. “It’s a much smaller scale. I put it together in Keynote – it’s not this huge thing where you edit for two years.” Not all of the budget came from the SFMoMA commission. “I got a little more ambitious, so I raised more money myself,” he said, declining to give the exact figure from the museum,” he said.

“The Universal Language,”,which Green made for $125,000, is now available on Green’s web site. He didn’t expect to organize live performances in Esperanto to promote it to the 2 million people who speak the language worldwide. “They’re dispersed,” said Sam Green, “It’s hard to get a lot of them in the same place.  The smartest way to distribute it is the internet, so the three people who speak Esperanto in Mongolia can download it and the 1500 people who speak it in Brazil can download it.”

Sam Green said he won’t rule out making a documentary destined for theaters, but knows the odds are rising against any filmmaker making such a project work financially. “On the other hand, the glass is half full,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities for people to do things and fund their work. I’m not talking about Kickstarter, which I sort of can’t stand. That model of  ‘Let’s all ask our friends to support our work’ doesn’t seem like a good solution. If I gave money to everybody who wrote me about a Kickstarter campaign, I’d be out on the street homeless.”
 





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