Call for an Independents’ Voice in the Digital Debate

The following document is the result of informal discussions among approximately 30 Bay Area independent producers beginning in 2006 concerning the rapid technological and economic changes confronting the field. The group decided that the most urgent need was to establish a nation-wide network of independent producers and their organizations prepared to discuss these issues and advocate for policies which would help the field survive and flourish. To this end a list-serve, Indie-Coalition@yahoogroups.com, has been formed. We invite (and urge) all independent media makers and their supporters to participate in this dialogue and in the formation of policies which will allow us to play a vigorous role in the digital age.

I. A CALL FOR AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCERS’ VOICE IN THE DIGITAL DEBATE

1. We are in the midst of a communications revolution which threatens the fragile ecology of independent production, while offering unprecedented opportunities for public interest media.

2. Digital delivery is overturning long-established patterns for the funding, rights, distribution and hence revenues of independent work, often with deleterious impacts on their producers.

3. Powerful governmental and corporate forces are making decisions which will shape the future internet age with little reference to the sustainability of independent production.

4. Independent producers themselves are uninformed about the long-term implications of these rapid changes and unorganized to offer any alternatives to them.

5. They lack a vigorous grassroots advocacy network to keep them up-to-date, allow them to articulate and aggregate their own interests and policies and to lobby broadcasters, funders, internet content providers and a potentially more sympathetic Congress.

6. This is a proposal to activate just such a nation-wide coalition to insure that independent producers can survive and thus cultivate more democratic and diverse media in the internet age. Independent production may be the cutting edge to carve out an open, well funded civic or “public interest” sector in the otherwise commercial marketplace of the internet.

II. WHY THE SURVIVAL OF INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION IS ESSENTIAL IN THE INTERNET AGE

1. Has free, user generated content (UGC) completely superceded the need for compensated, professional, independent production as an essential element of public interest dialogue in the internet age? Or does independent production remain a primary source of diverse voices and views for our civic life? Is there still a vital public interest in its sustainability?

2. Even among experienced supporters of “public interest” media, there has been a tendency to confuse the raw quantity of UGC with the quality of that content and the contexts in which it appears. As a result content and content-producers are consistently under-valued and under-funded while scarce funds are diverted to often ill-conceived, pre-mature “new media” projects.

3. UGC and social networking offer promising opportunities for the circulation and discussion of content. However, independent producers have a key role to play providing the journalistically sound, policy–oriented programs as well as the artful, personal visions which can serve as catalysts for the larger social conversations necessary to revitalize our democracy.

4.There are no technological fixes. Radio, television, cable, DVD were all touted as solutions to the problem of media diversity and serious public interest debate in this country. Each has failed, as the internet will fail, unless public broadcasting, Congress and foundations supply a consistent and substantial source of funds for producing alternative, high quality, non-commercial content, the kind which individual producers create.

5. Why should under-represented voices and views have to rely on cost-free, amateur expression while mainstream corporate interests can spend millions of dollars disseminating their ideas? As Blake observed: “One law for the lion and the lamb is tyranny.”

6. The internet, while it connects millions of people around the world instantaneously, tends, because of its increasing commercialization, to position its users as consumers not citizens. UGC is hence a necessary but insufficient instrument for generating consensus and mobilizing users behind concrete action. Independent production with its organic links to particular causes and constituencies can act as a link between a wider public and social activism. This is true whether productions are shown in schoolrooms, union halls, house parties or embedded in relevant internet sites.

7. The reinvention of a sustainable model for the production of independent public service and arts content on the internet is obviously one of the great unresolved issues of the internet age.

III. THE CRISIS FACING INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

1. The sustainability of public service, independent production is threatened today by two mutually reinforcing trends: the loss of ancillary, revenue-generating rights and cutbacks in funding from traditional sources for non-commercial media.

2. Digital convergence has been predicted for a decade. The distribution of media content by terrestrial and cable telecast and by DVD rentals and sales are inevitably and rapidly merging in a single delivery platform, the internet. But this has given birth to the misguided inference that digital convergence inevitably leads to a convergence of digital rights as well.

3. Major funders of independent production like public television or HBO are increasingly demanding all digital rights: web-casting, streaming and downloading, both domestic and international. Yet they are paying independent producers no more for these rights than when they simply wanted domestic broadcast and cablecast rights.

4. The Writers and Directors Guilds and Hollywood have also begun to grapple with the question of a fair distribution of revenues from ancillary, specifically digital rights. Independent producers, however, lack the strong organizations to set guidelines or negotiate an equitable share of these rights with funding sources like PBS and HBO and content aggregators such as i-Tunes, Amazon Unbox, Jaman, Indiepix, Reframe, etc.

5. Independents have a particular need for ancillary rights revenues. DVD and international sales revenues are critical to sustain them through the lengthy, largely un-funded development stage characteristic of most American independent production.

IV. GETTING ORGANIZED…

1. Independent production will only become sustainable in the internet age if independent producers inform themselves, articulate policies, organize and lobby before the relevant agencies and organizations. They will need to form alliances with other internet content producers, independent producers’ academic, journalistic and industry supporters and, above all, the formidable grassroots constituencies their programs serve.

2. As a first step, we propose inviting independent producers and their organizations to participate in a vital policy discussion of the issues facing the field as a result of the digital revolution. This discussion will help independent producers identify and prioritize critical issues at the same time it will mobilize producer interest nationally. Additionally, preliminary contact with key foundations and funder/presenters such as ITVS will lay the groundwork for a collegial rather than adversarial relationship as we move forward.

3. This dialogue will guide in the creation of a policy agenda. Issues addressed by such an agenda might include: the division of internet rights, digital rights management and licensing, two-tier pricing for the educational and home markets, more open access to major internet portals, industry-wide standards for digital royalties, net neutrality, increased funding for independent production and legislation with an impact on the sustainability of such production.

5. A Liaison or Organizing Committee consisting of representatives of any interested media arts center, media advocacy organization or internet-based independent producer group will be formed when it comes time to draw up and implement this policy agenda.

6. These representatives will perform the necessary functions to mobilize their particular networks: keeping their constituents informed and active, organizing outreach to potential outside supporters, initiating press coverage, appearing at various conferences and board meetings, making individual contact with network, ICPs and foundation officers, and, if necessary, lobbying Congress. Funds will be raised for a paid organizer to coordinate the network’s activities.

7. Beyond these initially identified activities and flexible organizational structure, the long-term shape, scope and direction of this coalition will evolve in response to the needs of the independent producer community.

8. A yahoo group has been formed where this nation-wide conversation of independent producers can occur. To join the discussion simply send a message to: Indie-Coalition-subscribe@yahoogroup.com. Names and e-mail addresses will be kept in strict confidence.

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2 responses to “Call for an Independents’ Voice in the Digital Debate

  1. Hello! So glad to see you’re undertaking a little grassroots advocacy. Your efforts to inform independent producers, aggregate opinions and lobby elected officials and others as to the value public media and independent production bring to the digital age will, in my opinion, be critical to your ultimate success.

    If I might make a couple suggestions based on many years of working in Congress: first, elected officials and their staff are most interested in what’s happening in their individual districts (or states, in the case of the Senate). So, developing a list that breaks producers down by House district and state will really help you when it comes to lobbying. Second, elected officials and staff will respond best to very specific suggestions (i.e., bills they should support or oppose, funding they should support etc.) as opposed to a broad policy agenda. While you should certainly have a broad policy agenda, you’ll want to figure out ways to break that down in to specific “asks.” Finally, it’s not too early to begin building relationships — elected officials and their staff probably aren’t aware of your concerns. I’d suggest holding screenings of some of your work or inviting them to participate in “a day in the life” to show them what you bring to the table.

    Just some thoughts — best of luck as you go forth and advocate!

    Stephanie Vance

  2. We are, as are you, appalled at the financial condition of the independent documentary filmmaker. His/Her artistic heartbeat is strong, and, as the Cinema Eye awards earlier this year demonstrated, the production and story telling talent in nonfiction film is outstanding in every respect. We do not believe that a viable independent film community (generally, and with respect to documentaries in particular) can exist dependent on foundation grants and philanthropy, on deferred compensation and credit card bills. A strong consumer market and a loyal and engaged audience are essential to the future of this expression. IndiePix is committed to developing a commercial audience for independent film (including specifically independent documentary film) that as it grows, will become a source of funding for projects and a way to make a living and practice the craft for filmmakers.We will look for ways to work with you to accomplish our mutual objectives.

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