A New Wave for a New Media

by Eric Kohn

Jamie Stuart, right, talks to Scott Macaulay.

No sneezing pandas or desperate pleas to leave Britney alone plagued New York's IFC Center on Thursday night, when several web-based filmmakers gathered to screen and discuss their works. The event, titled "Where Internet and Film Collide," was co-hosted by the Independent Feature Project and IndieGoGo as a part of Internet Week New York, but none of the projects featured over the course of the evening resembled the lackadaisical style of your average YouTube phenomenon. Instead, the event brought strong examples of the ways independent cinema can flourish in cyberspace. The films themselves each had their own specific audiences, developed online through a variety of methods, but in every case, creative ambition paved the way to rigorous experimentation.

Two of the featured artists were no strangers to Stream readers: Our tech columnist, Jamie Stuart, screened two of his favorite shorts: NYFF45: Part Two, and 12.5 Seconds Later..., both of which he has discussed in his weekly column. Since the event was moderated by Filmmaker magazine editor Scott Macaulay, the producer of Stuart's New York Film Festival shorts, their conversation in front of the audience after his films were shown took on a personal tone. "I remember the first time we ever had a meeting," Stuart told Macaulay. "You asked me to bring along the scripts, and I was like, 'There aren't any scripts.' It's a combination of improvisation and editing." That pretty much sums it up: Stuart's NYFF shorts explore the frantic environment of media events with a lyrical edge, and NYFF45 gets it best, particularly when Stuart continually cuts from the jittery hands of anonymous photographers to glorious close-ups of Nicole Kidman (doing press for Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding). It's a surreal moment that underscores a specific kind of chaos associated with the crassness of celebrity obsession. Stuart summed it up: "I have no interest in reality. My goal is to pervert it."

He's not the only one with those intentions. Jesse Cowell, whose quasi-animated series Drawn by Pain also showed on Thursday, contorts live action footage by telling the frenetic story of a woman haunted by animated demons, the terrifying manifestation of her chaotic urban existence. However, while Stuart seemed fairly comfortable with the prospect of letting his work speak for itself, Cowell spoke with a salesman's ethic about his current promotional techniques. "If it's a film that's in your closet, it's useless," he said, recalling how he entered chatrooms and other online social outlets to spread the word about his series. "You have to whore yourself out." He put that somewhat coarse assertion in a positive light. "My goal is to be a brand entity," he added. "I want a lot of people to have heard about something we've poured our hearts into. I think to do that you can't just expect them to come to you. You have to deliver it to an iPod, a theater, or whatever you can show your movie in. You just have to be as passionate about getting it out there as you are about making it." Cowell was especially emphatic about the specific nature of online fans. "It's a brutal universe," he explained, "but what's wonderful about is that it's honest. They will tell you if you suck from day one."

'Drawn by Pain,' a chaotic web series.

All the participants agreed that accessibility provided the primary benefit of digital self-distribution. "We've had stuff in festivals before," said Ryan Bilborrow-Koo, the co-director (with Zachary Leiberman) of the highly stylized web series The West Side, another part of Thursday's program (like Drawn by Pain, it recently won a Webby award). "You go watch a movie with people, you go home, and that's that. With the internet, at least it stays out there." Cowell concurred. "I think the internet is the greatest thing," he said. "It gives a chance to people who have something to say."

A trailer for 'Green Porno,' by Isabella Rosselini.

Even the guests involved in projects with far more immediate visibility were keen on the revolutionary means of reaching audiences. Christopher Barry, the Senior Vice President, Digital Media and Business Strategy for Sundance Channel, accompanied a screening of Isabella Rossellini's Green Porno shorts, minute-long films about the mating habits of various insects. As strange as it is hilarious, Green Porno was produced by the Sundance Channel for mobile phone distribution in addition to its online release, where it has already begun to succeed. Macaulay gave Barry his cue. "You do anything for the web and put in the word porno, you're guaranteed huge search engine traffic," he said. "Obviously, that helped with the traffic," Barry agreed. "After two weeks, we've had about two million page views a week." Additionally, seven minute teasers for the series uploaded to YouTube have already garnered a million views. Still, Barry emphasized the role of Rosellini's PR in the success of the operation. "Isabella has always been a maverick," he said. "She had always explained, when we talked about breaking through the clutter on the internet, that for her, sex was always the natural element to explore. But she didn't want it to be ridiculous. Rather, it's a comical look at small creatures and how they copulate." For Barry, Green Porno was essentially a learning experience. "The one challenge we've found is, 'How do you monetize it?'" he said. "It's been a little tricky. In this case, we retained U.S. rights and Isabella retained the rest of the world, so if you're outside the U.S. you can't really view them on our website. We're trying to figure out an international launch without jeopardizing monetization." Nevertheless, the series has done well enough: Barry said they're already in the development phase for Green Porno 2.

The other Stream regular participating in Thursday's event, Wonderland Advisory board member Lance Weiler, shared his work on the Hammer horror series Beyond the Rave currently being showcased by MySpace. A zippy take on the party life of vampires and other creepy sorts in a vein reminiscent of the Blade franchise, comes from Weiler's production company Seize the Media, which is developing an alternate reality game to coincide with the twenty-episode series. The tactic follows Weiler's experience with online gaming as a promotional mechanism for his feature-length film Head Trauma. "What's really interesting is the potential for new funding," Weiler said. "When you talk about the struggle for independent film in terms of distribution and funding, you get into a situation where you're running something and have all these tangible aspects you can monetize." Which, of course, answers Barry's aforementioned quandary. But at the end of the day, it was Cowell who really managed to sum up the general theme of the evening when asked about the web's potential. "It's just a data connection. It's effective, and it's affordable," he said. "For guys like us, it's awesome."


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