By Saskia Wilson-Brown, October 20th, 2010

We live in a world with immediate access to any content we want, whenever we want it–and a lot of it. With cheap production tools and omnipresent distribution outlets, anyone with a laptop can make films, and a lot of people seem to want to.

Hot on the heels of this expansion in our content supply comes the debate surrounding how best to sort our creative surfeit. It goes without saying that independent filmmakers are going to continue to increase in numbers. Movies are going to continue to compete for audiences on yet more distribution platforms. We – as an industry – thus need to develop good systems to help promote their discovery, and much of the discussion around these systems has centered on DIY distribution and marketing strategies. But there is a fundamental part of the puzzle that is missing, put to evidence by the fact that most filmmakers are having difficulties – still – finding their audience.

Curation has become fundamental to the issue of audience building. Indeed, it can serve a crucial role in corralling attention spans in what Lance Weiler dubs the “digital attention economy”. To that end, a new crop of curators have come to the fore in an attempt to create new access points for filmmakers. But how are their efforts helping to further promote, support and sustain independent filmmakers, if at all?

NEW CURATORS

Among the most prominent contemporary curators is Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice and, more recently, streetbonersandtvcarnage.com. A maverick curator/producer hybrid, he is devoted to a simple and intuitive premise: “I basically do exactly what I’ve always been doing: making jokes and picking fights [and showing] stuff I like.”

McInnes amassed a following largely through word-of-mouth while building the Vice platform, and – aware of the value of consistency – he remains loyal to the stylistic idiosyncracies that first informed his success. He also, however, recognizes the audience as his core obligation by placing priority on how his content decisions are affecting them. Alternately stated: “I think it’s important to do shit other people haven’t already done to death. I’ve been accused of being conservative in the past but it’s only because ‘Bush is stupid’ and ’Obama rules’ is flogging a dead horse. Give people something new to think about. As far as I’m concerned, [this] is about social commentary and stimulating some kind of discussion.”

The value he places on his audience perhaps forces McInnes to engage in the dictionary definition of gate-keeping. He has to make choices, and he excludes. Influenced by his online-only practice, where he differs perhaps from the gatekeepers of yesteryear is in his encouragement of immediate conversation, through comments functionality, mostly: “Whenever I see sites without the option for comments I think, ‘You are old and you don’t really use the Internet very much,’ [...] It doesn’t engage people. It’s all about participation.“

With similar intentions to McInness, Jonathan Wells, founder of ResFest and co-founder of Flux (along with his partner Meg Wells) explains his practice as one dedicated to uncovering fresh voices: “I love discovering new talent and really enjoy sharing their work with an audience. [At RESFEST] we sought to expose international work that hadn’t been seen in the US as well as amazing independent work that wasn’t being screened in festivals or on television.”

Wells is very aware of the role his personal preferences play in his selection process, but he also nods to adapting his practice to the needs of diverse audiences:  “Filmmakers who use unusual techniques and compelling storytelling to further their story in a novel way is what I’m always looking for. That said our outlets have different programming needs.”

It is no different at larger institutions such as Sundance. Todd Luoto, a shorts programmer for the festival, defines his group’s curatorial methods as “[to] collect the most interesting, moving, touching, funny, innovative and fresh content out there [...to] show diverse stories and sensibilities. We want to challenge an audience as much as we want to make them laugh or be moved.”

This focus on innovation is tempered by Luoto’s awareness of the inherent relativity of curatorial prerequisites, and again, the needs of the audience: “The criteria can change, and has – in my experience – with regional festivals. Sometimes there are issues that resonate a bit more with a certain crowd or culture.”

Mike Plante, programmer for CineVegas and Sundance (and a consulting programmer for a number of smaller organizations such as Los Angeles’ Cinefamily), yet again confirms the need to balance discovery with audience awareness.

“A good programmer […] goes out and finds those great films that did not send their DVD in. Even for Sundance, there is a lot of outreach to the underground. [...] It’s different for each fest, as to what could show [but] the one thing the film has to do is ‘work.’”

Several areas, then, enjoy mutual accord: The desire to push the envelope, to discover new content, to address the needs of diverse audiences, and to show what is ‘good’. In one sense, this can be heartening for filmmakers – clearly there is a hunger for new films and a number of intelligent well-versed curators to champion them. But this paradigm also relies on one individual’s conception of what makes a ‘good’ film- a truly impossible concept to categorically define. Thus, this enthusiasm for new content can quickly start to feel hollow if no one wants to curate your film into a program.

Does the discriminative aspect of curation, then, create insurmountable problems for filmmakers? Is there something nonetheless to be gained?

THE CURATOR’S DILEMMA

General consensus in the DIY movement holds that exclusion is not to be tolerated -and contemporary curators are well aware of this issue. Luoto, for instance, is the first to admit that “[Curating] movies is a subjective art”.

Compounding the issue is the scarcity of openings in curatorial programs, as Brent Hoff, editor and co-founder of Wholphin DVD wryly explains. “We only have so much space on a DVD and viewers only have so much time to watch movies… This is a problem of time itself and it affects all aspects of life.  We can’t do or see everything there is to do and see in life.”

“On the flip side, it’s that limitation which gives a [platform] its prestige and identity, as no filmmaker probably wants to screen at an event that selects just about everything and anything” furthers Luoto.

Indeed, any experience wading through unfiltered content shows us that we benefit from some sort of qualitative exclusionary practice. Yet, paradoxically, no one wants to be excluded. Therein lies the curator’s dilemma: How do you serve filmmakers while simultaneously shutting them out?

SOLUTIONS?

One solution around this problem are processes such as online aggregators and crowd-powered tools (evident on websites like Digg.com). Indeed, there is no shortage of spots for exhibition on the internet, and the usage levels for this model are very high- certainly higher than attendance at festivals or screening series. But, by moving from an individual vision towards automated processes favoring the intelligence of the crowd (or the targeted information provided by data), and by excluding the peculiarities of personal taste, these solutions run the risk of creating some supremely ineffectual and dull content discovery experiences– what Jaron Lanier calls “the blandest possible bible”.

The advantage, of course, is that crowdsourced or aggregation models can provide a way past the gatekeepers, for filmmakers. But, they do so by erasing real connection. Further, lacking the ability to contextualize content, these solutions ultimately do filmmakers a disservice by placing their work alongside (and therefore equal to) random internet ephemera. A thoughtful short film about a family’s Christmas is placed on equal footing with a home video of a kitten playing with Christmas wrapping paper. Vute as kittens are, this is typically not the company an independent filmmaker wants to keep.

Thus the individual curatorial model finds itself ever more relevant in our current landscape simply because it can contextualize work in way that algorithms cannot. As Lance Weiler puts it, a trusted (and informed) individual voice is the most effective recommendation engine: It most powerfully activates its audience’s faith in the content it is endorsing. Supported by their knowledge of the independent film landscape, these curators search out, draw parallels and contextualize content in a way that allows for better connection with the audience, and can program films that others might brush off.

Wholphin’s Brent Hoff confirms this, saying that as much as he’s had to exclude content, he’s also “found and chosen things other people have passed on.” Luoto furthers: “It’s not just about selecting safe films that everyone in the audience will love, but constructing a lineup of stories we really believe should be seen.”

These curators become advocates for the content they believe in, their exclusionary practices notwithstanding, in a way no algorithm can emulate.

CONCLUSIONS

The unavoidable but alarming curatorial subjectivity – compounded as we have seen by the scarcity of space on any given platform – may possibly yet be further counterbalanced by an increasing profusion of those platforms. This, of course, serves filmmakers by creating ever more opportunities to connect with new audiences in a meaningful way, as we have seen, through tight and thoughtful film programs. The increase in what Jonathan Wells calls ‘boutique platforms’ can help complement a film’s lifespan – shepherded to new groups and sub-cultures by trusted individuals who understand their audiences’ needs.

Although independent curators cannot yet pretend to the reach achieved by aggregation-based internet properties or by some of the larger festivals, they can still perhaps make up for the relative paucity of their audience numbers by the greater depth of their influence. Individual curation, inevitably, works with a simple goal: To present film that counts. If all is done right, the audience will have a better chance to find and connect to those films.

Instead of decrying the gatekeepers, we should all be trying to emulate them.

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Posted in Storytelling audience festival promotion

Saskia Wilson-Brown has a background in fine art, curation, film festivals, TV and production design. She works as a producer, strategist and advocate; supporting initiatives such as DIY Days and Slamdance Film Festival (among others) while running a guerilla screening series called Cinema Speakeasy. She is currently in production on her first feature doc.

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