Blog Post

Roger Ebert: Two Thumbs Up…for a Movie You’re Unlikey to See

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

Imagine this: You’re an independent filmmaker and your first animated feature is getting rave reviews. It’s being shown at dozens of festivals around the world, and is taking home prestigious awards, such as that of Germany’s Berlinale festival. But unless you can come up with the $220,000 that music publishers are demanding, it will never see a commercial release. What do you do?

Nina Paley decided to blog about it. She started a little online grassroots campaign to get her animated movie Sita Sings The Blues out to movie lovers despite royalty rates that are higher than the film’s entire budget, and she’s been posting details about her struggle (and explaining it in video interviews) on her web site for months. Then a few days ago, the person who could turn out to be her most powerful ally emerged: Robert Ebert.

Sita Sings The Blues is, based on what I can gather from its web site, an ancient Indian love story woven in with Paley’s own tale of heartbreak, set to the music of 1920s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw. Such music is the source of Paley’s licensing woes. While the actual sound recordings have been in the public domain for some time, the underlying compositions are still protected by copyright law, and the publishers are demanding anywhere from $15,000-$25,000 per song.

“Historically, distributors would sometimes front large sums of money for such rights-clearing purposes, but not this year,” Paley writes on her site. “American distributors are going bankrupt and offering miniscule sums (if anything) for indies right now.” Critics argue that Paley should just have done the math before using the songs, or just licensed similar-sounding music; others point her to Creative Commons-licensed, royalty-free tunes. Paley doesn’t bite. “(T)he authentic songs from the 20’s make a point inherent to the film, which fakes inherently cannot make,” she insists.

Roger Ebert seems to agree. The famous film critic nearly filed the film away before he decided to give it a try, only to completely fall in love with it. In fact, he liked the movie so much that he didn’t just write a glowing review of it on his Chicago Sun-Times blog earlier this week, but actually came up with a crazy plan consisting of forming a group of art-house vigilantes, kidnapping movie lovers all around the country, chaining them to theater seats and making them watch it. Confronted with the music licensing dilemma, Ebert wrote: “Don’t the copyright owners realize they are contributing to the destruction of their property by removing it from knowledge?”

Maybe this sudden, high-profile publicity will prompt a distribution company to jump in and front the cash, or maybe the publishers involved will second-guess their demands and agree to less money upfront in exchange for a higher stake in the profits. Or maybe getting the film released commercially really will require Roger Ebert, his movie-loving friends and some solid metal chains.

11 Responses to “Roger Ebert: Two Thumbs Up…for a Movie You’re Unlikey to See”

  1. underwebs

    Lets take a look at the stated purpose of copyright law according to the United States Constitution. “To promote the progress of science and arts by securing for limited times the exclusive right of the creator.”

    It seems that today, copyright is not being utilized for its true purpose any longer. Nor is the company that owns these songs the ‘creator.’

  2. “It’s not like the owners can make the money back on the concert tour or endorsements like today’s performers and composers do.”

    Julie makes a great point, and perhaps it underscores the problem. Those holding the rights didn’t create it, they just want money. Giving them money will not end up furthering the goal of copyright in the US.

    In the US, copyright was established to promote the progress of science and the usefull arts. In this case, the copyright is not doing that. It’s acting contrary to it’s whole reason for being. This is the problem.

  3. Why not allow the music be used for free, with a condition that links are provided that send traffic to iTunes, Amazon, Pandora, and other music distribution services?

    However, this structure is only relevant if the film is going to use the internet as its main distribution model.

    Is it just me; or do other think that it is strange that most of the licensed music videos on Youtube don’t send traffic to digital stores? This doesn’t make sense to me.

  4. That’s a great story, and Ebert poses an interesting conundrum: protecting your rights to a creative product prevents it from getting a wider audience, but sharing the creative product without placing a value on it makes it worthless.

    It’s not like the owners can make the money back on the concert tour or endorsements like today’s performers and composers do.

    In another example, the creator of the number one viral video with 107 million views on YouTube, Evolution of Dance by Judson Laipply, simply got sponsors to underwrite the licensing of the songs in his sequel so he can monetize his success this time ’round. Perhaps that’s the solution here now that the film has achieved such notoriety and interest. $250K is a small sum if the film has the world’s attention thanks to Roger Ebert and others who flock to its cause.

  5. Neno Brown

    I respect Nina Paley’s work, but she went down the indie route only to complain when the copyright holders slapped a tax on the music,
    This was always going to happen, you can complain about the strangle hold copyright has on creativity or you can be truley independent and use Creative Commons (CC)material.

    CC’s provides the creative legacy of knowledge and her comment…..“(T)he authentic songs from the 20’s make a point inherent to the film, which fakes inherently cannot make,”………is regrettable.

    The “fakes” are the legacy that will usher in a creative leeway going forward.