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

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.