One would be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate film than We Live in Public to illustrate how broken the independent feature film distribution market is. A rumination on the life and works of online video pioneer Josh Harris, the mad genius behind Pseudo and Operator11, the film explores issues of privacy, surveillance, fame and grandiosity as Harris works through a series of groundbreaking, expensive failures in art and technology. Everyone working in new media and online video today should see it. But unless you live in New York, you can’t — at least not yet.
While Harris was mashing up the downtown art scene and that of Silicon Alley techies in Manhattan before and after the turn of the century, The Real World changed the face of television to feature more — and cheaper — so-called “reality” fare and Michael Moore took independent feature documentaries mainstream. Since then, YouTube and Facebook have turned many of Harris’s predictions into the revenue-generating, over-sharing reality we know today. So you would think that a Grand Jury Prize winner from Sundance with a director who’s now earned that honor twice would have no trouble finding distribution on favorable terms. But the Park City festival clearly isn’t the ticket to big audiences and Indiewood riches it may have once been, if Director Ondi Timoner’s decision to market the release herself is any indication.
Director Ondi Timoner (who claims that she’s still owed royalties from her previous prize-winning documentary, Dig!) turned down all offers from the likes of HBO and chose to go it alone — presumably because the contract details were disagreeable. She and Harris are instead barnstorming around the country, having kicked off their tour in New York City last week, with stops in Boston, LA, Chicago, Austin, San Francisco and Seattle planned over the next few months. The tour is meant to fuel chatter on Twitter, where popular users like Ashton Kutcher, with his tweet featured on the movie’s poster, have been promoting the project; and on the film’s web site, where Q&As after the screening have been broadcast live, online. All the promotion is presumably intended to benefit an online release and DVD sales, since without a distributor it’s unlikely to get a nationwide theatrical release.
It’s an interesting challenge to the system in the spirit of Harris. In a telling scene in the movie, Bob Simon of 60 Minutes has to endure Harris openly challenging CBS’s viability in the coming Internet age. Which leaves Simon wondering aloud on camera when his own show will be available online in comparable quality to broadcast — with Timoner slyly cutting to a mockup of the current CBS site where, 10 years later, you can find just that.
So why not release online today? Because the rules of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences demand that it be in theaters for at least 60 days in LA and New York before being shown online (or on TV). Which means you won’t be able to download it until December at the earliest — unlike the web-wide release of Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, where star Sasha Grey could send thousands of fans straight to Amazon for $9.99 online rentals even before a theatrical release in New York and LA.
While it’s certainly true that a nomination, or even an Academy Award, will doubtless help DVD and web sales down the road, all of the Twitter buzz in the meantime can only be turned into a few ticket sales, not paid downloads. And this was a film made by and for the web: Timoner started shooting footage at Harris’s legendary parties back in 1999, participated in the “Quiet” experiment, and cut 5,000 hours of material down to 91 minutes thanks, in part, to being able to work with others remotely. “The film wouldn’t be here without the Internet,” Timoner pointed out to the audience after a screening Saturday. “It was cut over the Internet.”
For all the revolutionary posturing and DIY distribution, it seems odd to have bent over backward to please the Academy. After all, as Harris points out in an period interview used in the film, there’s only one click between advertising and a transaction online — why not capitalize on that? Then again, Harris clearly values recognition and validation from peers and the public much more highly than money, and maybe in their long association Timoner took that sentiment to heart. For the sake of the film, I hope her self-reliant marketing approach doesn’t prove to be an idea so far ahead of its time that it’s unprofitable.
As for Harris, he’s apparently living in Los Angeles with Jason Calacanis and meeting with television producers to pitch his latest idea, The Wired City, which sounds a lot like Big Brother. That it’s being pitched to television at all, and not conceived for the web, makes it seem like just another gimmicky reality show on television, and from a creator little-known outside a small set of online fans and colleagues.
The business plans for both Public and Wired illustrate the schizophrenia of new media models: on one hand, an online revolutionary pitching television execs he once wanted to put out of work; on the other, a talented independent filmmaker with a movie tailor-made for an online audience hewing to the outmoded rules of the oldest of old Hollywood.