The Belgrade Manifesto (2007)

A conversation starter
Page 1 of 1

Author:  jonjost [ Wed Dec 31, 2008 8:51 pm ]
Post subject:  A conversation starter

Jon asked me if maybe I could drop some comments here in the interest of generating a conversation. I give a try. For the moment we'll focus on distribution/exhibition perhaps its lack.

A brief history first. I have been involved, since 1963, making, and going through the motions of trying to make available so-called independent/avant garde/underground, and whatever seasonal names are attached to this broad range of work that falls outside "commercial." Long ago, exiting 2 years in prison (1965-7, for refusing to serve in US military), I was involved in helping set up the Chicago Filmmakers Coop,then Newsreel, then on the BoD of Canyon Coop for a brief (unhappy) stint. I have followed the travails of distribution/exhibition for some decades now and can say there's a certain pattern. Back in the late 60's, conjoined with the rest of "culture" there was indeed a viable alternative media something, with cinemas, small distributors, and coverage from the press (often also alternative). This lasted a while, though it was in my view done in both by the social/cultural shift that was signaled say by Nixon's election in the US (and later in the UK by Thatcher), and by the overblown rhetoric that the "movement" itself generated. Each week Jonas Mekas would use the national platform of the Village Voice to announce one of his buddies yet another genius, and across the US bookings would come, followed by a grand deflation: so much of the US underground was garbage, cliquish garbage for sure, but garbage.

In the "art house" circuit there was the odd phenomenon of various national cinemas flourishing and then going into decadence and decay: France, Italy, Germany, the UK - one after the other. And then, as the quasi-religion of the Great Market Economy took hold and its values seeped into the cultural weave, and suddenly the sole value of any meaning became MONEY. If ones film did not cost a lot of it, and make a lot of it, it held no value, no utility. When this happened was a bit of a smear, but sometime in the 80's it hit hard, the same time when more or less commercially minded films were announced as being "independent". The same time when Sundance shifted year by year to becoming a Hollywood affair - in print, to the great annoyance of its director, I said it had gone astray in 1990. Long ago. Where ever I am familiar with the story was the same - a flourishing subculture of cinema and media collapsed when confronted with The Great Market Economy logic. It is periodically resurrected by critics who announce, say here in the US, some new youthful movement regurgitating (badly) the past - like "mumblecore", poorly done DV imitations of would-be Cassavetes, or early Godard minus the talent - visual, verbal, intellectual.

Throughout this entire period each new technological shift (VHS cassettes; satellite transmission; cable TV; and now the internet) has been greeted as a salvation, a way to make minority art accessible. But so far it never really happened, though it is true you can find shelves of my films at the odd off-beat movie rental shop around the world, as you can find others. You won't however find them on ARTE or on SUNDANCE CHANNEL, or any other modest means of mass media - i.e., they don't fit the commercial formulas. Watching this parade of technological advances, I arrived at a rule-of-thumb that any time a new media made the shift from narrow-cast to broad-cast, you could count on MONEY coming to buy it up, muscle out all competition, and take it over. Why? Because anything that is broadcast is the path to making lots of money, and hence the brokers of money will buy it up. Yes, VHS cassettes, like DVDs, make available about anything made, but if one cruises the failing worlds of Blockbuster video, what you find as you know is Hollywood and its global equivalents, and perhaps in the rare odd store, a collection of artsy tapes.

Today of course the internet being so versatile and so broad in its scale, appears to hold yet again the promise of accessibility - downloading films for a fee, YouTube - the endless possibilities. And now that it shifted from a nerd's thing to big business, naturally the companies who stand to gain are eager to find ways to delete net neutrality and make it all as pay as you go process. Meaning, once again, low traffic will pay more than high and commercialism will trump small scale tastes.

This sounds I suppose rather glum, but it is the summary of a life involved in this. Personally for myself I tossed in the towel some time ago of any effort to make a niche market for my work and work akin to it. I accept for now that there is a non-paying little market, called festivals, for my work. Beyond that there is a minute little market of academic and museum cinemas, pocket clubs and the like, from which one might squeeze a tiny bit of money. And then nothing, except for, in my case, direct sale of DVDs via the internet. It sounds indeed grim. However the upside of this downside is that courtesy of DV and computers one can make things creatively which only a decade ago would have been prohibitively impossible on film or on video. So today, on the low-cost computers in the room I sit in now, I am working on 3 different films which would have cost tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars if done on film, but which make no concessions whatsoever to "the market" and its audience driven criteria. I make what I want to make, for no pay of course, for almost nothing (examples: most recent feature films have cost, variously: $500, $280; $50). The actors if there are any are unpaid, usually. But, were I to apply myself modestly to the other end of this - selling - I could probably sell 1000 DVDs over a year or two, for $30 each, with an overhead for me of perhaps $3 a DVD. So $27,000 were I to knuckle down and do the biz. As it is I don't do that, so I make maybe $5000 a year from this (I don't keep books so I don't really know). Were I to make this kind of money, I'd go back to the actors with a fistful. But I make no promises.

For the moment this is the reality for someone like me, unwilling to adopt to the requirements of even so-called art-house commercial cinema. And it is the reality for most - though some are lucky to come from countries where there is subsidy support for works that will never pay for themselves (this is another story though and I confess I don't agree with such systems as they usually breed bad films and phony people).

But, as I approach the twilight of my life, I note that while it is very different, it does seem we are at the end of a cycle that commenced on this go round with the 60's, and there is something pungent in the air. It will be forced by the cumulative pressures of a collapsing economy as oil become scarce, by the effects of global warming, and many other grim factors which will coerce the body politic into dealing with real problems rather than evading them with vacuous entertainments.


[Note: I am living now in Seoul Korea, where it seems most people live inside their cell phones or small video screens, to be seen oblivious on the metro, and where some of my students seem to have a genuinely difficult time separating media from "reality," to the point of being in a dysfunctional pathology; they need to go to a psychotherapist, not to school.]

For anyone interested in further ruminations, not necessarily on these things, see, or Or, once it gets back on line (down for the last 2 weeks), see

Page 1 of 1 All times are UTC
Powered by phpBB © 2000, 2002, 2005, 2007 phpBB Group