By way of Agnes Varnum, the Tribeca Film Institute has commissioned a report on "The Economics of Independent Film and Video Distribution in the Digital Age". The report consists of semi-on the record interviews with considerable names in producing, directing and distribution but does not specifically identify quotes or anecdotes to specific parties. It's a fairly standard mix of doom, gloom and blindingly positive (though mostly undefined) optimism about the impact the internet will have on independent film-making.
Two points stuck out to me about this report. The first being the discontent academic-exclusive distributors have about the "life of the product" licensing fees they reap (which according to this report can be upwards of $100,000). Ideas are being bandied about by distributors for a pay-per-stream model but that probably seems like Blade Runner territory for the people still ordering VHS copies of educational films.
The other issue is a passage on the issue of copyright, intellectual property protections and Fair Use precedent.
[S]everal filmmakers noted that that foundations are beginning to advocate more explicitly for broadening access in the grants they make for media production. There is a sense that the filmic community has to engage in more testing of copyright boundaries and fair use, and that foundations are exploring how to encourage and facilitate greater experimentation among their grantees.
In other words, foundations are seeking out film-makers to use as legal test cases. I am loathe to be in the business of defending people who get into agreements they don't fully understand, but the potential for exploitation here is downright frightening.
A film-maker trying to make a film on a credit card while working a series of temp jobs is going to have a difficult time turning down a $100,000 grant, but getting involved with a legal battle with one of the major six film studios could be a commitment of that film-maker's natural life. A lot of film-makers count on a mix of the Fair Use precedent and "flying below the radar" for legal cover if they want to use copyrighted material. But once you cash an organization's check that is now officially on the record of courting test cases, you are no longer under the radar.
And while no specific case study is provided, it can't be ignored that one of the foundations listed as being interested in testing these boundaries is the Gates Foundation. As in Bill Gates. As in Microsoft. A company that has been to federal and civil court dozens of times trying to preserve every last strand of intellectual property protections and has been sued by the European Union for monopolistic practices. So now the profits from those legal endeavors will be funneled into busting and changing the laws that helped make Microsoft so successful? There's something is rotten in the state of Denmark, people.
And in the interest of full disclosure, I run a documentary distribution company and we take a no-risk, highly conservative read on the Fair Use precedent. I have a lot of respect for people who put their time and money into being test cases for laws that are protectionist at best and collusive at worst -- but I do not intend to be one of them.