Sunday, February 8, 2009

Rural Hilarity

A funny thing happened to me on the way to a screening at last year's Frameline Festival. As I stood in front of the Castro Theater, chatting with another man whose name was on the press list, I asked him what films he had liked.

"I don't give a shit about any of these films," he confessed. "I'm just here to see what celebrities I can interview so I can boost the traffic on my website."

It takes a lot to shock me, but this man did. Most people who attend film festivals do so because they care passionately about film. They want to see what's new, what's odd, what's been rediscovered. They want to experience the kind of movies that may never make it to a local multiplex. Boosting the number of hits on their website, MySpace, or Facebook page is probably be the furthest thing from their minds.

That doesn't mean that people obsessed with statistics are not interested in film. It's just that their interests don't always overlap. Nor do numbers tell the entire story. Just watch this 1981 news report to see how much things have changed and you'll be amazed at how far we've come since the introduction of electronic media.

The current economic crisis is largely a result of inflated numbers that, when positioned like a house of cards, collapsed. As the subprime mortgage market went bust, so have many other businesses. A long and sordid history of people gaming the numbers has caused consumers to lose confidence in the statistics previously used as a factual basis for many business models.

Ever since the revolution people have been obsessed with the number of hits a website receives. But are the numbers real? What do they signify? Do different kinds of websites generate different kinds of numbers?

The answer to that question should be obvious. Porn sites generate tremendous traffic. Political blogs and news sites do exceptionally well -- especially during campaign season -- as people keep checking back for the latest updates. But if you look at sites that function as information providers (rather than hosting a lot of click-through banner ads), you find a different phenomenon at play.

The authors on many such sites (like myself) may be writing longer pieces, embedding video and hyperlinks that cannot be included in print media, or expressing opinions which may not match the media profile of a traditional print publication. Content published in new media may be tailored toward the aficionado more than the general audience, toward provoking thought rather than building a revenue stream.

As more and more advertising has left print media and headed online (or lost market share to free services like Craig'sList), less and less space has been available in daily newspapers for traditional arts coverage. Newspapers like AsianWeek have abandoned their print editions and, in the future, will limit themselves to online publishing. Some historic city newspapers, like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, are now desperately seeking buyers as they consider shutting down operations for good.

Republicans succeeded in stripping a great deal of support for the arts from President Obama's stimulus package. Senator Tom Coburn's ill-advised amendment, designed to "bar spending on casinos, aquariums, zoos, golf courses, swimming pools, stadiums, community parks, museums, theaters, art centers, and highway beautification projects" passed by an unfortunate vote of 73-24.

For many nonprofits that have depended on local media for support, these are desperate times indeed. A Hollywood studio's marketing campaign for a major film is designed to include large expenditures for display and television advertising. Nonprofit arts organization and independent filmmakers don't have that option. As a result, they have to be more creative in generating word of mouth. 

In good times as well as bad, nonprofits have always included a certain amount of barter in their marketing and publicity campaigns. Whether receiving services donated in kind, or trading out extra capacity (unsold seats) in exchange for goods and services, bartering helps to soften the blow when the economy turns sour. What's at stake -- and what new media can deliver very economically -- is what I refer to as The Four V's of the Artsocalypse:
  1. Visibility can be sustained much more economically through a steady campaign of informational emails that effectively reach a target audience. HTML programming has now evolved to a point where such emails boast the sophisticated appearance of a glossy print publication with all the interactivity of new media. Unlike traditional junk mail or electronic spam (which are easily discarded or deleted), targeted emails capture interested eyeballs.
  2. Virtual community. By spreading the word online through chat rooms, blogs, and regular online newsletters, a filmmaker, performer, or arts organization can build a virtual community while nurturing future audiences. An online newsletter costs less to produce, can be developed more rapidly, and brings instant feedback. A virtual community of subscribers to an online newsletter can be invited to participate in an online survey which helps a presenting organization develop a deeper understanding of its audience's tastes and demographics for purposes of future planning. Social networking websites can simultaneously help create a greater sense of anticipation for upcoming events while building loyalty and helping people to find new, like-minded friends.
  3. Viral Added Value such as podcasts and embedded videos (as well as announcements of special discounts, added events and/or emergency needs) can be used to communicate quickly and easily with a known network of subscribers. The ability to forward interesting articles or positive reviews to friends and fans without having to physically cut an article out of a newspaper, pay for postage, and get it into a mailbox makes it much easier to spread word of mouth electronically.
  4. Validation. Whether in the form of previews (calendar listings, roundups of coming events, articles about an upcoming event featuring an interview with an important artist), or reviews of performances that have already taken place, media validation serves to assure audiences that an artist or producing arts organization is indeed newsworthy. Media validation is a critical tool used by presenting nonprofit organizations to convince potential donors that their artistic efforts serve a good purpose. With fewer outlets for media validation in print, more and more validation from online sources is filling the gap.
Two of the films screened at this month's San Francisco Independent Film Festival are such quiet little gems that they would probably only find an audience through viral word of mouth among film enthusiasts online. Their quiet charms are best described by Aesop's fable about The City Mouse and the Country Mouse. Viewed from a political consultant's perspective, their audience's potential numbers would seem even more inconsequential than the number of likely voters living in small towns in flyover states. And yet the artistic merit and entertainment value of these two films demand further attention.

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Sightings of the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, or an image of Jesus or the Virgin Mary on a slice of toast always provide an interesting back story. One of the most enjoyable films I saw last year was Jay Russell's The Water Horse.

Not all filmmakers have access to the kind of money needed to fund extensive CGI scripting. Not every film can feature a prehistoric monster. While there may be just so many Jurassic Parks waiting to be exploited, the back woods and bayous surrounding Brinkley, Arkansas are full of surprises. Maybe you'll even spot a rare ivory-billed woodpecker! 

In the following clip, filmmaker Alex Karpovsky describes what helped set the tone for his hilarious new movie Woodpecker:

The combination of narrative and documentary styles employed by Karpovsky results in some jaw-dropping moments of incredulity which underline the fact that human behavior can be so much stranger to witness than a possibly extinct bird. First, there is macho idiot Johnny Neander (played by actor and co-writer Jon E. Hyrns) telling everyone how important it is not to make any noise because they might frighten the birds. He then proceeds to drop his digital camera into the waters of the bayou and make a racket as he tries to find it. Johnny also aspires to be "that guy in the parking lot that people turn to when they want more information about the ivory-billed woodpecker." 

Then there is Johnny's silent Asian sidekick, Wesley Yang (who could easily develop a reputation as the Buster Keaton of birdwatching). Together they are quite a pair:

Add in cameo appearances by local vendors eager to offer everything from woodpecker paintings, calendars, sculptures and assorted tchotchkes to woodpecker haircuts and it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction. Mix in some deadpan testimony from the mayor, the sheriff, and the head of the local Chamber of Commerce. Blend in some archival local news footage and you've got yourself a mockumentary that is, at times, even funnier than Christopher Guest's classic, Waiting For Guffman. Garnish your film with some beautiful cinematography (especially the wilderness shots by Marshall Coles) and you've got a winning recipe for a movie that reeks of realism despite its wryly comic underpinnings.  

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Magnificently framed by Keith J. Duggan's gorgeous cinematography (including vast landscapes of south central Pennsylvania's multicolored fall foliage), John Putch's new comedy, Route 30, is tender enough to melt your heart but rowdy enough to include a great line like"Honey, I'm sorry I shot you in the ass." The film follows three character-driven subplots that cross back and forth over Route 30's asphalt.

In Part I (Deer Hunters' Wives), a Civil War tour guide is obsessed with defending the honor of Jennie Wade, the only civilian who was killed during the Battle of Gettysburg. Although Mandy (Nathalie Boltt) desperately wants to believe that Wade took a bullet through her heart, the sad truth is that Jennie was bending over an oven, attempting to remove a loaf of bread, when a stray bullet pierced her buttock. Meanwhile, Mandy's best friend June is trying to convince her husband Stive (Robert Romanus) that they could build an online porn business by videotaping themselves having sex and uploading the videos to the Internet.

"What I Believe" focuses on the trials of Mandy's husband, Arlen (the hilarious Kevin Rahm), a wide-eyed, gullible redneck who is convinced that Bigfoot chased him through the woods until he reached the safety of Route 30. At the urging of a fellow poker player named Rotten Egg (Lee Wilkof), Arlen seeks out the healing powers of Henry (Wil Love), a backwoods Christian Scientist who insists there is no such thing as pain despite the fact that Henry is hobbling around on crutches. 

"Original Bill" relates the story of a rich, bored Hollywood scriptwriter (David DeLuise) who buys a rural farmhouse in Pennsylvania hoping that he will be sufficiently inspired to write the great American novel he has always dreamed about. As he settles into the community, he befriends an unusual Amish woman (the radiant Dana Delaney). Martha likes to drink beer, curse, watch television, wear makeup, shave her legs, and has always dreamed of seeing a live performance in a real theater.

Putch has directed his cast with great love and a sense of small minds in a small world. The actors, in turn, have responded with warmth, honesty, and beautiful characterizations. The three subplots overlap with the intricacy of a Robert Altman film, the fragility of a cobweb, the lush beauty of autumn, and the gentle humor of life in the boonies. Without giving away any more plot details, I can tell you that this film is an utter joy to watch -- a quiet delight you won't want to miss.  Here's the trailer:

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