The Promising Failures of Participatory Cinema

By  · Published on April 3rd, 2012

Veteran filmmaker Paul Schrader, notorious author Bret Easton Ellis, and indie producer Braxton Pope want you to audition for their new film. They’re assembling a microbudget feature for the digital distribution market called The Canyons, and they’re looking for some fresh new faces to star in it. Is your lack of an agent or non-Los Angeles residence preventing you from getting a fair chance at auditioning for legit films? There’s no need to worry, for we live in the 21st century my friend. The Canyons is holding its audition process through Facebook.

On the one hand, The Canyons’s unique production process makes complete sense. We are no longer, after all, in 2006 when studio producers had an overinvested, experimental Snakes on a Plane-level-interest in Internet culture. In this case, even on a small-budget independent film, the visible gatekeepers still possess power over the participants within the supposedly “democratized” framework of social networking.

For a while it seemed that cinema – largely an object particular to 20th century logic – could not adapt to the boundary-destroying, power-shifting implications of the 21st century. Now this seems to no longer be the case. Web distribution (which was little more than a fantasy or an overblown threat to theatrical cinema’s hegemony just over a decade ago) is now seen as a conceivable and potentially profitable alternative to traditional film exhibition.

The Canyons plans a Netflix-style rollout, and this illustrates the synergy of Cinema 2.0. Some time this year, Netflix will roll out the David Fincher-helmed/Kevin Spacey-starring House of Cards, the first television series produced and distributed by Netflix. While Netflix no longer carries its social media function, it works similarly to Facebook in that the site builds a detailed understanding of who you are based on your habits within it and the information about yourself that your consumption conveys, providing you recommendations based on previous activities just as Facebook doles out personalized ads and suggested friend requests. But The Canyons and House of Cards are similar in another respect: they both have visible gatekeepers and require traditional Hollywoodesque icons of clout, legitimacy, and credibility – an association with established talent that, even as these films allegedly “break down borders” (The Canyons subverts traditional audition processes; House of Cards disrupts distinctions between producer/distributor/exhibitor) through their utilization of Web 2.0, still retains traditional markers of “legitimacy” which only permits selected opportunity for us everydayfolk.

At one point, it seemed that new media would bring about a total erasure of institutional hierarchies and a Utopian democratization of entertainment. Accessible technology held the implicit promise of blurring the distinction between amateur and professional, and it seemed for a moment like everyone would have a fair opportunity to let their work be known. Movies – big and small, short or feature length – would be evaluated on talent and quality, not on power and fame. But websites devoted to distributing short films for a monthly fee faltered (remember AtomFilms? Me neither.) and alternative avenues for traditional entertainment (Netflix, Hulu) succeeded instead. Yes, the “media” we use to be entertained is new, but how much has the content actually changed? What has really changed about its means of production and the traditional function of authority and power within? While nobody could seriously refer to the oft-marginalized Schrader as a Hollywood power player, the fact that most film projects realized through new media that have any visibility have actual names attached signals that Web 2.0’s relationship with filmmaking has turned out quite differently than what many of us were hoping for/dreading.

If anything is revolutionary, it’s the means, not the end. Remember, for example, Louis C.K’s web-exclusive, middleman-absent release of his standup special Live From the Beacon Theater last December (Aziz Ansari has recently followed suit), or Radiohead’s donation model release of In Rainbows in 2007. In both cases, news outlets contorted to explain the incredible paradigm-shift that would happen to each of these entertainment industries as a result. While it’s fantastic that artists as great at their particular craft as C.K. and Radiohead have the power to self-distribute, the way they attained such power in the first place is through succeeding within the traditional means of their respective industries.

Instead of democratizing the media landscape, new media, Web 2.0, and social networking have only given individuals who already have means new ways of articulating those means. Schrader may be somebody who encounters routine difficulty in getting his films made and financed, but he is somebody for whom that door of opportunity opens at all in the first place. Rarely can one buck the system and gain fame all in the same fell swoop. So, while one of the lucky nobodies who audition for The Canyon may find their big break through social media, it’s only because the already-famous have paved a pathway by which they could do so.

Of all the nuanced and explicit changes that The Canyons and House of Cards signal, the fact that each project is still referred to as a “film” and a “television show” respectively, even though neither is scheduled to play in a movie theater or on a broadcast medium, is incredibly significant.

Where cinema in the classical sense implied a theatrical experience manifested through particular technological means (which is why doomsayers thought digital cinema would bring its about its “end”), it now refers to little more than a running time and an implied mode of engagement: from 90 to 120 minutes, you should expect a somewhat “complete” story to be told.

Likewise, “television” has traditionally referred to both a type of programming and the piece of technology that is used to experience that programming. The television set and its ability to broadcast meant that, while we experienced media in a private, sometimes-isolated space (unlike the “public” arena of the movie theater), we did experience traditional television simultaneously with the rest of the country. Such is no longer the case. Now, when we have conversations about last night’s Mad Men, we’re careful to make sure that we’re not within an earshot of somebody who hasn’t viewed it on DVR or iTunes yet.

House of Cards may have seemed like a strange idea to some when it was first reported, but to air a television show on Netflix first rather than making it a subsidiary mode of engagement is not a massive step forward from where we are right now. It’s premiere will not happen in the private sphere, but the particular sphere, where we experience media on our own individual devices at a time that works with our schedule rather than around a square box in the living room of a shared household as it airs “live.”

A “television show” then, no longer retains a relevant referent to the place where the programming can be witnessed, just as “films” refer less and less to the technology they were recorded on. Instead, these terms refer solely to genre, running time, and the expectations that audiences bring therein. Just as the gatekeepers and the public figures who held power and succeeded through traditional means have benefited most from film and television’s migration to the web, the web-only media products that we will continue to engage with are less often particular to the medium of the Internet and are more often based on the frameworks well-established by traditional media forms, like the 45-minute television episode or the hour-long movie. Is revolutionary technology really that revolutionary, or is it simply the same but different?

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