Now that electronic games can gross higher than Hollywood films, industry “creatives” are increasingly penetrating the joystick zone to work on stories like “shoot Nazi/junkie/alien scum,” or “crash car into wall again.” But in the absence of the Xbox version of The Crying Game, indie film makers are left to wonder, do they have a place in the digital revolution beyond the anomaly of BlairWitch.com?
Marc Weiss, the founder of WebLab—a non-profit think tank and online laboratory for social and artistic experiments in new technology—took the question on. “At Sundance 2000, dot commers promised to make indie filmmakers rich by streaming films on the web,” he recalls. “But who’s going to sit and watch a 90 minute film on a computer?” Indie film makers, he figured, need to understand—and even expand upon—what new media does best: empower and connect users. At the same time, digital culture might benefit from a firmer grasp of how traditional narrative engages audiences.
To encourage dialogue and possible collaboration between indie talent in both film and interactive media, Weiss and Web Lab teamed up with Canada’s Banff Center, Sundance, and the DGA to organize what came to be known as “Crossover.” From hundreds of applications they assembled a handful of film makers that included Henry Bean (The Believer), John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), and Alan Berliner (The Sweetest Sound). This past February, the chosen indies were tossed together with a similarly selected mix of digital artists, Web designers, game-developers, and other digerati of various sexes, ethnicities, and points of origin to create a five day confab dubbed “Studio A.”
Studio A was staged in the lush sprawl of the White Oak Plantation near Jacksonville, Florida. Run by the Howard Gilman Foundation as a retreat for politics and the arts, the plantation is also used by ecologists to breed endangered creatures like rhinos and okapi. White Oak’s benevolent manipulations of nature, added to its overall aura of Gatsby-esque optimism (pool! open bar! hot tub! bowling alley!), gave Studio A participants a fertile environment in which to think about immersive story-telling.
And think they did. Forty-three copyright-conscious creative egos in one room rarely produces dialogue, let alone real give-and-take. Yet, armed with its many skills in fostering interactivity, the Crossover team was able to goad Studio A participants into forming an instant community, one that generated dozens of ideas for further exploration and possible collaboration.
For now, the fate of these projects is uncertain. Shortly afterwards, Brian Clark, GMD Studios founder and Studio A-er, along with director Brian Flemming, and others, launched Nothing So Strange, a DV mockumentary. The film, predating Studio A, but much in its spirit, is about public response to the assassination of Bill Gates (complete with integrated, interactive Web sites). As an ingenious participatory tool of social criticism, the project was widely praised. Its critical success won’t, however, make Studio A’s other new media innovations any easier to finance.
So, while narrative loves a crisp conclusion, Studio A initiated process, not answers. Filmmakers like David Kaplan (Little Red Riding Hood) interested from the outset in online gaming, emerged with collaborative projects which they must seek to fund in a ferociously competitive market. Others acquired primarily an expanded sense of options. “I got a much, much clearer sense of the possibilities for the interactive project I hope to create,” reports Seeing Red’s Julia Reichert. AIVF’s own Liz Canner left with new ways of approaching media that will resonate for years: “I imagined a more interactive, engaged form of documentary film making,” she writes, and also “ways to use new media tools to enhance democratic participation and empower the user.”
Making these visions economically viable is the challenge. While the goals set in Studio A are bright and exciting, the practical path to most of them remains nearly as hard to map as the Blair Witch’s tangled wildwood.