Open-Source Cinema is Dead. Long Live Open-Source Cinema!

16 mins read

In September 2010, a “Registration Closed” notice appeared on the online collaborative documentary production platform Open Source Cinema. Originally launched as a blog in 2004 in conjunction with Canadian Brett Gaylor’s award-winning open-source documentary RiP!: A remix manifesto, produced by Montreal-based production company EyeSteelFilm, the platform’s stated aim had been to serve as an “application designed to help filmmakers and audiences create together.” By allowing anyone to upload and download media to and from, the platform was a space where documentary filmmakers could both invite others to collaborate on their films and assist fellow filmmakers with other projects. The platform also included an online editing program where registered participants could edit and remix footage uploaded to the site. While the program was certainly buggy and the platform limited in terms of functionality, it nonetheless allowed for the online sharing and editing of media and represented an early attempt at collective cloud filmmaking.

The shuttering of Open Source Cinema, thereby prohibiting the registration of new participants or the further posting of comments by users of the platform, effectively signalled an end to Gaylor’s efforts to extend the reach and use of the platform to host new documentary projects beyond RiP!. As a researcher involved in the Ryerson University and Florida State University documentary research project Preempting Dissent: Open Sourcing Secrecy, which was part of the “Phase II” slate of films hosted on the platform, I was both saddened to learn of the closure of and concerned about what it meant for the state of collaborative documentary production in Canada.

Although documentary projects have always suffered from the feast and famine associated with one-off documentary funding, my hope prior to the closure of Open Source Cinema was that Canada finally had itself a proven open-source platform that would continue to serve as a hub for production regardless of the level of funding available to filmmakers at any given moment.

While it appears that is indeed dead, its passing as a platform provides an opportunity to examine what working elements might contribute toward the success of future collaborative documentary filmmaking efforts in Canada.

Collaborate across platforms

When asked to explain what went wrong with his attempt to extend the Open Source Cinema platform beyond RiP!, Gaylor noted that “in hindsight, the open platform for collaboration is the World Wide Web. It’s not one walled garden that you need to ask users to register, have a password and buy-in to your technological solution which by definition is hurtling towards obsolescence the moment you create it.” Henry Jenkins and other media theorists stress that online collaboration does not happen on a particular platform, service or device. Rather, it happens across a variety of platforms that are the gathering spaces of choice for users. As Gaylor recommends to documentary filmmakers, “use the tools that are available now and that are free. If your goal is to solicit pictures, use Flickr because that’s what people like to use. If your goal is to collect videos very easily, go and use YouTube because there’s millions being invested in that every single day and everybody knows how to use YouTube.”

Leveraging Web 2.0 platforms of choice does present its challenges and questions: will a platform remain popular with users and can you trust that a set of platforms will remain active for the life of your documentary project? Yahoo’s announcement in 2009 of its intention to shut down the blogging platform GeoCities and again in late 2010 of its decision to sell off the social bookmarking platform are two examples of the ephemeral nature of many Web 2.0 platforms that are proprietary in nature.

Forming the habit as a filmmaker of working across a variety of platforms and aggregating all the data generated by such sites into your own (ideally self-hosted) project platform makes it much easier to absorb the impact and continue with your project even if a certain platform shuts down or decides to unfavourably revise its Terms of Service.

Be realistic

Since collaborative documentary participants often contribute to a project in exchange for little or no financial compensation, it is important to keep in mind that uploading and sharing footage related to a project is hard work and that you need to make your call to action as realistic as possible. As Brett Gaylor notes: “Filmmakers often make the mistake of asking the hardest thing first. They have a picture in their mind of how they want people to collaborate in their film and they rush to it. People will say, ‘I want to make a crowd-sourced film so I [will] just throw all my film online and say, OK, edit it!’ It doesn’t work that way.”

Having realistic “asks” also applies to the technical specs of the content you’re seeking. If you’re too rigid with video standards and decide to only accept content that is 1080p, 3-D, HD video, your success in finding collaborators could be rather limited. If you do end up receiving video content from collaborators that is a good fit with your documentary project, you can always follow up with the collaborator(s) at a later date and obtain higher-resolution clones of the master footage if such masters exist.

Clear communication ownership structure(s)

While it’s always a good idea when making a documentary to have a clear chain of title and an understanding of how the final film will be disseminated and exploited, it’s arguably even more important when dealing with a collaboratively created documentary project. First, even if a documentary is fully open source and copyright is equally shared by all participants, or no copyright is being claimed at all, it is still important to be clear about how footage contributed by collaborators will be used and what they can expect in return.

Secondly, establishing ownership will also affect your ability to access other funding sources for your documentary. For example, the Canada Media Fund (CMF) requires proof of 51 per cent copyright ownership of underlying rights for any submitted project.

As noted by Valerie Creighton, president and CEO of the CMF, “if you’re talking about an open-source model and you have 10 people who were working on it, as long as they were all Canadian and as long as the chain of title and the copyright is documented and agreed to by all parties in the application to us, I can’t see why we would have a problem with it.” Similarly,Telefilm Canada’s Francesca Accinelli advises that “if we had the documents to confirm all participants contributing to the open-source doc were Canadian and had transferred the rights to a single prodco, it would be eligible.”

When asked how the CMF would regard projects that were claiming no copyright whatsoever, as can be the case with Creative Commons–style, noncommercial licensing, Valerie Creighton said that such a scenario would be something they “would have to review” and that “for us [the CMF], we can’t fund content that comes out of the blue from anywhere in Brazil. That’s not the intent of our program. We still have to be able to demonstrate, according to requirements of the federal government, that the money is being spent by Canadians and the content is 10/10 Canadian, with the exceptions there are for docs and kids.”

Although it is unclear how the CMF might respond to truly “copyleft” productions, it is likely a good idea to make sure that everyone involved in the documentary are on the same side and that everyone involved can collectively maximize the pool of funds available to the production.

Use crowd-funding as a complementary, parallel funding model

Crowd-funding platforms such as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo allow filmmakers to make direct online appeals to interested collaborators to help bring their documentaries to light. A recent example of a successful campaign on Kickstarter was the one organized and championed by Canadian documentary filmmaker Velcrow Ripper. Ripper raised an impressive $27,871 through Kickstarter to put toward the production of the third installment of his Fierce Light Trilogy, EVOLVE LOVE, exceeding his stated Kickstarter fundraising target of $25,000. It’s vitally important to know that when crowd-sourcing funds through Kickstarter, filmmakers have to reach their initial funding target, since failure to do so results in all monies being returned to contributors—with the filmmaker(s) walking away with nothing. Also, Kickstarter only allows filmmakers to receive funds through which requires a corresponding American bank account.

When asked why his project was so successful with Kickstarter, Ripper provided the following reasons: “First and foremost was that we had a strong social network already in place from our previous films. We also had a great deal of experience in grassroots marketing from our theatrical releases. Creating a story—a narrative—is also important. In theatrical releasing, it’s the drama of the box-office count: ‘Will we hold for another week?’ With Kickstarter crowd-funding it’s, ‘Will we reach our goal…or lose it all!’ Other platforms don’t require you to lose everything if your full goal is not met, but we decided the dramatic effect was worth it.”

Velcrow Ripper also recommends the use of regular video messages, Facebook and Twitter posts and traditional mail-outs in order to make your crowd-funding ventures a success. For Ripper, the goal is to “inspire people to participate—this is their chance to become a community film producer. For even a small sum, they can enter the exciting world of film production.”

Do it

Arguably the most salient piece of collaborative documentary production advice offered by Brett Gaylor in light of his defunct platform is for documentary filmmakers to simply get cracking on their projects.

“Rather than wait for that one thing…it’s literally, do it,” he says. “Do it with what exists now and don’t be frustrated by the fact that it will also be superseded technologically in short order. Celebrate that and use that as an excuse to get there. Start early. Don’t wait until the footage is shot before you have a conversation with your audience. Start now.”

While it’s tempting to hold off on revealing your innovative documentary project idea(s) to the public until all the funding is in place and all the technological components have been locked in, when it comes to collaborative documentary production the key is to start working with others as soon as possible. This lesson is likely the hardest to embrace for documentary filmmakers, who have traditionally worked in isolation.

Open-source documentary collaboration is just that: a collaboration. In order to get the most out of such approaches to documentary, it’s vital that filmmakers sacrifice a portion of their expectations regarding a film’s vision, scope and anticipated lucrative revenue streams (LOL). In return, filmmakers will ideally position themselves to obtain the most from what the open-source cinema methods have to offer.

Web Made Movies

Keep a close eye on Brett Gaylor’s latest Web Made Movies initiative. Gaylor and his collaborators at Seneca College’s Centre for Development of Open Technology in Toronto are currently developing an online platform based upon a truly open online video standard that will purportedly best benefit docmakers. The format they are working with, HTML5, is a file standard that will ensure the full collaborative potential of upcoming documentaries. As a proprietary-free standard, HTML5 provides documentary filmmakers with the broadest worldwide audience, since anyone on the Web will be able to collaborate with and view documentaries without concern for existing restrictive siloed proprietary video formats, including .mov (Apple), .flv (Adobe) and .wmv (Microsoft).

Open Source Cinema is dead. Long live Open Source Cinema.

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