Nearly five years ago, my wife and I set out on a road trip across America, armed with a couple of cameras, laptops, and a burning need to tell a story about a growing insurgency against big box stores. What we didn’t have were jobs (I was determined never to work in TV news again), much money in the bank, or any clue what we were going to do with our footage when we got home — it was all “close, but no cigar” with networks like PBS and Discovery, which meant all our effort could conceivably lead to nothing.
But thanks to a pioneering social media strategy, grassroots interest in our film, and really good timing, a lot of people paid attention, and our documentary has been viewed around the world. We continue to get requests to attend community screenings — from Hyannis MA to Port Townsend WA, even as some of the issues have evolved (Wal-Mart has turned over a new leaf, Starbucks is in slow retreat, many Americans now truly mistrust their powerful institutions and believe in “local first.”). We’ve had broadcast deals, and we’ve sold DVD’s. It was probably one of the main reasons why the University of Washington hired me to lead its graduate degree program in digital media. So have we benefited enough? Is it now time to give it away, streaming it for free on Hulu, second only to YouTube when it comes to online video? Isn’t that what you do with your content in the multimedia age?
It’s a challenging question for someone in my position — both professional creator and academic trying to understand the future of media. The filmmaker wants to retain control over his creative work, and continue to profit from it (Independent America never made us rich nor Super Sized us, but we at least made a decent income from our monumental effort). The professor tells his students about Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks, and how thanks to a proliferation of content creation tools and distribution platforms, amateurs can now compete with professionals for reasons other than financial. Content has become a commodity, we must find other ways to monetize the fruits of our creativity and earn that scarce currency of fleeting attention. Maybe widespread proliferation of this film will build brand awareness and demand for its sequel, Rising from Ruins? Or maybe it doesn’t matter as we cultivate goodwill by contributing to the media commons?
And as I try to lead the charge for the dynamic duo of storytelling and social media, it makes sense to showcase how I stand for these two pillars through my own work — especially as I contemplate writing a book on the importance of storytelling in the 21st century. Except that I’ve never been able to bear reading any of the online comments related to the film when it was featured by Yahoo! News, and I’m certainly not going to be able to stomach the exposure we’ll get through Hulu. So much for my advocacy of engaging community, and joining the conversation! And what about building a brand through the Groundswell? Or Here Comes Everybody?
Even more conflicting for me: there’s nothing user-generated about Hulu. It’s Hollywood’s attempt to wrestle multimedia dominance away from YouTube (as an NBC/News Corp. joint venture) — the Empire strikes back against the amateurs who had taken the first few innings of the game. So in a funny way, I’ve proudly hit the big time with our homemade film, by returning right back to where I started (as a former NBC staffer). Presently, it’s featured on Hulu’s homepage slideshow, right after De Niro’s Ronin, but preceding Dracula, Speed Racer, and 30 Rock. And irony of ironies, the intro ad just may be from Disney, Wendy’s or…Wal-Mart depending on when you stream (already prompting one negative comment, “who paid for this?”).
After waxing poetically to our recent cohort of students about how media was in the middle of a seismic transformation, I then joked that it has been said that all revolutions eat their young. We just may have been devoured.