Tuesday, November 24, 2009
The DIY life
I went to the latest LA DIY Days conference (http://diydays.com/) at the Downtown Independent Theater (a VERY cool venue, by the way) late last week. And, as usual with these new media-type things, I left with my head spinning.
It was organized by a bunch of wonderful peeps I know headed by the very cool, very smart filmmaker Lance Weiler, who is a bit of a tech genius and DIY evangelist. Lance also runs the Workbook Project (http://workbookproject.com/) and applies his passion and intelligence to not just exploring the technological possibilities that exist for filmmakers, but also to disseminating these new tools (and information) in as open a way as possible. In keeping with that, DIY DAYS was, of course, free to the public.
For me, Lance's opening summation of what exits in the online world for DIY filmmakers and how to think about those tools was the most concise and directly relevant presentation (aside from Jon Reiss's presentation on alternative film distribution).
But because Lance is so extraordinary, he is a poor example of how to succeed at DIY. Because the frank truth is that not everybody can handle the DIY life. For those of you who don't know, DIY is the (obvious) acronym for Do It Yourself. Which, of course, is about true independence and geared to those who recognize that there is much to be gained by taking complete control of your filmmaking life. Lance schedules these conferences to bring together people who have taken the DIY path - in one form or another - and/or can offer insight into how to best support the DIY life from various perspectives, but predominantly from a technological standpoint.
I won't go into the details about what I learned...because I can't. I tried to take notes, but I'm a lousy note taker when I am absorbed by something and even worse when I'm uninterested. And there was a equal balance of both for me at the conference. Mostly, I was left feeling a bit overwhelmed at the amount of things I could be doing (and guiltily felt that I SHOULD be doing - if there were 47 hours in each day) and that there is obviously much I have absolutely no interest in doing. But that's as it should be. These ideas are not meant for everybody. And, in fact, the DIY life itself is certainly not meant for everybody.
It is very important to think about the positives and negatives of the DIY life. The main positive, for me, is a sense of control. Although, if you are a filmmaker and depend on strong audience reaction to your work, there's only so much control you can have. But there is a lot. And you are not constantly waiting for someone to give you permission to do things or come to your rescue when you are doing them wrong. You do things on your own schedule, in your own way and learn from your own mistakes - with the support of your chosen team, of course. DIY doesn't mean you have to work in a vacuum. Quite the opposite, actually.
The main negative for some is the sense of insecurity - the lack of financial and structural stability that goes with with doing things on your own as opposed to being under the care of a large company or benefactor. But I think there is just as much insecurity - financial or otherwise - in being at the mercy of some thing or someone other than yourself. No, the biggest negative for me is not insecurity. It is the amount of f&#@ing work that has to be done!!
And I'm no slacker. But I'm sitting at this conference thinking "Where in hell do these people find the time to do all of this?!!" What Lance manages to accomplish with his own work simply boggles my mind. Not only is there tons of necessary research to figure out all the new tools and do-dads, but once you lock on to them, you need to figure out how to use them. Then, most demanding of all, you need to then actually use them. As you all know, just finding time to write this blog kicks my butt. How do I also, Facebook and Twitter and Flicker and Digg and create viral videos and create interactive games to support my films and crowdsource and crowdfund and stage/schedule webinars and online film screenings and do sponsor tie-ins and brand myself and podcast and yadda, yadda, yadda?......
Also, some of this stuff is just too much or too far outside the scope of my interests - thus becoming a whole other job or career in itself. There was a discussion about "transmedia" - storytelling/entertainment that makes use of multiple media platforms to "extend" the story - creating a kind of marriage of online and offline environments that also include cell phone calls and text messages....and maybe more. Basically, the "story" is flying at you from all angles. For me, however, the idea of a created or imagined universe imposing itself on your life so completely - even if by choice - sounds like nothing more than an expensive and complicated form of schizophrenia. There was also talk of Alternative Reality Gaming (ARG) - which is definitely an interesting, interactive form of story-telling, but it is a completely different FORM of story-telling than the forms of story-telling that most excite me. It is not the way of all things, simply an additional means to tell a story that will not work well for all stories. My friend Saskia Wilson-Brown, one of the organizers of the event, agreed, making the point that placing too much importance on these new media alternatives would be like telling Picasso at some point in his career that painting is passe and he should just be focusing instead on multi-media installations.
Finally, there was some discussion of using the new tools to build or "find your audience" and create work that speaks specifically to them. I think that is terrific as long as it is an audience that responds organically to the kind of work I want to do. Some of what I heard, however, sounded gimmicky and felt more like I'd be chasing an audience - looking for an opportunity to pander to them. I know there are strong niche communities out there - apparently, there is a huge knitting community that is woefully under served - and I know I can probably make a fine living figuring out ways to make life interesting for them. But if I do not have any interest in making 3-D knitting movies or creating immersive online knitting games and communities or twittering about the latest knitting news, then there is no passion in any of it for me. If I have no real passion for those niche communities and/or I am not expressing myself in a form that works for me, then it is all pointless.
And, anyway, does any of this work? Hard to tell from the examples that are out there. All this new-fangled stuff is still in its infancy and some of the people that have been successful are complete one-offs. Meaning, it worked for them and their idea, but is not necessarily applicable as a model for others to follow. But, I gotta believe that some of it does indeed work. Of course, some of these things are more useful for a certain kind of work and not very useful for other kinds of work. If Tarkovsky were still alive making films, I don't see him tweeting every hour to drum up support for his films and his "brand" or building a promotional video that he intends to go "viral". But I can indeed see him blogging and podcasting and having a Facebook fan page and crowdfunding and a few other things.
Here's the three key things I took from it all:
1. You have to decide if you have the stuff for the DIY approach - including having the willingness to embrace all the stresses of doing it on your own (and appreciating the joys, as well).
2. You must have some clear idea of what you want to create. Once you know that, it will give you some clarity as to what DIY tools will best support your creative goals. Know what you want to make and use the tools accordingly.
3. Not all flavor-of-the-week websites or cool, new online techno-toys are right for you and your project. Some of these things only speak to a certain kind of user - which may be people who will not respond to your work. Lance put up a chart that showed a demographic breakdown of online technology users and seniors fell to the absolute bottom. So, if you are doing work geared toward seniors, you can tweet your little heart out and it won't do a lick of good in attracting your potential audience.
But if you are stubbornly iconoclastic and determined to do things your own way - if you have the sweat and mettle to make it happen - then there is great stuff out there to support you. Just use the tools - and your time - wisely. What's exciting is that new technologies are giving us the option of taking responsibility for our own success - or failure - and learning/growing from either result without third-party filters that may cloud our ability to gain maximum benefit from the experience. This, for me, is what true independence is all about.