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Anxiously Awaiting the Next Renaissance

Filmmaker Doug Block was on vacation in Italy a few weeks ago, looking at Renaissance art. After months in New York making movies and running a documentary filmmaking community site (www.d-word.com), he really needed a break. Gazing at a 500-year-old canvas, Block found himself musing on Internet content. He wondered what, half a millennium from now, history will record of the Web, circa 2000 AD. It's easy to imagine whom we might acknowledge as the architects of our modern, digital cathedral -- the coders and the CEOs -- but much harder to know whom we might celebrate as the artists who painted the ceiling. Block struggled to name even a single piece of Web-based video or audio or animation whose significance, five centuries hence, it seems plausible that posterity might record.

What we will remember of the medium's 21st century infancy, he concluded, is the technology itself, and its nascent infrastructure - the creation of AOL Time Warner, the Microsoft anti-trust case, the dot-com gold rush. In the year 2000, the medium is still the message. The content that technology delivers, at this early stage in its development, remains somewhat obscured.

"You can't create art in this kind of culture." - Filmmaker Doug Block

After the collapse of DEN, after the extravagant launch parties and the NASDAQ correction, as the pathways to profitability become ever more elusive, it's understandable that content companies are now more concerned with economic survival than with the creation of Internet Michaelangelos. The last six months have seen the emergence of over a hundred sites streaming short film and video, promising unprecedented exposure and distribution possibilities for the independent filmmaker. AtomFilms and iFilm have been joined by AntEye, Eveo, CameraPlanet, Zoomculture, and many others offering free encoding and hosting services, online syndication and potential offline distribution - often in return for aggressively proprietary contracts and nebulous remuneration terms. Many of these companies now face great challenges securing their next round of financing, building community, and fostering relationships with the creative community.

Block -- who directed Homepage, the first feature-length documentary streamed on the Web (it was shown on iFilm), and now consults for Eveo -- believes that the current volatility of the streaming media space makes it very tough for content producers. "You can't create art in this kind of culture," he laments. But he's also looking ahead, trying to imagine what this medium will look like once the dust has settled. Block is still excited about the possibilities for online documentary, which he describes as "the killer app of streaming media," because of the potential it affords for direct interaction between users, filmmakers, and the subjects of their films, harnessing the connectivity of the Web to create non-linear Web-film experiences.

This summer, Block is creating a Web-based collaborative project for documentary makers. He plans to invite his network of filmmakers to shoot short films on a related theme, creating a patchwork of reality-based stories streamed on his site. Block believes that the most exciting possibility for filmmakers on the Internet is to create an entirely new form in which geographically diverse artists collaborate remotely. Since inviting his community to post ideas for the project, which will be launched in October at the Hot Springs Documentary Festival in Arkansas, Block has received over 300 suggestions from established documentary filmmakers.

"We're entering the age of collective art," says Block.

Most film and entertainment sites deliver linear content. Essentially, they offer television by other means -- with lower production values and smaller budgets - intending to incubate products for potential television or movie deals at a relatively low financial risk. A short film on the Internet is a calling card to the traditional media world -- a marketing device -- but rarely a satisfying entertainment experience in itself. Broadband will change that. Traditional media companies, forging alliances with broadband technology companies, will probably continue to deliver linear content online, albeit in streaming format. But filmmakers and other artists are more excited about the properties of this new medium that are unique and unprecedented.

"Don't put television on the Internet. Put the Internet on the Internet."

Block's documentary collaboration is evidence of a revolution not just in practical terms -- ten years ago, the project, if possible at all, would have proved a logistical nightmare -- but also in aesthetic terms. On the Web, the power of the network applies to creatives as much as coders, because unlike film, or even television, the experience of most users does not usually hinge upon individual authors, shows or channels, but huge aggregations of content strewn across tens or hundreds of unrelated websites.

Many producers in traditional media fear that single shows cannot retain a viable audience share in a 10 million-channel universe. But Block suggests that the challenge for online artists, and the companies that work with them, is this: change your idea of a show. Don't put television on the Internet. Put the Internet on the Internet. Identify the unique qualities of this medium, and embrace them. Non-linearity. Interactivity. Multiple authorship. Follow the example of Kurosawa's Rashomon, which tells one story from the perspective of 12 different people. People you can e-mail or meet in a videoconference.

Some industry insiders speculate that talent will eventually congregate at a small number of successful online venues, as it has done in the emergence of every new creative medium, from Shakespeare's Globe Theatre to Dreamworks SKG; that the film and television world will reposition itself online, Hollywood simply devouring the Internet whenever it feels ready. By this theory, the future belongs to Disney and Universal. Filmmakers in San Francisco express anxieties that many of the small, new dot-com entertainment companies have yet to deliver tangible incentives beyond exposure at a single, low-traffic URL. They counsel companies to focus on community before content, and to develop a credible artist-relations strategy - to manage the deeper form of convergence which is now afoot, beyond the marriage of the Internet and film, the cultural convergence between the world of IPO-hungry startups and those curious folk who actually make the movies. As one filmmaker put it, "you're only here because I'm here."

Before we can have Internet art, we need the culture to support it. Writing software requires creativity, but art is not software. It does not thrive in offices with bare walls and self-assembled cubicles. Art is not scalable or efficient. Hollywood understands this, and spends millions of dollars every year to support the inefficiencies. If online content providers want to stay in the content business, they need to do the same. Then, maybe one day, we'll see an online Michaelangelo.

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