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Mass Distribution
By Ron Steinman

Several companies recently announced they plan in the future to distribute narrative and documentary videos via the Internet. Sounds great, right? Everyone, it seems, has a gimmick to help the independent filmmaker. Let me explain and then you decide if what you see is a publicity stunt or something more. These companies want to give aspiring filmmakers an opportunity to present their work where almost no place previously existed. The New York Times says, “There are more than a million video clips currently available online,” as if that alone is enough reason to distribute everything as equal. What are these clips? Where do they come from? What do they say? What is their quality? Perhaps if these new means of distribution work, we will find out. Who will watch these bits and pieces, and why should they make a difference?


I admire these new businesses for their attempt to open doors usually closed to aspiring artists, and even to those with some record of accomplishment. I am in favor of supporting a person’s creative impulse and drive. There is one catch. Just because the desire is there, it is not a guarantee that talent follows. In the film world, failure outnumbers success by a huge margin. That is how it should be. Through these new means of delivery, we are about to embark on an era of the democratization of creativity. As business models the ideas are great. Artistically, though, I wonder about their effectiveness. Our constitution, with appropriate amendments, says we are equal under the law. It says nothing about being having equal talent. Democracy does not guarantee great art, even decent art.

Do not get me wrong. Everyone who has aspirations deserves a chance. It is part of the “American Dream.” With so many people wanting to deliver their message through the medium of film, and soon with these means of distribution available for a pittance, will the unsuspecting among us ever be able to distinguish good from bad? I am cynical enough to say no. Guidance is necessary. Though few in our youth oriented culture trust critics, without standards everything might hit bottom and stay there, causing the good to suffer under the overwhelming weight of the bad. We are on the verge of a severe leavening of talent. With these proposed new means of distribution, we might lose sight of genuine creativity.

The means of production are now very inexpensive. Anyone with a digital camera and a desktop editing system can make a film. These new delivery systems may allow more than 300,000 videos to bloom, but their survival is a different matter. I would rather a hundred good or valuable films survive than to suffer the fate of looking at 300,000 videos – the number proposed by one company as its goal -- most of which will probably be worthless.

My hope is that the marketplace will separate the good from the bad. Despite the threatened deluge, almost nothing can keep good art down or from making its way into the market place. Despite what some may feel, valuable work has a way of rising to the top. We are all aware that there are times when we ignore genius, and when recognition comes slowly, if at all. I know that happens more often than it should. True, valuable film work rarely withers and dies. It sometimes takes a long time before art receives the appreciation and acceptance it deserves. Critics notwithstanding, the market place has a way of determining what lives and dies.

We are about to witness the video clip, of whatever length, entering and then possibly dominating our lives – if we allow that to happen. Those with little or no talent will be able to take advantage of the access they believe has long eluded them. Because the Internet is limitless, so will the opportunity for everyone who wants to present us with his or her version of art, however fanciful or mundane. I can only hope some will resist what will surely be a surge of mostly worthless films. There was a time not too long ago when quality of an image or series of images such as in a film, stood for something, other than simply information on a cellphone or I-pod. That time is past. All that matters now to the uncritical is the image itself, the information it contains, not in the seriousness of the image itself. It is as if we are experiencing the dumbing down of esthetics, and, if so, it is a sad commentary on how the youth culture sees the lasting value of a photograph or a set of moving images. In this world of instant gratification, a quick fix seems to be far more important than the legacy of creativity.

After all I have said, perhaps we should allow everyone equal access, and thus the exposure he or she craves. I am sure, or better yet, I hope, the truly creative will go beyond the mostly empty efforts of putting their material on the Internet. Using the wizardry that is part of our new and seemingly unlimited technological age, I hope that our eyes, hearts, minds and spirit can survive this latest onslaught on our already battered senses.
At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story", "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon  Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.


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