Fan Film, Fan Films

Gray Areas: The Cult of the Amateur

Gray Area BoilerplateOver the last few days, I’ve been reading an intriguing book, , by Andrew Keen (Currency/Doubleday); it doesn’t come out until June, but it’s bound to make a splash in certain circles when it does. The subtitle is “How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture,” and the basic gist is that the explosive rise of User-Generated Content—websites like YouTube, MySpace, Wikipedia, blogs and more—over the last few years has undermined professional media. To vastly simplify his viewpoint, it’s essentially: When you democratize media creation, so that anyone can make and distribute their own music, TV shows, movies, articles and so forth for free on the net, it lessens the value of those same things made by professionals. Once you devalue the pro’s work enough, none of it means anything, whether it’s made by an amateur or a professional.

In a lot of ways, it makes sense. These days on the web, the opinion of some ill-informed jerk carries just as much weight as that of a professional critic—and I know this from personal experience. A few years ago, I wrote a book called (Backbeat), where I profiled the greatest concert sound engineers on the planet—the guys who make everyone from U2 to Tool to Beyonce sound great every show, even when the artist is having a bad night. It talked about equipment, their secret tips for mixing and so forth, and had a lot of good info in there. Was it the greatest book ever written about the subject? That’s not for me to say, but plenty of engineers liked finding out how the very best in the profession do their job, it got good reviews even in unlikely places like the heavy metal bible Hit Parader, and I like to think it’s a good addition to a soundman’s bookshelf.

Then someone with an ax to grind—and I know who it is—joined Amazon purely so he could (poorly) write a short, furious review that openly lied about the content of my book. In fact, anyone who had actually read my book would see it was complete crap and that the guy had clearly never even picked up a copy. How ludicrous was this “review?” Check out the first line: “Please, Please do NOT buy this book!” Worse, I checked and he never wrote about anything else on Amazon—it was a case of signing up solely so he could snipe my book. And dammit, it worked. My sales on Amazon dropped like a rock because as the most-recent review, it was the first one you’d read as you scrolled down the page; the book’s Amazon sales never quite recovered, even after more level-headed reviews showed up a few months later, displacing the crank from the top spot.

So, if anyone was going to be inclined to agree with Keen—that amateurs (in this case, an amateur critic) are being listened to more than professionals—it’d definitely be me. And yet…. Well, this is a site about fan films, and without question, fan productions are amateur productions, even at the highest profile, Star Trek: Of Gods And Men-type levels. Fan flicks can be found all over YouTube and its brethren, and plenty of them aspire to replicate a ‘real’ movie as much as possible. All fan movies use material from franchises that they legally have no right to borrow from, so they’re breaking the law. Most fan directors figure that the big businesses that own these franchises either won’t notice their work, or at worst, will issue a cease and desist letter demanding that the movie be taken offline, avoiding litigation because it wouldn’t be financially worth it to sue the fan filmmaker.

That’s probably an accurate assessment, but it also means that these fans think that big business sees them mostly as nuisances and ultimately as irrelevant—a yappy little dog pulling at an exec’s suit pants leg. Do those execs really think a fan film can replace the real thing? I doubt it and I suspect that most media consumers would agree. With all due respect to, say, Dan Poole’s early-Nineties fan epic, The Green Goblin’s Last Stand, where you see Poole swinging six stories above the ground in a homemade Spider-Man costume, I’d rather watch a CGI Tobey Maguire doing the same thing in the upcoming Spider-Man 3.

Amateurs are amateurs for a reason; perhaps they just do something for fun, or they’re sharpening their skills for the day that they go pro, but I truly suspect their overall effect on the professional media world is limited. The novelty of putting a crummy home movie made with a cell phone on YouTube will wear off, if it hasn’t started to already. Certainly, anyone who’s listened to a wretched, homemade techno track made with stock loops in Garageband will attest that having the tools doesn’t make you an artist; that’s like giving a child a crayon and announcing to the world that he’s now the next Michelangelo before the kid has even put that crayon on a piece of paper—just plain stupid.

Democratizing creative technologies may result in clutter around the mediasphere that surrounds us (or whatever they’re calling it these days), but I suspect it ultimately just gives more people the opportunity to discover that they suck at something and that they ought to try something else. People who actually want to listen to great music, read a good book or watch a clever movie will still turn to the stuff made by the pros. Will they also watch a 2-minute video of a guy eating paper clips on YouTube? Sure—because you need something to do during conference calls at work. Would you spend seven nights a week watching that at home? Of course not.

All of which brings us back to Keen’s book. Towards the end, after spending pages and pages raising interesting questions and backing them with respectable facts, anecdotes and some occasionally over-reaching, alarmist opinions, he tries to offer some solutions and positive viewpoints. Most of them are things that anyone can agree on—online sexual predators are bad, retail CDs cost too much and Wikipedia is a wonk magnet on steroids—but few seem to concretely address the issues he’s raised earlier in the book.

Likely the most solid idea he offers is “At the end of the day, perhaps the long-term viability of our media depends upon the actions and behaviors of each of us”—a sentiment that echoes last week’s proposal of a “Blogging Code of Conduct” by internet publisher Tim O’Reilly (who Keen derides a bit in the book) and Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia (Keen recounts that site’s sad story, too). While for most folks, Keen’s comment reads like a plea that they occasionally buy a newspaper or, you know, pay for music, I think that ironically, for the amateurs he derides, it’s a call for inspiration: The viability of the creative form you choose—films, music, writing, etc.—depends on you getting good enough that you turn pro.

So stick with it, fan film directors, writers, actors and the rest of you; clearly, your cult awaits.

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