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Feature Film Online: Sita Sings The Blues

Animator Nina Paley has placed her entire feature film Sita Sings the Blues online for viewing. That’s it embedded above in really good quality on YouTube, which sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not. It’s extremely crisp looking so that the incredibly eye-catching animation really grabs you.

Paley’s situation with her film has been a big story in 2009, particularly in the past month or so. Here’s the deal: Paley crafted the film — which combines her own personal story of her painful divorce with the ancient Indian story of Sita and Rama, two gods who try to exist as human beings — around songs sung by Annette Hanshaw, a jazz singer who was popular in the ’20s.

However, in trying to clear the copyrights to the composition of those songs, Paley ran into a big problem: Namely that the copyright holders wanted Paley to pay $50,000 to include them in the film. Now, here’s where the confusion — for me anyway — sets in.

Paley has set up a “free” distribution model for her film, e.g. offering the film for free viewing via YouTube embeds and other video sharing outlets. Then, she makes money selling DVD versions of the film and other merchandise based on the film; plus, she asks for donations on her website. She’s also had some public screenings from which she’s made money. That’s all clear.

The confusion: On Paley’s FAQ page on the official Sita Sings the Blues website, she writes that she took out that $50,000 loan in order to “decriminalize the film, just to make it a little bit safer to give the film away for free.” Yet, in a presentation Paley gave on her unique distribution model, she claims that she’s in complete compliance on copyright and “paid through the nose for it.” If she’s in “complete compliance,” why is the film only “a little bit safer” to distribute? And in this interview, she makes it sound like she’s under constant threat of a lawsuit over her distributing the film.

Anyway, music clearance issues interfering — and sometimes outright blocking — the release of an underground film isn’t a new topic, but what’s new and unusual about this one is Paley’s very public discussion about the subject. In the past, underground films featuring uncleared music just went into “black market” tours where the filmmakers tried to keep the screenings under the radar. Sometimes these music issues are over money and sometimes they’re over other issues.

For example, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a biopic on the singer using Barbie dolls and directed by Todd Haynes, has never had a proper release because Richard Carpenter has refused to grant licenses to the Carpenters’ music to the filmmaker since he disagrees with the way he and his sister are portrayed in the film.

Usually, though, it’s all about money. Expensive music licensing has kept both Jeff Krulik and John Heyn’s Heavy Metal Parking Lot — which features songs by Judas Priest — and Trent Harris’ The Beaver Trilogy — which features songs by Olivia Newton John and Barry Manilow — on the underground film circuit. (However, both of these films are available on DVD via the filmmakers. Just click the film titles above.) I also know Ric Shore has struggled with music issues over his CBGB documentary Punking Out, but he’s selling copies himself, too.

Most recent articles I’ve read about Paley and Sita Sings the Blues don’t go into this history, but instead focus on how she’s forging a new distribution path for future filmmakers to follow. A recent Time article on the notion of “free” film distribution says that Paley has made a “net profit” of $55,000 on her strategy.

So, is that the future for films with uncleared music issues to keep them out of the underground? Pay the hefty fees, distribute for “free” and build an audience willing to pay to help out?

Underground Film Feedback (6 comments)

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  • Nathan Wrann says:

    That’s actually a popular self-distribution strategy for any film, music clearance issues or not. Prolific producer Ted Hope has a blog dedicated to the subject called Truly Free Film (http://trulyfreefilm.blogspot.com/) where strategies and theories are bandied about. It’s a really good resource for any filmmaker looking to self-distribute. The concept is, just as you described above: give the film away then make money on merchandise and related items sales.

    (it’s a great concept in theory, and it’s very easy to get excited about the DIY distribution fantasy but the truth is that making real, sustainable income on DIY distribution is still a fantasy. I haven’t heard many (if any) stories of narrative filmmakers (niche documentaries are a different story) making a living off of self-distro or the truly free film concept. Unless they have a pre-existing fan base)

    As far as the copyright issues I have some thoughts and questions about that too. Maybe later.

  • Nina Paley says:

    If she’s in “complete compliance,” why is the film only “a little bit safer” to distribute? And in this interview, she makes it sound like she’s under constant threat of a lawsuit over her distributing the film.

    Thanks for asking. It’s “only a little bit safer” because although legal to distribute conventionally, the songs in the film will never be free, and that means lots of restrictions must remain in place. My dream is to have the film truly Free, so anyone can use it in any way for anything. But the song restrictions mean any use of the old songs require re-licensing.

    The conventional distribution of the film is now 100% legal. Box office grosses are recorded and tracked, so that when they exceed $1 million (which will never happen) I will be required to pay another $50,000 to the licensors. Commercially distributed DVDs are tracked, so when sales exceed 5,000 copies, I must pay additional license fees. All that is legal and locked in.

    The risk is in the free part of the distribution. Because it’s unprecedented, I could be sued for “selling” copies at $0, and not paying the required $1.65 per copy. The contracts require payment per copy, and there’s no precedent determining whether free copies online count as “units” in the reckoning. Fortunately, I think Sita is setting that precedent right now, so hopefully other filmmakers will be able to free their films with less risk in the future.

  • Hey Nina, thanks for stopping by and clearing things up for me. (And my readers.) It makes sense to me now. I didn’t get the difference that you could be hassled over the “free” distribution, but that the DVD/theatrical was cleared with the initial $50,000 fee, plus any future fees.

  • Nathan: There was another whole aspect to this article that I didn’t get to. But the idea of self-distribution is something I’m considering writing about more of this year.

    Now, I think Nina is a special case. She does have a pre-existing fan base, e.g. I used to be a HUGE fan of her Nina’s Adventures comics. But I don’t think that base is what’s making Sita Sings the Blues a success. I think the film on its own is doing that. But also, the film has an easily marketable visual style that can propel the “merchandise empire,” as it’s called.

  • Nina Paley says:

    re Nathan:
    it’s very easy to get excited about the DIY distribution fantasy but the truth is that making real, sustainable income on DIY distribution is still a fantasy.

    I agree, and the same is true of conventional distribution. The fact is that most films will never earn close to what they cost to produce, no matter what business models they employ. When I realized that, I thought, “why not choose the fun business model?” and I’m making more money (and having a lot more fun) than I would have using the old one. But it’s not a recipe for money; nothing is.

  • FilmKaravan says:

    Bring Sita home with a DVD of

    Buy on Amazon: http://amzn.com/B002G50002
    Rent on Netflix: http://tinyurl.com/ybbqd7b

    Sita is a goddess separated from her beloved Lord and husband Rama. Nina is an animator whose husband moves to India, then dumps her by email. Three hilarious shadow puppets narrate both ancient tragedy and modern comedy in this beautifully animated interpretation of the Indian epic Ramayana. Set to the 1920’s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw, Sita Sings the Blues earns its tagline as “the Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told.”

    Need another reason why? Check out Roger Eberts Review! http://tinyurl.com/ebert-on-sita

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