Underground Film Journal

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Douglas Rushkoff: The Myth Of Free

By Mike Everleth ⋅ February 24, 2010

(NOTE: The below article is based on a longer interview that is no longer available online. But, above is the relevant part.)

The above embedded video is only tangentially related to underground film, but in this interview from a BBC documentary — shown in its “raw” form so we don’t hear the interviewer’s questions — media theorist Douglas Ruskoff makes a very salient argument against the modern, popular myth that everything, including movies, is free online. (Sit through the Facebook discussion until he gets to the “free” portion of the interview.)

The whole notion that anything is free online has always been problematic to me personally, but I could never really pinpoint why. So, it was very interesting to hear Rushkoff discuss the idea in clear language that the whole open source movement isn’t really “free” as its proponents claim since it all still exists within the same closed world economic system. The system is still the same, just the flow of money has changed.

Just to use myself as an example, it’s very tempting to say that I create¬†the Underground Film Journal for “free” since I didn’t have to pay for the open source WordPress software to run it. But, in fact, this website costs me a great deal to produce once I factor in the computer equipment I’ve bought, the server space I pay for and the home cable Internet service I pay for every month. Sure, I use my computer for lots of other things besides the Underground Film Journal, but if this website were my sole source of income, I would need to factor those costs against whatever profits I made.

Of course, filmmakers have it rougher than bloggers because of the extra expense of purchasing production equipment. Also, underground filmmakers probably aren’t expecting to make much money from their efforts, but it’s not unreasonable to make something.

I also watch tons of films on YouTube, Vimeo and other sites. Again, it’s tempting to say I watch them for “free” since I don’t pay the filmmakers or a distributor, but I actually shell out a lot of money to my cable Internet provider a month for this viewing privilege.

And I’m not begrudging my Internet provider or computer manufacturer or hosting company that I have to pay them money. Hey, I’m happy to because I love the Internet!

The concept of giving away a movie for “free” has taken hold in the indie film world with the theory that doing that will draw in fans who will eventually spend their money on product. In reality, in this “free” model, filmmakers have to expect viewers to pay twice for their product: Once by the cost of their computer and Internet access and the other by direct payment. But, obviously, promoting a “pay twice” movement to support filmmakers probably isn’t such a great idea.

There are rewards other than financial to posting a film online for “free.” Shit, who does all this just for the money anyway? Films are made to be seen, so a filmmaker has to make that happen whichever way possible. But, at the same time, having some money flowing into the underground film world, too, would be nice.

But how to do that? Monetize uploaded films through ad programs like Google Adsense and Project Wonderful, two programs I run on this site? Go outside of traditional distribution venues? Make films that appeal to specialized subcultures? Form partnerships with non-media companies? All of these things?

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