Welcome to the new soapbox. You may or may not like what you hear.
Events across the Muslim world in the past week and a half, with angry protests leading to multiple deaths, have only underscored how easy it is for anyone with a camera to send the world a virulent message. All this over “Innocence of Muslims,” a buffoonish, cheap-looking video that insults the prophet Mohammad in the most juvenile manner imaginable?
Believe it and get used to it. It is easier than ever to get a message, innocuous or incendiary, in front of the world’s eyeballs, whether through movie theaters that used to play only Hollywood releases or by taking one’s case to YouTube.
“Innocence” is one of two recent — and radically different — developments that illustrate the new accessibility and potential impact of partisan media. Right-wing pundit Dinesh D’Souza’s “2016: Obama’s America,” a documentary that parses what the filmmaker believes is the president’s hidden agenda, has grossed $32 million in movie theaters since late August, making it the most successful conservative film in box-office history.
“2016” is serious, if one-
sided, filmmaking; “Innocence” is crackpot hate-mongering at its most wretched. Neither work, one could argue, would have enjoyed wide distribution only a half decade ago, nor would the many films now streaming online and unspooling in theaters that play to core constituencies while hoping to create converts. They include Christian movies like last year’s “Courageous” ($34.5 million in ticket sales), this year’s prolife drama “October Baby” ($5.3 million), and the patriotic barn-burner “Last Ounce of Courage,” an impassioned defense of Christmas by writer-director-star Darrel Campbell that’s currently in limited theatrical release.
Many of these independent movie-house releases are coming from the right side of the spectrum and are produced by small studios with names like Veritas, Harbinger, Gravitas, Mercy Creek Entertainment, and Sherwood Pictures, whose 2008 release “Fireproof” was the highest-grossing independent film of the year and a watershed for Christian cinema. Another touchstone that year was the right-wing documentary “Hillary: The Movie”; when it was planned for video-on-demand release, the federal government blocked it, leading to the “Citizens United” Supreme Court case.
While liberal polemicists and documentarians to the left of center have historically had a distribution pipeline that can lead from the film festival circuit to established small distributors to independent art-house theaters — and directors like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock can become brands with mainstream impact — films on the right have traditionally had to scramble for exposure.
What has changed? The revolutions wrought by digital technology upon the production, distribution, and exhibition of films. For decades, those three areas were controlled by the major movie studios, but with the switch from analogue to bits and bytes and with the rise of the Internet, anyone with a point of view has become empowered. Low-cost digital video cameras and editing software have opened the gates of production to thousands of newcomers. The instant connection of online social media means you can reach out to potential viewers and funders in the next state, country, or hemisphere. Alternate channels of communication have created alternate methods of publicity, focusing word of mouth among true believers and building support for screenings. Filmmakers have found they don’t need to court mainstream critics or media outlets; just schedule the movie in a church basement or a suburban multiplex, and alert the faithful.
Movie theaters and exhibition chains, in turn, have found these ready audiences irresistible in a drastically changing landscape. In a very real sense, they have to: One result of media digitization has been the boom in streaming and on-
demand video, which is rapidly turning American moviegoers into stay-at-home button pushers. According to a 2012 study by the research group comScore, over 100 million Americans watched online video content in 2011, up 43 percent over the previous year.
Playing to the converted, whatever their beliefs, is one way for an exhibitor to stay in business. A broad-appeal blockbuster like “The Hunger Games” is first on any theater owner’s wish list, but playing to discrete demographic groups who want to see their tastes or convictions mirrored on the big screen is increasingly good business sense. As theater chains and art-house cinemas have experimented with screening live opera and British stage plays, they’re looking as well to films that target specific audiences and whose makers have grass-roots public relations in place to move bodies into seats.
“Obama’s America” director D’Souza agrees that it’s harder to get audiences away from their TV sets and into theaters. “There’s now a higher bar,” he says, “which means you need a greater level of enthusiasm. So even if you have a smaller audience but it’s a highly motivated audience, these are people who will jump in the car and go to see the film because it’s important to them.”
Says D’Souza, “My sense in talking to theater guys is that they’re basically in the real estate business. They rent space and they want to fill seats.”
The full impact of the change in digital distribution and exhibition is felt online. According to the comScore report, a full half of the videos streamed on the Web come through YouTube, which amassed an astonishing 21.9 billion video views in 2011. Many of those were for the sort of viral-video ephemera that has made stars out of clumsy cats, laughing babies, and the Korean rapper PSY. But others were and are designed to affect opinion, raise consciousness, and prompt action. The makers of the short film “Kony 2012” made an end run around the theatrical market and put the project up on YouTube and Vimeo, hoping to raise awareness of the depredations of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.
Unexpectedly, the film became a shared sensation within weeks of its posting in March, with US students spreading the word to each other via Facebook and other social media. More than 100 million views later, the US Senate has adopted a resolution condemning Kony, and the African Union has sent in troops. The video was praised by some and condemned as misleading by others, but the point is that it got seen.
That’s the promise and the danger of the new empowered world of movie exhibition. If the shake-up in the media landscape is allowing differing political and spiritual voices to be heard in US theaters, it’s also giving everyone an online microphone and allowing them to yell “fire.” That can mean you sometimes have to yell loud enough and repeatedly enough to be heard: The makers of “Innocence of Muslims,” a poorly dubbed attempt to whip up the fury of Muslims, initially posted their 14-minute short, ostensibly a trailer for a longer film, in July to little notice. Only when it was translated into Arabic and reposted, twice, did the intended audience take the bait.
What’s to be done? Very little; a Pandora’s Box has been opened, and the bytes are pouring forth. You can see the results at your neighborhood movie theater, on your computer, on your phone, and increasingly on the news. At its best, the empowerment revolution in what we watch is giving each of us a potential voice and letting neglected groups of media consumers see their realities reflected on screens. It’s to everyone’s benefit to let a billion digital flowers bloom. It’s everyone’s problem that some of them are poisonous.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.