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Help Jason Scott, creator of the computer history documentaries "BBS" and "GET LAMP",  produce three more documentaries at once.
Help Jason Scott, creator of the computer history documentaries "BBS" and "GET LAMP", produce three more documentaries at once.
573 backers pledged $118,801 to help bring this project to life.

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The Fundamental Kickstarter Film Incompatibility

(This is being crossposted between my weblog and my kickstarter campaign for my three documentaries currently in production.)
So, Kickstarters are now simply "part of the landscape" of filmmaking, just like it became part of the landscape of an awful lot of things out there which were previously cases of passing the hat, sinking personal cost, or otherwise having to squeeze blood out of the social network's stone. I've heard countless rough plans that get a Kickstarter thrown into the mix like some sort of financial MSG that will paper over the small cracks here and there and get the intended show (or product, or event) on the road.

So, in the years hence, I've seen Kickstarter used for dozens of films, including a good bushel of ones that I've backed in some small or large way. And I have something entirely unhelpful to report: 

Film Kickstarters almost always end in heartbreak. 

Now, let me be clear, I don't mean they don't get finished. They most certainly do, to the vast majority. Before I switched over almost exclusively to the "digital download" option for kickstarters, I built up a pretty tidy set of Blu-Ray and DVD sets with the names of the documentaries I backed (I almost always back documentaries exclusively) and those things are done, done, done. And well made! Enjoyable.

But what almost always seems to happen is that down in the clutch, at that point where the films are somewhere in the twilight zone between final mixdown and the copies (digital or physical) fly out into the world, there's a rapid breakdown of communication and happiness between the backers and the creators. Almost every time.

I don't think I can solve this problem, per se, but I can mention it and mention what I'm doing, which is likely not going to work for anybody else in this situation. 
Pulling my long-dormant mass communications degree from decades-old muck, I'll say that films in the digital era are subject to a few properties that make them very different than, say, music albums or software programs. This especially comes into play with the concept of "release".

It's a given that in the digital world we live in, a thing that's a bitstream that is somewhere in the Internet is officially all over the Internet. This is both delightful (the file can go everywhere) and to some, terrifying (the file can go everywhere). This property is out there and it is permanent - no amount of coming up with idiotic gatekeeping streams or anti-copying measures are going to stop a file in the wild from being a file in the wild everywhere. (Unless it's boring or broken.)

With music albums, you can release what counts for "singles" now - single .mp3 files of one song on the album, maybe the one you want heavily rotated or available. You don't have the full album out there, and you get to still choose when the whole thing goes online. (A couple album kickstarters I've backed have released singles before release, for example.) And with software, there's always "demos" that you can put out, which let you play the first level or some aspect of the program without it all being out there. (Some entities can be lazy and just "tie off" the content, which means it's trivial to unlock and get the full version, but that's the lazy group's fault, not the fault of the nature of what's being done.)

But with films, you kind of have to do an all-or-nothing deal. You throw the movie out into the world, or you don't. You can argue about the bonus features and the packaging, but the central X minutes of film are not something easily put out as a "single" or in a "demo mode".

Oh, sure, you can have trailers, and selected scenes released, but that's not the same as releasing the whole movie, at least to many backers. It's out or it's not.
Therefore, in that moment when the film is nearly done, and the backers who have so generously given money to see the film hit that point are waiting, the filmmakers find themselves seeking some level of professional distribution. And if you want old-school "waiting for this internet to go away", you definitely are going to find a lot of that in professional distribution.

So right then, in that critical point which should be a celebration, is when there is awful heartbreak.

All true examples: 

  • The film is shown at a premiere of a major event relevant to the next step of getting distributed. The backers, not shown the film first, are furious. 
  • The film is finished, but can't be released for X amount of months while the distributors grind through their "process" which is like putting a ship in a bottle. Backers, furious. 
  • Components of the film or the things that were previously available to see are taken down so the distributors can have all the control of how the film will be promoted. Backers. Furious. 
  • Digital copies are available before physical copies, which are often backed at a higher rate. The backers who did physical copies are completely furious that the "deluxe" edition didn't arrive before the casuals could watch it in digital form. 

And so on, through many iterations and variations. 

The thing is, I think the patient may be terminal - I think in that period between "oh man, we have a movie" and the movie hits hands, there's so much going on in the way of ensuring the content is paid for, not duplicated, not out of the control of the people who want to get recompense for the finished effort. But at the same time, the number of folks who are expecting it at the first few seconds of availability can be significant and large. 

I've seriously watched this so many times, it's almost become an expected milestone for me when these projects wind down into "finished". But for the backers who are only backing that particular film, it can seem a horrible shock that the film got shown at Maybe-Get-Your-Film-Sold Fest instead of online-debuted to the backers only. Or the aforementioned physical-comes-after-online orders. Or any of the other pitfalls.

There's several solutions. They're all pretty crazy. I'm trying one myself. 

As each of the documentaries I'm working on are finished, I'm releasing them online as pretty much fast as possible. I'll make sure the backers have access to everything. I'm not going to play games with holding stuff back. 

The physical, deluxe editions will have components of the physical products that will make them interesting and enjoyable on their own, but not controlled by being able to see or not see the movies and the content. I am working on them as separate, involved endeavors.

But I'm nuts. I don't like the whole "sign your work away to a distributor" thing, and my particular project is so over-time that I feel very beholden to getting it into hands the second it's out there. It's also my 4th (through 6th) rodeo; I'm happy to change things up. 

But my contention stands: Films are difficult things to not get through a kickstarter without broken hearts. I don't know how to walk it back, and I don't know what people can do, other than be super educating at the start of a campaign so backers (and creators) are not heartbroken at the end. 


The Documentary Maker Who Archives


Greetings from Japan, a trip I've wanted to make for 20 years. I've been enjoying sushi, hot baths, a lot of walking, and I've been shooting lots of Japanese arcades. Since we last talked, I've lost 25 pounds, sent away or disposed of 30% of what I own, and have inventoried all my current shot footage for the three documentaries.

I get back from my trip on June 20th. I left for my trip as an archivist who does documentaries. I come back as a documentary filmmaker who does archiving.

One of the first orders of business when I come back is nailing down phone calls. A percentage wanted them before the movies came out, and I will be spreadsheet-and-mobile-phone guy, tracking down good times for everyone who wanted them. All subjects are on the table. However you want the call to go, I'm up for. I like talking. So that'll be happening soon.

Next, I'm going to be working on packaging in a more concrete fashion, because good packaging takes a lot of prep. I've got some calls out on collaborators, so that's happening.

And finally, wrapping up any remnant interviews for 6502 and Arcade, as I'm intending to release those first. 

As it currently stands, and because of the enormous amount of time I've spent on this project, I am going to lean very heavily towards making sure I release what the final products are very robustly, and not play games with trying to "protect" the works from any potential spreading around - what that means is I want to do my utter best to make sure anything released gets to you, the backers, first, even if in a form you could then torrent or pass out immediately. I think that's the right thing to do. More on this later, but I wanted it stated clearly where I'm coming from with that. I'm not going to partner with a distributor, I don't care about 4-wall box distribution to movie theaters, and I just want some stuff I'm proud of to wrap up my weird little career as a documentary maker. I intend to do it right.

What I would like to now do is turn this to the comments section of this entry and ask you, the backers of all types, what you'd like my actions to be like going forward.

I'm happy to just squirrel away on the films and bring shiny rocks to you in some point in the future, with just announcements of "this is release date, this is title, this is info". Or, I can do updates of a teaching/reporting nature, giving instructions/tutorials of how I do this work for the use of others. I can also just do things on a rote monthly or other schedule, saying anything but just showing I'm here and I care. Please let me know.

And thanks again, in so many ways.

Cold Hard Facts


Greetings and hello!

Fact: I am going to finish three documentaries. My personal enthusiasm for TAPE is currently low, but that is likely to change - the story is interesting and complex and I like those kinds of stories. The other two are progressing and I intend to finish them.

Fact: I am taking a very long time to do these documentaries. I do not have a proper framing of the time scope for the projects, but as soon as I know, you know.

Fact: I've come to feel like Documentaries are fundamentally incompatible with the idea of Kickstarter. Documentaries are organic and come along, with shifts and movements and different goals coming along as they go. Kickstarter wants you to say that you know how to make copper bowls and can promise 100 copper bowls within three months. It raises so many expectations and people who back documentaries on kickstarter almost always have people going "this is kind of taking a long time". Meanwhile, I watched three documentaries over the last month at a film festival with production times of six years, five years, and four years. They just take a lot of time, and they're very involved.

Fact: I hope that some of the things I've accomplished in the general world with regards to the Internet Archive, the DEFCON Documentary, and other work at least has provided you with entertainment and information of the style and hope you get from the coming documentaries. For example, releasing 5500 pages of scanned Infocom material from the GET LAMP production:

Fact: I realize that for some of you, all this I'm saying is of no interest to you and your specific feelings are that you gave me money and you do not feel secure about me or my prospects for the future films. If this is the case, I wish to offer you a full refund of your kickstarter backing. I don't want anyone in the backer pool who distrusts or resents me - I've had enough rough spots working on the films themselves and the rest of the natural course of life. So do get in contact with me and I'll make arrangements.

Fact: I am humbled and honored people have been believing in me so far. I have made contact with some of my collaborators (musicians, packaging) for the documentaries and the process continues. Interviews continue to happen, editing as well. I have cut off the first half of 2016 from almost any travel or speaking appearances to focus all the time I can on these productions.

That's what's going on, and I thank you for your communications and support in the projects so far.

Editing is Boring - Also, Apple II Reunion


Sometimes people come to me seeking advice on making documentaries, and I give a lot of advice where it's needed, but probably the most important one is Editing is Boring.

To do it right, you have to go through all the footage, mark off or render out what you think MIGHT have meaning down the line, and then keep going. All day. All night. Whenever you have time. Stuff you filmed, that you LIVED through, but have to live through again. I run it at 125% speed, but that only gets back a little time. It's just running the footage as I can and listening. I can't have other music playing (although if I put something on very low, I can sometimes get away with it) and I DEFINITELY can't be watching anything else while I do it. It's just.... so long and tedious.

The highlights, though, are when someone says something that makes me sit up, set it aside as a "VITAL KEEPER" and I know that down the line, audiences will laugh or gasp when they hear it. But I just wanted you to know... it's not you, if you do these projects. It's really that boring. 

For 6502 people:

A couple weeks back, I was lucky enough to get an invitation to an Apple II Reunion hosted by John and Brenda Romero. I flew into California, set up a camera, and recorded a few interviews with some Apple II greats. The sound was not pristine (although I can work with that), and I definitely made some nice contacts and got some good footage. Here's a collection of photos and screenshots from that:

These quick interviews and raw footage will be going to very shortly, as agreed upon with the Romeros. It was a great time and I'm happy to share it.

ARCADE begins editing


ARCADE is the first of the documentaries to enter the editing phase. I'm currently building the clip-library of the footage shot so far. 

If you look carefully at that timeline, you'll see this initial drop/pass is currently at 28 hours long. Some of that is because I'm still synchronizing/sorting audio tracks, and the rest is likely because there are blocks of up to 15 minutes in between sets of interviews or shots. I only started this a day ago, so I bet it'll look radically different very soon.

Turns out, having it go over 24 hours kind of annoys the editing program, but since I'm getting it down to something manageable soon, that annoyance will hopefully go away.

Why now?

Well, two main reasons.

First, ARCADE has come in as the front runner in terms of material. 6502 has a bunch of interviews done but has some vital ones left to do. TAPE is lagging mostly because I'm still working out the breadth and approach. So it's time to get cracking on ARCADE as a functioning show.

Second, I finally had a breakthrough in the direction and approach.

It came, as good ideas often do, over lunch. I was having a lunch and walk with my close friend Chris Orcutt, (who writes great novels, look him up) and we were discussion variant approaches to writing, from journeyman to the back-half slog of the over-successful author forced to go back to the well too many times.

I mentioned how I was working, internally, through where the ARCADE documentary, and then, right in a flash, I had the whole movie laid out and constructed in my mind. Poof.

So, I immediately cleared out the internal editing drive of my machine and I've begun editing ARCADE. I suspect a smattering of interviews and pick-up shots to complete it, but I think I know where it's going.

And that's how it happens. It's going to be quite a movie.