Sundance Film Festival: Filmmakers learn to embrace the tech


When Jill Soloway was a girl, she and her friends used to put on plays in the courtyard of their street, and charge their parents and neighbors 50 cents to watch. One day, a neighbor lady balked; why should she pay 50 cents to see a play she can watch for free from her living room window?

The movies may be a multi-billion-dollar industry, but the same basic question is still being asked in the age of BitTorrent and Spotify. How can content makers get audience to financially support the art that they consume? And for filmmakers like Soloway (“Afternoon Delight” and the new Amazon Prime series “Transparent”), how can artists bypass the layers of distributors and producers and make art with that sense of unfettered play that Soloway had when she was a kid?

The first question is one that everyone from film studios to daily newspapers are grappling with. But the second question may be getting a little easier to answer thanks to technological advancements that connect artists more directly with their audiences. That was the subject of a New Frontiers panel “Embracing Change” Saturday afternoon featuring Soloway and several other filmmakers.

“We’re seeing a sea change in how movies are not only funded, but distributed,” said Dennis Dortch, founder of the successful YouTube channel Black&SexyTV.

At the extreme is something like HitRecord, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s website that crowdsources artistic projects – videos, songs, etc. – with over 300,000 artists worldwide. Gordon-Levitt’s producing partner, Jacob Gellar, showed a video that hundreds contributed pieces to – one added computer animation, another did the voiceover, dozens more combined their separate music into an orchestral soundtrack.

Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain said this is a time for filmmakers to experiment with telling stories, seeing what audiences respond to, adjust and grow in an almost symbiotic relationship.

“This is such an exciting time,” Shlain enthused. “Anything you want to do, it’s just ‘let’s try something.’”

Soloway has a project, Wifey.TV, which mixes original videos from a feminist perspective with video curated from other sources. But with “Transparent,” she’s using technology not to let audiences influence her work, but use it to protect the unique creative voice of her project. In early February, Amazon Prime will put up the pilot episode of “Transparent,” starring Jeffrey Tambor, Gaby Hoffman and Soloway’s fellow UW grad Amy Landecker.

Then Amazon will monitor how many viewers watch it, when and for how long. If it proves to be a hit, Amazon will order a full season of episodes. For Soloway, it was a golden opportunity to bypass network  executives, financial backers and other middlemen who think they know better than the creator.

“That just took me out of six layers of people guessing what women like, what gay people like,” she said.

Soloway premiered the pilot at the end of the panel discussion, and I’d be stunned if “Transparent” doesn’t go to series – it’s a very funny and bitingly honest look at a grown Los Angeles family, absolutely none of whom are emotionally transparent in any way. By the end of the pilot, we get a glimpse at their real selves, and want to see more.

And, in this brave new world of technology, it’s entirely up to us if we do.

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