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in Filmmaking
on Feb 17, 2009

While in Rotterdam for the festival I caught up with director and producer Tommy Pallotta, who recently a) finished a new doc, American Prince, that will premiere at SXSW next month; b) moved to Amsterdam where he is engaged to Femke Wolting of the cross-media production studio Submarine; and c) left Facebook. The first two life events, of course, are far more interesting than the third, but Pallotta’s departure from the world of social networking is what we decided to talk about for the purposes of this short interview for the blog. As a director/producer, Pallotta has always explored the nexus between film, art, culture and new technologies (he is the producer of Lance Weiler’s HIM, the Arte France Cinema prizewinning film at this year’s Rotterdam Cinemart, in fact), so when he told me that he deleted his various online profiles I wanted to find out why. The following day I met up with him again and flicked on my recorder as we sat in the ground floor cafe of the festival’s spacious Doelen headquarters.

Filmmaker: Tell me a little bit your decision to cut back on social networking.

Pallotta: Recently I got rid of my Myspace, Facebook, and Linked In accounts because I think that being able to control information about yourself will be the new commodity of the future. I didn’t like the way that people were able to add info about me on those sites. I first got onto these social networks as an exercise to see how they work, and now I’m getting off of them as an experiment to see how that works in this day and age.

Filmmaker: Do you consider it more of a personal decision or a professional one?

Pallotta: I produced a film called A Scanner Darkly that came out in 2006, and we used these social networks to promote the film. I think that when you have an aim to reach an audience and when you want to really communicate with people and have something to communicate, then [these networks] are very powerful and effective tools. But what I began to wonder is if I didn’t have something to say, if I wasn’t reaching out for a specific reason, then what exactly do these tools mean, and why do we have them?

Filmmaker: Do you know Alex Johnson? She works in new media marketing and branding, and she wrote an article on The Workbook Project in which she suggests that in this day and age that one’s brand is one’s self. You are the product, and having a consistent online presence where people can regularly discover “you” is a good thing.

Pallotta: Any good marketer will tell you that to have publicity without an aim is useless, and that the timing of that publicity is what’s important. And again, if you have a reason and a desire to reach people, then they are great tools. But what if I’m not trying to communicate anything to anybody? It’s like what you and I were talking about yesterday, which is, where’s that sense of mystery now? Now everything is so instantaneous, and you find out so much about someone. If branding yourself is becoming important, than how much control do you have when people are tagging photos of you or adding information about you or writing on your Wall? And here’s another thing I am worried about: [these corporations] own the information, the content that you put on these websites, and that’s something that we may not understand the ramifications of right now. These photos, these little comments that people put on the walls, 20 years from now what’s going to happen to that information? Maybe it is all just too much useless information, but I imagine that somebody’s going to find a way to mine that data, and these things are going to come back in a way that people have no idea of now.

Filmmaker: Was there any response from your friends when you disappeared from MySpace and Facebook? Did people wonder where you went and why you left?

Pallotta: There was almost a kind of an instant response, and that was part of the experiment. People who were my close personal friends, and who had my email address and phone number were like, “Hey, what happened?” And then there was another layer, people who I am not close personal friends with. I have not heard from them because how could I? I only heard from them through those sites. The experiment has been a very satisfying one. I feel much more calmer, and even though [these sites] didn’t take up a lot of time — five or ten minutes a day — I’d always go to them and see what people wrote. It’s been a nice freedom. I feel like I’m reclaiming my sense of self.

Filmmaker: To reference the Kevin Kelly 1000 True Fans idea, if you are not a proven brand, if you don’t have a major marketer behind you that can ramp up your publicity and marketing every two or three years when you have a new product, can you afford not to be always out there and gradually accreting your audience over a longer span of time? Are you rejecting the idea that to foster a sense of connection and loyalty it’s important to nurture your fan base almost every week?

Pallotta: I’m not rejecting it but, again, I don’t believe that any publicity is good publicity. I think you have to be focused, and that timing is incredibly important. I feel there is an overexposure that is going on, that people are becoming desensitized to all this information. There isn’t that sense of excitement anymore. We talked yesterday about bands, how they’d drop out and then emerge with a new album, and there’d be a sense of excitement. And I do wonder about having to be “on” all the time. I’ve had a couple of blogs, and they’ve been very useful but it’s not something I want to sustain [long-term]. I think if you are just spewing out information, then [that information] kind of loses its value.

Filmmaker: Do you have thoughts of what an alternative social networking platform devoted to artists would look like?

Pallotta: What I want to do now is start a more robust website that I am in control of, and that is not on the backs of MySpace or Facebook. I have a movie coming out and I want to create and cultivate a direct relationship between myself, reviewers and audiences, but I want to be in control of that relationship. We talked about Radiohead earlier, but I think Nine Inch Nails has been even more aggressive in having a direct relationship with their audience. I get emails from Trent Reznor and obviously I don’t have a relationship with him but it almost feels like I do, and I’m kind of envious [of his ability to create that feeling]. When you make a movie with a studio and it comes out through this other [distribution] entity there’s a disconnect between the filmmaker and the audience, and I’m interested in how to bridge that gap, how to create a direct relationship between filmmaker and audience. Now, this almost contradicts what I’ve been saying [about getting off of the social networking sites], but it’s about how you’re communicating with the audience. The reason I got off of Facebook and MySpace is because I’m preparing to try and have a direct connection where I don’t have to go through them.

Filmmaker: Tell me a little bit about your new movie and how some of these ideas will come into play when promoting it.

Pallotta: It’s a very small doc, and it’s something that is a direct reaction to trying to work in the studio world. I scaled back and made this intimate movie with my own resources. It’s a portrait of a guy named Steven Prince. Martin Scorsese made a doc about him 30 years ago that’s kind of the lost Scorsese film. I ran into [Prince] randomly in Texas. He’s an interesting fellow, and I gained his trust. It’s sort of a follow-up to the Scorsese film that nobody’s ever seen, and because there was no funding I can do whatever I want with it. So, I’m going to test some of these ideas out and see what happens. Like, why don’t I pirate my own movie on BitTorrent, and see if that increases awareness for the film and creates demand? BitTorrent is a great distribution tool because all filmmakers want to do is cultivate an audience and for people to see their movies. If you don’t have to get a huge return for your film and you don’t have obligations to these corporations, then you have an opportunity to build an audience [in new ways]. I look at these movies like Loose Change and Zeitgeist, these conspiracy films, and they have huge audiences, in the millions. They are having a cultural impact, and that made me wonder, maybe ticket sales aren’t the commodity of the future, maybe it’s eyeballs, or influence. So it’s an experiment. I hope the movie is an entertaining work on its own, but I also want to try to experiment with how it gets out there. Another thing I want to do is, on the film’s website, highlight all the reviews and opinions about it, positive and negative. Sometimes I’ll read a negative review about a movie, and the thing the reviewer didn’t like is the thing that makes me want to see the movie. What if you became egalitarian and treat all reviews the same? What if you provide access to a film not just to the people attending the festival but at the same time to a blogger in Indiana? My movie is going to premiere at SXSW — why not also make it available to the 14-year-old kid who can’t go to SXSW?

Filmmaker: As a filmmaker, how do you feel about being able to make a living in these times, which are exciting but also economically disruptive to film business models?

Pallotta: I got into film because it was creative, and I feel that now every aspect of film is creative. I find the marketing and distribution aspect just as creative as making the film. So I say, bring it on!

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