In Search For Oscar and Audience, Public Director Ondi Timoner Goes It Alone
There used to be only one real way to qualify your documentary for an Academy Award: Sell the movie to a distributor at a major film festival (unless a studio financed it, which, let's face it, it didn't), run it for a week in New York and Los Angeles, send in your application and wait. Book a publicist around September at the latest -- someone with heavy-duty campaigning chops. Then watch your film fall behind one or two critically acclaimed front-runners by more famous directors. Then pray that all the expense and struggle is worth at least a spot on the Documentary Branch's short list, which you can't put on your DVD label anyway. Then do it all again two or three years later with the next project.
Or you can do it like Ondi Timoner, who is gambling her superb, Sundance-winning We Live in Public on the same mass-media concepts that, ironically, doomed her protagonist. Things have changed in 10 years -- or so she hopes.
"I made the film to raise consciousness," Timoner told Movieline this week, recounting the underground base where her subject, Josh Harris, sought to build a community that lived 24/7 in the Internet's unblinking eye. Like Mardi Gras by way of Big Brother, it failed as its residents broke down and the cops shut it down. That was in 1999 -- before the dot-com crash, before widespread social networking, and before people fully understood the implications the Web could have on privacy. We Live in Public is a definitive, scary and hugely entertaining map of that frontier.
"The Internet today feels so free," she continued. "But I realized that the bunker was a physical metaphor for the Internet, and that the Internet is not as freeing as we think it is. When Josh says, 'At first we're going to like it, and then it will have captured us, and I can see us herding ourselves daily into these virtual boxes'? It came to me like a flash. I went from not knowing what this film was about to knowing exactly what this film was about."
And thus as it opens theatrically today in New York -- ultimately to qualify for the Oscars (though an extension loophole will be in order) -- Timoner has placed her faith in a self-distribution schema that she couldn't have imagined five years ago, when her music doc DiG! won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. There, in a more robust indie-film environment, Palm Pictures snagged the doc and later released it through conventional theatrical means.
Public also won the Grand Jury Prize earlier this year (an unprecedented repeat of Sundance fortunes), and more conservative distributors again approached her with offers. But, Timoner said, all were too low to entertain. Particularly when the technological opportunities presaged by Harris had come to fruition, for better or worse, and "distribution" no longer means relying on a third party to entice the audience between you and a movie theater. It means harnessing the invasive, ubiquitous reach of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and other social-networking applications while in pursuit of the same mainstream as everybody else.
To that end, the treacherous new media that made and broke Harris (at right, with Timoner) put the filmmaker on equal ground with the art-house buyers who passed her by. Which is helpful, because apart from having an all-around better film than most of them, she's outmatched in the only other way that matters.
"We have a problem in that we have no money," she said. "So what we're really doing is spending extremely little money and using the very things that the movie is about to get the word out."
Among them (most of which are available on the film's Web site): The standard Twitter and Facebook outlets, but also a downloadable widget that signals updates of screening dates, appearances and other WLIP news. It also offers Web exclusives like excerpts and deleted scenes. She's actively encouraging the "Twitter effect," going so far as to endorse audience tweets during the film's theatrical screening this weekend at IFC Center in New York. By the time of next month's Los Angeles opening, she hopes to have struck a deal with Flip to distribute handheld cameras at the Nuart, gathering audience reaction in the almost exhibitionistic fashion depicted in the film.
All of which raises the question: If the Internet is finally ready for and supportive of the shamelessly public ways Harris attempted to live his life 10 years ago, then how do we know its ready to support something as significant as a mainstream film?
"It's ready now," Harris told me this week. "The technological infrastructure is now in place. We're in the dead zone between television being the most popular medium on the face of the Earth and the Internet taking over. I think 2010 is the year. It's like the Mayan calendar coming to fruition or something."
"That was 2012," Timoner replied.
"Well, yeah," Harris said. "It takes two years to manifest."
"Our film is the beacon," Timoner said. "The little light on the horizon."
"We're just in a real-time evolutionary change," Harris said. "Simply put, we've operated as individual processing units. The last hundred years has been reasonably sufficient dial-up. Now we're hitting brain-level broadband -- where people lose their individuality to the hive."
And yet some of the same rules persist, at least when it comes to chasing Oscar. Timoner may not have the distributor, the splash and the fearsome awards flack. But she will take advantage of a rare extension that allows her an extra month to qualify (hence opening in Los Angeles on Thursday, Sept. 24, to achieve the full seven-day run before the Sept. 30 drop-deadline). She also personally double-checks the lengths of the clips she continually screens online, lest she exceed the 10-minute maximum allowed by the Academy.
It's not the way Timoner would necessarily prefer things, but it's a way she's embraced.
"So we're qualifying by the skin of our teeth, like we seem do be doing everything with this film," she said. "That's another thing about it; we're always playing catch-up, but it's right on time." And if the laurels that followed sliding into Sundance at the last minute are any indication, then it can't hurt to expect good things from the other, bigger awards season just around the corner.