Just this past weekend, I hosted this month’s River Film Forum where we watched the David Mamet film, State and Main. This film is a great example of bringing many of the conventions of of a classic stage farce to the movie screen. Mamet, who is a well-known playwright (The Postman Always Rings Twice, among other plays), writes and directs this satirical look at the collision of a Hollywood film production with a small town in Vermont. It’s classic farce in that it’s an ensemble cast filled with characters driven by their own objectives and ambitions, often behaving in ways quite contradictory to the things they say. It’s witty and exaggerated, and yet there’s a lot of truth reflected in the humanity of these characters.
As I was thinking about this film, I couldn’t help but think of our own farce we had the honor of helping create. “Slippery Slope” is the story of a small ensemble of characters (a trio, really) who also have their own agendas and foibles and contradictions. As these three lives collide in the hallway of an apartment building, all three characters are forced to confront their own failings and weaknesses. Written by playwright Christopher Greco, the script pops with quick and witty dialogue. It was a genuine pleasure to be a producer and cinematographer on this film. Sometimes we need to pause and take a moment to laugh at our own foibles reflected in exaggerated characters like this.
I particularly love how Kate, the somewhat nosy neighbor, has to deal with her own insecurities and obstacles as she makes an effort to connect with Jill, who clearly is having a really terrible day. In spite of all of this, Kate ends up being genuinely helpful. This reminds me of how it is useless thinking that I need to first make sure I’m all “put together” and healed of my past hurts before I try to connect with other people and be of real help to to them. In fact, it’s in those moments of reaching out to others that I often find real healing from my own past hurts. And while Kate is quite silly, I do hope I can be a little more like Kate in some ways.
The Internet has completely revolutionized how independent artists reach out and connect with audiences. It has fostered the exchange of information and connected people from all over the world. But all of this could vanish very soon!
Currently, Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T are presenting their case before a circuit court in Washington D.C. as to why they believe the established laws dictating net neutrality should be overturned. If things go favorably for these large ISPs, the Internet may never look the same again. As Josh Levy writes in an article for Save the Internet and re-posted on Common Dream (a non-profit independent news center), “these companies want an Internet that looks an awful lot like cable television: a place where you get only the news and entertainment that pad ISPs’ profit margins. And they want an Internet that excludes dissident voices.” Click here to read the full article.
In fact, tech lawyer Marvin Ammori went so far as to declare that “Net neutrality is a dead man walking,” in an opinion piece he wrote for Wired this week. And if you might be wondering just what in the world “net neutrality” is, Ammori explain the concept and the impending doom this way:
Once upon a time, companies like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and others declared a war on the internet’s foundational principle: that its networks should be “neutral” and users don’t need anyone’s permission to invent, create, communicate, broadcast, or share online. The neutral and level playing field provided by permissionless innovation has empowered all of us with the freedom to express ourselves and innovate online without having to seek the permission of a remote telecom executive. (see full article)
Ammori feels the court is likely to strike down net neutrality. He points out that the CEO of AT&T revealed in a 2005 interview the plan to “produce a new business model.” Their idea? To charge websites like Google and Yahoo! a fee in order to be made available on AT&T networks. If such websites do not want to or are unable to pay this new fee, then they would simply not be available for users of AT&T Internet. “Keep in mind,” writes Ammori, “that users already pay to access the internet and that Google and Yahoo! already pay other telecom companies — often called backbone providers — to connect to these internet users.” He goes on to compare this new fee to adding tollbooths to the Internet.
Of course it didn’t take long for other companies to jump on board, including Verizon, which has quite the significant lobbying power in our nation’s capital. In fact Verizon calls this the end of a “free lunch” for companies like Google (see Washington Post article here).
Free Lunch? Excuse me? Charging for Internet access among all the other ways Verizon already makes money isn’t enough? This coming from a company that reported stronger than expected third-quarter profits just last month (see New York Times article here). I’m sorry if I don’t have much sympathy for a company that can boast $2.23 billion–with a B–of profit in a single quarter.
What Does this Have to do With Making Movies?
You might be asking why I’m so passionate about all of this and taking time to write about this on a blog that’s supposed to be about filmmaking and storytelling. Well, to put it simply, net neutrality is at the heart of how Stories by the River operates. In fact, net neutrality is at the heart of how every independent filmmaker operates today. The digital revolution that has brought about inexpensive cameras that have in many ways leveled the playing field between independent filmmakers and the Hollywood studio system (see my blog post about the film Side by Side) could be rendered a thing of the past if suddenly every indie filmmaker out there has to pay a fee to Verizon in order for their website to be viewable to Verizon Internet customers. But wait, what about AT&T and Comcast and the many other ISPs sure to follow the greedy footsteps of these three companies? Independent filmmakers, production companies, distributors, and anyone seeking a presence on the Internet as a means to network and connect with audiences will have to pay this “toll” to reach people using such Internet services. Suddenly, the cost of running a website and making it available on every possible ISP in America will likely become cost prohibitive for so many. This affects us at SbtR and the many indie filmmakers we know and love and work with as each one of them runs their websites, posts their own blogs, and shares their films on the web just like we do.
“But they are talking about charging a fee to big companies like Google and Yahoo!, Mikel,” you might be saying. And my only response to that is this: No. They’re talking about changing the fundamental nature of the Internet forever. Once the precedent is set to charge companies for accessibility to each ISP’s client pool, you better believe those ISPs will begin charging everyone, large or small, corporate or individual, who wants to make sure their website is visible to anyone on the Internet. There is a proposed compromise, but this too is a horrible sham. The supposed compromise would make one simple change: rather than block a website from a particular ISP if that site does not pay up, that ISP would simply slow down service to that website. And given how well documented it is that people leave a website quickly if it loads slowly, this is still a de facto blocking of a website by the ISP for all practical purposes.
What Does this Mean for You?
So, what could this mean for the average Internet user? Well, let’s just use our imagination here for a moment. First of all, if you happen to enjoy any content created by independent artists (which many of us do), you might log on some day soon to discover those artists have vanished from the web. Even local companies might struggle to maintain an Internet presence (and suddenly that phone book I never use but they keep delivering to me anyway might be of use again when my washing machine breaks and I can’t seem to Google any nearby repairmen). What’s more, if Facebook and Twitter (two huge marketing tools many indie artists use) have to pay every ISP a fee (which is sure to not be any small thing), what is the likelihood that Facebook and Twitter are going to just absorb that financial hit? It’s more likely that suddenly you and I will be asked to pay a subscription fee in order to keep our tweets flying and news feeds updating.
So now, on top of paying your ISP a monthly fee to have Internet access in the first place, you could also be paying Facebook and Twitter a subscription fee so they can turn around and pay a fee to your same ISP that’s already charging you that monthly fee so you can have Internet in the first place. That, folks, is what’s called a “double dip.” And this could be the case with all kinds of websites we currently access “freely” (and by freely, I personally mean, for the $63 a month I freely pay for my passable Comcast Internet and local TV). Can you imagine a world where we’d have to pay to read articles on Wikipedia? Are you ready to say goodbye to free accounts of YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, or Gmail? What happens to our access to independent on-line news sources? What happens to the on-line presence of non-profit organizations? (Full disclosure: I’m the board of two non-profits and you better believe we make heavy use of the web.)
None of this is for sure, but I’d argue that it’s not only incredibly and terrifyingly plausible, it’s likely to happen if net neutrality is killed. As Levy puts it, “Verizon vs. FCC is much larger than the claims of a single company. At stake is whether the Internet will remain an open medium for creativity, free expression and innovation, or a cable-like closed system that just a few ISPs control.” In a very real sense, we may be about to see the death of Internet entrepreneurial, humanitarian, and artistic opportunities. All in the name of greed.
Reasons for Hope
A friend pointed out on a Facebook discussion earlier this week where I shared Ammori’s Wired article that should Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast succeed in overturning net neutrality, ISPs may open themselves up to being seen as “editors” of content made available on their Internet services. This idea, while dismissed by some, has validity to my mind. After all, if a news site published an article about someone that proved to be untrue and reputation-damaging, that person can sue for libel. Included in the lawsuit might not be just the news organization that runs that specific website, but every single ISP that allowed this website to be distributed to their clients. After all, once an ISP goes down the road of allowing some-but-not-all websites to be available on their service, they are in a very practical sense functioning as editors (or maybe content curators, but the effect is the same). At the very least, they are censuring, and some other lawsuits may have something to say about that too. Ultimately, blinded by the prospect of making even more money on top of the billions they already make, AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon do not yet fully realize the mess they may be about to fall neck deep into.
Another reason to remain hopeful is that I don’t think we should expect Google and Yahoo! and other such large companies that rely on access from every ISP service to take the death of net neutrality laying down. Google, you have a stated motto of “Don’t be evil.” Well, I’m hoping you (and your team of lawyers) might also take on the motto, “Don’t let evil kill the Internet.”
And of course, when push comes to shove, who knows what new, free, and open means of connecting our world might be birthed out of this madness.
In the mean time, we created Stories by the River because we believe in telling meaningful stories though the films we make and independently distribute (which is only possible because of net neutrality). We’re a small start up, a non-profit, and we rely on free and open accessibility on the Internet to do what to do and connect with people in increasingly meaningful ways. We’ve only just embarked on this journey last year. I am sincerely praying that our days are not numbered.
Sincerely praying while listening to Rage Against the Machine on my free Spotify account,
Mikel J. Wisler
—– UPDATE —–
On January 14, 2014, the D.C. District court sided with Verizon and company. Here is an article that reflects on some of the above concerns and looks to what might be next in this fight: click to read The Daily Beast article.
And here is why this was allowed to happen and why the FCC should be profoundly embarrassed: click to read Slate article.
I’m in a waiting room at Boston Children’s Hospital. On the almost-1-year anniversary of having surgery on her right kidney, our 5-year old is having surgery on her left kidney.
At times I can wonder why this is the case. Is it because I had to take that blood thinner when I was pregnant? Boy that would be a bummer! If you believe in a world where there’s a devil that might actually try to hurt you, is it because we are church planters and this leaves our children open to spiritual attack? That would be a horrible thing! Or – maybe from the “rational” point of view that is so common in today’s world: is this just the breaks?
The “why” isn’t necessarily an answerable question in this case. But I had a really meaningful experience when I prepared my teaching materials for our movie, “A Silent Universe.”
Before prepping those materials, I would have felt uncomfortable with doubt and uncertainty. I wouldn’t have known what my questions said about me and that would have made me feel unsafe.
But what I found as I worked to prepare my materials for that movie was that questions…doubt…can play a really meaningful part in our long-term growth. It can lead us to have more security in what we believe to be true. The testing of what we hold dear is actually a really good thing for us – is what I gathered from my research anyway.
And so as I sit in this waiting room, I find that I am of two minds today. One of those minds says that God has got this surgery and that we are fine. But every now and again there is this reality(?) that pops in to my head: an unexpected complication could come up. If I have 99% assuredness , I have at least 1% doubt.
And I’m okay with that. Because that is reality. Now, if things went the way of the 1%, I would certainly have some additional working out to do! But I think there is this common idea in the world that transcends faith. We see it in superstitions. The owner of the Patriots wearing a pink tie every game because they first won that season when he was wearing that tie. People growing beards and not shaving them until the Red Sox have won the World Series.
Whatever our “thing” is that symbolizes our hope for things to work out the way we want them to, my current thinking is that it’s okay to acknowledge that there is a little space inside of us that recognizes that no matter what we “do,” things might not work out the way that we want them to.
Now, I truly believe that God has spoken to me today. And I believe that the word God gave me was that our “baby” is safe and sound. And I actually believe that we are going to be with her in the recovery room in just a little bit here. And I believe that she is going to fully recover and be back in school next week.
I believe these things more than I believe my doubts and fears that I could be wrong about that. And I also believe that it’s okay that those doubts pop up in my mind from time to time. I believe that they allow me to confront myself and have a stronger sense of why I believe what I believe. I believe that the tension of those things makes me human.
I’m thankful that I encountered “A Silent Universe.” I’m thankful that it led me to contemplate faith and doubt. I believe that watching that movie has somehow become a part of who I am. Thank you, “A Silent Universe.”