Variable Authorship in the Social Film

Curator's Note

Social films are films that are pieced together from crowdsourced content submitted by social media users. In the film industry, the crowdsourcing model has already resulted in some critically acclaimed projects. Giving audiences the chance to contribute to the process of storytelling has the capacity of significantly subverting top-down hierarchical paradigms of production and consumption, and creating an impactful expressive platform for the disenfranchised. However, crowdsourcing rarely results in completely horizontalized and egalitarian modes of production.

An example that demonstrates both the constructive and problematic aspects of collaboration between corporations and consumers is the award-winning online mini-series The Beauty Inside (2012), sponsored by Intel and Toshiba, and developed by the Pereira & O’Dell advertising agency. Fans were invited to be part of the 6-week filmmaking process by submitting their own video diaries on Facebook and YouTube, to be included in an episodic film that focuses on Alex, a man who wakes up every day in a different body. According to data analytics, this installment of the Inside series was the most successful, partially because it allowed fans to be part of the ongoing collaborative process, rather than just the final product. The 4,000+ user submissions essentially fill in the gaps of a scripted narrative film directed by Drake Doremus, and the 26 winning entries are prominently displayed on a Toshiba Portégé Ultrabook. The participatory process and the narrativization of social media content provide an alternative model of Hollywood filmmaking that coincides with some of the corporate advantages of crowdsourcing, such as decreased production costs and a cheaper labor force. The fact that all user-generated content is owned by Toshiba and could therefore be appropriated and miscontextualized did not seem to discourage participation, even though in the end some of the fans featured in the film were framed as less attractive than others, and any attempts at presenting a nuanced meditation on contemporary identity were ultimately undermined by the film’s conclusion. Technically, anyone in the world with Internet access and a webcam could audition for the role of Alex and the chance to be included in the film credits (despite not credited on imdb). However, the few “winners” that made the cut seem to be those that collectively amounted to the producers’ idea of what diversity looks like, thus indicating that there are other obstacles in the “participation gap” beyond the digital divide.

Comments

Tanya Zuk's picture

I find this crowdsourcing

I find this crowdsourcing content for creative works fascinating. I generally associate this type of behavior with fan works like the Star Wars Uncut project (http://www.starwarsuncut.com), and not with commercial endeavors. I’m curious, in your research did they curators/editors ever state how much of the narrative was pre-planned and how much was “discovered” in the contributions? Was there a set plot line that audience contributions then slid into? How do you see these potential new model of media making changing the way we interact with our media content?

Marina Hassapopoulou's picture

Star Wars Uncut is a great

Star Wars Uncut is a great example of participatory storytelling; it also reminds me of another crowdsourced project: Man with a Movie Camera: The Global Remake (http://dziga.perrybard.net/). Participatory storytelling usually relies on a pre-existing structure or framework to organize the sometimes haphazard contributions. In the case of The Beauty Inside, many of the ephemeral interactions between fans and producers have not been archived (Alex’s Facebook timeline has been turned into a page for more recent projects), so some information has been difficult to dig up. From what I remember, the “audition” call for Alex was put out early on to drum up hype about this new mode of collaborative filmmaking. Even before fans started submitting their audition videos, Alex’s Facebook timeline was populated with photos and videos from some of the professional actors in the film — many of which had a deliberately “amateurish” video-diary/vlogging aesthetic. The script was more or less pre-planned, and some of the writers were actually people from the ad agency that curated the experience. Alex’s timeline set the basic premise for the plot of the series (a protagonist who inhabits a different body every day), but details on the narrative remained deliberately vague up until each weekly mini-episode was released on Alex’s timeline. For instance, Alex’s love interest was introduced later on in the process. Most of the Alexes in the film are played by professional actors. As I mentioned above, I got the sense that the producers were searching for auditions that would contribute to a collectively diverse (physically) depiction of Alex, and would show that a diverse group of people from supposedly all over the world contributed to the project.

I see The Beauty Inside as a more commercial type of collaborative filmmaking, while Star Wars Uncut and The Global Remake seem like more fan-driven media making initiatives. Many amateur media makers and fans still crave mainstream recognition though, as this case study suggests, even at the risk of having their intellectual property misappropriated. The fact that the producers dictate the scope and extent of the contributions means that fans are not necessarily working synergistically (unlike the more co-operative example you mentioned, for instance) — sometimes, they are in competition with each other. Even though a fan community was formed during the 6-week crowdsourcing process of The Beauty Inside, it was a very precarious one that was built around a commercial platform that doesn’t even exist anymore, for a short-lived marketing campaign. Still, despite its problematic undertones and a meditation on variable identity that ultimately falls a bit short, I think the mini-series is beautifully shot and has elements of Doremus’ own signature style. (Btw, the premise of this series was then adapted for a Korean film of the same title - no crowdsourcing this time though).

Antranig Sarian's picture

Echoes of the Past

A lot of the rhetoric you’re describing surrounding social film, particularly with regards to being a more egalitarian and horizontal way of telling stories, reminds me of a bunch of similar examples from the past.

Hypertext literature is the most obvious one. Hypertext novels were meant to be participatory webs, where readers were ‘co-authors’ who chose which direction to take, while the fundamental narrative was pre-written by the author.

Michel Chaouli’s “How Interactive Can Fiction be? (http://tinyurl.com/z29sume) breaks down a lot of the problems with this rhetoric. We talk about egalitarianism in storytelling, but a lot of us enter into storytelling because we want an author to play with our minds, while we sit back and enjoy the show.

Democracy, egalitarianism and a break-down of power structures are a great ideal to pursue in real life politics. But is it really necessary for literature?

Marina Hassapopoulou's picture

Regardless of how effective

Regardless of how effective or impractical, this rhetoric is still used to increase participation - it overlaps with the language of democracy (particularly voting) and can also bring to surface certain issues of representation and participation that are not exclusive to collaborative storytelling. Commercial social films indicate that amateurs still seek for validation from these top-down structures, often at the risk of giving up all rights to their intellectual property and acting as free content creators. Those are issues we can’t dismiss, particularly as we look at alternative forms of economies and labor systems that are never completely removed from capitalist modes of production/consumption. As I said above, structure and authorship are still necessary to organize the often chaotic non-hierarchical mass contributions, but it’s worth considering what is at stake when those contributions become compromised under the “terms” of participation, and what happens when amateur participation is reoriented towards commercial platforms and willingly abides by certain restrictions.

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