What would Hitchcock's films have been like if he had a Twitter account or blogged? New technologies allow fans to have a more intimate bond with some directors in ways once unimaginable.
In June 1941 a moviegoer named David Stephens wrote the director Frank Capra a letter about the his film “Meet John Doe.” Although Stephens worried that writing the letter might make him late for work, the force of his feelings kept him scribbling until 3 a.m. “All this talk of pessimism that all high school graduates get must be wrong,” he wrote. “We are told that we go out to meet a cruel, hard, debasing world, of men that will cut your heart to sunders if they possibly can.”
Somehow it’s hard to imagine that those words would have reverberated as poignantly if recalibrated to fit the 140 character limit on Twitter, where users routinely cut your heart — and one another — to sunders with snark. Even so, Twitter is just one platform that is helping to create a more intimate relationship between filmmakers and audiences, as evident in the recent exchange between some guy named Tom Andrews (three followers) and the plugged-in director Kevin Smith (1,716,496 followers). “Do you accept unsolicited scripts?” Andrews asked Smith on Nov. 6. Smith responded an hour later: “I like my scripts like I like my women: Solicited. And talky. With Star Wars jokes.”
However entertaining and occasionally instructive, to rummage through Smith’s salty online apercus is to be reminded yet again of the extraordinary developments that are changing our experiences of movies and their makers. It’s axiomatic that during the old studio system only a select number of filmmakers were known to audiences, who might be aware of a well-branded director like Alfred Hitchcock (popularly known as the master of suspense), but might not know their William Dieterle from their W.S. Van Dyke. With the dawn of the Age of Auteurs in the late 1960s and early 1970s filmmakers suddenly became stars. Though some remain as distant as supernovas, these days others are just a click away.
Smith, whose early films include “Clerks” and “Dogma” (in which he plays a character called Silent Bob), was an early Internet adopter and started connecting with his fans online in the 1990s. More recent ventures include asitecalledfred.com (interviews, columns, podcasts), and silentbobspeaks.com, where he shares his latest movie news (the recently wrapped “Red State”) and peeks inside his house. (“This is my closet.”) The site links to his other sites, including viewaskew.com, where you can buy tickets to the stage shows he performs that build on his online relationships with his fans. If you’re so inclined, you can “open your wallets” and buy “Dogma” shot glasses, “Jersey Girl” bumper stickers and even a Silent Bob coat for $387.03 (sizes small to 2XL).
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These entrepreneurial ventures are part of the brand that Smith has carefully nurtured and is less an offshoot of his movies than an inseparable part of them, much as a Buzz Lightyear collectible is part of the wonderful world of Pixar and “Toy Story 3.” Marketing certainly isn’t new: before he called action on the set, George Lucas knew he wanted to sell merchandise with the first “Star Wars” movie. But since then it’s a strategy that has been adopted by major studios and very independent filmmakers, like Brian Terwilliger, whose aviation movie “One Six Right: The Romance of Flying” won praise from Harrison Ford (“Captures the spirit, joy and beauty of flight”) and led to “One Six Left: The Companion DVD.”
Branding is all on these sites, whether it’s the filmmaker doing the literal selling or the fan simply spreading the faith, as on scorsesefilms.com (which “is in no way connect to, supported by, endorsed by, or affiliated with film director Martin Scorsese”) and fincherfanatic.com, dedicated to David Fincher. That site recently posted an interview with Scott Brick, who has been linked as one of the writers on a possible adaptation of the Arthur C. Clarke novel “Rendezvous With Rama.” The rights to the novel are owned by the actor Morgan Freeman’s production company (http://www.revelationsent.com/index.php, “Movies that enlighten, express heart & glorify the human experience”), which has helped keep chatter going by listing Fincher as the director of “Rama” on its website.
While some sites keep projects alive, others seem to exist merely to remind us that certain directors exist too, like rennyharlin.com, where you can read sporadic blog entries from Renny Harlin (“Speed”) and news about a movie that back in April was “pretty much edited, and ready for some great music, sound FX, and Visual FX.” At least one high-profile site is closer to electronic temple of worship: michaelbay.com. The official website for Michael Bay features links to his advertising spots for the Got Milk campaign and Victoria’s Secret, as well as numerous heroic poses of Bay in action. Every so often he also sets the record straight, as when he wrote on Nov. 18 that the third “Transformers” is “still under budget.”
Given how hard studios try to control those who work for them, michaelbay.com is clearly an assertion of independence if a risky one. Last year the site became news when it went after the “Transformers” star Megan Fox when she compared Bay to Napoleon and Hitler. (She lost that round and isn’t in the new movie.) In this respect websites can function like publicists, alternating between attack and apology. Last October the screenwriter John August (johnaugust.com) posted a description of the pitch he and Jordan Mechner delivered when they shopped “Prince of Persia” around to the studios. (“Somewhere between Pirates and Raiders. It’s not Lawrence of Arabia.”) In a follow-up comment August made sure the script’s provenance was clear: “I oversaw Jordan’s drafts, but did no writing.”
Some filmmakers put their work online free, while others do so for a fee, complete with a PayPal link. Some use the Internet to find collaborators, including through crowdsourcing. (You can read about that DIY trend at sites like indiegogo.com and thecrowdsourcingblog.com/about.) Others, like the director Jon Reiss and the producer Ted Hope, are using the Internet to try to create a new model for independent cinema. The director Peter Bogdanovich, meanwhile, has returned to his early love of history at his new blog or, as he termed it, the Blogdanovich (blogs.indiewire.com/peterbogdanovich), weighing in on subjects like Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic “M” (“memorably horrifying”) and the Turner Classic Movies mini-series “Moguls and Movie Stars.”
Avant-garde filmmakers are increasingly taking advantage of the Internet, which might prove a more dependable means of distribution for work that has historically been available only for brief periods of time. If you want to see work by the filmmaker Pat O’Neill, for instance, you don’t have to wait for his next show, you can just visit lookoutmountainstudios.com, where you read all about him and watch clips from films which are available for purchase. Other filmmakers with sites, some of which have information on where to buy their work, include Jonas Mekas (jonasmekasfilms.com), Ken Jacobs (starspangledtodeath.com), Kenneth Anger (kennethanger.org), Jem Cohen (jemcohenfilms.com) and Su Friedrich (sufriedrich.com). You can find more artists at hi-beam.net/cgi-bin/flicker.pl
Although David Lynch’s name is still attached to several sites, his entertaining davidlynch.com is inactive. There you could buy his coffee or artwork and watch videos of him delivering hypnotically entertaining weather reports from his home in Los Angeles. (Forecast: Sun.) He still reports the weather via Twitter: “Here in LA: Blue skies, golden sunshine, a gentle breeze. 59 degrees F, 15 degrees C. Have a great day!” Microblogging turns out to be the perfect vehicle for his oracular utterances (“I’m pretty sure I’m connected to the moon”) and cheery salutations. On separate occasions he has wished Dennis Hopper happy birthday, given a shout-out to Demi Moore and asked Werner Herzog, “Can you tell the story about saving someone’s life in front of your house?”
Herzog’s own website, wernerherzog.com, meanwhile, is a one-stop emporium for all things Herzogian, including DVDs and testimonials. This is where you can read his celebrated “Minnesota Declaration,” a brief manifesto and salvo against cinema verite which he delivered at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1999. (“Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.”) You can also learn about the time and place of his next film seminars, the so-called rogue film school (London, March 2011), which has its own website (roguefilmschool.com), and why in January the jury at the International Berlin Film Festival gave the prize for best director to Roman Polanski for “The Ghost Writer.” Simply put, for Herzog, “no other film in competition which showed such apparent excellence of its director.”
It’s difficult to imagine Polanski having a website, partly because it might be overrun with enraged comments involving his continuing legal troubles. Yet at 77 he also belongs to an earlier age, when filmmakers rarely made the front page unless, as in Polanski’s case, they were mired in tragedy or scandal. There’s something satisfying in how new technologies have closed the distance between some directors and the public, bringing them closer to us in a way unimaginable when that deeply sincere fan, David Stephens, wrote Frank Capra that “there must be something else in the world.” Yet this new intimacy has perhaps come at a price, because even as the filmmakers have come closer, their movies often feel so much smaller.