ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Right Audience (and the Sequel) —

This entry has a ramble factor of 8. Please use caution.

I took an initial risk when I was plotting out this documentary and how I would approach it, and that was how “technical” the whole thing would get. When you do a documentary on a subject, there’s always a balancing act between making it “inside/dense” or “general audience/accessible”.

If you assume your audience has had absolutely no contact with the subject matter at hand and in fact has to be convinced they even want to sort of learn about it, then you are going to have to do two things.

First of all, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time explaining everything, all the little details and words and mentions and sort of slowly ramp everyone up. You’re basically pushing a big rolling ball of unaware folks up a tiny incline where you’ve got a nice Jellybean of Tasty Knowledge waiting for them at the end of this massive effort. (“Science Fiction people are just like you and me!”)

Second of all, once you’ve spent all this time setting up all the basic facts and making sure there’s no movie ticket left behind, you’re going to creep a little bit into the culture you’ve now exposed, but not really that far at all. In fact, if you want your work to be memorable, you’re going to have to go for the most broken and weird folks within that culture or event, so that they can stand out and make people feel like all this junk they learned about this phrase and that date was worth it. Traditionally, this is accomplished with a good solid death.

The advantage of such a relatively shallow approach is that you can sell your work anywhere, and to anyone, and you can market the hell out of it, since basically everyone is going to find something for themselves in it. Even if people who actually know “the real story” will find your work vapid, shallow and unenlightening. Sorry, experts! Your princess is in another castle!

The other approach is to aim for a tiny audience, one that is very much in the know. This approach is not often taken, but when it is, you find it much easier to make (since you’re not rephrasing everything for simplicity.) You can assume your audience knows exactly what the subject is, in fact they might basically be the subject, and are simply interested in seeing the stuff you’re filming for the purposes of learning material (new techniques) or comparisons (seeing themselves). Examples of this include skateboard videos and DJ competitions. I own a bunch of both, and you better know what’s so cool about scratching records or catching some air beforehand or you’re simply lost about what the big deal is. (Note that I am separating DJ Scratching competition videos from the excellent documentary Scratch by Doug Pray.)

The problem with this second sort of documentary is that you basically wipe out huge swaths of humanity as an audience, while making it particularly useful for a small subset of humanity. And if you’re in it to make money, then this is definitely not what you want to do. if you’re in it because you want the subject covered in a deep and meaningful (for the subject) fashion, then this is exactly what you want to do.

So I tried to strike a balance in going after the subject matter, putting in enough that a person could sort of self-start themselves into the subject of BBSes, but not make the thing so simplistic that anyone who ever actually used a BBS would be disappointed at the blandness. But my leaning is towards the people who are familiar with computers and the internet, so they could compare and contrast.

In other words, my film is not very good for people who don’t actually like computers. It’s horrible for people who hate them.

And here we get into a different problem: reviews. I find a lot of bad reviews stem from simply over-marketing of a film to places it never should have been in the first place. When a guy makes a slasher flick for no- or low-budget, that is for a specific audience: people who like slasher flicks. In fact, the flick might be created to almost comment on classic slasher flicks, and if you think there’s no such thing as a ‘classic’ slasher flick, you’re now in a very small, poorly lit torture chamber as this horrible slasher flick goes by. In other words, the best slasher flick in the world sucks as far as you’re concerned, even if it’s really the best of breed. You don’t like the breed.

Currently, I have the best BBS documentary in the world. Granted, it’s basically the only one of its kind, but I expect some others to show up of some type. In fact, I have gone on camera saying that I hope it ends up being the worst documentary on BBSes ever made, because ones that come after it can hopefully kick its ass. Get cracking folks; these guys are getting old.

I am, currently, too biased and unqualified to say where it stands in the tiny world of Computer Documentaries. Is it better than Triumph of the Nerds? Is it worse than the Blogumentary? Time and the opinions of others will tell. But if you hate computer documentaries, then my movie and all these other movies will be horrible to you no matter how good they are according to the genre’s goals.

Big blockbuster movies have to be made to appeal to the widest audience possible. That’s where the name comes from: lines to the box office that “bust” out past the length of a city block. People will not be encircling theaters to see the BBS Documentary. It’s not designed to be that general an appeal. But Hollywood films have to, to make back their enormous budgets.

On my side, and I know the people who were stunned I released this Creative Commons were wondering: I made back the budget of the film in two weeks. And this is because I knew who I was doing this for and that, when they saw that such a film was available, would jump at it.

For the audience that gets my film and also “gets” it, they are very, very happy. They are delighted, based on the hundreds of letters I am getting, on several fronts:

  • The subject matter is not watered down
  • There is a sense of covering many parallel aspects
  • Both “famous” and “unknown” people are side-by-side
  • I don’t beat people over the head with narration
  • The bonus material gets unbelievably technical
  • There is novelty in seeing people talking about BBSes
  • Everyone in it is treated with respect

For each one of these “positives”, however, there is a negative way of looking at all of them, and if this film is shoved down people’s throats as being something it is not, then they note that:

  • The subject matter is very dense and technical
  • It is unbelievably fucking huge
  • Who the hell are all these people
  • Where am I
  • Why am I watching this, let’s go see Howl’s Moving Castle
  • No I’m serious
  • Fine, bye, I’ll see you at work

And like I hope I’ve made clear, this is a “pushing it on people who shouldn’t have it pushed on them” problem, not necessarily a “content” problem. I didn’t really make the 8 episodes to not come together as a set, although of course people are bittorrenting and copying them separately. Some people will watch the first two episodes and make a judgement as to the other 6, others will go to the one they care about (HPAC and ARTSCENE seem to have this reaction a lot) and that’ll be about it. On one level that’s fine, but on another level it’s missing out on the whole crazy package I worked to put together.

But really….. I don’t have any control on “the right way” to see my film any more than people have any control on “the right way” I should have made the film in the first place. I made it “the right way” for me, and for a set of people in the world, which are making themselves known more and more to me every day.

In fact… there’s 1,200 of them. So far. Not bad, huh.

And of that 1,200 (plus a few thousand that have downloaded the film), there’s a tiny minority, probably less than a few dozen, who have said the most terrifying of questions to me:

“When’s the sequel coming out?”

It’s always bad to make declarations of any nature, so I’ll say this: I have absolutely no interest in making a sequel. Over the course of the future, I will be sorting through the hundreds of hours of interviews and making them publically available; this will add literally days and days of footage of BBS-related material out there, on top of the 5.5 edited-together hours I’ve now finished. If you want to think of that as a “sequel”, then great, but do not expect another pretty box with 3 DVDs (or more) to be coming out in 2008 or anything like that. Not happening. Not what I want to do with another bunch of years of my life.

I’m still involved in BBS history, of course, and I will be using the BBS documentary’s research and filmed hours to continue my work in this (still-fascinating!) subject, but my days of making a BBS documentary are over.


And here I put this way down here.

I am working on another documentary. It will make this documentary look like a Hollywood blockbuster. It is of such specific nature that it’s weird talking about it.

Unlike the BBS documentary, I don’t need to contact thousands to research it, so the needs of it being “open” are much less. I’ve assembled an advisory team, I’ve got a mailing list, I’ve even got a site floating out there.

Likely, I will use a similar model to this documentary, that is, taking pre-orders and keeping people updated, and then using those pre-orders to get over the hump of affording equipment (like a high-definition camera and so on).

If this at all interests you, and you wish to be notified about it, just mail me.

See? It all has a happy ending.

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