ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Scratched Lens and Broken Fingers Layer —

This essay is going to make a bizzare sort of logic, but not the kind of logic most people like in an essay. Sorry about that; this is how my brain works.

The catalyst for this comes from two different articles, one about Interactive Fiction and one about Filmmaking. Since I happen to be making a film that includes Interactive Fiction as one of its subjects, this combination holds strong interest to me. But there’s a third catalyst, which is the articles themselves.

First of all, it is important to know of an extension/add-on for browsers called BugMeNot. This extension removes the foolish “web registration” that these newspaper websites implement to make you get the chance to see their advertisements with add-on “news” articles jammed between them. I just mention this so that if you haven’t heard of this opportunity before, you’ll know and I won’t feel bad about directing you to these articles.

The first article is about interactive fiction, and is from the Wall Street Journal: Keeping a Genre Alive.

The second article is about small-time filmmakers, and is from the New York Times: Join a Revolution. Make Movies. Go Broke.

If you are reading this essay a few weeks from when it was written, I apologize in advance for the fact that both these news organizations will attempt to charge you for viewing these articles, and you will not be able to see the words for yourself. I stress that it is not worth the money to pay to see them.

The human spirit has many failings (and triumphs), and one of them is that it generally doesn’t keep remembering invisible processes or forces, even when shown, at one point or another, these variables at work. It’s just our way; even if we know that the kitchen of the local restaurant or fast food establishment isn’t all that well maintained, it is very hard to not let that knowledge fade and go back to thinking of it all as a magic clean machine that goes poof and makes our burgers out of dreams. Make no mistake, many folks do in fact accomplish remembering these facts, but it is an effort, an actual effort to keep this information in the forefront of our minds.

At least with foods and goods, you have a tangible resultant product that you can impart process onto, and know that it might come from unclean, amateurish, or problematic sources. Not so with information, and not so with a related line of manufacturing I call experience products.

Experience products are products where, after you use them, there’s nothing left. With, say, a hammer, you pay for the hammer, use the hammer and bing, you have a hammer and a hammered thing. With things such as circuses, funhouses, concerts, movies, television shows, and fireworks, at the end you have nothing. Technically, you have had the experience, but that whole input goes into a pile of meat and quickly fades for most of us.

Newspapers are an exception, mostly because they’re printed on paper, and that paper has other uses, besides allowing us to clip special articles or other sections and keep them. So you get a tangible thing with the product, and some of it is even related to the newspaper’s original goal, which is to provide news.

Except that’s really not the goal of newspapers. That’s not the goal of movie theatres, that’s not the goal of television.

The goal of any profession is to make money. Otherwise it’s not a profession, it’s a charity or a time-killer. Sometimes people running time-killers want to convince themselves they’re a profession, but if you’re paying out more money than you’re bringing in, then you are going to run out of money and stop what you’re doing, and you’ve finished killing time. Newspapers, Movies and Television are professions.

One way that people “hack” the idea of a profession being entirely capital-geared is to encourage the ideals of honesty, clarity and accuracy in their product, whether by hiring people with a reputation for such virtues or by, well.. lying that they have such virtues. This product claim will gain you a certain customer base and you will sustain your business. Similarly, you can also espouse complete and total unreality, complete lack of syncopation with truth, and just going for the easy sex-and-violence sell. And there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as all involved parties, creator and audience, know this is the case.

The issues arrive when the lines are blurred, or one way of thinking tries to pull in the audience of the other way of thinking, to double the audience. And this works both ways: people researching truthful and accurate stories will pepper in the words and phrases of fiction writers, and fiction writers will put forward the idea that their made-up works have a germ of truth at the bottom. This is done to sell you their product.

The experience products used to have a number of advantages on their side: Things couldn’t easily be recorded or reproduced. Tough questions about accuracy, meaning or truth were not always followed up because the products were ethereal. And most importantly, questions about what exactly the product being sold consisted of, were shelved because it was all theoretical crap, and that gets in the way of cooking the books.

Since doing a movie or creating a TV show or making a newspaper was an expensive, expensive proposition, a lot of tough questions were never in need of being answered by experience producers: What, exactly was being sold? What rules were implied by interacting with these products? What level of “quality” has to be applied to these experiences? Since in most cases the answer was “It’s all we have on the menu, so eat it”, critical media analysis was mostly the realm of academics and people who were very, very lonely.

What, exactly, are you paying for when you go to a movie theatre? Is it the quality of the experience (the excellent sound system, the good seats, the nice sound buffering on all sides, the massive screen)? Is it the right to a single viewing of the film being shown at a time agreed upon by both parties? Or are you putting forward a small fee to make that experience a part of your life, forever, including being able to recount or experience it at will, when you so choose?

Obviously the last one isn’t likely to be the case, but so too, it’s not entirely clear which of the other two, or other possibilities, you’re paying for. And more importantly, until recently, nobody gave a shit what the answer was.

OK, so now we’re in some very strange place, and you, as reader, say Well, this is just great, Jason. Where are we, what does this have to do with the titles, what’s with all the high-stepping language, and how do we get out?

So let’s work our way back up.

The aforementioned Wall Street Journal article, Keeping a Genre Alive, is ostensibly a helpful insight into the current Interactive Fiction “Scene”. However, it is, at best, a scratched lens: scratched by the financial requirements of the Wall Street Journal, scratched by the author’s lack of knowledge of the genre, and scratched by the need to present “story” and “interest” where there might be none.

I know that everyone in the article quoted spoke to the author for at least a half-hour over the phone. (In-person interviews almost never happen in the modern world.) I know that when she says “Online Chat Room”, she means IFmud, a MUD dedicated to the authors and players of modern interactive fiction, as well as other social interests. And I know that the reporter, Vauhini Vara, has written articles about mobile phone applications, fake marketing weblogs, and general “blogger” pieces. I will surmise that Vauhini spends some amount of time trying to find the “thing” that will result in a sold piece to the Wall Street Journal. And I also see that Vauhini was writing for the Stanford Daily Journal as late as 2004, which means they’ve been a full professional journalist for a whole year.

How much any non-industry person wants to know about the process of becoming a modern “reporter”, what that skillset consists of, and what sort of comprimises and short-cuts must be taken to achieve a regular output of stories with headlines gripping enough to make people glance at them after seeing the ad next to them… I’ll assume not many. But the point I get across here is there’s not some clean-room machine shooting out these stories, and looking to a newspaper article like this, with its short little word length, its constant framing of interactive fiction authors as compared to “modern” concepts like Grand Theft Auto and the 1992-era “Doom”, and the general painting of the whole sub-culture with a firm “loneliness” brush.. there’s “accuracy” and “truth” in there, but it is framed in fiction and construct to present them.

Germs of truth are buried in there, but what else of the hours of interviews were deemed not of use by the author? How many minutes after they hit “send” on their e-mailing in of the story did they consider the roots of Interactive Fiction and the meaning? What else did a 48-year-old Steve Meretzky say about an art form that he helped define, that is now going to be lost to time? This information is gone and only the bright shiny “look at this strange little thing” bauble of text remains.

I don’t pretend to not have the same conceits with the BBS Documentary, either; but this is why I’m uploading the full interviews as fast as I can, when time permits. People talk about a LOT of other stuff besides BBSes, and in fact talk a LOT about stuff INVOLVING BBSes that simply didn’t make it into the main product. It’s very valuable stuff, I think. And I’m intentionally giving it away. If you question a quote in my film, go find the original interview and hear it in context, where we were going in the interview that made them say what they did, and what amount of what they said ended up being used. It’s pretty important, I think, to make that stuff available.

And how can I make this stuff available? Because information storage, transfer, and analysis has become cheap. Astoundingly cheap. Absolutely, entirely, astoundingly cheap. A 30 gigabyte drive in the year 2000 cost about $200-$300 (Roughly). I just bought two 300 gigabyte drives for $130 apiece for my desktop system.

Let’s go there again. 600 gigabytes (550 effective) for $260. Ten times what it was 5 years ago. This sort of advancement is not slowing down, either.

All across the board, advancement happens. Televisions and sound systems that will give you roughly-equivalent experiences to most crappy multiplexes cost less than $2000. DVDs, stop-gap storage that they are, can be duplicated for rather low cost, and can then be played in a wide variety of cheap DVD players and computer laptops.

Which brings us to the second article, from two directions.

First of all, we have to step back, and harken to what I said about the Scratched Lens. When I read this story, I get really cranky. I don’t like the attitude of the subjects, I don’t like what they say, and I don’t like the overall tone of the article… but maybe I’m not supposed to. This article was written by Charles Lyons to sell the article, and was then further modified to fit in the needs of the New York Times, and a set of editors and a publisher. That is, who knows what germs of truth are in that article and what is just being hyped up for the sake of easy attention of readership (The headline alone shows this, mentioning “revolution” and the scary phrase “Go Broke”). Even as I know this, put it at the forefront of my mind that I am reading an informational product that is being sold to me, I still am affected by it. Yes, I know this whole paragraph can be summarized as don’t believe everything you read. But don’t we anyway? Don’t we end up thinking there must be some truth to the rumors, the insinuations, the wild characterizations? Don’t we let the fiction of the information created by writers still guide us as if we’re experiencing reality?

Keeping that in mind…

The second way I come at this is the content itself, which discusses how there’s a “glut” of filmmakers trying to get into Sundance and other film festivals, hoping, praying they’ll get a “distribution deal” so the whole making of the film is “worth it”. The article goes so far as to quote Arin Crumley, a 24-year old filmmaker who has sunk tens of thousands of dollars into his film and joining the festival circuit:

“If the result was going to be this,” Mr. Crumley mused, “a film with no distributor, no way for anyone to ever get a chance to see it beyond those who saw it at a few festivals, would I have done it? That’s a tough question to answer.” Ms. Buice added: “The answer is, ‘no,’ it’s not O.K. for our film to have been mildly successful on the festival circuit. But otherwise, it was just a jaunt into the abyss and now we have financial hell to pay.”

It is maddening to me to read this, to see yet another set of filmmakers who have been handed these great opportunities in film equipment (cheap cameras) editing (cheap software) and DVDs/Internet Files (cheap product), all 21st-century advances and situations…. and then fall back down into the 1940s era distribution channels as a savior and logical end to their work!

I don’t think people understand exactly what a distribution network is. Unless there’s some amount of vertical integration (stores owned by the distributors or the movie studios owning everything), a distributor, by itself, is just a simple network. It is a list of phone numbers and addresses controlled by a company that issues out funds for product, gets this product to either the final destination or other distributors, maintains the product’s “presence”, and does its fucking damndest to soccer-cleat the face of anyone who gets in their way. That’s what a distributor is.

This is the hidden layer between Chevy Chase smiling into a Zeiss lens and you chawing down jujubees watching him in Bosnian Vacation. It’s the layer where if you are a theatre, this sad little box that sells soda and snacks, you are told what you can and can’t show, which “complete dogs” you have to show in theatre 5 so that you get the “guaranteed winner” in theatre 2.

It’s the layer where if you step out of line, refuse to buy, play little games of quality, meaning or all the happy-go-fruity ideals of moviemaking, you end up with one thing: broken fingers.

It used to be literally. Now it’s mostly figuratively, as the real involved crime has moved up the chain and to other, more lucrative sectors of the economic arena. But it’s still there, the layer of broken fingers that built these distribution chains, these little magic lists of producer and end-buyer, and kept them in line. It is dismal, depressing and it is absolutely real.

I threw a few bucks at the “festival” circuit; about $200. This is about what I paid for a vinyl poster of my DVD’s logo. I consider it the equivalent of throwing down a couple 20s on red at the roulette table. Hey, you never know… but I could walk away from the $200 in a heartbeat, no regrets, no tears, and I did.

We’re in a very great time in history; the creators of experience products first grabbed the crack-pipe of easy creation of media, simple DVDs and CDs that could sell previously-etherial works and make them easily reproducable, forever. And then, when they’d totally bought in and they were utterly, absolutely addicted to this new revenue stream, they’ve made a horrifying discovery: anyone can do this. They can do it with the Hollywood films, the CDs, the DVDs, the TV-Shows, and they can do it at an astounding speed. If someone takes your “experience” and puts up a not-equivalent-but-totally passable version of it as a DiVX file, it can be around the world a thousand times before you finish your Coco Puffs. They are on the run, they are terrified, and the broken-fingers layer is shattering like so much action-film flying glass.

Oh, and while they now try to pass laws to protect themselves and their experience products, laws that would have turned decent minds to goo a mere 20 years ago…. this new distribution works for completely non-pirated works too. You might have heard of these… we call them original stuff. The word “independent” has no meaning in this context; “independent”‘s just another marketing word sucked up by people who don’t spend a lot of time thinking between coke lines. No, I mean original works, like you grabbed your camera, went out with a bunch of your friends, and you told a story about a bunch of friends. And it was good. Before you can say “yo ho ho and a bottle of bittorrent”, your film can be in more places than the original prints of Casablanca could have dreamed of touching. Overnight. Right now. No film festivals. No sucking down bad cocktail weiners. No showing up and begging the same 12 people to sit in your expensively-rented suite and blow smoke up your donut. Right Now.

In the article, people throw tens of thousands of dollars after the ideas of festivals and then cry out how they’ve ruined themselves because their works didn’t catch fire. Remember what I said about “professionals” versus “time-killers”? These are time-killers, exhibit A. If you are dumping not only your spare cash but actual, can’t-ever-get-it-back savings into your film, you have made some serious fundamental errors, some basic miscalculations about your life. And you are insane, the bad insane with the missing shoe and the newspaper hat to protect you from UFO radiation.

Why, when almost all of it can be avoided, would anyone chase after such a worthless illusion as the “cinema” in trying to get their works out there? Why would they want to wrestle with the arcane bullshit, the lame rules, the absolute last-decade-before-last outlook that the vast majority of these places have to indulge because they’re so locked into distribution?

Fuck that. Get out of the darkness. Get into the light. Stop whining. Start shooting.

Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving.

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  1. Hi Jason,
    The New York Times supports free access to articles for weblogs. No registration is needed and the links never expire.

    Place a NY Times article link into the New York Times Link Generator and a special weblog link will be generated.

    New York Times Link Generator

    Here is the weblog safe link for the story:

    Another note, those Four Eyed Monster movie makers are making quite a splash on My Space, iTunes and the Video blogging scene by posting up clips about the behind the scenes from their movie.

  2. Mungojelly says:

    Markets often think very strangely, and they think even more strangely about luxury items (such as movies). The forces involved are much less economic (in the sense of weighing costs and values) and much more social/cultural.

    To me that seems to imply that the transitional period we’re in with regard to these kinds of products (luxury digital content) is not necessarily heading towards any sort of foregone conclusion. It’s not just a matter of the market taking a while to sort out what things are “actually” worth and assigning the proper prices to everything. The eventual value of something like a movie in the near future hinges on how we decide as a culture to value & structure things.

    For instance people could decide that it’s silly to ever pay for movies, since there’s so much free content (both legal & illegal) available. Movie making would cease to be an (especially) profitable activity, and almost all movies would be amateur.

    Conversely, people could decide that since they have access to movies now which are highly specialized (and therefore more closely match their personal interests) that the value of a movie has in fact gone up, and movies could sell for more than they did in the old days (say, $50).

    I suspect the most likely scenario in the near term is a weird mixture. That’s how my own habits have developed: I’m more likely to download hollywood movies than buy them (since I feel no particular loyalty to the people who created them), yet I’m willing to pay premium prices for content that I care about from real people.

    It’s very difficult, in such a multidimensional & idiosyncratic market, to figure out which distribution mechanism or price point is most appropriate. There might even be more than one good answer. There is however one ironclad rule of the new media economy: Don’t alienate your fans. These days, they really do have a choice.


  3. Jason Scott says:

    Hey there, Steve.

    I just checked that New York Times thing (which I greatly appreciate). It doesn’t look like the New York Times is supporting it, just that a third-party group (Dave Winer) is offering RSS feeds, and from that, another person is generating blog links from it, yanking against the RSS feeds. More sketchy than I’d like at the moment.

    Without a doubt, the Four-Eyed Monster filmmakers are getting attention (hence a NYT story in the first place), but dropping tens of thousands into festival promotion is wasted cash, even if they later “get it” and have moved to other methods of promotion. It still seems like they’re holding out to go into the snack boxes.


    Fun as always, but you’re focusing on the content available and the business models of the studios, which are on their own little plateau. When you have billions in the bank, you can experiment, make choices, do lawsuits, and so on. And really, while I understand doing a lot of “spectacle” movies, the fact remains is that we have a lot of near-stage-like productions, with the main drive being, say, a love story, which is costing $60 million. That’s not normal.

    Meanwhile, $100,000k will get you a pretty incredible film, if you do things right. We’ll likely see more of those.

  4. Ricko says:

    Of course, markets don’t think, or even “think.”

  5. akb says:

    Very thoughtful writing, thanks.

    One of the biggest costs of the festival circuit is getting a film print made, that alone is many thousands of dollars. Many other countries are converting to digital projectors so its just a matter of rendering with a computer.

    One filmmaker that seems to have gotten a taste of the same coolaid you’re drinking is Azazel Jacobs. He’s an arty indie filmmaker who has recently made his film “Nobody Needs To Know” available on and via bittorrent on

    It has its limited life in the festival world, but he is thrilled as punch that its been downloaded 5000 or so times.

  6. Jason Scott says:

    Hi, akb.

    The film print costs are nuts; I actually checked on this a while ago when I attended a digital film panel, and one of the people mentioned the “thousands of dollars” cost of transfer. I found a place and it looks like it’s about $35,000 for a 90 minute movie as of a couple years ago.

    Digital projection/transfer is only part of the story, however. Even as it gets cheaper to actually transfer the goods, I think it’s basically a done deal that the box that digitally projects will be an opaque one, connected to a central authority in Hollywood or a collection of specific datacenters around the country, which then communicate directly with the distributor’s machines to transfer the digital item directly into the theatres. I think the “original” filmmakers will still be shut out of this whole thing.

    Obviously, Mark Cuban is trying to shake shit up with his “show it here for a week for $30k” program, and that’s nice to see, but I do want to
    point out that the actual METHOD of film distribution is not what I’m telling people to avoid, it’s the way that these organizations operate in general. New tools, same tool-wielders.