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At SXSW, Digital Change at the Podium

How are digital tools transforming the production of media? Anyone concerned with the future of public media needs ways and places to assess the rate and nature of change. South by Southwest (SXSW, aka South By), the combined tech-film-music festival in Austin in March, is one such place. Independent filmmakers and distributors flooded to panels discussing how the digital tools and social networking have changed both production and distribution. What last year was gee-whiz, look what we can do, this year was all about technique and strategy. Younger, no-budget filmmakers like Aaron Katz (Dance Party USA) discussed how to make feature films for less than two months’ rent. Victor Pineiro, the writer-producer of an eye-opening movie about gamers, Second Skin, talked about using blogs for film promotion. Electronic Frontier Foundation alumnus and legal scholar Jason Schultze encouraged filmmakers to let fans creatively remix, using Fair Use (and the Center’s Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use). On a panel about Fair Use, I had the satisfaction of seeing the discussion move from stories of frustration to stories of making Fair Use work.

In spite of cutting edge talk, though, many filmmakers were looking to strike far more traditional deals with theatrical distributors and broadcasters. One of the festival’s best films, At the Death House Door, by Kartemquin Films’ Peter Gilbert and Steve James (Hoop Dreams) premiered at SXSW only weeks before airing on the IFC cable channel. The film movingly chronicles the change of heart of a prison pastor, from pro- to anti-death penalty, over the course of escorting 95 inmates to their executions.

Video and audio coverage of the conference can be found on the SXSW website.