Letter calls for Smithsonian to drop deal

April 18, 2006|By LORNE MANLY | LORNE MANLY,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

As the recent coupling between the Smithsonian Institution and Showtime Networks continues to roil the documentary film world, more than 215 filmmakers, television executives and academics have signed a letter demanding that the Smithsonian, a publicly financed museum, not only reveal financial details of the joint venture but also abandon it.

The signers of the letter, delivered yesterday to a Smithsonian official, include filmmakers Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11), R.J. Cutler (The War Room) and Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room); actress and writer Anna Deavere Smith (Twilight: Los Angeles); Lawrence Lessig, a law professor; and Jacoba Atlas, a senior PBS executive.

The uproar was set off last month when Showtime and the Smithsonian announced the creation of Smithsonian Networks, a joint venture for original television programming on scientific, cultural and historical subjects whose first service would be an on-demand cable channel beginning in December. As part of the deal, Smithsonian Networks was to get the right of first refusal on commercial documentaries that relied significantly on the museum's archives, curators or scientists.

The underfinanced Smithsonian has argued that while the agreement might restrict some commercial filmmakers from selling their handiwork elsewhere, it would affect only a limited number of projects. A Smithsonian official has said that incidental use -- a lone interview with a staff member or a few minutes displaying the riches of the Smithsonian collections -- would not require offering that particular project to Showtime.

But the idea of a public institution's granting preferential treatment to a commercial entity has alarmed many in the documentary and academic worlds, who worry that the venture will discourage independent filmmakers from taking their projects to other outlets or from putting their work on the Internet on a noncommercial basis.

The letter states that it is a troubling prospect to require independent filmmakers, video bloggers, historians or educators who make nonincidental use of the Smithsonian's collections or staff to offer their projects commercially to "this new business venture."

Such a requirement, the letter says, is "an anticompetitive practice that is extremely troubling." Put together by the Center for American Progress, a liberal research organization, the letter was sent to Lawrence M. Small, secretary of the Smithsonian.

"Closing off one of the most important collections of source materials and limiting access to staff," the letter adds, "will have a chilling effect on creativity, will create disincentives for digitization of the collections for access by all Americans, and violates the mission and purpose of the Smithsonian Institution."

Similar letters were also delivered yesterday to about 50 senators and representatives who have a say in the Smithsonian's operations.

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