Burns and other filmmakers fret over Smithsonian deal

Commentary

April 21, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

If you're a documentary maker, American history can be yours, but only at a price that may include your independence.

For many of America's leading documentary artists, that's the message of the deal recently sealed between Showtime Networks Inc. and the Smithsonian Institution.

Documentary filmmakers who intend to base their work substantially on the Smithsonian collection or interviews with its staff now must have their proposals reviewed by a new company called Smithsonian Networks, which is starting Smithsonian on Demand, a pay cable service, in December. (You don't need Showtime to access this service, only digital cable.)

If the company feels these documentaries should be produced and put out by Smithsonian on Demand, the filmmakers may be asked to create the program directly for the Smithsonian's new business venture - or else not produce it at all.

According to Linda St. Thomas, spokeswoman for the Smithsonian, "there's nothing sinister about the agreement" and the Smithsonian will cooperate with filmmakers, for the most part, just as it has in the past. She says the vast majority of films connected with the Smithsonian make only "incidental use" of its resources and staff, and there will be no problem accommodating directors and researchers in these cases. She notes that since the current process went into effect, 24 out of 26 projects have been approved. She says there may even be cases where the Smithsonian Institution encourages a filmmaker to go ahead with a Smithsonian-related project even if Smithsonian on Demand isn't interested.

Showtime will pay the production companies and researchers for the films, and any money made by the Smithsonian on the deal will go back into the institution, for purposes such as collection care. For St. Thomas, Smithsonian on Demand is a way for the institution to come into the public eye in a way it hasn't since the WETA-produced PBS show Smithsonian World in the mid-'80s, and do it in the format of the present and future, digital cable.

But Ken Burns, the New Hampshire-based director of such celebrated multipart history documentaries as The Civil War and Jazz, said by cell phone from the National Mall on Wednesday that he could see "hundreds of potential problems" in this arrangement, including the danger that "independent filmmakers could now have their good ideas cherry-picked by Showtime."

Burns, whose works have long been major attractions for PBS, says, "I hate to use the cliche `slippery slope.' But the protocols established by the Smithsonian and Showtime could make it possible for other institutions to design even more exclusive relationships. They could make functioning as filmmakers impossible for those of us who are independent - and I do feel we do the best work in this field."

Burns isn't worried about his own projects; what he generally needs from the Smithsonian falls under "incidental use." He considers himself "a friend of the Smithsonian - it's just in this case I feel my friend has made a mistake." But Burns, a movie-lover as well as a prolific moviemaker, does feel insulted: "Can you imagine the hue and cry if print historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough were told they couldn't do research at the Smithsonian unless they cleared their book with a certain publisher?"

And Burns, who on Tuesday spoke about the issue at a Washington-based think tank, the Center for American Progress, is concerned for the future of his chosen art form. "After all," he says, "there's no law against mediocrity. A lot of the documentaries I see on cable channels are so many stamped-out widgets. I fear some, if not all, of the Showtime documentaries will fit into that category. And at the same time, a lot of those who've dedicated themselves to getting the history right and doing it well on film will in effect be punished for their talent."

Burns' longtime editing and producing partner, Paul Barnes, en route from New Hampshire to New York to finish their seven-part series, The War, about the ramifications of the Second World War on the frontlines and the homefront, says, "Material that we consider part of the public domain and the historical record has become increasingly difficult to use."

This development comes at a time when documentaries have never been hotter commodities theatrically or on DVD or cable. The development of inexpensive, high-quality digital cameras has created an image of guerrilla filmmaking comparable to that of seat-of-the-pants cinema-verite documentary-makers in the '50s and '60s, with their lightweight 16 mm sound cameras.

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