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<nettime> Welcome to the scene essay
Tilman Baumgaertel on Sat, 3 Dec 2005 11:13:51 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Welcome to the scene essay


This is an essay I wrote a couple of month ago on the internet series "The Scene".
It has been translated into english recently for the catalogue of the back up
festival in Weimar Germany (www.backup-festival.de) (where the text won a honorary
mention). Thanks to the organizers of the plain text competition to let me use
this translation.

A lot of nettimers might know this show by now, everybody else should take a look
at this highly entertaining and innovative example of internet entertainment. As I
recently found out, the company Jun Group that produces this series has been
founded by a Bruce Forrester, a colorful character, who apparently makes his money
by observing internet movie piracy for the MPAA and other organizations. More
about him here:


This is an excerpt from the book "Darknet. Hollywoods War against the Digital
Generation" by J.D. Lascia (Wiley), a book that might also be of interest for
nettimers. It is a bit sensationalistic at times, but it gives a good overview
over the current conflicts around copyright, filesharing, digital found footage
etc. I am currently using it in a class on theoretical approaches towards digital
film making, even though it is not an academic work at all.

Anyway, enjoy the text...




By Tilman Baumgaertel

We are looking at Brian Sandro's computer screen. The New York
student is sitting in front of his machine doing what most computer
users do. He writes e-mails, surfs the Internet and chats with his
acquaintances. We watch him start programs and click at websites.
Screen windows open and close on the Windows XP Desktop,
letters scroll across the screen, Sandro types and types and types.
In a web cam window we watch him sitting at the computer with
a petrified expression, gazing at the monitor.

Goggling at the computer screen of somebody's daily routine?
That sounds just as exciting as watching wall paint dry. But Brian
Sandro is not just another computer-drone. Sandro belongs to a
group of hackers, who are distributing 'w4r3z' (pronounce: wares)
on the Internet: illegal versions of first-run movies, which are
spread all over the world via peer-2-peer networks like Kazaa
or BitTorrent.

Brian Sandro is the hero of a new series called 'The Scene'.
Every one of its up to now ten episodes takes place exclusively
on Sandro's and his clique's computer screens. And they are also
only watched on a computer screen. Like the movies Sandro's group
is pirating, the series circulates exclusively on the fi le swapping
and peer-2-peer networks of the Internet.

To gain prestige within the file swappers and movie pirates 'Scene',
Sandro and his gang upload the latest Hollywood blockbusters
onto the web -- best prior to their debut in U.S. cinemas. To always
get hold of the most recent films, Sandro nurses his contacts to
the employees of DVD-pressing companies and of the fi lm industry.
As soon as he obtains a DVD with a new film, he organises the
'ripping' and the publishing on the web. At the same time he
coordinates his love life via the Internet-Messenger.

His abetters, bearing the pseudonyms Teflon, Trooper and c0da,
are pure Internet-acquaintances whom he never met face-to-face.
They are not driven by greed of gain. They do not care about
making money but about their reputation in the 'Scene'. It is exciting
and astonishing to watch individual characters arise from the mere
typing of a handful of screen-names and how dramatic conflicts
evolve between them.

The file swapping services equipped by Sandro & Co. in 'The Scene'
are pictured by the music and film industries as the principal reason
for their decline in sales during the last years. In lawsuits and press
statements the spokesmen of the media industry have created the
impression that the mere existence of those file swapping services
is a crime itself. This is not only legally arguable. In the first place,
it kept the industry from exploring the possibilities of this extraordinarily
effective new channel of distribution. A small U.S. web
design company called Jun Group is now the first in attempting
to offer a service that takes advantage of the potential of P2P by
distributing 'The Scene' exclusively on the web. 'We wanted to
create the first consecutive video programme which is especially
made for file sharers', states screenwriter Mitchell Reichgut.
'And we wanted to do that vigorously and originally.'

The series is financed by sponsors whose products and websites
are interlaced into the plot - at least that is the theory. Actually,
a skateboard company financed the first two episodes, which is
why Brian Sandro surfs their website for a while. Allegedly the
company's server nearly broke down afterwards caused by the
surfers' heavy demand. However, new sponsors could not be
acquired since then, and meanwhile, the Jun Group has been
producing the series at their own expenses. That does not impoverish
them: because of the unorthodox production of 'The Scene'
one episode only costs $600.

The producers estimate that up to now several hundred thousand
users all over the world have downloaded the low budget
production - precise figures are hard to obtain because of the file
sharing networks' decentralised structure. Regardless it has to be
noted that a 20 minute video cheap enough to be paid for by the
savings of any film student, has reached an incredibly large international
audience - without any coverage or advertising beyond
the 'Scene's niche media.

'We regard file sharing as a new mass medium developing at
lightning speed', the makers of 'The Scene' post on their website,
'and we believe that it is possible to develop a financing
model together with the sponsors that is profitable for everybody.
The producers will be paid in advance. The sponsors reach their
audience. And the consumers are able to download and spread a
program without the risk of incurring a penalty.' The programme
is licensed under the 'Creative Commons Copyright Agreement'
developed for digital content by the U.S. law professor Lawrence
Lessig. That means everybody can copy and share such a piece
as long as no profit is being made.

Although 'The Scene' has been created with commercial ambitions
it is not only very entertaining but also formally radical. It is
rather confusing to have a video playing back on one's desktop that
shows what is going on on somebody else's desktop. This effect can
hardly be reproduced on a cinema screen, and on a TV monitor it is
virtually impossible to read the small letters subject of Sandro's
chats and emails. Therefore the series truly refers to its own
medium. 'We wanted to leave the viewers with the feeling of being
able to experience the 'Scene' themselves' says screenwriter
Reichgut. 'And we wanted to do something that was altogether
tailored to the computer. It became obvious to us that most things
on the web were originally intended for a different medium.
We wanted to create something entirely made for the Internet.'

In this way the creators of 'The Scene' not only succeeded in
making a unique desktop-experimental-film. Additionally they have
produced one of the most vivid pieces of entertainment dealing with
the presently all-dominant new media.

'The Scene' seems like an answer to the 'Matrix' trilogy. With great
Hollywood pomp, the 'Matrix' movies put the globalised information
society into allegoric images. Its heroes were hackers fighting
in the cyberspace. That was a potentially interesting project.
Unfortunately, the directing Wachowski brothers lost control after
the first episode and the sequels degenerated to an overambitious
shoot'em'up orgy fraught with significance.

In contrast 'The Scene' displays an unagitated and astoundingly
commonplace image of crime and feud in the matrix. In New York a
student sits in front of his computer and 'rips' new movies. Within a
single night these films spread on the web. Hours later the films are
found on the hard disks of file sharers from all over the world. Moreover,
movie pirates in China and Malaysia publish them again as DVDs,
immediately sold for less than a dollar on Asian black markets.

Students and South-East Asian small-time crooks with DSLequipped
computers: Those are the figures causing the American
Hollywood studios and the software companies to fear for their
returns today. 'The Scene' depicts an impressive image of a new
world order where a flow of data without restraint undermines
the economic status quo.

Dr. Tilman Baumgaertel
Film Institute
College of Mass Communication, Plaridel Hall
University of the Philippines, Diliman
Quezon City 1101, Philippines
office hours: Mo, 12:00 nn - 2:00 pm
email: mail at tilmanbaumgaertel dot net

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