Ex-Webby boss Tiffany Shlain on how the internet is revolutionising film

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For more than 15 years the Webby Awards, known as “the Oscars of the Internet”, have rewarded innovation online. Famous for their five-word acceptance speeches, the awards have honoured innovators like World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners Lee and Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, and top online players such as Facebook, Wikipedia, and Pinterest.

Memeburn caught up with the founder and former creative CEO of the Webbys Tiffany Shlain, who was honoured by Newsweek as one of the women “shaping the 21st Century” for her work on the awards.

Shlain is now at the forefront of a new wave in web-based filmmaking that isn’t afraid to break the rules. Big studios are out. Crowdsourcing footage and distributing your own work online are in. The former Webby awards boss is making the new model work too. Her 2006 film The Tribe was the first documentary hit the top spot on iTunes.

In the interview Shlain chats to Memeburn about what makes a winning Webby entry, how the web is changing filmmaking and her first feature film Connected, which explores how technology has changed what it means to be connected in the 21st century.

The internet pioneer and activist also shares her belief that the web could help emerging markets “revolutionise thinking”, especially around education.

MB: What common themes did you find among the winners when you were running the Webby Awards?
TS: It changed. The biggest thing is, obviously, Facebook and Twitter. Facebook is so interesting… it’s turning the web inside out in a sense in that someone explores Facebook as this interface and their friends are their curators. When they offered the ability to have you enter another website through Facebook, it felt like it turned the web inside-out. Who knows what’s going to happen in four years? Facebook didn’t exist eight years ago. That’s what I love… it’s like ‘who is going to come now?’ I kept hearing about Pinterest and I was like “I don’t have time for one more thing” and of course I loved it. I love that you never know what’s going to come out to bring ideas and visuals together in a new way.

MB: Which innovations that were recognised by the Webby Awards were you proud to have picked up?
TS: It was very crowded in the early days… the main thing with the Webbys is that we got to honour people who were creating really excellent experiments on the web. Once we were able to say “these were the best for this year”, I felt like it showed everyone that it’s such a new, decent medium. It showed that this is the standard of excellence that you now need to exceed.

Everyone wants to hear when they’ve done a good job, so we got to (in a really good way every year, with the public) say who has done excellent work. Which I think inspires people to do more; it lets people know about things they never heard of. So I thought that if we did that every year, we were pushing against this wave that was exceeding outward of excellence.

Memeburn: How do you think the Webby Awards have kept up with innovation and the digital sphere?
Tiffany Shlain: I founded them and ran it for nearly a decade, but I haven’t been there now for the last six years. I’ve been very happy. Sometimes you’re lazy… the Webby awards looked to me, and it took so much time and energy trying to establish it. You hope that the people you bring on to run it or take it over are going to care as much as you do… and they do. They really have continued to push on the edge and keep the integrity of the academy. I love seeing all the new categories and how they expanded the online film category. It’s great.

MB: You also helped found the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. What precipitated its formation?
TS: The Webbys were started within The Web magazine (IBG) and then they were very successful but the web magazine was not doing as well. The parent company wanted to close the web magazine which had been our subject body. So some colleagues and I wanted to come up with a very vague idea of what the academy could be, because at the time we gave it its name it was us in a room, trying to figure out what would be the best.

Of course we looked at the Motion Picture Academy, and we thought okay, the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. What was really important to us is that we didn’t just have experts on the internet — we wanted experts on the internet to be in combination with experts in their field for like 20 or 30 years… people from the early days of the internet, and, in each category, have a combination of real expertise, and then expertise on the internet. And that’s certainly continued.

MB: How do you think the web is changing film making?
TS: Everything I do I do differently now. The way I make a film, the way I co-ordinate with my husband, the way I learn — my brain is completely rewired, I’m convinced. The way I process and receive information… But some things don’t change, like that one day a week I just want to be completely unplugged — I think my biggest concern is how distracted we’ve all become, and not to forget to be present with the people that you love.

MB: Do you think mainstream filmmakers have failed to adapt to the opportunities presented by web?
TS: I do. I think a lot of filmmakers still think “I just going to make movies, I don’t want to get into the distribution. I want to get someone else to distribute if for me.” But it’s so empowering to do it yourself. There are more opportunities than there have ever been today to do it yourself.

I think the whole model of making a film; looking for a distributor… it doesn’t make any sense. Making the film is half, but the other half — you need to be just as creative with how you get it out in the world as with how you made it, and now we have all these tools so you can do it. So I think everyone should embrace and experiment.

MB: The academy’s membership is pretty eclectic. What was it like interacting with a group of characters as diverse Dilbert creator Scott Adams, David Bowie and internet pioneer Vint Cerf?
TS: So awesome. I was 26 years old, contacting my heroes to ask them to be part of something I’m doing, and they all said yes. It was amazing.

MB: Most of your works before Connected were short pieces. Was it easy to make the transition to feature film?
TS: I had made a lot of successful short films, and I think every filmmaker feels you have to make a feature. It was hard. The whole structure of it… it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was also so exciting to see the reception. The scale and what you can do with a feature… there’s a whole infrastructure built for that. The US State Department selected it as one of the films for the American Filmmaker Showcase. So excited. So those are the kind of things that can happen with a feature. Now if you ask me what type of film I want to make, I’d say a short film. My natural space is in the short film.

MB: Do you feel you had to cater for a different audience when making a feature film?
TS: I don’t think I had to cater for a different audience, but I had to change the structure. When I started making the film, I’d never been into online movies. The film at first was just purely about connectedness and the history of connectedness since we started on this planet and where we are today and where we’re going in the future.

The film took four years to make and two years in I had a rough cut of just the ideas, and I got the sinking feeling that I wasn’t connecting emotionally to the material. So I started the very difficult process of revisiting my whole story of connectedness because I realised that to get to the essence of our drive to be so hyper-connected — where does that come from? It comes from the most primal feelings of wanting to connect when you’re first born to your parents and your family.

While I was working on this film, my father was diagnosed with brain cancer and given nine months to live. So I was thinking a lot about connections so I wove in my own personal story into the film. The whole process was different for me on every level. It really pushed me to the edge. But it’s so exciting — we had two big screenings with such different audiences and they were laughing and crying and having great discussions afterwards about the film. I think when you speak your truth you speak the universal truth.

MB: Did you have to bear in mind how tech savvy your audience might be?
TS: The film, because it gives such a historical context to all the tools that you connect with, I think it could speak to people that are very wired or people that are not wired but will become wired very soon. I think it really reaches a huge span.

MB: Do you think online connections have made us more aware of humanity as a global whole?
TS: Absolutely. I feel like I’m more exposed to stories and ideas from people all over the world than I ever have been. We made a film called the Declaration of Interdependence that you can watch if you go to letitipple.org. We posted a one minute script on the internet so that people can submit video from all over. It really picks up where Connected left off.

MB: You use a lot of crowdsourcing in your short films. What guided the decision to do that?
TS: We don’t use it like most people think of crowdsourcing, which is mostly financial; we only really use it creatively… so far. We think of crowdsourcing as a way to collaborate with people from all over.

MB: What do you think the future of the web is for sourcing for creative projects?
TS: There are two billion people online right now, but imagine when everyone is online. I’m excited with the more and more people that come online from all over the world in a mindful way — because one of my big messages is don’t be plugged in all the time — I personally unplug from technology one day a week, every week, with my whole family. We take it very seriously.

It’s called a technology Shabbat. If everyone is plugged in — but not over plugged in — but plugged into information and ideas and collaboration, I think we’ll look back on this time as the age of collaboration.

MB: What do you think the most important digital innovation of the past decade has been?
TS: The moment they allowed you to film yourself on that video camera… that one button that turned the camera to face you instead of outward — I think that was the single most exciting invention in the last decade for me. So much of documentary is about this whole sense of objectivity, and no one is behind the camera, and now this whole thing of ‘this is what I saw, this is what I think’ is a really huge shift that we’ve only really begun to understand.

MB: Do you think emerging markets will adapt more easily to the opportunities created by the web?
TS: They’re going to be innovative in ways you can’t even think of, as a necessity. I think they’ll probably revolutionise thinking, hopefully education… we need people to approach it, who don’t have these politically and engrained and structured ideas.

Structures are great, like democracy, but some structures like education need a real rethinking. Like how to get access to information and being more creative with that. So I’m excited to see what all these developing countries and emerging markets do with all the technology.

MB: Do you think mobile devices are going to change the way we consume film and entertainment?
TS: When people send me a video on the web now, if it doesn’t grab me… my patience… something that grabs me is mobile. It grabs you by the head and is like “watch me”.

I don’t think anything will replace the theatre… we’re social creatures. It’s what distinguishes us from other species (that we are social creatures). We always want to be together experiencing something. Nothing will replace that, but there will be this added thing that we will also be experiencing things on our own, but nothing will replace the group experience.

MB: Are web TV shows a sign that web filmmaking will become as prestigious as conventional filmmaking?
TS: I love that there are all these open channels for work to be explored and I also believe that people still want to show in a theatre. It takes more effort for people to go to a theatre and I think going to a theatre is going to become more and more valuable because it’s going to take more and more effort to do that. Make plans, go to a theatre, instead of watching it on your phone or your computer. When people make the time to do that they get the shows the really want, they go see a movie.

MB: One of your films, the The Tribe was the first short form documentary to become number one on iTunes. Do you think something in particular about it resonated with people?

TS: That was when I knew I wanted to become a filmmaker full-time. That was my first big project — it was very exciting. It premiered at Sundance in 2006, and that was the first film I really did a lot of online experimenting with.

I could show clips of it, and Facebook was getting started so we did a lot of community-building through Facebook and then it became the first documentary to be number one on iTunes, which totally just blew us away. I remember we made the top 10 list with Disney and Pixar and through our online communities we reached number one and that was just a thrill.

The ultimate goal of that film was to start a dialogue about Jewish identity in the 21st century. We still get screening requests for that all the time. And with Connected, in a lot of ways if The Tribe was looking at the Jewish in the 21st century, Connected was looking at what it means to be human in the 21st century.

The only way you can see Connected now is if you organise a screening – you get a discussion kit, conversation starter – a really fun kit to make a really great night, if you’re a company or a festival or a school. And we learned a lot about making the kit really fun and engaging by The Tribe.

MB: You’re also director of the Moxie Institute, “an organization that creates films, discussion programs, theatre experiences and internet experiments around social issues using emerging technologies”. Could you explain the last of those in more detail?

TS: We just did our new logo, and now our tag line is “Film plus conversation equals change”. I think we do all those other things, but I think the one thing we do is ‘films plus conversations in all these different ways equal change’.

MB: A lot of people are now using iPhones to make films. Do you think tablets could be used in similar ways?
TS: I think anything now can be used in an innovative way. Absolutely.

Image: Kathy Miller

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