I am a documentary film director. Subjects of my films have included love, sex, 9/11, indigenous fisheries, hurricanes, refugees, HIV/AIDS orphans, and visualization of God. I am best known for the Real People, Real Life, Real Sex series of documentaries that simultaneously explore the vital role of sexual pleasure in committed relationships and the problematic place of explicit sexuality in cinema. This is my "Safe" blog.
Over the last ten years I managed to do something, that, with the benefit of hindsight, would appear to be somewhat remarkable.
I financed, produced, directed, marketed and distributed seven documentary films that treated the subject of sexuality in a way that is unprecedented in cinema. The briefest description I can offer is that these films offer a glimpse of “love, uncensored”; which is to say they show, in a tender and unflinching manner, what it looks like when two people who love each other make love; and then reveal through testimony why the couple feels the way they do about each other. Our couples were never asked to do anything that was not already a regular part of their own off-screen love life; only to share themselves with each other joyously, and allow us to bear witness.
The response to these simple little films, so frank yet so gentle, has been no less remarkable.
Variously they have taken awards at international film festivals, played to standing-room-only houses, been seized by customs officials, banned by censorship authorities, stopped by the police, and described by the MPAA as “A great little film that really delivers. Exactly the kind of film the NC17 rating was made for.”
Even more remarkable, these films have provided my family a livelihood. Throughout the ups and downs of creating, marketing and distributing these films we’ve never gone hungry, we’ve never missed a mortgage payment, we’ve always had health insurance, we’ve never had to borrow money from friends or family. Some years we’ve even manage to save some money, or go on a vacation.
It’s been tough, but it’s been good tough, the kind of thing you look back on with pride.
One of the reasons it’s been tough is that the social and media landscape has changed a lot since we first began this work. There was a lot more openness to new ideas about sexuality in 2003 when we got our first major press mention (and inbound link) from Richard Corliss at Time.com. Conversely, there was a lot less file sharing. As best as we’ve been able, we’ve tried to adapt to changing norms around sexuality on the internet, or attitudes about intellectual property.
Sometime in the last year I was reading yet another article preaching give-it-away-for-free (the it being your book, your record, your film – your whatever could be digitized) and then sell your true fans the very special limited edition, gold foil wrapped, signed collector’s edition, or if not that, a t-shirt or a stuffed animal or whatever. This approach has been proffered (time and time again) as the solution to a world that does not offer artists who work in easily replicated distribution mediums a way to exchange their work for money with those who wish to pay for it without making it freely available to those who wish to enjoy it but do not wish to pay for it.
As I was reading this it hit me; this is not an especially “low-impact” approach to making a living as an artist.
The low-impact approach would be to make the creative work once, and then distribute it in as small a foot-print form factor as possible, with protectable digital distribution being near ideal.
What is not ideal is turning songs or novels or movies into loss-leader for more crap — t-shirts, collectors edition box sets, and whatnot. Putting “Comstock Films” or “Helvetica” or “NIN” or whatever on a t-shirt and selling it for $19.95 is not value added, and it’s not a real substitute for compensating artists for their investment of time and money.
At best it’s an ugly kludge that ought to be a source of deep shame to anyone who claims to care about the real possibilities that digitized culture offers, and doubly so if you claim to care about leaving a smaller foot print on a planet increasingly strained by the crush of humanity.
But we don’t have protectable digital distribution, and I don’t expect we ever will. It’s unfashionable, reviled by the digital cognoscenti; and even if it weren’t I not even sure it’s possible.
For a while I thought about four-walling. That’s what my hero Bruce Brown did, traveling from town to town, putting up posters, renting out halls, and hoping enough people would come to the show to make it worthwhile. But I’m in my 40s, I have two young children I adore, and the thought of being on the road, touring touring touring, away from my kids, sleeping in hotels instead of sleeping in my own bed with my wife is not especially appealing.
For a brief time I thought about making a road show out of my film history/media studies work, and I got a good response from the universities I approached. But again, that would mean too much time away from my family, too much time on airplanes and in motels, and not enough time with the people and things I love. And the film history/media studies puts the talking ahead of the doing. Don’t get me wrong, I like talking, but I like doing more.
This left me in a pickle.
I have been making a living with words and pictures since I was 19 years old. I have never been paid to do anything else.
Until this last Summer.
The parameters were simple. Whatever was next had to be something that could not be digitized. Yes, I know, according to the digerati, all those people downloading our films weren’t going to buy them anyway, so that was no money lost. I don’t care. I made those movies with my own two hands. I wrote checks to pay for film-stock and equipment rental and to pay my crew union rates. I didn’t do that so people could watch my films for free. I did it to put a roof over my children’s head and food on our table. And because of that, I get a little upset at the fact that people can decide whether or not they want to pay to see our films.
And I’m not especially comforted by the idea that our livelihood is just unfortunate collateral damage of a technology that allows the flowering of mash-up culture. In all the tens of thousands of times our films have been downloaded, no one’s ever mashed up anything. No new culture, no new commentary. Just people riding the bus for free because it’s easy enough not to pay.
So it couldn’t be something digitizable.
It also had to be something that couldn’t be toured. I’m too old for that. I like being with my family too much. So whatever it was had to be something so special that people would come to me instead of waiting for me to come to them.
So what did I do? I started taking people sailing. Aside from meeting the above criteria, it has a few other really wonderful characteristics.
To start with, it has relatively high financial barriers to entry.
You’ve got to have a boat. Kaching. You’d be stupid not to have insurance. Kaching. You need to put the boat somewhere for the Winter. Kaching. And on and on and on.
Do these cost eat into profits? Of course. But even more importantly they keep the hobbiest and the dilettantes out. It’s hard enough to make a living competing against other professionals, but it’s damn near impossible when everyone wants to be a filmmaker (or journalist, or coder, or whatever) and all they need is an iPhone and an iMac to do it!
It also has legal barriers to entry. If you want to take people on a boat for money, you have to have a US Coast Guard Captain’s License.
In some ways this is pretty funny, because if you just want to drive yourself and your friend around on a boat, you don’t need anything. You can pretty much buy a boat, jump in and go; good luck and God bless.
But if you want to be a captain for hire, it gets complicated. There are classes you have to take, tests you have to pass. You have to show that you have been on boats long enough to (hopefully) have some clue about what you’re doing. You have to take a physical and get your eye sight checked. You have to pee in a cup to show your don’t get high.
Maybe to some people this sounds like a big hassle but for me it’s a big blessing. After two decades of hearing Steve Jobs say “Now anyone can…” it’s nice to be doing something where Uncle Sam is telling other people “Oh no you can’t. You can’t unless you do this and this and this and this and this.”
So that’s what I did this Summer. (And since I’ve mentioned the small footprint thing, let me add that I managed to do nearly 100 sailing trips on about 12 gallons of diesel.)
On Monday August 22 I arrived at my usual departure point with a mother and her two teenage children. We were on the backside of a powerful front that had passed over night, the wind was hard out of the north, crisp and dry; and oddly, heavy with the smell of burning plastic.
The hard north wind made getting the dinghy off the beach difficult. I had to wade out about chest-deep to set a kedge, and then had the teenage boy haul the kedge while I got the outboard dropped and started. We made our way out slowly, but even still the short chop was putting thick spray over the bow of the dinghy. No matter. It was a bright clear sunny day, and my passengers were game. A little water was nothing. But oddly, the smell of burning plastic was stronger.
100 yards from INTEMPERANCE I noticed what appeared to be an incongruous shadow across her companionway. Maybe a shadow cast by her wind generator? It didn’t make sense.
50 yards away I realized the shadow was the companionway boards, blackened by fire.
“I’m sorry folks, it looks like that burning smell is my boat. I’m going to have to take you back to the beach. Sorry to get you wet for nothing.”
I took my guests back, kedged off the beach again, and returned to my boat.
Aboard the sloop I put my hand on the closed companionway. It was hot, but not too hot to touch. I called my wife.
“Honey, I’m on board INTEMPERANCE. There’s been a fire. If I don’t call back in two minutes, I’m in trouble.”
I cracked the companionway hatch. No flames. I removed one companionway board. Thick, acrid smoke filled the interior, but no visible flames. I called my wife back.
“It looks like it started in the panel. Still smoldering, but I can’t see any live flame. I’m going for the extinguisher near the panel. I’m not hanging up the phone. Stay on the line. If you don’t hear me in 30 seconds, I’m in trouble.”
I removed the rests of the boards and dashed down the companionway ladder. Even holding my breath the smoke was nearly unbearable. I took the fire extinguisher from its bracket and emptied it at the breaker panel. Now the air was filled with acrid black smoke and white chemical fire suppressant powder. Both burned my eyes and nose. I retreated to the cockpit.
“I’m back in the cockpit. I think the fire’s out, but there’s so much dust and smoke in the cabin I can’t see anything. I’ll call you back soon.”
I sat on the cockpit combing. Bright sunny day. Brisk north wind. The deck of the boat gleaming white. So far as I could see, no damage to the rigging. Save the blackening around the companionway and the melted bulkhead compassed, she looked ready to sail away. But the dust and smoke that was billowing out of her companionway said otherwise.
INTEMPERANCE was not the only victim of the storm. That same night the French racing maxi-trimaran IDEC was just south of Shinnecock inlet, blazing along under triple-reefed main and staysail when a gust capsized her. Best guess is that lightning from that same front struck INTEMPERANCE and started the fire.
If the zombie apocalypse were to happen today, I wouldn’t hesitate to put my family on INTEMPERANCE and head offshore. The rig looks strong, the engine still runs. But she’s never going to be fit for paying guests again. In this depressed “great recession” boat market, the cost of restoring her to her former glory far exceeds her value. That’s a sad way for a fine sailing boat to meet her end. Adam Minter tells me her keel is destined to become car batteries in China or India. So it goes.
Plans are already underway for our next boat. A designer and an engineer are already engaged, build sites are being considered, figures for workman’s comp are being figured. With a little luck (and a lot of sweat) we’ll be back on the water next Spring.
But for now, yes, it’s a bit of a kick in the gut. The wind, as they say, has been taken out of our sails. This isn’t the ending I would have written. But then life isn’t a novel. It’s not even a documentary. It just is what it is.
I was an “early adopter” (another awful phrase) of the internet. I pretty much learned to talk to women on the Internet (how much easier to construct a witty and solicitous response when communication isn’t quite synchronous), I met my wife on the Internet, and have set and received messages that (apparently) mark the sender or receiver or both as adolescent or foolhardy or just plain stupid. (Also, apparently it is still horrifying to contemplate that a woman might very much enjoy being on the receiving end of such missives, and the proper public stance is disgust and/or derision.)
I have also learned this.
It is possible to have remarkably mutually satisfying sexual encounters by text or photo or video or phone or even all of the above if your modern multi-tasking mind is up to the task.
It is completely impossible to get your ear scratched, or your hair stroke, or to have a zit popped on your back.
This, I think, sheds some light on the nature of sexual pleasure and intimacy both; and perhaps on the nature of of the relationship between the two of them.
Since December of 2006 I have had a fascination with the workings of Google, and while we have put no small effort into divorcing our films’ fate and our family’s fortune from the vagaries of Google’s algorithms, how those algorithms parse culture, especially the aspects of culture that human being have difficulty parsing, remains of more than passing interest.
I hope you would notice that [comstock films] and [tony comstock] do not autofill. Compare that to typing in [stormfront], which Google provides additional help in finding through autofill.
If a search string is in Google’s autofill database, it engages a whole series of Google helper features: it ensures the name is spelled correctly, suggests potentially relevant variations, and in its own subtle way adds Google’s imprimatur to the search. Of course it’s a small nudge one way or another, but these sorts of nudges add up. [continue reading here]
Well to everything turn turn turn.
[Tony Comstock] still does not autofill, nor does it deliver Google Instant search results. But if you happen to type [Tony Comstock ], that’s Tony Comstock with a space after it, The Googlebot has some helpful suggestions:
The sea-time I’ve been accumulating for most of my life. I submitted sea-service forms going all the way back to 1979 for days I spent with my father on a small swordfish and tuna boat we ran out of Mission Bay. The Coast Guard wouldn’t admit several summers of sailing on the Light Schooner Margaret Ellen, because the letter of the law says sea-service must take place on a registered vessel, and in New York State non-power driven vessels may be, but are not required to be registered with the state. Being a miniature pirate ship, the idea of voluntarily subjecting her to the authority of the revenuers, and disgracing her bow with registration numbers seemed appalling. Such are the hazards of thinking like an outlaw…
I forgot to submit sea-service forms for my 8′ tender. Being motor powered, the state claims it as its own, which means it has a registration number, which means the Coast Guard will count it. When I go for my upgrade, I’ll tack that time on. It’s sensical and nonsensical, depending on how you look at it. Mostly the process is designed to avoid judgement calls, and after 15 years of living in the hazy no-man’s land between the sacred and the profane, I’m mostly quite happy to begin a new career where nearly every aspect is covered, chapter and verse, in the Federal Code of Regulations.
The widely held belief is that sexually explicit cinema has failed to evolve because it is so highly regulated — 2257 regulations, obscenity laws, the MPAA and it’s nasty NC17 rating — if you’re a long-time reader all of this will be familiar to you.
But whatever impediments to making sexually explicit cinema exist today, it’s inarguably true that there’s vastly more freedom to explore sexuality in cinema today than there was 50 years ago. Laws are less restricted and less enforced, equipment is cheap and easy to use, and the Internet offers an easy means of distribution. And yet, if anything, depictions of sex in cinema have gone retro-grade. This might cause one to question the idea that the regulation of the sexual image is the reason that depictions of sexuality are so universally primitive…
When American Colonists faced off against British regular forces in the Battle of Lexington and Concord, they were similarly armed; muskets, bayonets, sabers, pistols. The Colonists fell back at Lexington, but stood their ground at Concord, and then mauled the British troops as they retreated back to Boston along the Bay Road. As a boy I was school to celebrate this battle, but as a man, walking along the road, my thoughts turned to the British troopers, thousands of miles from home, a simple raid to capture some trouble makers and heavy weapons (there was a canon in Concord) turned a bloody battle with hundreds dead and wounded.
The body-count would have been very different if the British had had helicopters, mini-guns, and APCs. Yes, I suppose the British still might of been pushed back, but the price would have been much higher. (US forces were pushed back in a very similar mission in 1993 Mogadishu, but casualites for the Somali militias is guessed to be in the thousands, where as US Delta and Ranger forces suffered only a 18 killed and 89 wounded.)
James Fallows’ wife Deborah had her gmail account hacked, along with several other of James’ acquaintances in what (anecdotally) appeared to be a series of related break-ins. Like all of us who keep important information online (my blogs for example) geography offers no protection. The internet’s concept of a “bad neighborhood” does an okay job of preventing people from finding their way to nefarious information, it does very little to keep nefarious people from finding their way to your front door, and not just to your front door, but right to the lock on your safe.
China is having problems (again) with tainted food. What the Chinese haven’t learned (yet) is that before you can join the Montauk chamber of commerce you have to show them your USCG Captain’s License and your insurance. Rest assured the Central Florida Better Business Bureau will be taking a closer look at new applicants.
Phil C. Bolger died two years ago this month. This is one of my favorite passages, from Build the New Instant Boats, for his Light Schooner plans:
“The two cockpits are long enough to sleep in, supposedly with the sails for tents, although I didn’t get around to examining in detail just that would be arranged. The motor and fuel are cut off from the rest so there won’t be spilled outboard mix underfoot. I see that I also didn’t show the very necessary cover for the aperture of the motor well. Probably I didn’t see any specially neat way to fit it and hoped the builder would come up with a better idea than any of mine. This is a well established designer’s gambit and sometimes works.”
The Light Schooner Margaret Ellen with our dear departed Sweatbay’s Roxann
The Comstock Foundation SubGenius Grant and Residency Fellowship
WHERE: Montauk, NY
WHEN: Sept 12 – Sept 16 2011
RESIDENCY: 5 days/4 nights by yourself aboard the mighty sloop Intemperance. Intemperance is a fully equipped 38′ live-aboard yacht. There’s water, refrigeration, and a full galley. You can even plug in your laptop and keep your cell phone charged. The boat will be moored in beautiful Lake Montauk, a well-protected all-weather anchorage. There is a dinghy for going to and from shore and world famous Ditch Plains beach is about a ten minute walk.
GRANT: We are fundraising in order to offer a modest stipend. This stipend can be used to defray travel costs, the cost of taking time off work, or whatever else the SubGenius Grant recipient choses. The current total after 48 hours fundraising is $125, and we hope this will ultimately be $500-$750 by the time the fellowship is awarded.
WHO: You. You’re a musician, a writer, a designer, a computer programer, a draughtsman, a scientist, a composer, an activist; pretty much anyone who could use a few days of uninterrupted quiet time to relax, recharge, and get some work done.
HOW: You can apply for this fellowship by writing to my first name at this domain. Being the SubGenius that you are, I’m sure you can figure that out. Of course I want someone who will take full advantage of the opportunity, but I’m not going to tell you what to write because this is one of those “I’ll know it when I see it” kind of things. Samples and/or links to your work are encouraged. Please include references because I’m not going to let an irresponsible person stay on my boat, get drunk and drown. That would be a bummer.
SCHEDULE: Applications must be made by May 31. We will acknowledge receipt of your application by email, and the Fellowship Selection Committee will announce its selection on July 4.
REQUIREMENTS: You must be an adult, that means 18+. You must have dinner with me and my family on Wednesday Sept. 14.
The purpose of the SubGenius Grant and Residency Fellowship is simple. In an increasingly hurried and distracted world, tranquility, time for reflection, and the opportunity for undistracted work have become ever more precious. We know that somewhere out there there is a person who just needs a few days peace and quiet to make something wonderful happen; to finish editing an article, or to lay the foundation for a beautiful piece of music. By offering the SubGenius Grant and Residency Fellowship we want to find that person, give them a few days respite from our over-accelerated world, and see what happens.
Please share this, tweet this, blog this; but most of all send an application today!
In plain english what that means is that we’re still offering 5 days and 4 nights of quiet isolation, but for now whether or not we can make this easier for someone of modest means is in doubt. We just printed a new title, BRETT AND MELANIE, plus reprinting three back catalog titles, so as much as I wish I could personally provide a stipend, we just can’t afford to make the commitment right now.
But I still believe in the idea. Here’s why.
When I first came to New York, I got offered all kinds of interesting jobs, jobs I couldn’t take because they didn’t pay shit. “Who can work for $200 a week in New York City?” I thought. I’m a little wiser now and realize the people who take those jobs are the ones who have daddy paying the rent.
Don’t get me wrong, nothing against you if that’s you. My dad was a doctor and that gave me a leg up on thing. I had family connections in New York and that gave me a leg up on things too. No matter who you are, you probably have a leg up on things verses someone else. That’s life.
But when I came up with the $500 number, what I had in mind is that $500 would mean someone from the West Coast could apply without worrying about what they were going to do if they were accepted, as in “Oh great. I got the fellowship, now I’ll I need to do is come up with $500 for the damned airline ticket.”
So anyway, for the rest of the day and through tomorrow we’re going to set aside half our sales as a starter in this very modest goal of raising $500. Buy a DVD, or tell a friend, or if you think it’s a good idea (or if you just want to tell Kickstarter, “Guess what? We don’t need you.”) make a pledge.
Unlike the MPAA, these places don’t give notes on what needs to be changed to meet their Terms of Service. You just get denied, or you maybe you don’t, until you’ve invested months or years in staking out your digital space, only to wake up one morning to find you’ve been declared in violation and your investment of time and effort is gone.
Did we get a reason from Kickstarter? Of course not. Did I sent out about 200 e-mails yesterday, e-mail to some of my most valuable contacts, lettting them know about what we were doing? Of course I did. And now I look like an asshole.
Don’t worry, Kickstarter, I won’t make the same mistake twice.
About 10 years ago I was in a book shop at the Johanassburg International Airport, getting ready for the very long flight back to New York and I saw a copy of James Gleik’s Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything”. It had a catchy black and yellow cover, with “faster” spelled F S T R, and and “James Gleick” spelled, J M S and G L C K.
I really hate traveling on airplanes for more than about two hours. I get restless and fidgety and so I avoid it as much as possible. But had learned on the flight from New York to South Africa is that a really, really long flight isn’t so bad. Past about hour seven you stop wondering “are we there yet are we there yet are we there yet?” and just accept that you are stuck on a plane, that it will get there when it gets there, and you should just relax and make the best of it.
With that in mind, I bought FASTER so I could read it during the flight home.
FASTER has all sorts of interesting observations in it, highly recommended. But the thing that really stayed with me was the way that computer airline routing has taken all the slack out of the system. This means it’s efficient, but it also means when it fails, its fails bigger; when it fails you don’t get stuck for an hour or two, you get stuck for a day or two.
Best ever, when my eldest was 6 and my youngest was 6 months, the three of us got stuck for 12 hours in the Baltimore airport because our flight was cancelled because the weather was too good. Very excellent weather across the whole US meant there were no weather cancelations, which meant there were too many planes in the air for the system to safely track (because there had been no weather cancellations) so flights were being “weather cancelled” because the weather was too good. Of course this was an act of God, so we didn’t even get a meal voucher.
Anyway, I’m really big on slack. Slacking off of course, but also just having slack laying around, just in case.
Comstock Foundation SubGenius Grant
WHERE: Montauk, NY
WHEN: Sept 12 – Sept 16
WHAT: 5 day/4 nights by yourself aboard the sloop Intemperance. Intemperance is a fully equipped live-aboard yacht. There’s water, refrigeration, a full galley. You can even plug in your laptop. You might able to pull down a WIFI signal, but don’t you want time away from that noise? Also, if our Kickstarter campaign succeeds, there will be a $500 stipend to help cover your travel costs, not showing up for work costs, or whatever else you want to use it for.
WHO: You. You’re a musician, a writer, a designer, a computer programer, a draughtsman, a composer; pretty much anyone who could use a few days of uninterrupted quiet time to get some work done.
HOW: Write me a short letter. Of course I want someone who will take full advantage of the opportunity, but I’m not going to tell you what to write because this is one of those “I’ll know it when I see it” kind of things. Please include references because I’m not going to let an irresponsible person stay on my boat, get drunk and drown. That would be a bummer.
REQUIREMENTS: You must be an adult, that means 18+. You must have dinner with me and my family on Wednesday Sept. 14.
The problem with a lot internships/fellowships/etc is only people who already have money can take advantage of them. It would be nice for this to be open to anyone. To that end we’re sponsoring a Kickstarter campaign to raise a modest stipend to open this up to someone who otherwise might not be able to take advantage of it.
The Comstock Foundation SubGenius Grant will be awarded on July 4. That’s enough time to get the word out, and enough time for our first Comstock Fellow to sort out their travel arrangement. Whether or not there’s a stipend depends on you, my dear readers. I can only do what I can do, it’s up do you to do the rest!
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After 25 years of doing the independent artist thing, I know one of the hardest things is to have time and money at the same time. That’s why I wanted to figure out a way to have a stipend to go with the quite time on the boat. I will put my thinking cap on and see if there’s some way of to make this happen.
Starting right now we’re doing a 50% fundraiser. For the next 24 hours 50% of all purchases will go into the Comstock SubGenius Grant fund. Maybe that’ll be $12.50, or maybe it’ll be $1000. It’s all up do you!
I am, of course, very pleased and thankful to see our Brett and Melanie Kickstarter project get picked up yesterday by Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish. We saw an almost instantaneous $125 jump in our funding total for which I am grateful, and inbound traffic to ComstockFilms.com on the search [tony comstock] was up yesterday by about 500%. Thank you Andrew and team.
I was surprised (and maybe a little hurt) to see Sullivan, a conservative, frame this project as an anti-MPAA prank, appending to his post an inter-office memo from Matt Stone regarding changes that were made to Team America to achieve an R-rating.
The Team America story is a familiar one to anyone who pays attention to how exploitation filmmakers arbitrage the R/NC17/NR boundary.
After a publicity generating pre-release dust up about puppet sex, the producers of Team America released the film theatrically with an R-rating, and on an unrated DVD with the stock standard “Uncensored and Unrated” in provocative red stenciling. The inference we’re supposed to draw is clear: by releasing Team America as an unrated DVD, the brave producers have boldly defied the MPAA to present the untrammeled director’s vision, free from the meddling interference of the craven and hypocritical ratings board.
It’s also complete, 100% bullshit; and it’s bullshit for a couple of reasons.
To begin with, there is no difference between level of content you can put in a film/DVD rated NC17 by the MPAA and film/DVD that is released without a rating. Like the X-rating it replaced, the NC17 is the MPAA’s adults only rating, and there is no upper threshold for sex, violence, language, or crudeness. Whatever vulgarity Parker and Stone included in the “Uncensored and Unrated” DVD, that same vulgarity would also have been acceptable in an NC17 rated version.
More importantly, as the fact that Parker and Stone were able to release Team America as an unrated DVD demonstrates, in the US there’s no legal requirement that any film be submitted to the MPAA, or any other ratings or censorship body.
There’s a lot of confusion about film ratings, censorship, and US standards vs standards in other countries, and perhaps one the reasons that Sullivan is confused about this is because in his country of birth, every film that hopes to be released, either theatrically or on DVD, must pass before a government run and legally mandated BBFC ratings board. In the UK there is no option to release an “Uncensored and Unrated” DVD or screen unrated films in theaters.
In fact, because our own films would likely receive the highly restrictive R18+, a rating that would only allow them to be sold in licensed sexshops, rather than in the unlicensed LGBT and feminist book stores in which they are popular, our films are imported and and distributed in the UK (and other countries) in direct defiance of government censors.
And unlike Stone and Parker’s “bold defiance” of their MPAA overlords by releasing Team America on an “Uncensored and Unrated” DVD, the people in the UK, Canada, and elsewhere who import and distribute our DVDs and screen our film risk fines and jail time to do so. (For more on the “The damned MPAA wants to give my film an NC17! Boo hoo! So buy the unrated DVD! That’ll show ’em!” schtick, please read The MPAA Took My Baby Away!: Why exploitation filmmakers love to hate the Motion Picture Association of America over at my scholarly blog The IntenttoArouse.com)
So no, the Brett and Melanie: Boi Meets Girl Meets the MPAA is not an anti-MPAA prank. More over, as a conservative, I would think that Andrew Sullivan favor voluntary, opt-in, self-regulation over government mandated, backed up by force of law censorship. Or maybe he does, but he’s just confused about which is which in this case. That’s not surprising. Producers like Parker and Stone, Kirby Dick, and others get a lot of publicity out of stoking anger and ignorance about how movies are rated in the US, and this works against the establishment of a legitimate Adult-Only film-space where grown-up ideas about relationships and sexuality can be explored with frankness and candor. Separating fact from fiction on movie ratings is part of why we’re doing this project.
But it’s not the only reason.
Part one of the project is getting our MPAA rating for Brett and Melanie: Boi Meets Girl. Part two is submitting variously rated versions to places like YouTube, the Apple iTunes and App Store, posting them on Facebook, etc. and finding out what happens. Unlike the MPAA, these places don’t give notes on what needs to be changed to meet their Terms of Service. You just get denied, or you maybe you don’t, until you’ve invested months or years in staking out your digital space, only to wake up one morning to find you’ve been declared in violation and your investment of time and effort is gone.
To me that’s a lot more important that what the MPAA asks us to take out of Brett and Melanie to get an R or an PG13 rating. I’ll explain why in further posts, but for now, I’d just ask you go back and read this post from five years ago, and remember that when you conduct political conversations in a corporate space, you have no First Amendment protections. That’s true if your having your conversation at the mall, or if your having your conversation in the cloud. And as more and more of our lives are conducted in corporate spaces, understanding who’s permitted to speak (or show movies, or conduct business) and who is silenced is an issue of growing importance.
That’s why we’re doing the project. That’s why we’re going to the effort and expense of securing a culturally credible rating for Brett and Melanie. That’s why we’re putting Brett and Melanie into the potentially hostile environment of YouTube and the Apple Stores. And that’s why we need your help! So please, become a Kickstarter backer today and help us reach our fundraising goal!
Okay, here’s the thing. I’ve always been better at paying people a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work then doing the whole Mickey and Judy, “Let’s put on a show!” thing. People who work on my projects get union minimum or better. That’s the best way I know how to get the level of professionalism I need to make my films and it’s the best way I know how to show my appreciation for how hard people work to help me make my films. I have always been proud that these films pay there own way, without asking anyone to make any special sacrifices for “art”, or for the greater glory of Tony Comstock.
But I’m in a jam.
A few years ago I decided I needed to learn about the MPAA rating process first hand. I wasn’t sure why I thought I needed to do that, but somehow I knew. So even though my wife thought I was crazy, I paid to have MARIE AND JACK A HARDCORE LOVE STORY rated. What I learned about the ratings process helped me write “How X came to be mean Porn and the death of Movie Making for Grown-ups” right here on this blog back in 2007. That in turn became the basis for The Intent to Arouse project, and that project is how I got the gig guest blogging for James Fallows at The Atlantic.
Well I’ve got an itch in my brain again, this time about Brett and Melanie. Brett and Melanie needs to go through the MPAA ratings process and then needs to go through the rinse cycle with the other major content rating systems that are a part of our life.
I can’t tell you why, any more than I could tell Peggy why we needed to get Marie and Jack rated 5 years ago. I just know it needs to happen.
I also know I can’t do it alone. Not this time. BRETT AND MELANIE is a bigger movie than MARIE AND JACK, so the ratings fee is higher, and this time we’ve got bigger plans for what we’re going to do after we get the rating.
BRETT AND MELANIE: Boi Meets Girl Meets the MPAA, the Kickstarter Campaign
BRETT AND MELANIE: BOI MEETS GIRL is the seventh in an ongoing series of films from award-winning director Tony Comstock. All footage has been shot and the unrated director’s cut of the film has been completed.
The Boi Meets Girl Meets the MPAA project will submit BRETT AND MELANIE to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA.org) and on the basis of the MPAA’s feedback, we will produce a multi-angle DVD showing the exact different between the Unrated, NC-17, R and PG-13 rated version of the film.
Monies raised will go to covering MPAA submission fees, re-editing costs, and DVD authoring.
Videos of each rating version of the film will also be uploaded to popular video sharing sites, such as YouTube, Vimeo, Daily Motion, etc to see how various MPAA-rated versions are treated by the vagaries of Community Guidelines is TOS agreements.
Project backer will be asked to undertake Social Action Initiatives to register their support for the film in various social media platforms.
What we need now is your help. We’ve got a whole host of rewards to make giving money worth your while. If you think this needs to happen, help me make it happen. Like getting MARIE AND JACK rated back in 2007, there’s no telling where it might lead!