Case Study: Brad Lichtenstein: What We Got

“Each screening will feature a different version of the film we set out to make. People will take what's there, our media, and remix it in a different way to create something new. I want people to take our ideas and make new movies.” —Brad Lichtenstein

In making a documentary about the idea of “the Commons”—a shared communal space that promotes and supports creativity—Brad Lichtenstein knew he’d have to participate in and contribute to the Commons. Lichteinstein teaches documentary film production at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and worked most recently as director and producer of ALMOST HOME, a documentary about a retirement home in Milwaukee, which aired on Independent Lens.

His new project, WHAT WE GOT: DJ Spooky’s Quest for the Commons, will be a “transmedia experience,” as Lichteinstein describes it. It’ll live online and off—as a story that Lichtenstein tells but also as material that anyone can reuse and remix. “Our media will figure prominently,” he says, “but we’re going to create a number of tools and avenues to enable people to tell their own stories.”

Opening Up Production to Participation

Well before the film is complete, Lichtenstein is planning to launch a widget, or mini-application, that allows users to get experience remixing media—and dabbling in some of the rights and reuse issues raised by the concept of the Commons. “What it is,” he explains, “is like a DJ mixing console that allows you to scratch images, change the background, change the grooves, add content and insert beats or stabs.” One version of the widget will be designed for Apple’s iPhone, and another will be a Web version that users can add to their blogs or Facebook profiles. All of the media created with the WeJay will “become part of the media bank, and be tagged ‘commons’ when it goes out onto the Net,” Lichtenstein says.

In the summer of 2007, Lichtenstein attended the Producers Institute for New Media Technologies, organized by the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC). The objective there was to build a prototype of the WeJay. The goal, he says, is to make it “easy enough for non-geeks to use, but complex enough that serious re-mixers can use it.” In May 2008, he shot some footage in Brooklyn with DJ Spooky, the star of his film, intended specifically for the WeJay.

“I wanted to learn by doing, and also have some media to bring to the BAVC Producers Institute,” he says. “Participating in the Institute helped me turn a corner, and think of myself not so much as a documentary filmmaker, but as a content producer.” The goal with WHAT WE GOT, he adds, is “creating something that belongs to the audience.”

New Distribution Opportunities

Before the theatrical release and broadcast of WHAT WE GOT, Lichtenstein is planning to organize 125 screenings of the films, which will all take place in different kinds of Commons-type spaces, like parks, libraries and schools. Most of the screenings won’t feature Lichtenstein’s finished film, but rather content created by others that makes use of some of the media he has produced. “Each screening will feature a different version of the film we set out to make,” he says. “People will take what’s there, our media, and remix it in a different way to create something new. I want people to take our ideas and make new movies.”

He admits that it’s not yet clear how these screenings will impact the way that more traditional rights issues and distribution avenues are handled. “I know it’ll be a big challenge,” Lichtenstein says. “The distribution system we live in is still very much in a model of windows and territories and rights. But I want intensely to be able to challenge all the structures of media-making and distribution.”

Lichtenstein is working with Civic Actions, a Berkeley-based consulting group, on the film’s Internet strategy. He says the film’s budget is “almost three times as much as I’d normally raise for a documentary project without the online component—right around $2 million.” As of August 2008, he’d raised $700,000, including a grant from ITVS for research and development.

Supplemental Material

Brad Lichteinstein's blog entries on OnTheCommons.org

WHAT WE GOT page on Creative Capital

Brad Lichtenstein's MySpace page

DJ Spooky's website