Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

October 13-19, 2005

loose canon

New Media, Old Whine

What Philadelphia independent media artists really need is a room of their own.

Sometime after my second vodka at a posh showcase for local indie films, what Philly filmmakers had been whispering to me all night finally made sense: They really need a permanent place to party. Seriously. If Philly-made documentaries of the calibre of Super Size Me are to reach beyond the geeks, distribution through the Internet, Netflix or even public cable access won't work. But a dedicated repertory theater for Philly filmmakers will.

Twenty years ago, Philly indies needed the production facilities and public access channels that other cities had pried out of their cable franchise companies. This being Comcast's company town, Philly got neither. But today it doesn't matter. Video production can now be done on a laptop, and we're drowning in streams of media. Today, media artists don't need more access to an audience; what they need is their attention.

In an age of media clutter, the best way to start a buzz is in person. Preferably with a drink in your hand. That's the lesson learned last year when WXPN partnered with a commercial venture to build a couple of stellar performance spaces in World Café Live — where people can eat, drink and schmooze. Today, Philly musicians have what its filmmakers still need: A room of their own.

Still, even without a public production facility or cable access, Philadelphia filmmakers have crafted some stunning video. At a blowout party in the Curtis Center, a couple hundred visiting indie filmmakers enjoyed what relatively few Philadelphians have: Provocative Philadelphia stories about skateboarding, music-making, religious fisticuffs and gonzo environmental organizing.

Dozens of such Philadelphia stories have been made. Underwritten by the Philadelphia Foundation and commissioned by WYBE, there are five years of local screen gems listed on WYBE's Web site (www.wybe.org). But unless you happened to tune into the station when they were broadcast, there seems no way to buy, rent or view video about West Philly's African community, or about the city's abuse of its redevelopment authority, or about a North Philadelphia teenager who's becoming a father. Besides, these films need more than a single showing in your living room. Movies like these need live audiences. And that won't happen until Philadelphia has a repertory film theater of its own.

But instead of fighting for local brick-and-mortar solutions, Philadelphia media advocates have taken up residence in the ether of national policy. Our national media stars are wonks, not artists. Inja Coates of Media Tank is a world-class Comcast-basher. So is Beth McConnell of PennPIRG, as she demonstrated recently in the Inky. Prometheus Radio Project's Pete Tridish is renowned for beating the FCC on low-power radio.

Great stuff. Because it's critical to repeat that Comcast monopolizes some 20 percent of the TV screens in America; that Disney, Time Warner, News Corporation and NBC/GE together control about 70 percent of the film and television industry.

But frankly these and other media advocates have done little to build the cultural infrastructure that other cities have provided their independent media artists. Prometheus Radio is justly celebrated for bringing radio to migrant workers in Florida, and recently to the homeless in the New Orleans Superdome. But Prometheus has never built a radio station here.

It's even worse than that. Philadelphia's glittering advocacy industry seems to have infected Philadelphia's creative culture with a permanent inferiority complex. For instance, a recent film festival in West Philly entitled "The 10 Point Plan to Destroy Hollywood, Corporate Media and Other Stuff" essentially mocked Philly indies' addiction to victimhood.

So enough with the whining already. Face it: The city and Comcast will never fund public access. Despite pronouncements that seem to surface yearly, those in the know in City Hall say that public access ain't ever gonna happen. Advocates don't have a seat at the table in the current negotiations to let Comcast complete its takeover of the city. In the end, public access is a bargain chip that will be brushed aside; and ultimately, it doesn't matter.

Philly advocates should stop chasing the Holy Grail of Public Access or grasping at virtual rainbows. Indies need a place, a real place to perform. That's why Scott Johnston screens videos at a bar on North Third, why Louis Massiah hangs up a sheet in the street. It's also why Gretjen Clausing organized screenings in the black box of the Hal Prince.

Sadly, the biggest of these projects, Film at the Prince, failed last year because the space was too big. But that doesn't mean that indies should quit searching now.

Here's one suggestion: The Arts Bank on South Broad is dark most of the time. Now owned by UArts, the space could find new life as a repertory cinema for Philadelphia indies. No renovations needed. Just follow the recipe WXPN used: A gaggle of local artists, a table of food and a bar of booze. Mix liberally, and a loyal audience for homegrown media artists will surely emerge.

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