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Kevin Spacey, blurred lines, Po-Ho and storytellers

by David Craig

For the past week, Kevin Spacey’s speech at the Guardian Edinburgh Television Festival has gone, as they say in new media parlance, viral. To his credit, Spacey makes a number of interesting points not least of which is describing the blurred lines (to pay homage to the song of the summer) between film, television and the Internet content. Audiences no longer make the distinction, so why does the Industry still offer up these arcane titles and divisions between media?

Indeed, we are all media agnostics. We live in the Convergence Age and the remarkable developments in information and communications technology have massively transformed media practices and, consequently, media industries. We carry our media in our pockets. We talk more to screens than we do other people. There is no more scarcity. No more need for gatekeepers. Now the digitally-abled can produce and distribute their own stories. For the doomsayers, those decrying the death of distribution and media business models, we have entered a phase perhaps best described as post-Hollywood, or as I call it, “Po-Ho.” But have we really?

Despite all these new technologies and new media practices, the need for content has not really changed, just the forms and delivery. Throughout the century of Hollywood, new media technologies and consumer practices have been introduced and threatened the status quo.

But what remains fundamental to Hollywood is the ability to sell and tell stories that captures our imagination, teaches our history, and transforms audiences into both viewers and citizens. In fairness, this cultural skill was required long before Hollywood.

There’s always been a need for authors, playwrights, and artists. After all, only the most qualified and gifted were allowed to speak at the campfire, long before they insisted on having their titles above the line.

Speaking of titles, Spacey offered up this plea, “Let’s throw the labels out … let’s broaden the definitions – and if we have to call ourselves anything, then aren’t we all just storytellers?” In fact, I posed a similar plea just two months ago to my committee at UCLA where I am pursuing my doctorate in education. My research considers the critical pedagogy of LGBT-themed made-for-television movies. That’s what I call “academlish.” In English, what I am proposing is that these programs were deliberately conceived to raise awareness, educate audiences and transform attitudes regarding the value of LGBT lives. As I pointed out to them, long before feature films ever tackled these topics, TV movies like That Certain Summer, An Early Frost, and Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story reached massive audiences and garnered critical acclaim, while also portraying the lives of LGBT individuals sympathetically.

Like most doctoral candidates, my research stems from my own experience, only in my case, both personally and professionally. As a young gay man struggling with my sexuality and fear of AIDS, television movies helped me brave the decision to come out and advised me to practice safe sex. One might even argue that these programs saved my life twice. These programs led me to Hollywood where, for the past two decades, I have produced dozens of TV “message” movies, including a few LGBT-themed ones.

Now, as an aspiring scholar, I have been interviewing the producers, programming executives and writers who were most responsible for these programs. So far, after twenty interviews and a thousand pages of transcription, my theory seems to be holding up. Regardless of their title, these people set out to create entertaining and meaningful stories deliberately produced for television, the most powerful medium in the world, to reach the largest possible audiences. Based on my research and solid empirical evidence, they produced truth to power and helped change the world.

But who exactly are “they?” When asked, I told my committee that they, regardless of the titles provided by industry demands, are simply labeled storytellers. But this made no sense and they insisted that I create some other term, in their argot, like pedagogue or auteur. (So far, I’m torn between critical producer or entertainment activist. Any preferences?)

After two years in academia, I’ve only recently realized that, despite a century of Hollywood, these scholars have only a limited idea of how visual stories get made. They know even less about the collaborative role of producers, programming and production executives, writers, directors, and even actors, managers and agents. In fairness, neither do most media capitalists, whether venture fund managers or even heads of media conglomerates, but they are at least aware that they need to hire those who do know. In the Digital Age, most aspiring content creators would believe that all they need is Final Draft, a camera, and iMovie ‘11 and they can make the next blockbuster. However, just because you can tell a story, doesn’t make you a storyteller, by which I mean someone capable of telling many stories that attract large audiences and successfully make meaning in our world.

So let’s heed Mr. Spacey’s plea. Let’s lose the labels and boldly declare this simple claim. We are storytellers. This means we have the ability (and the responsibility that comes with power) to change the world. How do I know this? Because storytellers always have.

David Craig

About David Craig

David Craig is a media producer, communications professor (USC), LGBT media activist, and education scholar (UCLA). In other words, a storyteller. Please follow David on Twitter: @Producing2Power

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