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Smithsonian deal worries some filmmakers

Pact with Showtime to launch network may mean less access, they say
/ Source: The Associated Press

A television deal between the Smithsonian Institution and CBS Inc.'s Showtime Networks has alarmed some leading independent filmmakers and research groups, who worry they will have less access to the Smithsonian's collections.

As part of the agreement, the newly created Smithsonian Networks will by December launch at least 40 hours of programming through an on-demand cable channel that will rely on Smithsonian materials and curators for films, including documentaries.

The agreement allows Smithsonian Networks to consider proposed commercial projects for its own use before they can be presented to other networks, such as PBS or the History Channel. If filmmakers or producers seeking Smithsonian materials don't want to do business with the new network they could find such access denied.

"The idea that a filmmaker would be forced to enter into any sort of acquisition deal simply in exchange for accessing critical content — and at the Smithsonian no less — is frankly ludicrous," said James Moll, who won an Academy Award for his documentary feature "The Last Days," in 1998.

"History's just been made for sale to an inside deal," said Ken Burns, the Emmy-winning producer of the documentaries "Baseball" and "The Civil War."

The Smithsonian declined to provide financial details of the agreement, citing contract confidentiality. But spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said "The Smithsonian spends no money."

St. Thomas said money raised through the venture will be used for upkeep of exhibits, public programs, and other projects. Smithsonian officials recently told Congress they need about $94 million a year to take care of a backlog of repairs.

The agreement does not restrict the use of Smithsonian collections for news or public affairs programs — or in cases where the Smithsonian's participation was only a small part of the overall program, officials said. Since March 9, when the deal was announced, 24 of 26 filmmakers' requests for access have been granted.

The Washington-based Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan research institute, filed a Freedom of Information Act request last week in an effort to get more details about the deal. Other groups said they planned to file their own requests soon.

The Smithsonian collections are "not something they can exclusively license to any individual organization," said Prudence S. Adler, of the Association of Research Libraries. "The Smithsonian and Showtime should not be in the business of picking winners and losers."

The controversy was first reported by The New York Times.

Award winning filmmakers who prefer working with PBS say some of their most successful projects might not have been made under the Showtime agreement.

Burns said his recent musical history "Jazz" might have been barred from PBS because it relied heavily on Smithsonian materials.

He said the contract should be voided and filmmakers and curators should have an opportunity to express their concerns in public hearings.

"My use of the Smithsonian archives was much more than just incidental," said Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, whose Emmy-winning documentary "Tupperware," relied on the Smithsonian for the personal papers of inventor Earl Silas Tupper.

The documentary also included more than 50 still photographs and video of plastic containers in the Smithsonian's collections.

Margaret Drain, vice president of national programming for public television station WGBH in Boston said several programs produced by her station for PBS at least occasionally relied on the Smithsonian. Drain warned that if the Library of Congress or the National Archives were to adopt similar policies, it could make production difficult.

Officials at Showtime Networks insist the business venture will benefit both experienced and aspiring filmmakers. More than $10 million will be spent each year to hire dozens of filmmakers to create more than 100 programs, they said, adding that the venture will offer filmmakers an audience of millions.

In return, the deal will allow Showtime to expand its video on-demand service with the enticement of the Smithsonian name. "We have access to everything that they've done throughout their 146-year history," said Stu Zakim, a Showtime spokesman.

Plans call for the films to be shown on the Smithsonian on Demand cable channel, which will be marketed to companies now serving 25 million digital cable subscribers — including Cox, Comcast, Adelphia, Charter and Time Warner.