Interview with Mayra Langdon Riesman, Creator of Film Scouts® LLC

by Thom Bennett
New York, April 1999

Mayra Langdon Riesman, President and Creator of Film Scouts LLC and Chief Film Scout, is one of the true online pioneers. She was one of the first to realize the potential of the World Wide Web as an entertainment as much as an informational medium. Coming from a background in movie production and distribution, she brought a unique entertainment savvy to the medium. Since spearheading one of the web's first big hits, with Film Scouts' 1995 and the landmark 1996 Cannes film festival coverage, she has continued to be at the forefront of the transformation of web into a unique medium that takes off where traditional broadcasting ends. In this interview, Ms. Riesman discusses her views on the Internet as a broadcasting medium.

Q. When talking about yourself, you often use the phrase "Internet Broadcaster." Just what is that?

Riesman: The Internet is a new medium, certainly, but I still see the basis in what I'm doing as being in the tradition of the film, radio, and television -programming pioneers who developed new ways of telling stories to the public. Only I'm using a medium that incorporates the resources of all these other media formats and bringing them together in a unique and very exciting way. It's like what Wagner tried to do with theatre: take music, staging and all of the existing forms of expression and make them into one comprehensive art form.

People often talk about the newness of the Internet and they're right. It is new and exciting. But it's also important place it within the context of a whole series of previous communications and revolutions that have come before. The telephone provided the possibility of real time two-way communication. Film created the possibility of telling visual stories. With radio and television, new ways of transmitting information. At each stage, the pioneers had to look at, think about, and tinker with their respective medium and in the process reinvent the content to best utilize the particular character of the medium. That process of reinvention, starting from broadcasting and taking it to a new level, is a very important aspect of how I see my role. You can't just repackage old media; if you want to be a pioneer and have success in the long run, you have to have a vision.

Q. So where many people see the Internet as being more limited than the old media, you see it as going beyond them?

Riesman: Right. Sure there are some temporary bottlenecks having to do with bandwidth. But you must see past them. When I want to tell a story, say the story of the Cannes Film Festival, I'm not limited to just images, or just spoken or written words. If one part of the story demands just sound, I'll just send out audio; if a still picture will say it best, that's what I'll use. If I want my audience to pay close attention, I may send it out as written text. Coming from a movie background, my greatest love is sound and moving images, but I know that that's not always the best approach. There's such flexibility to Internet broadcasting. The medium allows for the story to be told in the format most appropriate to the content. That's what's really exciting. What we have here is a convergence of all the other media revolutions of the last hundred years or so. The perception that the internet is somehow limited to being a non-mainstream, primarily visual medium must change. On an almost daily basis there are leaps and bounds made technologically with this medium. Before long, it will become less and less the exception to the rule and more the standard. The broadcast potential for the internet is almost unfathomable. It‚s the possibilities that amaze me, even at this infant stage in our exploration of them.

Q. And you can do this without first spending years knocking on network or studio doors?

Riesman: That's what is so exciting. I just started out with an idea and some knowledge of film and soon I was getting major coverage in the New York Times. The entry costs of broadcasting and traditional film are so great that you can't just go out and show what you can do. With the Internet almost anyone can set up a basic connection and reach the world. It certainly allows for a creativity and access to a vast audience that isn't available elsewhere. If you want to do a really good job, to put out webcasts with the production values that will attract a wide audience you will, of course, need to spend more. But the fact of the matter is that the Internet is the greatest soapbox in history.

There is also an immediacy to it that is lacking in other, more traditional mediums. With television, every second on the air is worth a mint so everything has to be portioned out oh so carefully. You wouldn't be able to, say, just bring a crew to Cannes to provide a comprehensive coverage of the festival. Even on an entertainment network all you'll get is the major news and sound bytes. On the Web, you can put things on the network as they are happening and let people pick up on it wherever they are. There's no lag time, no need to arrange satellite feeds, although we use them, no need for big equipment. This gives the audience more of a sense of being there. You want to involve the audience member in any way possible. That way they'll feel satisfied and come back again and again.

However I must add that we now work very closely with the studios from Warners to Universal as well as networks, and of course Independent Filmmakers and Producers. All these alliances make Film Scouts successful.

Q. As someone that doesn't have the computer background of many of the other Internet pioneers, how did you get involved in exploring these new opportunities?

Riesman: I've always loved the movies and began by working in distribution and production. These were satisfying activities, but they didn't allow me much of a creative outlet.

Around that same time, I began to discover the possibilities of the Internet. Right away, I saw its potential as a new broadcast medium, a new way of global communications. Starting about 1995 I started to talk to everybody about networks and channels. They all looked at me as if I had gone mad. Out of that, the idea for Film Scouts was born.

But there was also something else that pushed me along. It was in Egypt in December of 1995. I had this mind-boggling experience. I was with some film people and we were driving through Sahkara. On one side of the road, it was something out of the Old Testament. But then on the other side it was like the movie "Koyaanisqatsi," completely high-tech. I see a guy trot by on the old-world side of the road and he's on a camel. But he's chatting on a cellular phone. I said, "I'm right. This is basically the future. I want to be part of this revolution." The point is that through the Internet you can reach anyone who has access to a phone. Anyone with interest in what you are putting out, they will be able to receive your signal.

>From there I began to leverage my knowledge of film into creating something different, starting first at the Sundance Festival and then to my first coverage of Cannes and the landmark site of Cannes1996. It was a big hit. The rest, as they say, is history.

Q. And did you adapt to the technology?

Riesman: At this stage, you can't just be a content person. If you don't know the nuts and bolts and you can't get down and do some coding of your own, you really aren't going to understand what can be done and hence, not see the full potential of the medium So, slowly I've transformed myself into a geek, of sorts.

But it's not technology for its own sake that moves me, but how it can be used to communicate. What I do, maybe, is more on the model of D.W. Griffith than Edison. The basic technological mechanism of film was in place when Griffith moved over from theatre, but once he learned about the new technology, he was able to utilize what was there into a way of telling stories which became the basis for all who followed. Using the framework that has been established in ways nobody has before is what separates him from his contemporaries. A pure techie lacking the artistic vision would not have been able to come up with this. Nor would a pure artist who didn't want his vision to get sullied by having to delve into technical details. However, when you start seeing your vision in terms of the technology available, you can really come up with something that never existed before. That's the model I try to use.

Q. So your role ends up being a combination of artist, techie, and businessperson?

Riesman: At this stage I don't think that there's much choice but to take everything head on. We are still feeling this very new situation out, you can't separate the roles. Too many people in this field look at things exclusively from one perspective or another. A techie will want to introduce a new toy, without thinking how it can be used artistically or what the cost implications may be. A creator will want to set out a vision and expect the technology or an audience, to simply be in place. A businessperson may be too tied in with established models to see how the new medium differs. You need to counterbalance all these factors. The easiest way to do is to take on all the roles yourself. You have full-time techies and business consultants to help you along with the details and provide you with ideas, but at this stage you have to be able to assimilate yourself to get across your vision. In a way, I'll be very happy when this changes, when things are more settled. It will be less exciting, but also less exhausting. But we still have a little ways to go as of yet.

Q. So what of the future?

Riesman: More experimentation, more exploration. Discovering just what it is that this unique medium can do. I have glimpses of that even now, but we are still in the very infant stages. I do however think that what's really crucial is finding ways of telling stories. Telling stories just seems to be the one most basic characteristic of human activity, going back, I guess, to the earliest scribblings on cave walls.

We are at a point now where anything that can been seen or heard can be represented digitally. Technology is changing and evolving at such a pace as the world has never seen before. Perhaps, at some not too distant point, senses other that sight and sound will be able to be incorporated. The possibilities are limitless.

In the not too distant future, the Internet will serve as a real-time distribution media for both business and personal use. As the tendency towards wireless technology increases, some metropolitan areas will have Gigabit Ethernet MANs which will distribute information as well as entertainment throughout the area to information hubs and then right into homes and businesses. This content will be transferred digitally and will be available at the viewer's request. As the technology continues to evolve, such media as theatrical films and home video will be able to be able to be transmitted as digital bits as they are needed or wanted. Real time images will be instantly accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world. IP-Multicast with IGMP makes it possible to transport those digital bits efficiently and on demand.

I am waiting for someone, hopefully me, to produce a feature length film made entirely for the Internet audience and that can also be cross media focused. One that works on current technologies, or at least the ones that are just now beginning to appear. Something that would work on the Internet but that wouldn't work as well in a movie theater or on television. As I said, just as Griffith had to figure out how movies were different from theater and the early television pioneers had to find out how their new media was different from radio or motion pictures, we have to create content that takes advantage of the specific character of the Net. That sense of discovery is what makes all this so exciting. But we're getting there.

However, it really just comes down to telling stories. All of this is lost along the way if it is not made accessible to an audience. The ability to reach the world -the convergence of the mediums is merely another way to tell these stories.

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