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Filmmakers Press Smithsonian on Showtime Deal


SIEGEL: Lawrence Small, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, received a petition today urging him to reveal details of the Smithsonian's new contract with Showtime Networks. That deal calls for the creation of a new Video on Demand channel that will air documentary programming about the Smithsonian. As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, filmmakers, historians and librarians are concerned that the new partnership will restrict public access to the Smithsonian's collections.

LYNN NEARY reporting:

Based on what is known about the deal, filmmakers who want to draw on the Smithsonian's collections and expertise in more than an incidental way will have to offer the film to Showtime, which is producing the programming for the new channel, or they may be denied access to the Smithsonian. Carl Malamud of the Center for American Progress, which organized the petition campaign, says the Smithsonian is a public trust and has no right to limit access. Moreover, he says, very little is known about the partnership between Showtime and the Smithsonian.

Mr. CARL MALAMUD (Representative, Center for American Progress): It appears that this is going to really impact independent filmmakers. The Smithsonian has been saying that's not the case, but they're refusing to disclose the contract, they haven't held public hearings. They're really not communicating like a public trust should with the public when they make a major policy change, and this is indeed a major policy change for how the Smithsonian manages its collections.

NEARY: The petition calls on Secretary Small to disclose the terms of the contract with Showtime, to annul the contract, and to hold public hearings before undertaking any future action that would limit access to the collections. Linda St. Thomas, Director of Media for the Smithsonian, says the institution usually does not release the terms of its contracts with private businesses, and St. Thomas insists the deal does not represent a major policy change.

Ms. LINDA ST. THOMAS (Director of Media, Smithsonian): Actually, we've always had some limits. We have 136 million objects in this collection, and it's part of the Smithsonian's responsibility to take care of that collection and to have a certain amount of control over it, so it isn't true that any filmmaker could walk in, pay a daily location fee, and film whatever they want.

NEARY: St. Thomas does acknowledge that some filmmakers might have to share their ideas with Showtime if they want to make extensive use of the Smithsonian collections.

Ms. ST. THOMAS: For example, if a filmmaker comes to us with an idea, it may very well be that that idea is of interest to us for Smithsonian on Demand, and what we would like to do then is either hire that production company or perhaps some other, and have that as our own programming, so that the Smithsonian also has more control over the content.

NEARY: And that's exactly what has filmmakers upset, says Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, whose award-winning film Tupperware drew heavily on the Smithsonian's archives. Kahn-Leavitt says, since the news of the deal first broke, she's been hearing from filmmakers who tell her...

Ms. LAURIE KAHN-LEAVITT (Filmmaker): I'm being pressured, I'm being told I have to hand over a detailed film treatment, I'm being told they want a three-way conversation between the Smithsonian Public Affairs Office and Showtime, and I'm not interested. What do I do?

NEARY: The Smithsonian says the new deal will help filmmakers by providing them with a well-known producer and distributor. At the same time, the Smithsonian will earn some much-needed revenue. But Kahn-Leavitt says many filmmakers want to maintain control over their own films, and they may want to pitch their ideas to other networks, PBS, A&E, The History Channel. Kahn-Leavitt says they should be able to do just that.

Ms. KAHN-LEAVITT: I'm not against the Smithsonian teaming up with Showtime and making hundreds of hours of shows. The archives are vast. They can make their shows, and also allow access to all the other filmmakers who want to make shows from these archives, even the ones who want to use more than an incidental amount. I don't think it's going to get in their way.

NEARY: Among the more than 200 people who signed the petition are well-known documentary filmmakers Ken Burns, Michael Moore and R. J. Cutler. Currently, Smithsonian on Demand is scheduled to launch at the end of this year, with 40 hours of programming. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.