Smithsonian Business Ventures Soap Opera Ends…For Now

So did I ever tell you how my little indie documentary and I almost got chewed up by the Smithsonian Institution’s 2006 deal with Showtime?

Briefly, I wanted to go to the National Museum of American History to do research and film an interview with a curator. I received a small grant and had permission to film on the premises for free, then permission was suddenly rescinded. Why? Because the for-profit Business Ventures unit within the non-profit Smithsonian signed an exclusive deal with Showtime allowing Showtime to create cable-on-demand shows using Smithsonian content. It was made public to the great surprise of archivists at the Smithsonian about a month before my scheduled visit. Suddenly I had to scramble my plans to fit this new reality.

Either you were a Showtime-Smithsonian on Demand joint venture project, or you couldn’t have access to the holdings. Needless to say, the net effect of the deal was to make taxpayer dollars pay for the upkeep of treasures from America’s attic so a private profit-making entity like Showtime could have a monopoly on all those stories and make money in the process. Little indie documentaries like mine were shut out. (And there’s no way Showtime would’ve “partnered” with me on my doc; they would’ve taken my idea and run with it and kicked me off my own project.)

Upon probing by Congress, the deal itself proved to be highly questionable: a 30-year contract between Showtime and the Smithsonian’s 11 museums allowed for a tiny sum to be paid per year ($200,000/year, I think it was, for story rights to content in all 11 museums and galleries) to maintain this exclusive access. A pittance. Not to mention fishy public-private issues of who could use the material housed at the Smith…what was with this whole “exclusivity” (read: monopoly) deal?

The argument was that “it takes 30 years to establish a cable channel.” Well, maybe it took 30 years for cable tv to be profitable but in today’s digital age, it takes much less time than that to launch a cable channel, not to mention modes of content delivery are changing as we speak. So if the Smithsonian was paying Lawrence Small $900,000 a year in salary and perks to make deals that would supplement the Smithsonian’s taxpayer-funded appropriations from Congress, then he was doing a heckuva lousy job overseeing those deals. Because any entertainment attorney worth her salt would see that story rights should be worth way more than $200,000/year over 10 years for all museums and galleries. (Additionally they didn’t seem to understand indie filmmaking–they asked me who my distributor was and for proof of Errors & Omission insurance when I was literally 45% of the way through production. Generally with indie filmmaking you finish the picture THEN acquire E&O coverage to try to get distribution, because your name, if it isn’t Ken Burns, doesn’t carry the weight to secure distribution before you finish. You’re an unknown quantity.)

My battle to get permission to film there again, and not have to be subsumed under the terms of the joint venture deal became its own multi-part saga. I was exactly the test case that proved the lie to all the supposed upsides to the joint venture; I got some urging to grandstand but chose to make my case behind the scenes to reporters and members of congress and some wonderful activists at the Center for American Progress (shout out to Carl! Woo-hoo!). It consumed months of my life; just this one little piece of moving the doc forward. The irony is that I’ll probably use 10 seconds, if anything, of what I shot there.

Hopefully this report and re-organization within the profit-seeking Business Ventures Unit is the happy ending to it all.

In its latest effort to right itself, the Smithsonian Institution has accepted a finding that its business unit is plagued by poor internal communication, diffuse organization and inadequate oversight.

Smithsonian Business Ventures has been the focus of criticism. In 2006, it signed a contract giving Showtime Networks exclusive access to the Smithsonian archives for some documentary purposes. Gary M. Beer, chief executive of Smithsonian Business Ventures, was subsequently the subject of investigations by Congress and by the Smithsonian’s inspector general on his oversight of the unit; he decided to resign last May.

We’ll see who’s in charge now and where the Business Ventures unit goes from here.

ETA: I LOVE the Smithsonian. I love that it’s free. I love that it’s truly a public space. I get joy from knowing that literally everybody goes there and wanders through, finding at least one thing of interest, and there’s no admission fee. So it pains me that the Smithsonian has money troubles (documented extensively here). Maybe if we WEREN’T SPENDING CRAPLOADS OF MONEY ON A USELESS WAR, WE’D HAVE ENOUGH MONEY FOR THINGS THAT MATTER? Like paying for the proper upkeep of national treasures such as the Smithsonian? You think?

4 thoughts on “Smithsonian Business Ventures Soap Opera Ends…For Now

  1. Thanks from all us US citizens for taking the time to fight this. We already own all this stuff, due to the whole being-a-taxpaying-citizen-of-this-country thing, so it’s crappy when some corporation tries to take it over and restrict our access. Good on you and the others for not letting them get away with it.

    p.s. the new site look is fab!

  2. Pingback: Pages tagged "opera"

  3. Susan,
    It was really outrageous and I worked with lots of people to keep pushing the point. Have to say it renewed my faith in the democratic process a tiny bit–luckily members of Congress were concerned too and actually listened and acted. Not always the case.

    What Small allowed was all too typical of how Republicans want to auction off America to the highest bidder. Disgusting.

    Glad you like the new look!


  4. wow! ::genuflecting:: i’d been reading a lot about the new “monetization” (love that non-word) of the Smithsonian Am History Museum. didn’t know you had been tangled in it. frankly, it saddens me that like a ballpark, everything seems to “require” corporate sponsorship there. i can’t wait til it becomes the General Electric Museum of American History or somesuch. as someone who lives here, it saddens me on a regular basis.

    fight the power, girlfriend. and if you ever come back here, i’ll go to the museum with you. if it ever reopens, that is.

  5. wreke,
    Thank you, no need to genuflect. I’d like to think I did what anyone would do.

    I managed to scoot in right before the renovations began. Shot in August, they shut down everything but the Archive Center (and a few other spots) in September.

    Yeah, to think we actually named public buildings after notable people who did things, as opposed to companies. Fancy that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>