Film | Internet

March 28, 2006

Ninety-Two Stories About Craigslist

Michael Ferris Gibson talks to Gelf about his film paean to San Francisco's favorite website.

Keith Huang

To find camera crews to shoot his movie chronicling 24 hours in the life of craigslist, Michael Ferris Gibson turned, naturally, to craigslist. The quality of footage varies, but the 34-year-old filmmaker's documentary, 24 Hours on Craigslist, showcases his photogenic hometown of San Francisco like a ubiquitous backdrop, effectively crediting the City by the Bay not only for giving birth to craigslist, but also for breeding and nurturing the eccentric natures of the film's subjects.

Michael Ferris Gibson
All photos courtesy Zealot Pictures
Michael Ferris Gibson
These unlikely stars have just one trait in common: They all posted to craigslist—the ubiquitous and versatile listings website that, according to Gibson, is "the secret engine that drives the Bay Area economy"—on Aug. 4, 2003. Craigslist chief executive Jim Buckmaster wouldn't allow Gibson to cold-contact users; instead, for a 24-hour period Buckmaster added a "check box" at the bottom of each posting that read: "A documentary is being made today about craigslist. If you would like to participate click here and someone from the film crew may contact you." According to Gibson, out of roughly 30,000 Bay Area craigslist postings that day, nearly 2,000 users clicked the box.

Gibson's first shoot occurred at 3:16 a.m. in the Mission district, where a "mid-40s, paunchy fellow in a bright purple shirt" was selling used-security cameras. Ninety-two craigslist stories are featured in the final cut of the film. Although Gibson and the camera crews recorded footage after August 4 to follow up on the stories, the director maintains that all the subjects "came from one 24-hour period. If Craig had pulled August 5 out of the hat, we would have a completely different movie."

Gelf Magazine recently interviewed Gibson to discuss the documentary, why he chose to feature only the back of Newmark's head, and why footage of speed-addled formaldehyde fans means that his movie isn't exactly an ad for the site. The interview was edited for space and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: Did Craig Newmark really pick the day of shooting out of his hat?
Michael Ferris Gibson: Yes, he did. We were trying to figure out how we could have a random day, and I thought, "Maybe we'll have it on the founding of craigslist, or the day that it started, or Craig's birthday." Then one of the craigslist staff suggested, "Let's just pick it from a hat." It wasn't 365 days—I think we had about two months of latitude on when to shoot this. It was anywhere from mid-July to early September. Craig mixed it all up in this black Kangol hat he sometimes wears, and then he pulled it out, and that was the day. And then we had about six weeks to get everything ready.

GM: Where has the film been shown so far?
MFG: We did about a year of festivals, but our first, real theatrical rollout was in October 2005—where we were actually making money. Since then we've rolled out in a variety of cities. We're sort of self-distributing the theatrical release ourselves.

Craig Newmark
Craig's head
GM: When did you ultimately decide not to feature Craig Newmark prominently in the film?
MFG: We had filmed interviews with all the staff in the weeks leading up to our day, so I had all this material. Our plan was to use the staff and interviews with Craig to bracket the film and to help describe craigslist and how it works. So the first edit, naturally, went in that direction. But what I quickly discovered was that there was this fundamental structural flaw in the film—which was that Craig and his staff are completely transparent about what goes on in the site. It isn't like a traditional corporation where you're very aware of the logo and the ethos and reflecting whatever the corporate mantra is. Craigslist is as open as it can possibly be, and that is the theme of it: There is no presence, no consciousness other than that of its users. ... I kind of knew that by taking this one-day approach we needed to leave out a bracketing structure, no controlling structure, no center point of narration to return to, because that is exactly what craigslist is like—there really is no center.

GM: I noticed that. But you also chose not to have a narrator, either. Why?
MFG: I did try briefly with myself as narrator. I tried Craig as a narrator first, but I wasn't accomplishing what I wanted. So I really focused on just the posts themselves and the users.

GM: Describe the structure of the documentary.
MFG: The structure was part of the point of the film. For some people, it was hard for them to grasp, because it's hard for them to grasp craigslist itself. The movie kind of flows like a stream of consciousness. You're moving from one story to another. Some things are thematically tied because they have a similarity; some things are actually juxtaposed because they have a direct kind of opposition to them.

Now, some people are probably more used to the editorial-style of documentary, like what Michael Moore does, where the filmmaker is physically present in most of the shots and he's talking most of the time. So you know exactly where it's going, you know exactly how you're supposed to feel and what the director's thoughts are—but that's completely antithetical to what craigslist is. So if you viewed the documentary in that way, I felt it would be completely unjustified and wouldn't be true to form.

GM: Why don't you think anyone had made a documentary about craigslist before you did?
MFG: Part of it is the same reason no one has made a movie about or eBay as these huge internet phenomena. The internet and film are their own media, and one doesn't necessarily lend itself to the other in any kind of immediate way. But a lot of people have approached craigslist to create some sort of TV show or series. Frankly, all I can say is mine was the best idea that Craig felt he wanted to go forward with.

Mark Sargent
One of the film's stars: Mark Sargent, the Ethel Merman drag queen in search of a heavy-metal backup band.
GM: How has Craig Newmark reacted to the film?
MFG: He came to the opening night in San Francisco and at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas. He was there at the March 2004 screening and came again in October 2005. It's been pretty positive. In some ways I know he enjoyed it and was interested in seeing some of the people behind the posts—he likes to see the good stories going on. And I think he especially liked how the people speculate about what he looks like. He always gets a hoot out of that. Overall, it's been positive. But I would bet that it's not his favorite film—I bet his favorite film is something like Blade Runner.

GM: How much did it cost to make this film?
MFG: I had $20,000 in the bank when I started this film—money that I raised on my own. I put that up for the production and pre-production and, as soon as it became serious, I basically got some other local film people to invest in it, as well. I don't know what our final total is because we're still spending money on distribution—we're making some money back—but I'd say by the time the DVD is finished and offered and released, I'd say we'll have spent about $120,000, which, if you know anything about film production, is not a lot of money.

Craig is not financially associated in any way with the film. We give 5% of the gross to the Craigslist Foundation. We do benefit them in an indirect way, but not to the corporation itself, just to their nonprofit arm.

GM: How do you respond to a New York Post critic's claim that your film amounts to a "paid advertisement" for craigslist?
MFG: It's hard for me to imagine seeing this film as an ad. Clearly, as a filmmaker, I'm excited about craigslist as a subject, so I'm going to delve into it. I don't know—when you meet guys with formaldehyde in their basement and they're clearly strung out on speed, I don't know what kind of ad that is (laughing).

[Gibson is referring to a vignette in the film in which he responds to a posting entitled "sex party—hot babes wanted." Upon arrival at the address, Gibson is received by a man who gives him a tour of his basement where, on a shelf, an ominous, brown bottle simply marked "formaldehyde" sits.]

I mean, if that's their idea of an ad, I'd love to see their corporate model. There's definitely some negative things that go on craigslist, which is emphasized to no small degree in the film by people who are self-destructive by doing too many drugs and involving themselves in unprotected sex. All that stuff is present.

GM: So what happens next with the film?
MFG: It's always possible that someone could pick it up for a larger theatrical distribution than what we've done so far, but I’m not sure because the DVD rights are already caught up—the DVD will be released on April 28, and basically DVDs are really where people make their money these days, across-the-board, in the film industry—unless you're talking about direct TV sales.

Theatrical releases, even for the biggest movies, are still kind of at the break-even point for most films. Unless you make the top five of the box office, you're not really making money off the theatrical release—it's more like an ad for the DVD sales. So, since we have our DVD sales locked in, distributors have come and gone; some have been big, like Roadside Attractions, the group that put up Super Size Me. They had some interest, but as soon as the DVD rights weren't available they quickly backed away. So it's doubtful in the US we'd get picked up by a larger distributor. What will probably happen is that we'll have a limited theatrical release and continue doing that through April at least, try to hit the major craigslist cities, then the DVD comes out on April 28.

GM: So, on April 28 people will be able to rent the movie at video stores. What about TV?
MFG: We do have a couple TV things lined up. PBS definitely wants it. There's not a lot of money in PBS, but it's a nice little cachet. Plus, they treat you right once you're in there—they'll do all your artwork for you and they actually will pay—a lot of TV stations won't do anything (laughs).

Related on the web

•Reviews of 24 Hours at Metacritic

•The San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2004 passed a resolution declaring Oct. 10, 2004, as "craigslist Day" in the city and county of San Francisco

•The film's offficial site.

•On the Apiary this week, Keith writes about comedian Demetri Martin (whom he earlier profiled for Gelf).

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- Film
- posted on Aug 12, 08
dan garcia

does your magazine pay for stories about CL encounters?
adult content.

Article by Keith Huang

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