When Kevin Spacey delivered the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture in Edinburgh last year, he had no idea it would make him the unofficial spokesperson for optimism in the scary new terrain of new media.
In that lecture, the two-time Oscar-winning actor railed against the American TV network executives as too stuck in an outdated method for creating new shows and fostering new talent, arguing that simply creating pilots but not entire seasons of shows was doomed to failure. He went on to praise the visionaries behind Netflix who, he recounted, were thrilled to back two full seasons of his series House of Cards enthusiastically.
Spacey is now forging ahead by self-distributing a documentary he produced about his collaboration with director Sam Mendes (their first since the 1999 film American Beauty). Titled Now: In the Wings on a World Stage, the film follows the entire cast of a production of Shakespeare's Richard III throughout their 10-month world tour of the play. While the documentary celebrates a centuries-old play, it also marks Spacey's foray into what he sees as the new possibilities provided online: The film will be released in cinemas on May 15, but will also be available for purchase on Spacey's website (kevinspacey.com).
"I think there are films like this one, documentaries, that are undervalued by the industry," Spacey says. "Very often, films are slotted into a tiny niche; it's only going to have a tiny audience so we're going to play it here for a week. There are plenty of examples of films that I thought should have found much larger audiences but didn't end up getting them. Part of this is that I decided that rather than being frustrated by watching someone else do it, if I get frustrated now I know it's because of me."
The MacTaggart lecture was a turning point for Spacey himself: "At the end of the day, I thought I'm either going to walk the walk or I'm not, so I decided to walk."
Still, he says he was not expecting the lecture to go viral on YouTube. "There is now a whole new platform for content. I think the ways in which creativity and technology are meeting is very exciting. There are all these new ways that emerging talent are finding ways to get their work out there with new distribution models."
Spacey was the only actor ever to be asked to deliver the MacTaggart lecture in its 48-year history.
"When I looked at the speeches that many well known and powerful broadcasters had given, they were all from the executive position, or it felt like they were auditioning for an even bigger job in broadcasting. I wanted to go there and speak for creatives, and I thought it was an opportunity to do precisely that."
Spacey knows he is speaking against the overwhelming conventional wisdom, which is that the Internet is, in fact, proving to be a very destructive force, annihilating business models for all of the cultural industries while leaving little hope for new artists behind.
The record album, independent cinema and the novel are all being declared dead by creative types.
This is occurring, critics say, because the Internet enables piracy in a way that's unprecedented.
Spacey is defiantly optimistic, rejecting that claim. "Broad, sweeping statements are always dangerous. That may be true in some instances but not in others. People said that day-and-date [in which a film is released on all platforms on the same day] was going to ruin the movie business. No. People are going to go to movies because they like to go out to movies. People like to go out on dates. There will always be people in the world who will love books. There are also people who will love e-books.
"Give them what they want. Give them what they want and do it at a reasonable price and they'll pay for it, and that will cut down on piracy. Why do people like House of Cards? Because they can watch all of it when they want to. Why is Game of Thrones the single-largest pirated program in the history of television? Because people can't get it fast enough, so they steal it."
Some have argued quite convincingly that online promotion works best for people who already have achieved notoriety; that Spacey can pitch a TV series to Netflix successfully or distribute his own documentary precisely because he already has two Oscars and is a household name.
"I completely disagree with this. Have you heard of Lucas Cruikshank? A few years ago he made a video about a hyperactive kid [Fred] and posted it online. People liked it, so he made some more, and as of April his webisodes had one billion views. Someone said to me the other day, 'You're taking this risk because you can.' And I'm like, 'Okay, but I've been taking risks like this my whole life. This disruptive behaviour has been going on since I was eight.' It's not new to me."
Now: In the Wings on a World Stage opens Thursday, May 15 in a number of Canadian cities.