End Smithsonian-Showtime Deal, Filmmakers and Historians Ask

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 18, 2006

More than 200 filmmakers and historians asked the Smithsonian Institution yesterday to abandon its production deal with Showtime Networks and reconsider a recently imposed policy that limits access to Smithsonian archives and experts.

In a letter to Secretary Lawrence M. Small, the Smithsonian's top official, the group objected to restrictions on filmmakers and researchers who seek "more than incidental" use of its public archives. After the Smithsonian signed with Showtime to make television programming, filmmakers and researchers whose projects focused extensively on the Smithsonian's holdings or staff were informed that they had to offer their film treatments first to Showtime.

"This policy will discourage independent filmmakers from creating projects for other media outlets. Indeed, this policy will also discourage an independent filmmaker from making a documentary and releasing it on the Internet on a noncommercial basis," said the letter, which was released by the Washington-based Center for American Progress.

The 214 signatories included actress Anna Deavere Smith, filmmakers Ken Burns and Michael Moore, as well as university professors and officials of WGBH in Boston and WNET in New York, two of the largest production units within the public broadcasting system.

The new policy on access was instituted at the beginning of the year but made public only last month. Objections to the exclusivity deal with Showtime have been particularly heated among documentary filmmakers, who regularly draw on Smithsonian materials and already pay fees to do so.

"I was horrified that the Smithsonian would even contemplate a deal that would give a for-profit broadcaster the right of first refusal," said Nina Gilden Seavey, an Emmy-winning filmmaker and director of the Documentary Center at George Washington University. "It is a fire sale of the nation's history."

Howard Besser, director of the moving image archiving and preservation program at New York University, concurred: "A public institution should not make exclusive agreements with commercial entities that preclude others from doing documentaries."

The letter, also sent to members of Congress, criticized the Smithsonian for not releasing its agreement with Showtime and asked for the contract to be annulled because it was not subject to a competitive process and was finalized without public comment. The signers asked for hearings before the Smithsonian took "any further actions that limit access to the collections" or staff at the institution.

The Smithsonian maintains that the contract is a private business agreement, executed with private funds, and that its contents are propriety information. In recent years, it has stepped up all of its business enterprises to earn unrestricted income for various projects. Its appropriation from Congress -- $644 million this year -- is used mainly for salaries and upkeep and repair of its buildings.

"We honor our contracts. This is a signed contract," said Linda St. Thomas, director of media relations for the Smithsonian. "The policy is only for filmmakers who are making a film for broadcast."

But the letter, citing the museum's standing as a publicly chartered operation that receives 75 percent of its funds from Congress, said: "The Smithsonian Institution is not merely a business venture."

Linda K. Kerber, the president of the American Historical Association, also sent Small a letter objecting to the research rules. "We appreciate the difficult financial situation the Institution now faces, but expediency cannot outweigh the standards that should guide a premier institution for preserving the nation's historical legacy," Kerber wrote.

The Center for American Progress scheduled a panel discussion today with Burns, the award-winning filmmaker who mined material at the National Museum of American History for his PBS series "Jazz."

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