The film-making collective calling itself California Newsreel was formed in 1975 from the ashes of a San Francisco Newsreel branch which had absorbed the sort of gut-wrenching political upheavals and bitter factionalism that shook the New York group during the same period. (The chief source of San Francisco's division was a move toward the Revolutionary Communist Party by certain influential Newsreel members.) By 1978, California Newsreel was comprised of three white males—Larry Daressa, Larry Adelman, and Bruce Schmiechen—none of whom had been a part of the earlier incarnation of the San Francisco Newsreel collective that produced Black Panther and other militant films from 1968 to 1973. Several years later, another collective member was brought on to deal exclusively with archival and distributional matters (a black man, Cornelius Moore), while only recently Schmiechen has left the collective to pursue independent projects.
No greater contrast could prevail between Cal Newsreel and its predecessors with regard to its financial underpinnings, organizational precision, and concentration on distribution over production. Unlike New York Newsreel of the early years (and to a lesser extent Third World Newsreel), California Newsreel has emphasized distribution over production. Indeed, in the twelve years of its existence, the collective has produced only two films of its own while becoming a major player within a clearly demarcated sector of the educational film market. Cal Newsreel distributes films of particular interest to an audience of economists, sociologists, and labor historians for classroom use; to labor educators and organizers within the trade union movement; and to various progressive and special interest groups at the grass-roots level (churches, action groups, campus organizations). The two films produced, Controlling Interest and The Business of America . . ., were the results of the collective's perception of a felt need within this clearly defined audience and within the Left in general. Controlling Interest attempts in its 45 minutes to explain the complex nature and operating procedures of the multinational corporation and was produced at a time when no such study was available for purposes of political education. The film has sold over 800 prints since its release in 1978.
The Business of America . . . likewise aimed to fill a gap in the available public-educational resources. It was conceived in the aftermath of the Reagan victory and was intended as a more personalized treatise than the data-heavy Controlling Interest , capable of exposing the massive failures of the Reagan economic program and its supply-side, trickle-down ethos. Both films "found" their audience precisely because they were tailored to its particular needs—arrived at through a variety of feed-back mechanisms and close contact with the client groups.
No longer can the Newsreel audience be defined as an amorphous mass of like-minded individuals concerned to stay abreast of breaking stories of exploitation and political victories. It's now a discrete body of buyers or renters of a media product deemed vital to the educational needs of their organization or curriculum. What is interesting about this shift is that, to a certain extent, these two audiences overlap inasmuch as the 1980s generation of Left academics, organizers, and educators are largely drawn from that ill-defined body of radicalized spectators of the late sixties/early seventies. If California Newsreel seems a more briskly functional and business-like version of its progenitors, the same can be said of its audience, the Left activists who have survived into the eighties, who have withstood the onslaught of budget cuts, diminishing numbers, and the nation's mood swing to the right.
Since I have discussed the two California Newsreel productions at length elsewhere, it seems more appropriate to concentrate here on the significant features of the organization as a business enterprise. The San Francisco group has remained profitable by a combination of prescience and hard work. In the months after the Soweto uprisings in South Africa (June 1976), a collective decision was made to choose a Southern African focus—to purchase the distribution rights to a variety of films about Southern Africa and related issues in order to distribute them to interested parties worldwide. At the time, no such collection of films existed; even now, California Newsreel is the world's principal source of films on apartheid, divestment, and related issues with a total of 21 documentaries acquired from independents and the BBC alike.
The escalation of apartheid aggression throughout Southern Africa over the past several years and the upswing of world interest in countering the brutality of the Botha government through sanctions and strategies of resistance have subsequently rendered these films a resource in high demand. During the recent nationwide surge of campus protests against corporate investment in South Africa, California Newsreel played a vital role in boosting the level of educated debate simply by providing a range of relevant films as well as printed material researched and developed over nearly a decade.[*] Once again, although perhaps in a less dramatic fashion than in 1968, Newsreel was in the right place at the right time.
California Newsreel's formula for fiscal success combines business acumen with a knack for low-budget production made possible by the shrewd recy-
cling of archival footage and, in the beginning at least, the ability to attract donated labor (crew members, editing assistants, etc.). Controlling Interest was made for $30,000 with only 10% of that figure generated internally. The Methodist Church, small foundations, and concerned individuals provided the bulk of the funding for that project while The Business of America . . . was financed largely (2/3 of the $120,000 total cost) by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the corporate arm of the Public Broadcasting System now firmly controlled by Reagan acolytes. In the first year of its circulation, more than 250 prints of the film were sold to what can only be considered its secondary market (a series of nationwide PBS airdates broadcast the film to approximately four million Americans).
The remarkable truth is that California Newsreel can boast liquid assets sufficient to ensure its existence for years to come. In spite of its bountiful resources, each collective member draws the same salary ($25,000 annually) and will continue to do so, no matter how bullish the Left-wing educational film market may become. In fact, all workers—from Daressa and Adelman to the person who sweeps the floors at the crumbling, warehouse-district office perched in its San Francisco alleyway—receive the same base pay. This feature of the organization is its clearest link with Newsreel's past. There is one additional point of tangency with the early days, at least with one faction of the first New York collective. California Newsreel's activities as producer and distributor are deeply tied to the perceived requirements of the American Left and are calculated in pragmatic, politically sophisticated terms. Like the core membership of New Left ideologues of the late sixties, Cal Newsreel (and Daressa in particular) is equal to the task of mastering the vagaries of contemporary Marxist theory as well as mainstream economic thought and of offering cogently argued, conceptually sound analyses and critiques of national labor policies and long-term economic programs.
In something of a departure from its past achievements, California Newsreel has chosen to mark its twentieth anniversary year by launching a major five-year project aimed at deconstructing media as conventionally produced and received. This "Media on Media" project will attempt to use the prevailing technology (namely, broadcast television) to generate a meta-discourse on communications, an anti-television capable of exploring new modes of expression as well as new techniques for reading—in effect, to establish a context for exchange between media products and their audiences. California Newsreel thus commits itself to the creation of an environment favorable to a rejuvenated, experimental, reflexive documentary form at a moment of flagging hopes among American independent producers.
California Newsreel thus announces a dramatic shift of emphasis from "point of production" (the workplace) to "point of reception" (the home)
consistent with its analysis of the political/cultural focus that Left organizations need to develop in present circumstances. But the concern for engaging a nationwide rather than Movement audience is in accord with the organizations's public profile for nearly a decade. As co-chair of the National Coalition of Independent Public Television Producers, Larry Daressa has lobbied strenuously in Washington for a more meaningful role for independent producers within public broadcasting's program schedule as a way of insuring the vitality of contestation within an ever more uniform cultural climate. The present "Media on Media" project, while unique to the American airwaves, is clearly consistent with the efforts of British Channel Four's Michael Jackson, producer of "Open the Box" (1986), a six-part series exploring the complexities and social effects of television, and Jean-Luc Godard, whose groundbreaking videoworks of the seventies (Six Fois Deux and France/Tour/Detour/Deux Enfants ) radically challenged the French viewing public's media expectations at formal and thematic levels. Indeed, California Newsreel's ultimate aim is to intervene in the viewing habits of America, to alter not so much what we see but how we see it. This will mean working to establish a space for innovation and experimentation on American television, perhaps through the creation of an Independent Programming Service on the order of Britain's Channel Four to explore new dissemination technologies and sponsor unconventional programming. Perhaps it is the sheer scale of such aspirations that provides the clearest vector of continuity with the New Left utopianism of Newsreel's founding moment.