The controversial documentary 'Catfish' debuted at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival to a tsunami of hype as vague as it was ecstatic -- nine months and one memorable (if painfully contrived) trailer later, the $30,000 film swept through America's art house cinemas to the tidy tune of $3 million. Ostensibly the true story of a plucky New York filmmaker's Facebook relationship with the women of a Midwestern family, 'Catfish' was successfully promoted as a mystery thriller dependent upon its secrets. More often than not, however, conversations about the flick eventually became about the veracity of its details and circumstances, and filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost were put on trial as if the media were Oprah and they were James Frey.
The debate was embarrassing to watch, as skepticism towards modern media is thematically central to the film, and the notion that any documentary could (or even should) be entirely objective was debunked decades ago. The controversy was obviously lucrative for everyone involved, even if 'Catfish's' biggest reveal was that it was too trite and simple-minded to warrant such a fuss in the first place.
But if there's one thing audiences hate, it's
And here come the spoilers:
So Nev -- our inexplicably tramp-stamped hero -- is developing a bit of a crush on "Megan," the supposed sexpot daughter of the family with which he's become enamored. One day, Megan sends Nev a song that she wrote for him. It's later revealed in the film that Megan (and the rest of her family) is actually Angela, a sad older woman who has mastered the world of web 2.0 in a desperate bid for friendship, and that the song her foxiest persona "recorded" for Nev was actually a tune by singer-songwriter Amy Kuney. Kuney is signed to Spin Move Records, and the label was initially pretty jazzed about the whole thing, even going so far as to post about it on their website ("Our artist is great, but also generic enough that she can believably fit into your massive web of lies!").
Spin Move didn't even ask Relatively Media for compensation, as 'Catfish' is a documentary and thus free to ignore copyrights under the guise of fair use. But then someone at Spin Move realized that it isn't fair use if 'Catfish' isn't a documentary, and decided to be all: "I know it was cool when we gave it to them for free, but wouldn't it be even cooler if they paid us an ungodly sum of money for it!?" It's the same time-honored logic that's supported lucrative enterprises like prostitution and Hulu Plus, and it was only a matter of time before the boutique Santa Monica record label sought their due compensation.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Spin Move Records (which is owned by Threshold Media Corp.) has been trying to get Relativity to pay them licensing fees for a while, but the people behind the film are refusing to relent. 'Catfish' producer Marc Smerling argues that, "This is definitely fair use because it's a true story," but he's well aware that any prolonged legal battle would force the filmmakers to divulge precious details about their film under oath. Smerling followed his comment by adding: "We are hoping to come to a fair and equitable arrangement with them," which certainly reads as if this tussle will end in an undisclosed settlement of some kind. Of course, that Relativity Media and co. would rather settle than openly discuss the tactics with which they created 'Catfish' supports the notion that the film was even more manufactured than viewers might expect.
The point might ultimately be moot, but the details of this particular movie are infinitely less interesting than the questions a potential court case might raise about the fragile relationship between copyright infringement and documentary filmmaking. When Joaquin Phoenix sat on David Letterman's couch and revealed that 'I'm Still Here' was a hoax, the late night host jokingly(?) demanded to be paid a hefty sum for his unwitting appearance in the film. The whole thing was apparently laughed off, but don't be surprised if 2010 goes down as the last year in which use was commonly determined to be fair.