The Spark of Controversy

You might have heard a lot of the hype about the new documentary about Burning Man, Spark. It’s screening tonight in Reno at 7:30, then playing to 1400 people in Washington DC, heading to New York City, and playing to 500 or so up my way in Santa Rosa on July 9.

There is a plethora of other documentaries about Burning Man. Like, Dust and Illusions – the film Burning Man doesn’t want you to see, or the excellent Emmy-nominated Current TV coverage of a few years back (now seemingly deleted from the Current.TV web site, since its acquisition from Al Gore by the Arabian network Al Jazeera).

So what makes this one different?

Well, for one, the Burning Man founders have been quite prominent in attending its premieres around the country. That certainly wasn’t the case with Dust and Illusions. It debuted at SXSW in Austin this year, to mixed reviews. And the BMOrg have been behind it too, talking it up in the Jacked Rabbit Speaks and the official Burning Man web site. They even went so far as to create an entire online portal called Spark – which at the time I thought was a coincidence, but read on, perhaps not…(I’m not sure I can pin the coincidental name of nearby town Sparks, Nevada on BMOrg but if anyone has any Burnileaks style info on this, please send it in!)

tribesbmJust like the 7 Scandals besetting Our Prez right now, the leadership of Burning Man has yet another new scandal to contend with, thanks to the hard work of a perceptive Burner investigative journalist. Scribe is the author of The Tribes of Burning Man, probably the best book about Burning Man’s history (although if you want photos, Tomas Loewy’s Radical Burning Desert gets a lot of use on my coffee table).

He’s also a writer for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and their specialist on Burning Man. His recent 5-page cover story raises a lot of questions about the Spark Movie, and how much truth the Burner community is actually getting from the founders and leaders of BMOrg about what is going on.

A documentary called Spark: A Burning Man Story is arriving on the big screen, with dreams of wide distribution, at a pivotal moment for the San Francisco-based corporation that has transformed the annual desert festival into a valuable global brand supported by a growing web of interconnected burner collectives around the world.

Is that a coincidence, or is this interesting and visually spectacular (if slightly hagiographic) film at least partially intended to shore up popular support for the leadership of Burning Man as the founders cash out of Black Rock City LLC and supposedly begin to transfer more control to a new nonprofit entity?

Radical Burning Desert by Tomas Loewy

Radical Burning Desert by Tomas Loewy

Filmed during last year’s ticket fiasco — in which high demand and a flawed lottery system created temporary scarcity that left many essential veteran burners without tickets during the busy preparation season — both the filmmakers and leaders of Burning Man say they needed to trust one another.

After all, technology-entrepreneur-turned-director Steve Brown was given extensive, exclusive access to the sometimes difficult and painful internal discussions about how to deal with that crisis. And if he was looking to make a film about the flawed and dysfunctional leadership of the event — ala Olivier Bonin’s Dust & Illusions — he certainly had plenty of footage to make that storyline work.

But that wasn’t going to happen, not this time — for a few reasons. One, Brown is a Burning Man true believer and relative newbie who took its leaders at face value and didn’t want to delve into the details or criticisms of how the event is managed or who will chart its future. As he told us, that just wasn’t the story he wanted to tell.

We got trusted by the founders of Burning Man to do this story,” he told us. “They were in the process of going into a nonprofit and they wanted to get their message out into the world.”

So, sort of an authorized biography then.

Well, actually, more like a commissioned puff piece corporate story:

the filmmakers and their subjects are essentially in a partnership. Brown and the LLC’s leaders reluctantly admitted to us that there is a financial arrangement between the two entities and that the LLC will receive revenues from the film, although they wouldn’t discuss details with us.

Chris Weitz, an executive producer on the film, is also on the board of directors of the new nonprofit, The Burning Man Project, along with his wife, Mercedes Martinez. Both were personally appointed by the six members of the LLC’s board to help guide Burning Man into a new era.

Usually, if you star in a movie, you get paid. At least, you get a credit. In this case, we’re all the stars, we’re the talent, we pay to go there…and they profit from our images till the cows come home. How much? No-one’s saying, but for $150k you can do a Vogue Magazine Photo Shoot out there!

“We saw it as location fees. We’re making an investment, they’re making an investment,” he said, refusing to provide details of the agreement. “The arrangement we had with Burning Man is similar to the arrangements anyone else has had out there.”

Goodell said the LLC’s standard agreement calls for all filmmakers to either pay a set site fee or a percentage of the profits. “It’s standard in all of the agreements to pay a site fee,” Goodell said, noting that the LLC recently charged Vogue Magazine $150,000 to do a photo shoot during the event.

pallets-champagneNo wonder BMOrg were so pissed at Krug. They wanted their $150k. Or at least a pallet of champagne! Wonder if Town and Country had to pay similar buck$ too. This sponsorship of Burning Man by magazines, fashion labels etc. could be very lucrative, and could explain the difference between reported gate revenues (around $22 million) and the BLM fee of $1.87m for 3% – which brings us to a total event revenue closer to $62 million. What’s the deal with the missing 40 million dollars? Is the event actually much bigger than the permits, like some have speculated? Or is Burning Man cashing in big time on books, movies, TV shows, photo shoots, merchandising, the whole shebang?

Scribe very perceptively delves into the timing of this movie, with its unprecedented access to the founders and Org; the bizarre ticket lottery scandal, which could be looked at as a “culture jam” that shook the community up and made very clear the divide between veteran Burners (not so welcome any more, time to move on) and the new generation of Burgins (welcomed with open arms). It certainly made a great story thread for them to base a movie around – stirring the petri dish of Burners, creating carefully cultivated controversy amongst their Cargo Cult subjects with strange moves like “70% Virgins”. The other aspect of the timing of note is Larry Harvey’s announcement in 2011 (on April 1, no less) that Burning Man would transition to a non-profit over the next 3 years. We’ve got less than a year to go, and the vision and transition do not seem clear even to the leaders. Indeed, the Burning Man founders seem to be stepping back from their original idea of relinquishing control.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but Scribe thinks it’s going to bring a few eye-rolling moments to veteran Burners:

More cynical burner veterans may have a few eye-rolling moments with this film and the portrayals of its selfless leadership. While the discussions of the ticket fiasco raised challenging issues within the LLC, its critics came off as angry and unreasonable, as if the new ticket lottery had nothing to do with the temporary, artificial ticket scarcity (which was alleviated by summer’s end and didn’t occur this year under a new and improved distribution system).

And when the film ends by claiming “the organization is transitioning into a nonprofit to ‘gift’ the event back to the community,” it seems to drift from overly sympathetic into downright deceptive, leaving viewers with the impression that the six board members are selflessly relinquishing the tight control they exercise over the event and the culture it has spawned.

Yet our interview with the LLC leadership shows that just isn’t true. If anything, the public portrayals that founder Larry Harvey made two years ago about how this transition would go have been quietly modified to leave these six people in control of Burning Man for the foreseeable future.

So, is there actually a transition going on to a non-profit? Well, apparently, it’s complicated:

As altruistic as Spark makes Burning Man’s transition to nonprofit status sound, Harvey made it clear during the April 1, 2011 speech when he announced it that it was driven by internal divisions that almost tore the LLC board apart, largely over how much money departing board members were entitled to.

burning_man suitsThe corporation’s bylaws capped each board member’s equity at $20,000, a figure Harvey scoffed at as ridiculously low, saying the six board members would decide on larger payouts as part of the transition and they have refused to disclose how much (Sources in the LLC tell me the payouts have already begun. Incidentally, author Katherine Chen claimed in her book Enabling Creative Chaos that the $20,000 cap was set to quell community concerns about the board accumulating equity from everyone else’s efforts, but Harvey now denies that account).

In that speech, Harvey also said the plan was to turn over operation of the Burning Man event to the nonprofit after three years, and then three years later to transfer control over the Burning Man brand and trademarks and to dissolve the LLC (see “The future of Burning Man,” 8/2/11).

Board member Marian Goodell assured us at the time that the LLC would be doing extensive outreach to gather input on what the future leadership of the event and culture should look like: “We’re going to have a conversation with the community.”

But with just a year to go until the event was scheduled to be turned over to the nonprofit board, there has been no substantive transfer, the details of what the leadership structure will look like are murky — and the six board members of Black Rock LLC still deem themselves indispensable leaders of the event and culture.

The filmmakers say that the transition to the nonprofit was one of the things that drew them to the project, but the ticket fiasco came to steal their focus, mostly because the nonprofit narrative was simply too complex and confusing to easily convey on film.

According to Burning Man’s main founders Larry and Marian, everything is just fine. They’re on track to transfer the ownership to a new structure. They can’t just put everything into the Burning Man Project, so they’re still figuring out what to do with that and how it will interact with the party event. They definitely don’t want it to be a bureaucratic tyranny, so to protect us from that they’re going to control the culture more than ever before:

“We’re pretty much on schedule,” Harvey told me, noting that he still hopes to transfer ownership of the event over to the nonprofit next year. “The nonprofit is going well, and then we have to work out the terms of the relationship between the event and the nonprofit. We want the event to be protected from undue meddling and we want it to be a good fit.”

From our conversations, it appears that a new governance structure seems synonymous with the “meddling” they want to avoid.

“We want to make sure the event production has autonomy, so it can water the roads without board members deciding which roads and the number of tickets and how many volunteers,” Goodell said. “We did look at basically plopping the entire thing into the nonprofit, but if you look at what we’re trying to do out in the world, we don’t have any interest in becoming a big, large government agency.”

It was an analogy they returned to a few times: equating a new governance structure with bureaucratic tyranny. They rejected the notion that the new nonprofit would have “control” over the event, even though they want it to have “ownership” of the event.

“You just said the control of the event would be turned over to the nonprofit,” Goodell said.

“No, the ownership,” Harvey added.

“Yeah, there’s a difference,” Goodell said.

That difference seems to involve whether the six current board members would be giving up their control — which she said they are not.

larry world“All six of us plan to stay around. We’re not going off to China to buy a little house along the Mekong River,” Goodell said.

“We want to make sure the event production company has sufficient autonomy, they can function with creating freedom and do what it does best, which is producing the Burning Man event, without being unduly interfered with by the nonprofit organization,” Harvey said.

“That’s why you heard it one way initially, and you’re hearing it slightly differently now, and it could go back again,” Goodell said. “We don’t think it’s sensible, either philosophically or fiscally, to essentially strip away all these entities and take all these employees and plop them in the middle of The Burning Man Project.”

In other words, Black Rock LLC and its six members will apparently still produce the event — and it’s not clear what, exactly, the nonprofit will do.

We are giving up LLC-based ownership control, we are not giving up the steerage of the culture,” Goodell said. “That we’re not giving up. We’re more necessary now than ever.”

Scribe finishes his piece by presenting the two different viewpoints at play here.

There are at least a couple ways for burner true believers to look at the event, its culture, and its leadership. One is to see Burning Man as a unique and precious gift that has been bestowed on its attendees by Harvey, its wise and selfless founder, and the leadership team he assembled, which he formalized as an LLC in 1997.

That seems to be the dominant viewpoint, based on reactions that I’ve received to past critical coverage (and which I expect to hear again in reaction to this article), and it is the viewpoint of the makers of this film. “They’ve dedicated their lives to creating this platform that allows people to go out and create art,” Brown said.

Another point-of-view is to see Burning Man as the collective, collaborative effort that it claims to be, a DIY experiment conducted by the voluntary efforts of the tens of thousands of people who create the art and culture of Black Rock City from scratch, year after year.

Yes, we should appreciate Harvey and the leaders of the event, and they should get reasonable retirement packages for their years of effort. But they’ve also had some of the coolest jobs in town for a long time, and they now freely travel the world as sort of countercultural gurus, not really working any harder than most San Franciscans.

pile-of-moneyThe latter point is felt by many old time Burners, who are often under-employed and under-funded. The art is made collaboratively, and financed collaboratively. By us, not the BMOrg. Many feel that we’ve all made this event together and that the BMOrg is being unfair in their ruthless persecution of anyone trying to make a buck in the Burner commuity, while simultaneously maximizing profits behind closed doors and doing all kinds of licensing deals without any transparency. They don’t have to share the profits, it’s not communism, but at least let the rest of the Burner ecosystem profit from Burning Man too. Do they want to be Apple and Microsoft (who pay people to develop the intellectual property that they license and control) or do they want to be Open Source (where a community gifts to the commons, for the good of all)? We’ve all heard the talk, it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens in the next year if they actually do sort their transition plans out.

Burning Man 2.0 is starting to look suspiciously like Burning Man 1.0… just with less transparencytighter control over the culture; stepped up political campaigning in WashingtonNevada, and San Francisco;  new revenue streams from new media and new markets leading to a hugely expanded scope of revenue production from the event and brand that we all co-created together – aka “we pay them to be the talent and we take care of our own wardrobe, travel, accomodation and all expenses too”; more fragmented volunteer-run organizations that may or may not be doing lots of useful stuff away from the party to give back to the community; and last but by absolutely no means least, an unprecedented public relations blitz.

Since the announcement that the founders are cashing out, Burning Man has been all over the media like never before. To name a few: the Wall Street JournalBloombergNew York Times, LA Times, CNNReutersWashington Post, Rolling Stone, GQVogue, TimeTown and CountrySan Francisco magazine, New York magazine, CosmoSalon, Gawker, the Huffington Post, Forbes, IncFast CompanyBusiness Insider… even Popular Mechanics and the Delta Airlines in-flight magazine! The UK was included in the media blitz too, with repeated coverage in the Financial Times, the Times of London, the Guardian and the Daily Mail. Not to mention a documentary on Russia Today and an in-depth story on Australian TV.

facebook ringing bellIn an earlier post I raised the possibility that Burning Man’s interviews with Bloomberg could be seeding the garden for a possible IPO. Interestingly, this story was presented on Bloomberg as “The Spark That Created Burning Man Festival”. Spark again. Burn Wall Street – that’s certainly one way to get Wall Street’s attention, before you hit them up for money on your roadshow for “Silicon Valley’s Hottest Startup“.

Is there some multi-year plan afoot here, similar to Facebook’s idea to release an Oscar-winning movie before announcing their IPO (with another movie)? Or is it just a coincidence that Burning Man seems to have taken the travelling, speaking, and interviewing to a whole ‘nother dimension in the last couple of years?

Watch this space – Scribe has conducted quite a few interviews about this story, and will be bringing us more soon.

38 comments on “The Spark of Controversy

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  32. Very unimpressed (and extremely disappointed) to hear about the $150K Vogue shoot. This flies in the face of everything that burners care most about. Not cool at all.

  33. OK, so you wrote this article claiming that this documentary is basically a “commissioned puff piece” …yet, you haven’t even seen the film? How fair is that? Unlike you, I have seen the film (3 nights ago at a screening here in LA) and had a chance to talk to Brown about the access his crew had. Speaking as someone who has watched nearly every BM doc out there (including the excellent “Dust & Illusions”), and read several books (including Scribe’s excellent “Tribes”) I must say that this did not come off as a “puff piece” whatsoever. There was plenty of attention and screen time given to John Law and other critical voices. I think I know which scene Scribe is referring to as worthy of an eyeroll (org gathering on the beach to thank Larry) but overall, I think this was a very well done, well edited, beautifully shot film that offers an unprecedented behind the scenes look at what it takes to make the event work. I really enjoyed it and am anxious to see it again. I believe this article is unfairly critical, especially considering YOU HAVEN’T EVEN SEEN IT YET!

    • This story isn’t a film review at all. I’m commenting on an article about Burning Man which was in the Guardian, which of course I have read. The ONLY criticism I make in covering the article is that the secretive financial arrangement between the movie makers and the BMOrg that Scribe has uncovered, and the coincidental timing with the PR blitz, gives the impression that this is more of a corporate story or official biography. You object to my use of the term “puff piece” but you will notice that is crossed out. In my opinion this one piece of criticism has nothing to do with the movie, it is criticism of BMOrg, and the hypocrisy evident in their rabidly-anti-capitalist “Decommodification” stance.
      I hope to see the movie when it comes to my neck of the woods in July, of course if the makers would like to clear up this controversy we’d welcome their comments and a private screening.

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