20 July 2007


I was fortunate enough to be able to attend Alliance Atlantis' final staff party last week. I was expecting a smallish affair, but was blown away when I walked in the door. There were (I was told) some 600-odd people there. Which, upon reflection, really shouldn't have come as a surprise, since Alliance Atlantis is a pretty darn large company.

And that makes the fact that it was the last such party all the more sad. It only dawned on me on the day of the party that, by January 1st 2008 at the latest, Alliance Atlantis will cease to exist. Many of the more than 600 employees have no idea what the future holds for them. Kind of like me. So I felt even more like part of the group that night, the fear and trepidation about the future gripping more than just me.

I've been thinking a lot about what I'll do come September, when I'm no longer a paying member of the academic community. Where does an historian fit into the film and television industry? Does an historian have any place in this industry?

WAAAYYY back in the late 1980s (remember those days, when the neon we wore was matched in tackiness only by the size of women's bangs?), the American Historical Review dedicated an entire issue to this very topic. There are some useful points made by some of the contributors, such as the need for historians to understand how a motion picture actually, practically comes into existence. This back door entry into the film and tv industry is likely going to be the best way for me to have an impact as an historian.

The ethics of public history notwithstanding, a lot of historians look down on works produced and aired on History Television and the like. Part of the disdain, I believe, lies in a perverted sense of the medium in which I now operate. Historians are not, generally, trained to study moving pictures the way they are the written word. The two are very different, yet many continue to apply the same standards and rules to both, which is where things break down.

Perhaps, if I can keep my own standards up, and constantly remember what it is that I think is important in history, and if I work diligently in whatever aspect of the industry I find myself, I'll be able to make decisions that have a positive impact on the public and it's perception and favour for history. That's all I really want to do: make people interested in what happened before today. To do that, the history I create can't be like a chore for those I try to engage. Much of the criticism I've heard - and felt - leveled at history over the years is that it's boring. Which is why I called this blog The Pastime of Past Time; I think history should, and can, be fun, not taxing to the spirit.

I was speaking with Michael Kot, the Director of Original Production at History, about where film and history intersect. One thing he reiterated - and that I've heard almost constantly at History when talking about the production side of the business - is the importance that story plays in everything we do. Having a strong story will draw people in. If people are entertained, they'll keep watching. And maybe, just maybe, we can trick them into learning something. For me, all history (that is, the product of someone's work, not the past as it happened) is about is telling stories, anyway.

I listened to a great podcast this week that mentioned how the things that stay in our brains are the things we focus on and spend more time doing. And it makes sense that people are going to spend more time watching a film or television show they enjoy, rather than one they don't. And since probably 99% of people who tune in to movies and television do so for entertainment first, and education second (if at all, myself included), they're not going to watch something that doesn't entertain them.

Rather than try to get people to change the reasons why they watch history programming, I think the people working at, for, and with History have it right. They're attempting to make and choose shows that fit in with peoples' expectations, without sacrificing their historical integrity.

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