Jonathan Clements reviews a new book on online cinema
You won’t find ‘oppositional readings’ or ‘queer theory’ in Variety. There’s no chin-stroking or head-scratching in Screen International. The trade journals often treat film so dispassionately that they might as well be talking about soap powder. They are concerned solely with facts and numbers. What are Tokyo audiences embracing this week? How long will take us to earn our money back? How much tax will the Germans write off if we run our film company out of an office in Berlin instead of New York? Too many film students end up studying neither film itself nor the business of film, and end up as unemployable cineastes, who can tell you a bit about Hitchcock but wouldn’t know a box office return if it bit them. Which is why Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves On-Line is such a refreshing book to arise out of academia – its authors don’t much care if you liked Inception or were offended by Antichrist. What they really care about is how you saw them, and where your money went.
Editors Dina Iordanova and Stuart Cunningham are interested in ‘political economy’, which is to say the business of how stuff gets done. And they have assembled an impressive team of pundits with something to say about how stuff is getting done right now, as the cinema industry suffers an onslaught of downloads, streaming, and web distractions. This includes many overseas initiatives, such as the Brazilian scheme that restores cinema to its traditional ‘event’ status, and essentially allows members to flash-mob cinema programmes by voting for the content they want. There are also case studies of the Indian download service Jaman, the IMDB, Withoutabox and MUBI – plenty of hard data for the reader who wants to get to grips with the digital future.
The subtitle claims that Iordanova and Cunningham's punchy, provocative book is a study of ‘Cinema’ online, but much of its rhetoric drifts towards a rediscovery of ‘Television’, or perhaps what we should now call the ‘Media Mix’. The answers to many of the questions posed within it are often not to be found in cinema but in broadcasting.
When Digital Disruption is rooted in statistics, it is a powerfully persuasive book. The last decade of the internet is clogged with straw-man arguments and ill-founded assumptions, which only real data can defeat. It is fascinating, for example, to read Stuart Cunningham and Jon Silver’s account of Hollywood’s failed attempts to get into the legal downloading business, which ate up $100 million in the first decade of the 21st century, and ended with a number of start-ups off-loaded at bargain-bin prices. It’s also very useful to see actual numbers, with, for example, iTunes assessed in November 2008 as an entity that sold over two thousand films an hour. Would it be better to regard it as a virtual ‘city’ to add to pre-existing markets, like a ghost Hong Kong with its own traditions, players and styles? For the writers of Digital Disruption, that’s less important than the infinite potential offered by the internet for creating a hundred or a thousand Hong Kongs of revenue overnight.
Michael Gubbins offers an incisive outline of the many ways in which new technology has altered the cinema, not only at the production level of Dolby sound and 3D cinemas, but at overlooked parts of the cinema process – online booking, the ‘amplification’ of personal opinion through online reviews and bloggery, and sudden trending changes. Gubbins describes the modern shifts in power, pointing out, for example, that audiences are more likely to listen to fellow audience members (or people whom they believe to be fellow audience members) rather than professional critics. He quotes Alan Parker, the chairman of the UK Film Council in 2003, who noted that ‘in a successful industry, distribution pulls production behind it.’ Such a quote must be music to the ears of anyone in the anime business, where informal fandom is often months ahead of official releases. It’s why anime has been a go-to audience sample for the last 30 years – anime fans have always been early adopters of trends, technology and tentacles.
Michael Franklin offers a different view of the internet, saying that while illegal downloads are a threat to the film industry, legal downloads are also a challenge to what he calls the ‘film value chain’ -- the way in which the risky cost of investing in a film is off-set by step-by-step developmental processes. In other words, your next-door neighbour might say that he’s got an idea for the next Dragon Ball Z, but if you want to see it, you will have to give him ten million pounds. If you don’t have that kind of money lying around, it used to be that he would have to steer his idea through a labyrinth of sponsors, due diligence, co-producers and venture capital, so that you can try it in a few years for a tenner. As Franklin points out, your hypothetical next-door neighbour now also lives ‘next door’ to the rest of the planet, thanks to the internet, and ‘all’ he has to do is get you and a million other people to give him a tenner, and he’s off! Franklin offers different examples of innovative strategies in modern marketing, such as the producers of notorious moon-Nazi movie Iron Sky using fan ‘Likes’ and Google Maps to track the best places to release their film.
Marijke de Valck dives in on film festivals, identifying the value in the 21st century of targeted media events. This isn’t news to you if you’ve been to the Anime All-Nighters at Sci-Fi London or the double-weekend anime overload that is Scotland Loves Anime. But de Valck offers another argument, that in the coming digital future such festivals will be vital helmsmen to steer taste, even in their know-all niches. You can call yourself an anime fan and watch nothing but a zillion episodes of Naruto, but a film festival might drag you just far enough from your comfort zone to try Summer Wars. This, she points out, is a good thing.
It’s great to see academics in film studies turning away from access and authorship, and looking instead at issues of exhibition and distribution. Film studies can all too often turn into saying what you think about something you’ve seen and that does not translate well into discussing industrial or economic processes. But there are only a very few moments in Digital Disruption where the authors allow their rigour to lapse, usually at the periphery of their chosen topics. One article, for example, collapses into breathless gush when discussing the Internet Movie Data Base, where ‘you can rapidly find in-depth information on almost any film, TV programme, actor or crewmember from any era and almost any country.’ No, you can’t, as another article in the same book makes clear. Another author makes unfounded claims about Stieg Larsson’s Millennium books, confusing expensive public advertising and relentless bookshop promotions with word-of-mouth ‘success’. 'Success' and 'popular' are both weasel words in academic criticism, all too often used as hand-waving suggestions that the work being studied is also known to more than a dozen people, and not merely the first thing that the author stumbled across in the store. While nobody would claim that Larsson's books are not 'successful', I would raise such a query about many other sites and works cited in this volume, some of which seem awfully obscure, untested, and/or simply destined for the historical dustbin. But that is part of Digital Disruption's bravado and achievement -- in even trying to chronicle the digital revolution as it is happening, it is sure to back a few wrong horses. Better that than waiting a decade until only an idiot would fail to spot the trends and identify the players.
Digital Disruption paints an enthusiastic picture of widening choice and unprecedented access, in which anime fans in Bogota can decide on a whim to spend all day watching cartoons from the 1940s, should they so desire. But it also offers a shadowy warning, best summarised by Gubbins in his observation that there is a ‘big gap between the theoretical increase in choice and the delivery of commercially-viable content’. Sure, we might be facing a bright future of more anime than you could ever hope to watch. But we might also be facing a blaring, cacophonous wall of whirling content that offers everything and nothing, and in which ‘cinema’ devolves into nothing more than blank-faced teenagers, staring gormlessly at YouTube videos of cats. Even in the future, you get what you pay for.
Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves On-Line is available now from St Andrews Film Studies.