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Shadow Economies of Cinema

Wednesday 25th April 2012

Jonathan Clements reviews a new book on “hidden” cinema

Shadow Economies of CinemaIt was a good day at Central Park Media. After several months of sneaking around and clandestine meetings, they sent in the heavies. A bunch of New York policemen and a lawyer from CPM kicked in the door of a warehouse to find thousands upon thousands of VHS tapes, stacked from floor to ceiling. Many were CPM anime products. All were pirated.

Quite by accident, I was talking to one of CPM’s staff a decade ago when the news broke, which meant I got to hear the euphoria and excitement close at hand. Jeff the marketing guy confided to me that this was by no means the first time they had uncovered such a duplication ring. They just hadn’t told anyone. Following negative publicity in the late twentieth century, when any anime industry initiative to crack down on criminals was met with internet bleating and self-entitled trolling, the US anime business had, ironically, begun to conduct its piracy enforcement below the radar. The seizure of thousands of dollars’ worth of counterfeit tapes was a matter of private celebration, but it was not widely reported.

Piracy, as Ramon Lobato notes in his new book, is as old as cinema itself, with Georges Melies’ Voyage to the Moon (1902) widely ripped off all over the world. But nobody has devoted quite the attention or academic rigour to piracy as Lobato, whose Shadow Economies of Cinema is a superb contribution to film studies. Lobato doesn’t merely rehash tired arguments of ownership and access, industry's speculative (and to him "dubious") logic of loss or fandom’s recurring doctrine of lapse; he provides hard data and persuasive models about those areas of the film world that are usually ignored. Lobato’s interest is not merely in illegal activities in the film business, but in completely legal elements that rarely get any attention. He notes that 59% of the American film market alone is “straight-to-video”, arguing that while much of this material might be crap, it’s still relevant, and forms the “invisible bulk” of the global industry. As they might say on the street – traditional film distribution is the 1%, but that leaves 99% of other stuff, that doesn’t get the newspaper coverage or the academic examination. It doesn't qualify for the Oscars and it doesn't get reviewed in Sight & Sound. But its fans love it just the same. Or at least endure it.

In fact, as Lobato argues, “informal” networks (legal and illegal) can offer distribution of films and subjects outside the mainstream -- for ethnic minorities otherwise unserved, for interests not quite mainstream enough, and... well, anime. Bleach and Naruto are heavy hitters in modern UK anime, but neither of them is actually on British television. The hundreds of thousands of discs they have shifted have been largely “invisible” to the TV-watchers of Britain, even though both were “television serials” in their native Japan. If you’re a British fan of these shows, you are watching another culture’s television below your own culture’s radar. You’re part of what Lobato calls “informal distribution.”

AkiraStatistics, of course, can be misleading. If we take just two films from the US market, we can soon see why. Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira did very nicely for itself on American cinema screens, generating a million dollars for Streamline Pictures. But Pixar’s Toy Story did a million dollars’ business every week, for six months. Lobato’s argument that something like Akira is just as important as Toy Story will be welcome news to anime fans, although straightforward financial statistics tell us that Akira’s footprint in the marketplace is nowhere as big as Toy Story’s. But sometimes that doesn’t matter. Of the cinema-goers who loved Akira. 100,000 of them came back and bought it on tape. And Carl Macek, who claimed that Akira was once one of the most pirated tapes ever, fought back against the thieves with added value, giving away a free cel with every purchase. Ironically, the cels had been earmarked for disposal by Akira’s production company -- regarded as industrial waste in Japan, they were bonus assets in the American market.

Sometimes, the formal networks still have the big bucks, although not always, as the shadowy returns from pornography seem to suggest. Film scholars like to write about the legitimate institutions, at least in part because some of them, at least, can provide actual data. Pirates don’t pay tax or publish their sales figures, and legitimate media companies are not above massaging the figures, bigging up their sales to journalists and underplaying them to the taxman. All of which makes Lobato’s book a deeply helpful account of how the shadow economy of film actually works.

Lobato notes that the phenomenon we call “piracy” has many different flavours, and investigates the implications of them all: piracy as free enterprise, as theft, as authorship, as free speech, as resistance, and as access. All of these modes have come up over the last twenty years in discussion of anime, used as justifications by criminals and consumers alike. In the case of Central Park Media’s take-down, this wasn’t a couple of students with linked video recorders. The pirates they busted were a massive industrial operation that also extended to a shadow-line of distribution. Men hawking bogus wares would drive to remote service stations and video stores, representing themselves as the legal salesmen for a number of legit video companies. The mom-and-pop store owners would take them at their word and buy tapes to rent out locally, unaware that they were actually buying stolen goods. Criminal money was efficiently laundered in these hand-shake deals, with the store owners assuming that the tapes they were selling were entirely legitimate.

And so, when an ex-girlfriend gleefully reported that she found one of my anime translations (let’s call it Schoolgirl Milky Crisis) on sale in Botswana, my first thought was not a happy one. Did they even speak English in Botswana? (Apparently they did) Or was my name still visible on the box because a video pirate had copied the cover without understanding its meaning? Piracy is big business, but it’s only part of Lobato’s shadow economy, which also incorporates discussions of torrenting, downloads, cam copies, video hosting and cyberlockers. And jackrabbiting, which is apparently the term for what those travelling salesmen were doing -- passing off illegal access as legal access, a practice that has also been prevalent in cinema since its earliest days. Back in olden times, it ran to outlying cinema owners putting on screenings of films without telling the distributors, and thereby relieving them of their legitimate cut.

Ghost in the ShellDuring the first Gulf War, two UK anime companies made a habit of sending free tapes out to army bases – Kiseki had ex-military men on staff who wanted to do their mates a favour; Manga Entertainment just wanted to do something for the troops. It tells you something about how good-intentioned this was that neither company ever tried to make marketing capital out of it. They just did it; once again, behind the scenes, below the radar, not part of the ongoing public conversation with fans. I have no idea what all the paratroopers and snipers made of Ghost in the Shell. The mind boggles. Anyway, inevitably, some of these cassettes ended up in the wrong hands, and contributed to a thriving piracy business in the Middle East. A couple of years later, a baffled producer from Manga Entertainment showed me the weirdest fan letter he’d ever seen, from a viewer in Iraq asking where he could buy legitimate tapes, as the quality of the pirate videos he’d been watching was awful. It’s anecdotes like these that the industry largely avoids mentioning, because rhetorically, it suggests that a preview medium, even an illegal one, can help establish legitimate sales. However, current research suggests there is only a fractional, barely relevant increase in likely sales from free previews versus an unknown quantity of lost sales through theft, which means “free” media has to find some other means of getting its income -- from toy tie-ins, or collector’s editions, or.... something. The flipside, of course, is that if consumers stop being consumers altogether, and just leech, it makes a product impossible to manufacture at a profit. As the late Noboru Ishiguro noted recently, if absolutely nobody (fans, TV stations, video stores, whoever) will pay for anime, anime companies won’t make it any more.

Warriors of the WindLobato places piracy as just part of “informal film distribution”, a model of the film world that cheekily, and productively turns everything on its head. What if, Lobato asks, “traditional” cinema is the exception, and most of the film business might be said to operate in rental stores and on laptops? Not merely here, but in Mexican slums and Nigerian souks? Lobato argues that traditional institutions of film, such as cinema theatres and film studios are accorded a form of “epistemological authority”, but that there is no reason not to treat “informal” distribution networks with the same importance. After all, as one wag put it, if you’re going straight-to-video, you’re either on the way up or on the way down. That obscure 1980s “straight-to-video” cartoon, Warriors of the Wind, was a legal release, yet is treated like toxic waste by its director, who fashioned it as a bespoke, theatrical feature, only to see the informal economy turn it into bargain-bin junk. Then again, that director, Hayao Miyazaki, would eventually win an Oscar, so might arguably be said to have had the last laugh.

In a recent interview with Colony Drop, I found myself saying that Studio Ghibli’s absence from English video distribution for much of the 1990s might have been a blessing in disguise. Miyazaki was so incensed by the butchering of Nausicaa into Warriors of the Wind, that he made it impossible for anyone but a real film studio to afford the rights to his subsequent movies. As a result, his later films were arguably spared similar desultory treatment, and not permitted to wither and die in the hands of the “wrong” distributor. But that’s the kind of backwards reasoning that Lobato encourages. Can there be advantages to informal distribution, even if, as in the case of Miyazaki’s (entirely justifiable) decade-long strop, they are structuring absences that are only valuable in hindsight?

Lobato’s book doesn’t mention anime all that much, but so much of what he has to say is directly relevant to countless fights and spats at conventions, in podcasts and online, between anime fans and the industry that wants their money. Lobato challenges people who write about film to think about films as objects of distribution, not merely as texts to be appreciated. In doing so, he opens up all sorts of cans of worms about the way that films get made. And he tells some fantastic stories; such as the tale of Spike Lee, who decided to take enforcement into his own hands after the release of Malcolm X, by wandering the streets of Harlem with a baseball bat, looking for pirate vendors.

Shadow Economies of Cinema is a thought-provoking book that will help place anime in its historical context, not only as part of a medium hidden in the shadows of the mainstream, but also as the innocent victim of a “black and grey” economy run by spivs, shysters and thieves. I don't agree with everything Lobato says, but possibly he doesn't either -- he is honourably careful to present both sides of every story, however unpalatable. He makes some very good cases about copyright enclosures and the fact that there can be such a thing as "too much" formality, that literally makes it impossible for consumers to legally buy the products they want. It's a fascinating distribution- and exhibition-led study of modern media, with much relevance to the anime world.

Shadow Economies of Cinema: Mapping Informal Film Distribution is out now from the British Film Institute.

Shadow Economies of Cinema


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