By Jasper Sharp.
Home viewers have become the most substantial market for the Hollywood majors. At the turn of the millennium, revenues from VHS sales and rentals amounted to three times those of box-office receipts, while Stephen Sommers’ CG-slathered The Mummy (1999) earned more for Universal in the US on its first week on home video than it did on its opening week in cinemas, as Virginia Crisp points out in her scholarly survey, Film Distribution in the Digital Age: Pirates and Professionals.
Certainly, a large part of the home-video success of Sommers’ summer blockbuster was its release at a time when DVD had just made the transition from a cinephile and techie novelty to being a mainstream fixture in the family home. This already seems a near-forgotten period in our new era of immediacy and abundance due to the “digital disruptors” like Netflix and Amazon, following the term used by Dina Iordanova and Stuart Cunningham in their 2012 anthology Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves On-line.
It is clear that evolving methods and strategies of distribution have had a massive impact on what has been made available for us to watch. They have also have had their bearing on the type and number of that films are made, how they are made and where they come from.
Crisp’s emphasises this new digital environment, charting its technologies and mechanics while defining and interrogating “what this ‘traditional’ Hollywood structure of distribution is, how it functions and, significantly, how it has hitherto maintained Hollywood’s dominance over the global film industry.”
But while Hollywood might remain central to the discussion, it is certainly not the be-all-and-end-all of the discussion. The author examines the global movie industry, covering the historical relationship between various theatrical distributors, terrestrial and digital broadcasters, and VoD platforms and the financials behind the multi-platform release of the Ben Wheatley-directed A Field in England (2013).
The approach should be of particular interest to East Asian film fans, in that the two UK distributors used as case studies for the chapter “‘Independent’ Distributors” – Tartan Films and Adam Torel’s one-man band Third Window Films – have each carved out a niche for themselves and radically changed the discourse surrounding contemporary Japanese, Korean and Hong Kong cinema.
In the case of Third Window, the nature of the brand has evolved through a close dialogue with loyal fans by way of Internet forums and specialist film festivals, allowing the company to make its mark within a notoriously difficult market. This is contrasted with the more traditional set-up of Tartan, the purveyors of the notorious “Asia Extreme” marketing label, a brand that ultimately left the company with little room to manoeuvre. The book rather downplays the fact that Tartan, at one point highly influential in shaping Western visions of Eastern cinema, folded in 2008.
An all-encompassing view of the distribution sector looks beyond those individuals and organisations more immediately involved in cinema prints and DVD publishing towards other “professional” and “legitimate” agents in the process, such as acquisition executives, festival programmers, television schedulers, in-flight entertainment purchasers and marketers.
More provocatively, Crisp’s focus tips towards the “nonprofessional”, and by most definitions “illegitimate”, activities of figures such as fansubbers and pirates. She argues that if distribution is to be considered in terms of “the interactions between informal and formal networks for the dissemination of films”, studies that overlook the former are only providing a limited part of the picture.
Both pirates and professionals are, as Crisp postulates, not only distributors, but can be included within the category of “gatekeepers.” For those within the cultural industries, the term is a pejorative one. It is usually targeted at those that hinder rather than assist access, and is aimed at knocking the critics, curators and others off the perches from which they usually foreground their own expertise, entitlement and tastes.
However, the author encourages us to think in less value-laden terms. Professional gatekeepers and pirates are a fact of life, shaping the economic landscape of the film industry. After all, distribution is not only related to providing access, but also to constricting it.
Thousands and thousands of films are released across the world each year, and it is clear that, in terms of supply-and-demand, the industry will never be able to legitimately release more than a fraction through digital streaming services, and even fewer in today’s dwindling market for cinema exhibition.
How, then, might an Argentinian fan of Wong Kar-wai’s work get to feel like they are part of a wider community of like-minded cinephiles, and what is the future of cinema as a global medium when most of the world’s citizens don’t even have access to the Internet?
Crisp argues that it is difficult to assess the damage piracy does when the term itself is vaguely defined, and even then largely in Hollywood-centric terms. An OECD report from 2009 claimed “there is currently no specific legal definition of piracy, which would be more accurately described as ‘digital infringement of copyright’.”
Following on from Ramon Lobato’s scholarship on the subject, that piracy “far from being something new and unique to the Internet age, is a historical feature of most media markets”, Crisp discusses the legal formations of intellectual property theft. She suggests that “piracy is a social construction” and that it is “the regular movement of regulatory and legal goalposts that plays a major part in defining the scope of acts of piracy before further dictating how figures relating to its reach and damage to the creative industries are calculated.”
In the informal economies of as India and Nigeria, it is difficult to know where to draw the line between legal and illegal DVD production. It is certain that Nigeria’s “Nollywood” product would not have enjoyed the same pan-African and subsequent global proliferation if American ideas of intellectual property were actively enforced. Interestingly, when the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) briefly halted the distribution of Hollywood films to Nigeria in 1981, this created both a black market for American movies but also a demand for legitimately produced films that was soon catered for by the new breed of Nollywood entrepreneurs.
And then there is the case of China, the subject of much finger-wagging from American companies due its alleged position as a nexus for DVD piracy. Again, this can be partly attributed to the strict quotas on foreign films imposed by the Chinese government, which creates a black market for the Hollywood product. The Chinese quota system is actually more detrimental to third-party industries lacking Hollywood’s competitive international clout – for example, companies in India, France, or Japan – who are left fighting over a smaller number of quota slots.
We might view China’s quota system as an example of scarcity creating a demand, catered to by one group of gatekeepers circumventing another group of gatekeepers. On the non-industry side, this includes the pirates, while on the industry side this includes the official distributors but also the state regulatory apparatus.
As Crisp points out, there are also non-industry “tastemakers, such as film critics, journalists, historians and academics” who “have a role to play in shaping what we understand as our film heritage.” She cites an article by Angela Xiao Wu from 2012 entitled “Broadening the Scope of Cultural Preferences: Movie Talk and Chinese Pirate Film Consumption from the Mid-1980s to 2005”, which observes that “cultural piracy not only supplements and replaces the deficiency of the official apparatus, but also serves as the very base of popular periodicals and cinema book publications, since the content of these publications mainly concerns pirated films.”
Wu’s comment reminds me of my formative years as a horror fan during the Video Nastie-obsessed 1980s, where the unavailability, not to mention illegality, of numerous titles contained on the Director of Public Prosecutions’ forbidden list gave rise to an active video-trading scene. This, in turn, elevated a swathe of some of the most inept examples of genre filmmaking to a cult status that they still enjoy over 30 years later. One can hardly imagine that the likes of Don’t Go in the Woods…, Mardi Gras Massacre or Anthropophagous: The Beast would even be remembered today, yet alone have any legitimate Blu-ray releases, were it not for the underground tape-trading and fanzine subculture that emerged around them. It is a perfect example of how the interest created by the unofficial circulation of films can lead later to the creation of new markets.
Crisp invokes the concept of symbiosis to describe the way that legitimate and illegitimate industries, or cultural and economic networks, are “mutually dependent upon one another rather than self-sufficient”, like organisms, using the analogy of the Egyptian plover and the Nile crocodile to make the point. Continuing the analogy, one might argue that a pirate release of The Mummy in China would only serve to fuel a legitimate demand for more Hollywood films like it, rather than the films of Egypt, a country I imagine to have no real cinematic visibility, legal or illegal, among Chinese audiences.
There is much more to Crisp’s discussion than I can cover here, of course, but while the reference to the “Digital Age” in the title might signal that this is a book that will date quite rapidly (indeed, it already has to some extent – it has been over ten years since Tartan went under, and there is also not a single mention of Facebook in its discussion of fan communities), the author’s methodological approach should ensure that her wider thesis will remain relevant in years to come. Some time is devoted to definitions and histories of file-sharing technologies from Napster onwards, many of which have already long passed into obsolescence. However the sociological case studies of several file-sharing communities suggest that the ethics, motivations and self-justifications of their members probably won’t be so different in similar technological contexts in future.
The instinctive and emotive reaction to piracy is that it is detrimental to the creative industries, and that it hampers the legitimate distribution of certain cultural products, and the ability of their creators to earn enough money to continue their practice. Obviously, there is a difference between general and specific examples, but many will be able to draw their own conclusions from their experiences within the anime world, where bootlegging and fan-subbing was key to the emergence of an early fan culture outside of Japan.
Film Distribution in the Digital Age sometimes seems like an apologia for piracy, but it is also an acknowledgement that the problem is not likely to go away, and hence requires the asking of some difficult questions. Do the majority of file-sharers and downloaders adopt a sampling or try-before-you-buy approach, or is it often merely just a case of “sticking it to the man”? Does circulating movies, music or other material not available legally in certain territories really harm their creators? Or perhaps the act of making available otherwise unavailable examples of a certain genre, be it Asian cinema, anime or horror, helps build and nurture a community of potential fans who will go on to sustain it financially in the future?
Jasper Sharp is the author of The Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema. Film Distribution in the Digital Age: Pirates and Professionals by Virginia Crisp is published by Palgrave Macmillan.