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Ramon Lobato

Submitted in total fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

September 2009

School of Culture and Communication The University of Melbourne


This thesis investigates the politics of film distribution from a transnational perspective.

Distribution, the most profitable sector of the film industry, is a rich site for cultural analysis. Distribution networks do more than deliver content to audiences; they shape film culture in their own image by regulating our access to cinema, creating demand for future production, and structuring our habits and tastes. The existing literature on film distribution focuses almost exclusively on multiplex, arthouse, and home video circuits. This thesis aims to broaden the scope of distribution research by taking into account informal, nontheatrical networks in grey and black economies. Providing evidence of the empirical significance of these “invisible” global markets, I offer a new model of media circulation (subcinema) which I develop through three case studies of film industries in Africa, the Asia-Pacific, and Latin America. The broad argument is that analysing film from the vantage point of distribution can open up a space for a different kind of transnational film studies, one founded on a materialist model of how audiences access cinema.

The first chapter of the thesis critically reviews existing scholarship on film distribution and draws on political economy, anthropology, film history, and media economics to develop a theory of distribution as a cultural technology. The second chapter examines the evolution of the Hollywood distribution model and the strategies used by the major studios to sell their product to domestic and international audiences, highlighting the bottlenecks that are characteristic of the conventional “windowing” system. In chapter

three, I set out a broad theoretical framework for the study of informal film distribution, developed in dialogue with the social science literature on informal economies, and I identify the six key characteristics of subcinematic networks— instantaneity, deterritoriality, invisibility, textual instability, distraction, and

“cockroach-capitalist” structure.

The remaining chapters analyse three informal/semi-formal distribution systems from a comparative perspective. In chapter four, a case study of the straight-to-video release model used for low-budget American and Australian genre films explores the complex transnational economy in which these films are financed and circulated, and the challenge this fast-and-cheap film culture poses to theories of cultural value. In chapter five, the unique system of Nigerian video film distribution is analysed in terms of its efficiency as a circulatory network and as a driver of social and economic change. In chapter six, competing discourses around media piracy are interrogated through an analysis of black-market DVD trade at Tepito market in Mexico City, a case study which foregrounds the importance of pirate literacies.

Combining industrial analysis, cultural theory, and interviews with distributors, these case studies critically theorise subcinematic networks in terms of their social and political impact, the challenges they pose to existing theories of reception and spectatorship, and their feasibility as alternative industrial templates for future film industries.


This is to certify that    the thesis comprises only my original work towards the PhD, due acknowledgement has been made in the text to all other material used, the thesis is less than 100,000 words in length, exclusive of tables, maps, bibliographies and appendices.

Ramon Lobato


I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to my supervisors, Dr Audrey Yue and Prof Sean Cubitt, for their expert guidance, generosity, and enthusiasm. Leah Tang, Kyle Weise, Peter Chambers, Meg Mundell, Polona Petek, Fran Martin, Sun Jung, Scott Brook, Annamma Varghese, Radha O’Meara, and Michelle Cho have also helped me greatly by offering thoughts, criticism, and support. Some of the ideas contained within this thesis benefited from feedback from participants at the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University and the Seminar in Experimental Critical Theory at UC Irvine, and at conferences at the University of South Australia, Yonsei University, Sendai Mediatheque, University of Western Sydney, and the Universidad

Iberoamericana. I would like to acknowledge the financial support of the Cultural Research Network, the MacGeorge Bequest, the University of California Humanities Research Institute, and the University of Melbourne’s Arts Faculty and School of Culture and Communication, which allowed me to attend these events. The case study of Tepito market would not have been possible without the help of Alfonso Hernández of the Centro de Estudios Tepiteños and Tobias Ostrander of the Museo Rufino Tamayo. Joy Sandra Lee and Jonathon Auxier of the Warner Bros Archive at University of Southern California also provided valuable assistance during my visits in August 2008. Finally, I would like to thank the interviewees who made time to speak to me and whose thoughts have greatly enriched this thesis.

Material from this thesis has appeared, in modified form, in other scholarly publications. An early version of chapter one was published as “Subcinema: Theorizing

Marginal Film Distribution”, Limina: Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies 13 (2007): 113-20. Material from the case study in chapter four was reproduced in “Secret Lives of Asian Australian cinema: Offshore Labour in Transnational Film Industries”,

Studies in Australasian Cinema 2, no. 3 (2008): 213-27. A shorter version of chapter five
appeared as “The Six Faces of Media Piracy: Global Film Distribution from Below”, in

The Business of Entertainment, Volume 1: The Movies, edited by R. Sickels (Westport:
Praeger, 15-36), and some conceptual material from the thesis has been developed further in “Invisible Audiences for Australian Films? Cinema and its Many Publics”,

Metro 160 (2009): 162-65.

Table of contents



Part A: Cinema / subcinema

1. DISTRIBUTION IN THEORY: MEDIA, MOBILITY, MATERIALITY Film studies / film history / cultural studies Distribution across the disciplines Theorising distribution 2. DISTRIBUTION IN PRACTICE: THE HOLLYWOOD MODEL Early cinema The studio era The post-studio era The ancillary age Digital distribution The mechanics of distribution International expansion and resistance Profile: Two Australian film distributors Distribution and cultural power 3. SUBCINEMA: INFORMAL ECONOMIES IN TRANSNATIONAL SPACE Formal and informal economies Informality in the mediascape Profile: Left Behind


16 25 36

47 51 54 60 65 72 76 84 92 101

105 106 114 127

Part B: Subcinema case studies

4. SUBCINEMA AND CULTURAL VALUE: STRAIGHT-TO-VIDEO DISTRIBUTION The birth of the video economy The straight-to-video transnational Profile: IFM World Releasing The slaughterhouse of cinema 5. SUBCINEMA AND SOCIAL CHANGE: NIGERIAN VIDEO FILM DISTRIBUTION Distribution and dependency in Africa The video film boom Profile: Nigerian video in Australia The lessons of Nollywood 6. SUBCINEMA AND THE LAW: PIRATE DISTRIBUTION Defining piracy Contextualising copyright Piracy as theft Piracy as free enterprise Piracy as free speech Piracy as authorship Piracy as resistance Piracy as access Profile: The Mexico City black market Pirate literacies, hybrid economies Conclusion Reference list Filmography

131 134 143 151 157

167 170 176 185 190

197 198 201 205 208 213 216 222 226 233 242 247 255 293

Introduction • 1


Since the birth of film studies, a belief in the inherent power of cinematic representation has shaped the discipline and the kinds of research carried out under its auspices. From the perspective of a film scholar, a movie is more than a reel of celluloid or a disc encoded with data; it is a cultural object endowed with potential. Successive generations of theorists have demonstrated the power that film wields over popular imaginaries and its ability to catalyse ethical awakening, present new ways of thinking, feeling and acting, and change in small but significant ways our understanding of the world around us. Film theory in particular has generated numerous models which have attempted to explain how representation interfaces with identity and ideology. Underlying all this is the unshakable conviction that cinematic representation matters because it has social consequences.

However, to be of social consequence, a film must first reach an audience. In other words, it must be distributed. Distribution, the mediating process between production and reception, is the missing link in film studies. It is the least studied sector of the film industry, and analysis of distributive issues is left largely to the trade press. This is unfortunate, because distribution plays a key role in film culture—it determines what films we see, and when and how we see them. Crucially, it also determines what we do

not see. Distribution, then, is about cultural power, about the regulation, provision, and
denial of audiovisual content. Further to this, I argue that distribution is also a space of textual change. It is tempting to dismiss distribution as a neutral process in which media content is simply delivered to the audiences which seek it, but this is rarely, if ever, the

Introduction • 2

case. Those films fortunate enough to be distributed change as they move through time and space; they are translated, re-titled, re-dubbed and re-edited for different markets; new publics are imagined and constituted. Distribution networks also frame film experiences, elevating some (opening nights, film festival screenings) to the status of a cultural event and relegating others (two-for-one weekly rentals, late-night movies) to the bottom of the value chain. The precondition for textual politics and a site of politics in its own right, distribution remains an obscure area of research in film studies.

This thesis is an attempt to rethink film culture from the perspective of distribution. I argue that looking at film from this vantage point opens up a space for a new kind of transnational film studies, one based around a materialist rather than idealist model of how audiences access cinema. Crucially, this means coming to terms with the idea of

distributive informality. The contexts in which global audiences experience cinema
often bear little resemblance to the immersive multiplex environment. All over the world, films are bought from roadside stalls and discount retailers; they are watched at home, in neighbourhood videoclubs, in shops, on street corners, and in many other spaces where one is subject to a variety of competing sensory input. Global film culture in its actually-existing forms is often messy and distracted, and it frequently relies on nontheatrical forms of exhibition facilitated by black and grey markets. I argue that these networks are crucial sites of analysis. They should be taken seriously by film scholars, and they should be placed at the centre of our analytical frame, rather than at the margins.

My definition of distribution is deliberately broad. Most studies of distribution focus only on the formal distribution sector of national film industries, but I use Cubitt’s (2005) more inclusive understanding of distribution as the process that moves media through time and space. Using this enlarged definition allows me to engage with

Introduction • 3

ephemeral and subterranean systems of circulation that are less frequently studied by film scholars—media piracy, straight-to-video distribution, diasporic networks, and so on. These systems are the focus of the second half of the thesis. They form the nucleus of the subcinema model which I present as an alternative paradigm for the analysis of contemporary film cultures. This model’s innovations are its attention to the influence that circulatory networks wield on reception, the social and cultural specificities of informal modes of distribution, and the textual changes that occur as films circulate in informal markets. As I argue in the following chapters, multiplex and arthouse networks operate on the basis of limited screen space, which means that in conventional film economies a huge number of films compete for a small number of slots in cinemas and positions on the retail shelf. Inevitably, thousands fall by the wayside each year having failed to reach any kind of public. Bottlenecks like this are a characteristic of most formal film industries. The structure of the mainstream distribution sector is a primary reason behind what many see as the homogeneity of commercial film culture—its “windowing” model of distribution ensures that only certain kinds of movies become popular. These bottlenecks function as artificial constraints on audiovisual diversity and on the social possibilities that film opens up. The aim of this thesis is to map some of the alternatives that exist, while imagining others.

Another objective is to theorise the relationship between distribution networks and public taste. Through a series of case studies, I explain how distribution not only delivers audiovisual goods to the consumers who desire them but also works to shape those very desires. Film distributors place limits on the range of options available to us by supplying some films rather than others, and they also shape our consumption of this sub-set of distributed audiovisual production through sophisticated commercial technologies ranging from advertising and public relations to price differentiation,

Introduction • 4

release strategy, release timing, and so on. Over time, a complex feedback loop is created between production and consumption, with distribution functioning as both mediator and agent. By demonstrating how this feedback loop works in theory and practice, I achieve two things. First, I provide evidence for the co-constitutive nature of supply and demand in media markets. Unlike the neoclassical economic model of equilibrium, in which production responds directly to demand by satisfying the needs and wants of a particular market, the model of distribution used in this thesis insists that demand, and thus taste, is to a considerable degree an effect of distribution. Second, I explain some of the effects this feedback loop has on film cultures. On one level, it grants or denies people access to films; over time it also allows styles and genres to emerge as demand is massaged into new textual formations and new social practices built around film consumption. But more importantly, it shapes public culture by circulating or withholding audiovisual representations which have the potential to become part of shared imaginaries and to contribute in small but significant ways to our understanding of what is doable, thinkable, and sayable at particular points in time and in particular spaces.

This thesis differs from other scholarship in both its focus and approach. The literature on film distribution is limited and often instrumental in nature, consisting for the most part of tips on how to get a distribution deal, tirades against the major studios, uncritical economic analysis, or gossipy information for Hollywood buffs. While a more solid body of work on the distributive tactics of the US studios has been produced by film historians, there is still a lack of research into the circulation of films outside Europe and North America. In addition, aside from studies of home video and an emerging literature on online distribution, there has been little sustained work within film studies on nontheatrical circuits such as the in-flight marketplace, straight-to-video releasing, mail-order film, pirate networks, video parlours, outdoor exhibition, and so on. As I

Introduction • 5

will argue, film studies still tends to take the arthouse/multiplex as its default spectatorial environment and the West as its default location.

In contrast, this thesis employs a transnational approach. It does not privilege a particular geographical site; rather, it analyses distributive networks from a variety of locations throughout Africa, the Americas, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific, with detailed case studies examining the video-film industry in Nigeria, piracy markets in Mexico, and low-budget genre industries radiating out from the US. I believe this multi-sited approach is preferable for several reasons. First, the nature of audiovisual industries is such that most distribution networks, from the “Global Hollywood” system (Miller et al 2001, 2005) through to transnational piracy syndicates, operate across national borders. Cinema is and has always been a globally traded commodity and it no longer makes sense, if it ever did, to study national industries in isolation from the offshore funding sources, critical infrastructures, and consumer markets which sustain them economically and energise them aesthetically. Analytically amputating components in this network for the purposes of research can provide a distorted view of how these systems work. Second, even though studies of individual national/regional systems can be very revealing, their local focus can make comparison between systems difficult. I use a different approach here, one which combines case studies of a variety of distributive systems in various parts of the world with a critical theorisation of distribution as a cultural technology. To the best of my knowledge, this is something that has not been done before.

Just as a multi-sited analysis is required to achieve this objective, so too is an interdisciplinary methodology. Distribution is something which is simultaneously economic, political, and cultural; it is a process which cannot be adequately studied from just one perspective. For this reason, I have chosen to synthesise material from a

Introduction • 6

variety of fields including anthropology, sociology, political economy, film theory, film history and cultural studies, in order to provide a fuller picture of how various kinds of distribution operate. However, I do not intend the thesis to be a contribution to all these disciplines. I see the material offered here primarily as an intervention in film studies, specifically global/transnational film studies, and the branches of media and cultural studies with which it overlaps. Scholars working in these fields are the intended audience of this thesis, though I hope some of its findings may be of interest to other researchers as well.

My approach will be set out in more detail in the first chapter. For the moment, let me state that the contention of the thesis is that critical, transnational research into distribution is both necessary and lacking within film studies. The model of subcinema I develop in this thesis is intended to operate as a theoretical frame which can be applied to generate new knowledge across a variety of actually-existing distribution and exhibition networks. The model hinges on the concepts of distributive formality and informality, which, I argue, is a more productive schema than the arthouse/commercial binary dominant in film studies discourse. This new form of analysis is developed through three case studies, each of which examines a distributive system with a different mix of these characteristics. The aim of this research design is to foreground the structural connections, as well as the differences, between a diverse set of film cultures. As such, the subcinema model is intended to function as an analytical optic through which new perspectives on everyday encounters with film texts and institutions across a variety of sites may come into view.

Introduction • 7


The thesis is divided into two parts, “Cinema/Subcinema” and “Subcinema Case Studies”. In the first, I provide an introduction to the field of film distribution, examine the strengths and weaknesses of the Hollywood system, and set out a theoretical model through which we can approach both formal and informal systems of distribution. The second part of the thesis provides detailed analyses of three informal/semi-formal distributive systems, each accompanied by a profile of a particular network based on interviews with distributors and individual viewers. The two parts combined thus offer theorisation of distributive systems along with empirical detail about how they operate in practice. Macro and micro perspectives are fused to achieve a grounded form of critical analysis.

Chapter one, “Distribution in Theory: Media, Mobility, Materiality”, provides a fuller description of the project and a rationale for the specific approach I adopt. I define distribution as a concept and a practice, and frame it as an object of inquiry. The interdisciplinary methodology of the thesis is explained in detail and a case is made for its advantages vis-à-vis other methodologies commonly used in film scholarship. My positions on key debates are set out and contextualised via an extensive literature review of scholarship on film distribution. The chapter’s broad purpose is to map the disciplinary fields in which I intervene, and to position this intervention in relation to existing arguments.

The second chapter, “Distribution in Practice: The Hollywood model”, looks in detail at the historical evolution of the system of distribution used by the US studios. This system is based on a logic of “windowing”, which means that films move through a staggered sequence of overlapping exhibition outlets. I argue that windowing has

Introduction • 8

evolved over the last century into a durable template for mainstream film industries. Notwithstanding new developments in digital distribution, the windowing model—in which theatrical release determines the value of a film—has effectively become the international standard of mainstream and arthouse distribution. In the latter half of the chapter, a variety of industrial responses and resistances to Hollywood’s hegemony (quota systems, industry subsidies, strategic co-operation) will be examined, and findings from my interviews with Australian distributors will be presented. Through a close examination of the economics of windowing, this chapter demonstrates how the Hollywood model of distribution has come to play an integral role in shaping everyday film cultures.

However, while the Hollywood model is a powerful template, it is far from universal. There are many other ways to get films to people, though many of these alternative systems operate within informal economies and are consequently difficult to study. As a result, their material importance to global film culture is poorly understood. Chapter three, “Subcinema: Informal Economies in Transnational Space”, attempts to rectify this by mapping the broad characteristics of informal film distribution. The literature on informal economies from the social sciences is critically examined, and an attempt is made to relate these concepts to the field of film studies. I introduce and explain my term subcinema, which I use to refer to commercial film cultures characterised by distributive informality. I offer examples of distribution operating at different levels of informality and provide a profile of the Christian DVD industry in the US to illustrate some of these points. The overall argument of the chapter is that informal distribution and exhibition practices are the precondition for a high proportion of actually-existing film culture in a global context, and that building models of reception around this form of distribution, rather than theatrical exhibition, is a good way to advance the cause of a

Introduction • 9

transnational film studies. The theoretical model I outline here—the spectrum of informality—is offered as one possible way to theorise these spectatorships.

This brings to an end part one of the thesis, in which I provide a history of the practice of film distribution along with a set of theoretical tools and methodological propositions for the study of distributive circuits. The remainder of the thesis is devoted to case studies of three subcinematic networks, each of which tells us something different about the way film circulates in informal and semi-formal economies. Each subcinema case study includes a historical overview of the system under consideration, based on secondary sources, as well as a detailed profile of a particular distributor or distribution practice, based on primary interviews with distributors and/or audiences. Together, these three case studies demonstrate the heterogeneity of the subcinematic landscape, provide a representative sample of some of the strategies used by distributors, and offer evidence of the cultural practices that evolve around informal distribution infrastructures.

The first such study is presented in chapter four, “Subcinema and Cultural Value: Straight-to-Video Distribution”. This comprises an industrial history of the low-budget straight-to-video (STV) industry in the United States and Australia. The term straightto-video, or direct-to-video, refers to films whose primary means of circulation is home video rather than theatrical release. STV films are frequently produced and distributed outside the studio system, and low-budget genre films, especially action and horror, make up a large portion of the market. This chapter tracks the evolution of this segment of the video economy. I argue that over time specific reception practices have evolved around this mode of distribution, and that there is an STV “experience” which is qualitatively different from the cinema-going experience. Through my case study of STV, I develop an alternative theory of filmic value that revolves around the films’

Introduction • 10

purported interchangeability. A profile of the Australian company International Film Management also illustrates the peculiar kind of transnational mobility characteristic of the STV sector.

The fifth chapter, “Subcinema and Social Change: Nigerian Video Film Distribution”, examines a different distribution system, one which exists almost completely outside what most people understand to be the film industry. Since the 1990s, Nigeria has witnessed a boom in video-based production, to the point where it now produces more films each year than any other nation, including the US and India. Nigerian “video films”, low-budget productions which are not screened in cinemas, have become a vibrant cultural force across the African continent. A crucial factor in their success has been the video film’s distinctive mode of distribution, which evolved from pre-existing pirate networks and is premised on cheapness and accessibility (Larkin 2004, 2008). The circulatory system underpinning Nigerian video culture is the focus of chapter five. The broad argument of the chapter is that the vibrant medium of the African video film is in part a response to a set of material conditions, a kind of distributive failure, which can be found at differing intensities across a variety of global sites. This approach is my way of contesting the romanticism and tokenism that have often framed critical responses to third world cinema.

The final chapter, “Subcinema and the Law: Pirate Distribution”, looks at the most empirically significant kind of informal distribution in today’s mediascape. In parts of Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe, pirate networks are the default system of distribution; in many places, piracy is the only functional distribution system. Even where copyright law is more strictly enforced, various kinds of illegal circulation ranging from smallscale copying among friends to online file-sharing exist alongside formal film distribution, contributing to its reach. Neither condemning nor celebrating piracy, this

Introduction • 11

chapter argues that the social implications of pirate distribution need to be taken seriously. I offer a brief history of copyright followed by a critical survey of six different “readings” of piracy: piracy as theft, piracy as free enterprise, piracy as free speech, piracy as authorship, piracy as resistance, and piracy as access. A case study of a pirate DVD vendor in Mexico City foregrounds the role of pirate literacies in informal economies. Following this chapter, a brief conclusion further synthesises the findings from the three case studies and outlines the lessons that can be learned from their comparative analysis.

Before we begin―some disclaimers. Film distribution is an incredibly complex field, and this thesis is not intended as a comprehensive overview of the internal workings of the distribution sector; nor is it an exhaustive account of every informal distribution network on the face of the earth. For practical reasons, I have had to narrow the field of inquiry by focusing on certain forms of distribution at the expense of others. My primary interest is distribution networks in which film circulates as a tangible consumer commodity which can be bought and sold, and as a result the three case studies are mostly concerned with hard-format distributive circuits based on the exchange of discs and tapes. For the most part, I have steered clear of broadcast distribution, even though TV is a very important ancillary market and facilitates large amounts of everyday film consumption. Nor do I focus on online film distribution, a phenomenon which has been the subject of considerable media interest, scholarly discussion, and boosterist hype over the last few years. While YouTube, Bit Torrent file-sharing, and other online distribution channels are reshaping the way first-world audiences with broadband watch movies, it does not appear feasible as a global distribution template.

Introduction • 12

For similar reasons, experimental, underground, and activist film circuits are excluded from consideration in this thesis. The scope of my discussion is limited to market-based forms of distribution, as opposed to self-consciously alternative or resistant networks. The importance of these latter networks has already been established within media scholarship. I concentrate instead on networks that are informal but commercial, networks which are grounded in market-based forms of exchange and which do not see themselves as resistant or marginal. I argue that the commercial/underground dualism in film discourse is something which needs to be rethought, and I do not wish to replicate its reductions and exclusions here. Indeed, the “sub” in subcinema refers to subterranean, not subcultural. Subcinema is not about repressed or marginalised cultures. Its relationship to cinema is not antagonistic, disruptive, or even dialectical. This is why I use the term informal rather than underground, alternative, or marginal. Furthermore, subcinema does not discriminate as to content: all manner of film genres and styles move in and out of subcinematic circulation at different times and in different spaces. It is not a discrete textual field but a permeable field of circulation, one which overlaps with other film cultures and networks, and which is constituted by a diverse variety of informal and semi-formal modes of distribution. I argue that these modes of distribution have certain material and affective specificities which have been insufficiently acknowledged in film studies. Attention to these specificities can not only give us a richer understanding of the heterogeneity of contemporary reception contexts across a variety of spaces but can also reshape our concept of “regular” cinema environments by destabilising this very notion. (See chapters one and three for a detailed outline of the model.)

Throughout this thesis, I argue that media producers and scholars need to be realistic about the market economy within which film almost always circulates. This also necessitates a re-evaluation of the terms on which debate about media content is

Introduction • 13

conducted. I argue that too much emphasis is placed on the politics of production and representation, especially in the form of critical celebration of progressive texts which have restricted circulation. Celebrating or condemning textuality on its own terms in the absence of any evidence as to its audience amounts to a festishisation of the individual and of the power of one’s voice, an attitude which is in hock both to a Romantic model of cultural production as well as the aura of economically productive “creativity” that is characteristic of neoliberalism (McRobbie forthcoming; Downing 2007). In contrast, a distribution-centred model of film studies places the emphasis on circulation and reception, or, to use a different metaphor, on listening rather than speaking. It asks: Who is listening? On what terms are we listening? What are the material limits which determine what texts are available to us? Is there any point in speaking when nobody is listening?

The field of distribution is a space where interventions by scholars and activists are needed. An arena of power and resistance, of blockage and flow, distribution is a crucial site of politics in contemporary film culture.

Introduction • 14

Distribution in theory • 15

Chapter one

Studying global film culture from the perspective of distribution requires a fusion of existing approaches. An interdisciplinary methodology which combines a materialist analysis of the structural dimensions of media industries with nuanced forms of cultural analysis is needed. Micro-level detail must be integrated into macro-level models, theoretical critique fused with empirical investigation, and Western film industries displaced from their usual position as the default objects of inquiry. This chapter presents a detailed argument for such an approach. My principal aims here are to map the disciplinary fields in which I seek to intervene, to position my specific approach in relation to existing work, and to lay the theoretical foundations for the rest of the thesis.

This chapter begins with some opening remarks on the ongoing debates about materialist versus formalist approaches within film research. The middle section of the chapter provides what I believe to be the first comprehensive review and synthesis of the literature on film distribution across the fields of political economy, media anthropology, film history, film studies, and trade reportage. The final section of the

Distribution in theory • 16

chapter provides additional information about the scope and structure of the thesis, along with a justification of its methodology and research design.


What is the relationship between a researcher’s object of inquiry and the various disciplinary formations from which it can be approached? What is lost and gained as one moves outside the orbit of medium-specific media studies? Need one necessarily do film studies in order to study film? These are longstanding debates within media studies, but it may be helpful to clarify my position on some of these questions before proceeding any further. As a way into these methodological dilemmas, let me begin by addressing another persistent debate within the field. The question on which the debate hinges is this: should one study film as a discrete textual system with unique properties and powers, or should one study it as a medium of communication embedded within, and answerable to, broader social forces? Rehearsing some of the key arguments and counter-arguments that have been put forward is a helpful way to chart the disciplinary field relevant to this thesis, which in turn is a necessary first step in positioning its specific intervention.

On one side of this debate lies a loose coalition of approaches which we could describe as film studies or cinema studies. This is of course a diverse field which includes formalist, psychoanalytic, and feminist approaches, all of which are in themselves interdisciplinary amalgams of structuralism, poststructuralism, linguistics, gender studies, and semiotics, and while it is difficult to make general statements about these diverse traditions, it is possible to identify common threads. For example, the locus of

Distribution in theory • 17

scholarly analysis in film/cinema studies is usually the film text, or the medium of film, rather than its consumption or circulation. This analytical template is derived from a literary or art-historical model in which close reading is used to determine certain truths about the text and the world from which it emerges. The text functions as a privileged site upon which the theorist performs a kind of theoretical alchemy to bring something hidden to light; it is a lens through which other things come into view. For example, in Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler films are an entry point into the imaginary of the nation and an index of the “actual psychological pattern” of its people (2004, 5). In Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed (1979), the emphasis is on the ontological possibilities of particular texts and of the medium of cinema itself. In the work of David Bordwell (e.g. 1985, 2005), movies become the objects of a painstaking stylistic analysis through which new knowledge about the aesthetic organisation of cinema and its relationship to human perception is generated.1 In all of these cases, it is the film text and the medium of cinema which are the primary sites of analysis and the

raison d’être of film scholarship. Other characteristics of this mode of criticism include
a commitment to the idea of medium-specificity—the notion that film is not simply another medium but has special properties which need to be studied on their own terms—and, at times, the use of a “reflectionist” model of textuality in which a film is used as a stand-in for society in the theorist’s diagnoses (Miller 1992, 1993).

Using this kind of approach, successive generations of film studies scholars have taught us a great deal about the internal organisation of films and their modes of address. This approach is dominant in Australian film studies, in the sense that it is the type of research most commonly practiced in tertiary teaching and showcased at film studies

1 Even the groundbreaking industrial analysis in The Classical Hollywood Cinema (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson 1985) is offered in service of an argument about film style rather than cultural or industrial history.

Distribution in theory • 18

conferences.2 While I have much respect for this tradition of film research and do not seek to downplay its achievements in any way, I feel it necessary to differentiate the approach I adopt in this thesis from the text-based model which is at the heart of cinema studies. I do this not in order to critique textual analysis but to foreground some of the issues which fall outside its remit and which need to be addressed through other channels. For the purposes of illustration, I will use Hamid Naficy’s influential 2001 study An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking as an example of a classical textual analysis, for it shares many of the same interests as this thesis but approaches its topic in a very different way.

Naficy’s book surveys hundreds of films from across the globe in order to make a case for the existence of an emergent “accented” mode within contemporary global filmmaking, characterised by epistolatory narratives, self-reflexivity, artisanal production strategies, and themes of border-crossing and displacement. Films by directors from Chantal Akerman to Emir Kusturica are analysed in support of this thesis, and Naficy makes some grand claims on behalf of the style he claims to map. For instance, we are told that accented cinema is “a mammoth, emergent, transnational film movement and film style” (18-19), whose significance can be measured in terms of “its output, which reaches into the thousands, its variety of forms and diversity of cultures, which are staggering, and its social impact, which extends far beyond exilic and diasporic communities to include the general public as well” (4). The problem with Naficy’s line of argument is that claims such as this are not and cannot be supported by the kind of textual analysis that Naficy uses. To make any claim of social impact, one must necessarily engage with the issue of audiences, and therefore with distribution;

2 For example, at the 2006 Film and History Association of Australia/New Zealand annual conference, a major biennial event, around 60% of the papers used textual analysis as their primary methodology (see FHAANZ 2006).

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but on this count Naficy and most other film scholars fall short.3 The textual politics of Naficy’s accented cinema is out of line with its distributive politics—which is to say that the politically progressive films he so carefully analyses are almost always restricted in their circulation to specific kinds of publics with specific kinds of cultural capital.4 Critical analysis of the realpolitik of global film distribution is, I feel, a more productive way to address the issue of social impact than the romanticisation of a film culture enjoyed almost exclusively by first-world arthouse audiences. Indeed, one of my aims here is to provide a materialist counterpoint to Naficy’s auteurist take on transnational cinema, and to open up this category to include informal film cultures that do not normally register in these debates.

The question of social impact that Naficy dodges is the point at which the formalist/textual tradition of film studies parts ways with what could be described as a second broad field of film-related research, one which overlaps with film studies but also with the social sciences. In this second tradition, film is studied as something which exists within, and should be discussed in relation to, larger systems and forces— political, ideological, economic, social, cultural. Theorists as diverse as Toby Miller (Miller 1999, 2005, 2009; Miller et al 2001, 2005), Robert Allen (2006), Lawrence Liang (2005), Charles Acland (2003) and Richard Maltby (2007) have all championed this approach to film studies, which rejects the text-centric approach in favour of a more grounded form of inquiry.5 The kind of research that these theorists endorse is a

3 Although the book contains some discussion of film festivals and independent microdistributors, this attention is cursory at best. Naficy is consistently reluctant to critically interrogate the distributive politics of the art cinema circuit, which ensure that most accented films are only ever seen by cinephiles and film students. 4 Recent empirical evidence of the link between film distribution and cultural capital has been provided by the large Bourdieuesque survey work of Tony Bennett et al (2006, 2009). Bennett’s team investigated the level of public familiarity with directors such as Jane Campion and Pedro Almodóvar, then correlated this data with socio-economic indicators. A “steady class gradient” (2006, 23) was identified. They conclude that “the differential forms of participation in film and television culture associated with ethnicity, social class and level of education show that both are implicated in the processes through which social inequalities are produced and reproduced in contemporary Britain” (2006, 7). 5 Note that this is not equivalent to a “media effects” paradigm, in which media texts act upon audiences in ways that can be measured empirically. I exclude from this category the positivist approach associated with some forms of sociological and psychological media research; this has no place in the critical media studies tradition which I am mapping here.

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materialist film studies attentive to such things as legal frameworks, technological change, and economic history, one which makes society rather than texts its primary focus. As Maltby (2007, par. 6) has recently argued,

the history of the American cinema is not the history of its products any more than the history of railroads is the history of locomotives. The development of locomotive design forms part of the history of railroads, but so, far more substantially, do government land policies and patterns of agricultural settlement. To write a history of texts and call it a history of Hollywood involves omitting the social process and cultural function of cinema, and denies the contextual significance of the material conditions under which movies were produced and consumed.

Maltby’s comments are offered in the context of a survey of the current state of film history, a discipline which in its finest moments has taken this mission to heart by considering film in its broader socio-political contexts. For example, frequently-cited studies by the likes of Janet Wasko (1982) and Thomas Guback (1969) are groundbreaking precisely because they pay close attention to cinema’s insertion into a variety of interlocking political, economic, and ideological forces. Indeed, it has often been scholars working outside the discipline of film studies who have most successfully decentred film from its privileged analytical position to tackle the broader question of its relation to social and cultural change.

The theoretical model which underlies this kind of approach can be described as cultural materialism, a term popularised by Raymond Williams (1977) which has since been taken up by a large number of theorists.6 Following Nicholas Garnham, I understand cultural materialism to involve a focus on “the irreducible material
6 A discrete though complementary strand of anthropological literature on cultural materialism can be traced back to the work of Marvin Harris (1979), but this is not my focus here.

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determinants of the social processes of symbolic exchange” and their incorporation within capitalist economies (Garnham 1983, 321). As such, cultural materialism is closely aligned with the political economy tradition in that it insists that analysis of media content must go hand in hand with a consideration of how media circulates (or does not circulate) in society and the kinds of material, economic and technological factors that impact upon this. Materialist analysis has always been an important strand within media studies, as evidenced by the work of communications scholars such as Armand Mattelart (1979, 2000), Herbert Schiller (1969), and Dan Schiller (2000), film historians such as Guback and Wasko, and the loose alliance of British media theorists associated with the Media, Culture and Society journal (including Garnham, Graham Murdock, Colin Sparks, and Peter Golding). However, this approach has also been criticised—often for good reason—on the grounds that it is blind to non-economic vectors of difference or disadvantage. These critiques became stronger in the wake of the postmodern turn in media studies, in which textuality became an important site of the political, and during the 1980s and 1990s many film studies scholars increasingly defined themselves itself against this materialist agenda, which they came to see as reductive and masculinist. The resulting cleavage between a materialist/social-scientific approach and a textual/humanist approach is reflected in the organisational structure of universities—film studies units are often located within art history or literature programs, while many materialist film researchers work out of sociology or communications departments.

This narrative of disciplinary division is often recounted to explain the current state of film research, but there are other factors worth taking into account. First, in most formulations of cultural studies, which often figures as the culprit in these arguments about the trivialisation of media research, there was no clear divide between materialist and culturalist/textualist paradigms. The work of Raymond Williams is exemplary here

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in its careful attention to both spheres and its refusal to draw arbitrary lines between them, and we should also recall that it formed part of a broader political project in which issues of class struggle were central. Nor should the political economy of communication or other materialist disciplines necessarily plead guilty to charges of reductionism. As Vincent Mosco (1995, 10) is at pains to point out, political economy is only “one entry point” into a field of social relations which needs to be viewed through other disciplinary lenses simultaneously. In other words, it is a necessarily partial epistemology and it should not claim to be anything more than this, and for Mosco it is best practiced in tandem with cultural studies and policy studies. Mosco’s vision of an interdisciplinary political economy-cultural studies hybrid has common ground with other models proposed by cultural studies scholars, including Toby Miller. All these theorists reject the validity of the materialist/textualist opposition that has shaped film research since the 1970s and caused an unnecessary bifurcation in the field.

Like these critics, I feel that studying distribution cannot be a purely interpretive exercise—it requires an engagement with industrial and material history. Media research should always be possessed of a critical social agenda and at least a partial focus on structural conditions. Industry consultants and financial analysts should not have a monopoly on economic knowledge. At the same time, I am suspicious of the unfortunate tendency within some strands of political-economic research to belittle the contribution of “culturalist” disciplines by dismissing them as mere sideshows to the main game of socio-economic structure. Film studies has been more finely attuned to the politics of cultural difference than political economy, which is sometimes hamstrung by a Marxist vocabulary that has no way of accounting for models of difference and identity other than as forms of false consciousness. This kind of thinking is not very productive, and it is blind to the instrumental utility of various kinds of cultural theory as tools for thinking through the material. For example, it is not possible

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to understand the film distribution landscape in Africa (discussed in chapter five) without understanding the infrastructural legacies of colonialism, which in turn requires an understanding of the postcolonial condition and the psychic as well as economic registers of colonial domination. In fact, all these perspectives can be fruitfully combined, as they have been in the work of Brian Larkin (2004, 2008). Such approaches also betray a sorely restricted view of what politics is and where it occurs, as well as an unwillingness to admit to the cultural dimensions of economic activity, which are ever-present and indivisible from their exchange functions. For this reason, I am reluctant to draw any lines in the sand between materialist and culturalist approaches, which I see as different facets of a single project. Materialist analysis, as it is used in this thesis, invokes the broader cultural-materialist project rather than any kind of purely economistic or anti-theoretical approach. Even though I write throughout this thesis of economic structures and cultural practices, I am careful to acknowledge their inseparability by foregrounding the many points at which one becomes

indistinguishable from the other, as in the cultures of distribution labour (see the interviews with distributors about their routines and values in chapter two).

Therefore, I want to suggest that an interdisciplinary approach to media research, in the case of my topic at least, is essential. As a set of commercial technologies and sociocultural practices within a cultural industry, film distribution cannot be properly investigated without a simultaneous focus on the symbolic and the material. This said, an interdisciplinary approach still requires a disciplinary grounding from which to depart. One cannot simply float between disciplines like an astronaut, lest one end up lost in deep space. This is why my doctoral research was undertaken in a cultural studies department, even though the thesis addresses many of its comments to film studies practitioners. Cultural studies is, for my purposes, the best disciplinary home for interdisciplinary media research. Framing the thesis as a cultural studies project rather

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than a film studies project has allowed me to draw upon a wide range of research while still grounding it within a coherent set of traditions, concerns and practices. A sense of methodological flexibility has always been at the core of cultural studies, which uses a variety of methodologies from the humanities and social science traditions in a pragmatic way depending upon the nature of the object under analysis (Johnson et al 2004).7 For example, much of the work done under the banner of cultural studies of Australian cinema has been able to move between, and to integrate, analysis of content, circulation, production context, and reception (e.g. Turner 1993; O’Regan 1996). Much cultural studies work in this vein also aspires to a degree of practical engagement with film policy, which is a focus in later chapters of this thesis.

In summary, the aim of this thesis is to advance the study of cinema through empirical and theoretical investigation of distribution networks and their effect on lived film cultures. The thesis uses concepts and data from fields other than film studies, though it seeks to contribute to film studies by offering a more finely calibrated theory of reception, one which takes distribution into account. A transnational approach is an essential part of this project, as it allows me to ask similar questions of different film industries, and thus to generate new kinds of comparative knowledge about global film cultures and their material conditions of possibility.

7 Indeed, in his recent defence of cultural studies as a paradigm for media research, David Morley (2007) makes the crucial point that many of the vociferous critiques of cultural studies from social scientists over the last two decades are in fact echoing arguments, such as the indivisibility of the structural and the symbolic, that were put on the agenda in part by early cultural studies work.

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Having outlined my position on some key disciplinary debates and provided a justification for the specific approach adopted here, I now offer a literature review of existing research into film distribution. As I have already noted, film distribution is an underdeveloped area of research, especially when compared to other topics in film scholarship. For example, the Library of Congress catalogue lists only 68 books under the subject heading “Motion Pictures–Distribution”, compared to around 1000 under “Motion Pictures–Production and Direction.”8 Film studies conferences rarely feature more than a handful of papers on distribution. Nor is there an established methodology for the analysis of distribution structures.

To some degree, this is understandable. Film distribution tends to be a difficult and unglamorous thing to research. Few people outside the industry know much about how it works in practice. Existing academic studies are scattered across a variety of disciplines, each of which has its own technical language. Distribution is also the least theorised end of the film industry, which means that researchers often find themselves bogged down in the minutiae of box office figures or sales agreements without the conceptual tools needed to make sense of this unfamiliar terrain.

The absence of distribution from the film studies agenda is particularly noticeable when we compare film studies to other cognate disciplines. Scholars in television studies, communication studies, and new media studies repeatedly explore the effects of distribution technologies such as the internet, satellites and mobile phones (e.g. Hu

8 In both cases, Dewey subheadings with the same stem are included (i.e. “Motion Pictures—Distribution” includes “Motion Pictures—Distribution—Directories”).

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2005; L. Parks 2003; Goggin 2006).9 Key works in design studies pay close attention to distribution and its influence on the form and consumption of consumer goods (Molotch 2003). Popular music scholars track the migration of music across technological platforms (S. Jones 2002). Scholars in political economy and anthropology also offer many insights into distributive and circulatory processes, which will be discussed below. Yet there is simply not a substantive body of research which one could call film distribution studies in the same way that one can point to a coherent canon of film production studies, film narrative studies, or film audience studies. One reason for this is that there has been insufficient attention devoted to the synthesis of the various studies that do exist. With this in mind, in the following paragraphs I will attempt to connect the dots between the various pockets of research on film distribution in the hope of identifying common concerns, questions, and techniques.

I begin by surveying literature addressed to the film industry itself—trade publications, industry handbooks, and other specialist resources for film industry professionals. Trade papers including Variety, Screen Digest, Video Business and The Hollywood Reporter all provide vital information on box office openings and distribution deals. World

Screen offers a more international perspective. An Australian equivalent is the online
subscription-based news source Screen Hub. In addition to these periodicals, a small collection of books targeted at independent filmmakers also offers useful information on commercial distribution. John W. Cones’ The Feature Film Distribution Deal (1997) remains the most authoritative study of the mechanics of Hollywood distribution that I have encountered, notwithstanding the fact that it is now a decade old. Cones’ Film

Finance and Distribution: A Dictionary of Terms (1992) is also a useful reference, as is
Squire’s The Movie Business Book (2004). Beaupré’s (1986) essay on film distribution, written in the 1970s as a research report for Francis Ford Coppola, is a valuable

9 This tradition of research can also be traced back to the work of Raymond Williams on television (1974).

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historical document. Other works targeted at this market include Litwak (1986), McClellan (1994), Goodell (1998), Bosko (2003), S. Parks (2007) and Sparrow (2007), while magazines targeting the independent filmmaker such as The Independent (formerly Independent Film and Video Monthly) and Filmmaker also contain tips for filmmakers chasing distribution deals (for specific articles, see DuBowski 2002; Siegel 2002; Macaulay 2009). Industry sources such as these usually lack a critical perspective, but they are important background reading and can even constitute a kind of industrial “self-theorization” (Caldwell 2006, 2008). No study of distribution can afford to overlook them.

To this list we can add a variety of other industry reports, portals, and handbooks. In Australia, numerous government-funded institutions—including Screen Australia and its predecessors, along with various state government bodies—publish information on film distribution for policy development purposes or as aids for independent filmmakers (e.g. Australian Film Commission 1999, 2004; Molloy and Burgan 2002; New South Wales Film and Television Office 2002; Rhys-Jones 2002; Screen Australia 2009). Publications by film institutions abroad, including the UK Film Council (2008) and the British Film Institute (2001), provide similar information for their constituents.

In addition to these “official” sources, various kinds of information on distribution can also be found in other kinds of industry texts. For example, insider histories and exposés of Hollywood (e.g. Litwak 1986; Kent 1991; Biskind 1998, 2004; Bart and Gruber 2002; Mamet 2007) often contain fascinating anecdotes relating to distribution, as do journalistic accounts of the movie industry (McClintick 1982; Yule 1987; Eberts and Ilott 1990; Salamon 1992). The integrity of this information for academic purposes should not be assumed, but nor should it be automatically dismissed. Where possible, I

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have not relied on these latter sources for data, but they have been useful as a way of coming to terms with the inside workings of the distribution industry in the US.

Economics and marketing texts also have much to offer in the way of data, although the researcher is not always going to find critical frameworks for understanding distribution here. Media economics textbooks such as those by Wildman (1988), Albarran and Chan-Olmsted (1998), Vogel (2001), Doyle (2002), Hoskins, McFadyen and Finn (2004), and Moul (2005) date rapidly but most feature some coverage of the distribution sector. Industry reports by financial analysts (Bear Stearns 2005; IBISWorld 2006; Deutsche Securities 2006; Pali Research 2006) are also excellent sources of data, though they can be expensive to obtain. While some studies by economists (e.g. Albert 1999; Hennig-Thurau, Houston and Sridhar 2006) use economic methods in a manner that I would describe as unreflexive, others (e.g. Hanssen 2005; Sedgwick and Pokorny 2005b) have a great deal to offer cultural studies researchers in this field. Art de Vany’s

Hollywood Economics (2003) is an invaluable economic study which diagnoses and
explains the risk-averse nature of contemporary Hollywood. Allen Scott’s (2002, 2005) masterful studies of the economic geography of distribution and production in Hollywood are indispensable, as is Edward J Epstein’s The Big Picture: The New Logic

of Power and Money in Hollywood (2005a) which contains valuable data on the
distribution of recent Hollywood films. From these kinds of sources, the researcher gains a crucial understanding of the “bottleneck” phenomenon that plagues commercial distribution and the necessity for distributors to work with a portfolio of films to maximise economies of scale. An economist’s perspective also helps to explain other characteristics of the distribution sector, such as its tendency towards concentration and its high barriers to entry. All these issues will be discussed further in the following chapter.

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Political economists offer a counterpoint to the instrumental literature on distribution. For Vincent Mosco (1995), the political economy of communications has four defining characteristics: a concern with social change and history, a vantage point which takes into account “the social totality” (of which communications are only a part), a grounding in moral philosophy, and a commitment to praxis. Other political economists (Wasko 1985, 1995; Wasser 2001; McChesney 2001, 2008; Bettig 1996) have also produced rigorous analyses of the entertainment economy in which American domination of international screen markets is a recurring theme, as is collusion between the state and the corporate sector. Global Hollywood by Miller et al (2001), and its “sequel” Global Hollywood 2 (2005), have been particularly influential for their foregrounding of labour as a central issue within film research. Political economy’s critical focus on structural factors also informs some studies of film industries outside the US (Stokes and Hoover 1999; Yeh and Davis 2002; Zhao 2008).

Nicholas Garnham’s work is an important part of this corpus, and his theorisation of distribution in Capitalism and Communication (1990) is compelling. For Garnham, distribution, rather than production, is “the key locus of power and profit” and “the key to cultural plurality” (162; italics in original). For Garnham, political economy

stresses that all mediated forms of communication involve the use of scarce material resources and the mobilization of competences and dispositions which are themselves in important ways determined by access to scarce resources; that the understanding we have of the world, and thus our ability to change it, will be in their turn determined by the ways in which access to and control over those scarce resources is structured. (6)

I can think of no better summary of the importance of distribution in audiovisual industries. Political economy’s theorisation of cinema as a complex of labour, regulation

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and consumption is an important influence on the methodology of this thesis, though it must be noted that the thesis is not itself a political economic analysis per se but an attempt to engage this body of work from within film and cultural studies.

Another body of work on distribution, one which frequently overlaps with the political economy tradition, comes to us via the work of film historians including Thomas Guback (1969, 1985b), Kristin Thompson (1985), Tino Balio (1985), Robert Allen (2006), Janet Staiger (1992), Justin Wyatt (1988, 1998, 2005), Douglas Gomery (1986), and Michael Quinn (2001).10 Their research is generally archival in nature and focuses upon the commercial strategies of the major studios and on the Hollywoodisation of the global film market in the post-war period. At its best, this work is able to shed new light on conditions of regulation, distribution, and production through rigorous case studies of particular studios, directors, or producers. However, the overwhelming majority of these studies focus on the US and European film industries. Other industries figure as the objects of Hollywood influence rather than as sites with their own histories.11 Film history also tends to fetishise early cinema and the studio era at the expense of more recent developments, and it is reluctant to theorise distribution itself in any serious way. While the approach I use here has some overlap with this body of work, it is distinguished by a broader spatial and temporal scope.

Distribution research can sometimes be found within other areas of film, media, and communication studies. For example, analysis of distribution circuits can be integrated

10 A related contribution is film reviewer Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Movie Wars (2002), a critique of Hollywood distribution which addresses a film buff readership. Other recent academic studies of Hollywood containing sections on distribution include Sickels (2008), Miller (2009), and McDonald and Wasko (2008). 11 Of course, film-historical studies of non-US/European industries do exist. In the case of Australia, works by the likes of Bertrand (1989), Sabine (1995) and Landman (2006) fall into this category. Historical studies by Dermody and Jacka (1987) and Thorne (2007) investigate issues of circulation in some detail. My point, however, is that these studies are peripheral to the “canon” of film history, at least as far as the output of the discipline’s most influential journals (Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Film History ) and book series is concerned. The US- and Euro-centrism of these publications can easily be verified by a scan through their tables of contents.

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into studies of particular films, directors, studios, or genres. It is not uncommon for historical or textual film analyses to contain a section on the distribution of the text under consideration, as is the case with Lucas Hilderbrand’s (2004, 2009) study of Todd Haynes’ Superstar, Kevin Heffernan’s (2002) work on Night of the Living Dead, Alisa Perren’s (2001) essay on sex, lies and videotape, and Simon During’s (1997) essay on the global popular. Studies of particular genres can also contain valuable analyses of distribution networks, as in Eric Schaefer’s Bold! Daring! Shocking! True! (1999), a history of the exploitation film in the US. Other researchers discuss distribution in the context of national or regional cinemas. Michael Curtin’s recent Playing to the World’s

Biggest Audience: The Globalization of Chinese Film and TV (2007) is a goldmine of
data on distribution in East Asia (see also Lent 1990 and Zhao 2008). Equally illuminating is the work of Srinivas (2003) on Indian B-circuit distribution, Lii (1998) on pan-Asian distribution of Hong Kong films, Mantecón (2003) on the theatre circuit in Mexico, Dwyer (2007) on distribution in Morocco, Pertierra (2009) on VCR use in Cuba, and Wong’s (2001) comparative analysis of film circuits in Hong Kong and Philadelphia, to name just a few. These valuable studies are all essential reading for those researching the same texts, regions, or genres, but the approach adopted by this thesis is somewhat different. I address distribution as a cultural technology, using a transnational perspective. This thesis is therefore not about one particular national/regional distribution circuit, but about how circuits operate across time and space.

Informal distribution—distribution which, as I define it, operates outside Global
Hollywood and arthouse circuits—is the most significant blind spot in the literature. Existing research on informal circuits is limited and is scattered across a wide variety of disciplines. A series of studies of pirate film distribution in and from India (Sundaram 2001, 2004; Liang 2005; Srinivas 2003; Athique 2008a, 2008b) have been particularly

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groundbreaking in this regard, and some of these will be discussed in detail later. Likewise, Shujen Wang (2003) and Laikwan Pang (2006) have both published major works on piracy in China. Informal distribution is also a focus within some of the literature on diasporic media (Cunningham and Sinclair 1999; Yue and Hawkins 2000; Sun 2002), and there is also a strong body of work from media/communication scholars on the informal uses of the videocassette recorder (Boyd, Straubhaar and Lent 1989; Wasser 2001; Dobrow 1990; Ganley and Ganley 1985) and the VCD (Davis 2003; Hu 2005). However, these various studies hail from different disciplinary, methodological, and institutional backgrounds, and do not constitute a coherent scholarly discourse.

Audience studies is another strand of media research that sometimes examines distribution, though its approach also differs from the one used here. Prominent works in audience studies (e.g. Stacey 1994; Bird 2003) focus on the uses that audiences make of particular texts, and as such they necessarily touch on distribution in describing how audiences access these texts. However, the focus of audience research is generally on the variability of viewer responses rather than structural effect of distribution networks, and the high degree of specificity of this research can also make it difficult to extrapolate from particular studies. An audience study of, say, Italian horror can be very helpful when one is researching the distribution of Italian horror, but otherwise its utility tends to be limited. Although I do conduct some limited audience research in the chapter on Nigerian video in chapter five, the approach used by this thesis is not audience-based. It is certainly possible to study distribution from the perspective of audiences, and this can produce fascinating results, as is the case with the media anthropology of Jeffrey Himpele and Brian Larkin which is discussed below; however, I have chosen the less popular option of beginning with the distribution networks themselves and working out from there. Although the question of audiences is

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absolutely central to this thesis, audience members themselves are not the locus of my analysis.

Overlapping with audience research is the anthropological tradition of cultural research. There are two common ways in which this connects with work on distribution. On the one hand, social and cultural anthropologists have produced a series of important studies of cultural circulation, particularly in non-capitalist societies. There is now an extensive anthropological literature on such topics as gift exchange and commodity fetishism, much of which is relevant to distribution research. Key anthropological studies of circulation include the gift economy model of Marcel Mauss (1970), Appadurai’s (1986) theory of commodity exchange, Daniel Miller’s (1987) influential work on material cultures, and several pieces on circulation by Edward LiPuma (LiPuma and Koelble 2005; Lee and LiPuma 2002). The meta-theories offered by these scholars address circulation as a cultural technology in the same way that I seek to theorise film distribution, though for the most part they do not address media specifically. The second way anthropology interfaces with the topic of this thesis is through the sub-field of media anthropology, which has absorbed many of the approaches discussed above. Media anthropology includes not only the ethnographic studies of non-Western cultural practices associated with traditional anthropological work (see for example Hahn’s 1994 study of cinema-going in Tonga) but also a variety of other topics including observer studies of media organisations, and, increasingly, new media research.12 Representative media anthropology studies can be found in the edited collection Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain (Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod and Larkin 2002), as well as collections by Askew and Wilk (2002) and Rothenbuhler and Coman (2005). Ethnography and observation are the primary methodologies, and much

12 The website, run by the European Association for Social Anthropologists’ Media Anthropology Network, is an excellent resource and hosts a lively mailing list. Recent online seminars ( feature detailed debates about the boundaries of the discipline. See also Bird (2003).

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work in this field aims for the kind of “thick description” (Geertz 1975) that can bring media practices to life and position them in relation to economic, social and cultural contexts. Indeed, this tends to be what distinguishes media anthropology from the kind of audience studies practiced in media and communication studies, which often has a more quantitative bent.

The work of two media anthropologists, Jeffrey Himpele and Brian Larkin, is exceptional in this regard. Although these theorists are not well known in film studies, I feel their analyses of informal networks have important ramifications for a transnational cultural studies of distribution. Himpele’s research into film distribution in the Andes (1996, 2008) uses the itineraries of films as they move through social space as an entry point into a broader theorisation of class and cultural capital. He begins a key essay on this topic (Himpele 1996) with a discussion of Francis Ford Coppola’s

Dracula, mapping its staggered movement outwards from the bourgeois cinemas at the
bottom of the La Paz valley on to a variety of cheaper cine populares frequented by immigrant and indigenous underclasses. For Himpele, this trajectory both mirrors and consolidates existing social divisions.

Larkin shares with Himpele an interest in the materiality of media circulation and the social change it engenders. Combining extensive fieldwork with sophisticated theorisation, Larkin’s studies of mediascapes in Nigeria (1997, 2004, 2008) have enormous potential as templates for comparative media research. Larkin documents how the now-thriving Nigerian video industry (which I discuss in detail in chapter five) evolved from a network of pre-existing pirate circuits. He offers a compelling argument regarding pirate media spectatorship, detailing the affective specificities produced by low-tech VHS pirate distribution:

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Facial features are smoothed away, colors are broken down into constituent tones, and bodies fade into one another. Reproduction takes its toll, degrading the image by injecting dropouts and bursts of fuzzy noise, breaking down dialogue into muddy, often inaudible sound. (Larkin 2004, 307)

This kind of media studies poses a challenge to theoretical models which imagine the process of reception as a battle between text and viewer on an abstracted ground of desire. Larkin’s focus on the ground-level, socialised practices of media consumption provides the missing piece of the puzzle, illustrating the variability of conditions of distribution and exhibition, and the ways in which each viewing scenario brings with it a specific affective context. Extrapolating from the models presented in Larkin’s work, the reader is confronted with some important questions about the variability of media consumption within given cultures as well as between them. For example, if Nigerian video viewing is fundamentally distinct from the Western multiplex experience, then in what ways is the multiplex experience different from film viewing carried out on a bus or in a doctor’s waiting room? Is there any point even talking about theories of the spectator when the textual encounter is so unstable?

These questions will be addressed in forthcoming chapters. For now, let us return to definitional issues. I have argued throughout this literature review that the existing work on distribution is too haphazard and dispersed for a common set of debates, questions and theories to be identified. For this to occur, we need to develop a theoretical model of film distribution and, in so doing, to delineate its characteristics and identify key issues. This is the aim of the following section.

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In its most general sense, distribution refers to the dispersal of matter or information across a given geographical area or temporal period. For example, the Oxford English

Dictionary defines distribution as the “action of dividing and dealing out or bestowing
in portions among a number of recipients” (OED 1989, online). Distribution has both active and passive modes, in that one can speak both of the distribution of mail via Australia Post and the distribution of colon cancer across the Australian population.

However, distribution can also be defined as a process, or even a technology. Soft drink distribution, for example, begins at the end of the production line and involves all those activities which are required to facilitate purchase, many of which would typically be subcontracted to logistics companies and contractors. These include importation of the finished product, payment of taxes and duties, transport to warehouses and retailers, stocktaking and inventory, collection of payment, liaison with vendors, price monitoring, and so on. In late capitalism this part of the product lifecycle also involves a variety of informational activities such as marketing, advertising, and public relations, which occupy an increasingly important role within the distribution process.

Film distribution takes on some of these general characteristics of commodity distribution at the same time as it has features specific to the film industry. In the conventional typologies offered in textbooks, distribution refers to that segment of the film industry which links production and exhibition/consumption. In the studio era, the structure of the industry meant that distribution was a logistical operation carried out within vertically-integrated organisations which contained production and exhibition wings as well. Today, however, distribution is the province of multinational conglomerates with business models built around control of international audiovisual

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pipelines. These are the go-betweens who attract media attention towards, orchestrate advertising and PR campaigns around, discourage illegal duplication of, and co-ordinate shipping and transport for audio-visual commodities.

The problem with these conventional definitions of distribution is that they tend to imagine a zero-sum process, in which a fixed amount of matter is dispersed over a bounded geographic space. An enlarged model of media distribution, such as that offered by Himpele (1996) and Cubitt (2005), emphasises that distribution is productive—it creates meaning and difference. As Himpele argues, “distribution itineraries mark, separate, and organize the relations between people and places and what stories are told about them” (1996, 48). The trickle-down model of distribution he studies in La Paz reflects distributors’ “social imagination of the city” (53) as well as broader patterns of economic inequality. His essay concludes with a provocative question:

As gatekeepers to circulating commodities, distributors distribute local differences by composing a series of sights and sites—like narrative cinema’s internal succession of inter-cutting scenes—to form a media containing potent narrative schemes. Reading this temporal and spatial field (what I have called itineraries) spectators insert themselves as subjects when they decide, or feel it is decided for them, which films to see and where to see them. Thus, if film distribution is such a media, what media theories can we use to understand it? (58)

Let us defer Himpele’s question for a moment in order to first examine some other recent work which attempts to provide a critical theorisation of film distribution. In her book Film Cultures, Janet Harbord argues that film’s value is “produced relationally” across networks of distribution, exhibition and marketing (2002, 2). Harbord focuses on the mediation of films at the moment of circulation and their afterlives in other kinds of

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media. She correctly notes that distribution often feeds back into production, arguing that “the structures, patterns and formations produced by these [circulatory] practices in part inform production and shape consumption in a circle that never quite connects” (5). As a theorisation of distribution itself, her analysis is an important contribution to the field; however, it consists mostly of lengthy theoretical discussions of critics such as Adorno and Appadurai, and is less concerned with how these dynamics play out in practice. The book is strong on topics such as aesthetics and new media but weak on industrial detail. As such, Harbord’s analysis is rooted in an interpretive, almost formalist methodology which, while valuable, is distinct from the approach used here.

Another theorisation of film distribution and, especially, exhibition is Charles Acland's

Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes and Global Culture (2003). An ambitious
meditation on the cultural dimensions of contemporary moviegoing infrastructures,

Screen Traffic uses as its data set an extensive collection of trade articles on
developments in distribution and exhibition since the 1980s, principally in North America. This becomes the basis for Acland’s theorisation of the spatial and temporal dimensions of multiplex culture in an age of globalisation. Acland's contribution to the literature is an important one—as a work of film studies, Screen Traffic is methodologically adventurous and theoretically innovative. The critiques of psychoanalytic and spectator theory are astute, and the interest in topics such as film labour, venue design and real estate prices as inputs into the cinema-going experience is welcome. Acland is also particularly adept at translating industrial history into the language of cultural theory. For example, distribution is theorised as not simply a delivery mechanism but a "shaping" of the audience (230), as a discursive act. However,

Screen Traffic differs from this thesis in its scope and also in its methodology. In Screen Traffic, trade texts are called on to perform a double task: they are taken at face value as
sources of empirical data while also being "read" as vessels of industry discourse. As

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such, although there is a stated concern with the empirical, the perspective of the book is really more firmly grounded in an interpretive methodology based on Acland's interwoven readings of (industrial and theoretical) texts. This is of course a completely valid approach, but it differs from the one used here. Furthermore, while Acland assesses global culture from North America outwards, this thesis uses a multi-sited perspective and is attentive to other kinds of relays that bypass the US—for instance, media circuits between Africa and Australasia (see chapter five).

More recently, Sean Cubitt’s essay “Distribution and media flows” (2005) has mapped some of the broad characteristics of distributive networks and their socio-political implications. Along with the work of Himpele and Larkin, it is one of the few studies of distribution which have explanatory utility for media industries outside their immediate focus. Cubitt’s essay is a theorisation of distribution itself, rather than a discussion of a cultural phenomenon in which distribution plays a part, and as such it asks us to revisit and rethink the common-sense understanding of distribution as some purely logistical operation that links production with consumption. Instead, Cubitt highlights the productivity of distribution—how it is able to expand, contract, defer, quicken, modify, monitor, profit from, or otherwise mediate the information which it handles. He demonstrates how media content which has been proven to work commercially often owes its success to effective distribution rather than to its textual qualities alone. However, he also notes that the data upon which these decisions are based comes from distributors and goes on to be plugged back into cycles of production determining textual outcomes; thus a “feedback loop” (202) is created in which distribution begets distribution. In this way, Cubitt argues that distribution is more than a means of delivery, defining it broadly as “the management of space-time flows of product and money” (202). This model also includes such things as business-to-business transactions, audience surveillance, and profit redistribution—in fact, anything which

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involves the blockage, transmission or regulation of any kind of flow (information, capital, technology, humans) from one point to another along both temporal and spatial axes:

Distribution is that function which organizes information in space and time, accelerating or delaying its delivery in spaces that it differentiates on that basis. In this sense distribution is the construction of difference; initially in distinguishing producer from audience, buyer from seller, and in a networked world further distinguishing and dividing populations by their temporal and spatial proximity to the economic power and political economy that is increasingly centralized, not at the site of production, but on the terrains of exchange. (194, emphasis added)

Cubitt’s argument draws upon two theoretical foundations. On the one hand, his Marxian reading of the contemporary mediascape emphasises the commodification of information, the extraction of labour from audiences in the form of attention, and the multinational capital which underwrites media at every turn. He notes that many media empires have grown out of a base in distribution rather than production, and offers examples of the intricate flows of capital, information and technology which underwrite contemporary media distribution. His critique is also informed both implicitly and explicitly by a Habermasian ideal of communicative action, a belief in “the infinitely fecund generation of human communications” (208). This is a very suggestive model which can be used across a variety of media. However, the approach I use differs from Cubitt’s in that it focuses more closely on one particular media format (the feature film) and its transnational circulation.

Political theory offers another set of directions in which we can take these models. Distribution and redistribution play important roles in various forms of political philosophy, and the terms acquire a normative dimension in all discourses which

Distribution in theory • 41

invoke the notion of equality. When we speak of income tax or welfare benefits, for example, we necessarily speak of distribution and redistribution. This has a more specific character in Marxist discourse. For Marx and Engels, distribution was the intervening process between production and consumption which stratifies capitalist society into workers and the bourgeoisie through its dissemination of economic and social inequality (Cubitt 2005). Distribution is thus a crucial step in relations of exchange which institutionalise inequality, and in its ideal, inverted state also resides at the core of the utopian vision captured in the credo “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”. However, redistribution is not always supported as an organisational principle. A recurrent theme in the 2008 US presidential election was Barack Obama’s purported “redistributionist” agenda, which the Republican party were eager to paint as a socialist conspiracy undermining American values of free enterprise and entrepreneurialism. GOP candidate John McCain went so far as to label Obama as the aspirational “Redistributionist in chief” (Reston and Mehta 2008). While observers outside the United States may have been surprised to hear redistributionist used as an insult, this episode is a useful reminder that issues of distribution are nothing if not political. If we are to understand politics as struggle for power and resources, then distribution is politics at its purest.

Variations and counter-models can be found throughout political philosophy. For example, John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971) outlines a vision of society in which individuals are invited to imagine themselves as subjects on the basis that they cannot know in advance what position they will occupy in the social structure. A component of this model is the “difference principle”, in which inequality can be justified, but only if this benefits those at the bottom of the ladder. This is, above all, an issue of

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distribution, of distributive justice.13 It also raises an important point which needs to be taken into account in any analysis of media distribution. Both the norms which govern distribution and the things it circulates need to be understood in relation to that from which they emerge, whatever that may be. For instance, film distribution in the current multi-channel environment is fundamentally different from the situation in the 1940s, when the only films available were whatever your local cinema happened to be screening. In either case, the pie from which slices are being cut is of a different size, and the social impact question needs to be considered in relation to this. Much of the news media’s coverage of film piracy forgets this principle. For example, estimates of “losses” incurred by major studios as a result of piracy usually presume a fixed level of demand which pirate distribution erodes. This is the zero-sum notion of distribution in which it is presumed that the economic space in which distribution occurs is bounded and static, whereas in reality demand for media products is highly flexible. Following Cubitt, I argue throughout this thesis that distribution is always generative as well as allocative. I thus reject the zero-sum model of distribution as inadequate.

So, then, to return to Himpele’s question, what media theories can we use to understand media distribution? I argue that no single meta-theory, no matter how sophisticated, can account for every media distribution network in its specificity. Rather, a flexible form of cultural analysis based on a few guiding principles is a better approach. The subcinema model that I advance throughout this thesis is offered as one way of approaching this task. Its core arguments are as follows:

13 Concepts of distribution and redistribution were also central to a lively debate between the well-known theorists Nancy Fraser and Judith Butler, which has also been taken up by other scholars (e.g. Swanson 2005). Fraser (1995, 1997) argued that a deconstructive socialism is the only way to reconcile incompatible claims for cultural recognition and material redistribution on the part of marginalised groups. Butler (1997) responded by questioning the validity of the binary division between redistribution and recognition.

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1. Distribution is about the control of audiovisual resources. 2. Distribution is the most profitable sector in film industries, and is subject to high levels of concentration. 3. Distribution is the ground upon which reception occurs. Without distribution, a text has no audience. 4. Distribution is about the transmission of values, competencies, and ideology. It is a site of political struggle. 5. Distribution inscribes cultural difference. It fragments audiences along lines of gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and class. 6. Distribution frames the way texts are experienced and understood by audiences. 7. Distribution shapes film culture in its own image. 8. Informal film distribution is the global norm. 9. Studying distribution today means thinking transnationally.

These arguments help to focus attention simultaneously on the material and the symbolic, the empirical and the theoretical, the micro and the macro. Some of these arguments connect to one or more disciplinary traditions, upon which I draw throughout the thesis. For example: (1) can be studied though political economy, (2) through media economics, (3) through audience studies, (4) through sociology/cultural studies, (5) through anthropology/cultural studies/gender studies, and (6) through textual analysis and reception studies. Keeping these principles in constant tension with one another provides for a more sophisticated form of social and cultural analysis than would be possible were we to focus exclusively on any one aspect. This approach also helps to keep at bay the dry empiricism, trivia-harvesting and instrumental knowledgegeneration that often substitutes for distribution research. It ensures that the researcher remains focused on what I see as the main game—the social and cultural consequences of distribution.

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Before concluding this chapter, I would like to note some differences between the subcinema model and other frameworks to which it could be compared. As mentioned earlier, the sub in subcinema does not refer to “subcultural”, in the sense of a marginal cultural practice which stands in an oppositional relationship to a dominant culture— rather, the sub refers to subterranean, for the routes through which subcinema moves are not always visible to the statistician’s eye. Subterranean audience formations are therefore not equivalent to counterpublics (Warner 2002), a term which has an inherently oppositional quality that is not present in my model. Nor do I use subcinema in the same way that Ulrich Beck (1997) uses the term subpolitics—to refer to the dislocation of politics into the realm of the individual and everyday life. While there is some connection between these two concepts, subcinema refers specifically to the circulation of media within the realm of the informal. Note also that in many senses subcinema predates its formal counterpart and is the entity from which the latter departs, not the other way around (see chapters two and three). Finally, I also want to stress that subcinema is quite distinct from Jeffrey Sconce’s (1995) model of paracinema , which refers to a specific reading protocol or counter-aesthetic commonly deployed in relation to exploitation and cult cinema. Subcinema is about distributive relations, not textual relations. These characteristics of subcinema will all be discussed in greater detail in the third chapter, in which I offer an expanded definition of the subcinema model.

Some further comments regarding methodology are also required at this point. Although the key mode of research for this thesis is primary and secondary archival research, I have also conducted a number of interviews with distributors and consumers. The findings from these interviews are showcased in the “Profile” sections of each chapter, which offer a detailed case study of a particular distributor or network in order to provide a finely-grained, micro-level snapshot of the processes and practices

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which are discussed earlier on in each chapter.14 Note, however, that these are not ethnographic interviews per se, nor are they interviews of the quantitative sociological variety. While large sample sizes are important within sociology (Bourdieu 1984; Bennett et al 2006, 2009) and sometimes in cultural and media studies (Bennett, Emerson and Frow 1999; Morley 1980), the positivist assumptions of survey studies and the kind of quantitative claims they may produce have been thoroughly critiqued. Fiske (1988) and Hartley (2006), in particular, have questioned the assumption that audiences’ preferences and practices can be measured in any meaningful sense. For this and other reasons, it is now common practice to employ finely-grained, theoretically-informed analyses of a small sample of respondents as an alternative to “objective” quantitative analysis, and this method has been used to great effect in much recent work (Saldanha 2000; Appadurai 2000; Himpele 1996). The interviews conducted for this thesis use this kind of approach. They have been undertaken with the objective of attaining contextual and anecdotal knowledge rather than empirical “truth”, or thick description in the strict anthropological sense.

In conclusion, this chapter has provided a comprehensive literature review on film distribution and a justification of the interdisciplinary approach of this thesis. I have defined distribution as a concept and a practice, framed it as an object of inquiry, and synthesised existing literature to provide a theoretical map of its characteristics. The following chapter will take the reader into the belly of the beast—the Hollywood studios—in order to demonstrate how formal film distribution works in practice and how it has evolved over time, before I turn to the characteristics of informal film distribution in chapter three.

14 Ethics clearance was provided by the University of Melbourne in 2006.

Distribution in theory • 46

Distribution in practice • 47

Chapter two

The aim of this thesis is to analyse a series of film distribution systems which operate outside and alongside conventional channels of circulation. Before we go any further, we need to establish exactly what these conventional channels are, how they came to be, and why they do not always carry out their distributive function as effectively as they could. With this aim in mind, this chapter presents a brief history of the evolution of commercial film distribution in the United States. My specific focus is the “windowing” system which has been Hollywood’s distributive template since the invention of broadcast television. This system has effectively become the international standard of mainstream film distribution, and is also the basis upon which most arthouse distribution is founded. The nature of this system is such that it can incorporate new technologies (video, DVD, internet) which are initially received as threats to the industry but which ultimately settle down to become new tributaries feeding into distributors’ revenue streams. Windowing thus represents the master narrative of today’s global film industry and a durable template for the efficient exploitation of cinema as commodity (Garnham 1983). It is important for researchers of distribution to understand its characteristics.

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In chapter one, I posed a largely theoretical argument that control of distribution means control of film culture. This chapter fleshes out this claim with empirical detail. The twentieth century has witnessed incredible political, social, and technological change, yet the film distribution landscape is marked by an eerie stability. With a few exceptions, the US studios that called the shots almost a century ago are still in control today. The major studios take 95% of US box office revenues, even though they release less than 50% of films in any given year (Pokorny 2005, 281).1 How is this possible? To answer this question, we need to pay close attention to the way money flows between audiences, producers, exhibitors, retailers and distributors.

Building on the work of political economists and film historians, this chapter will analyse the operational logics of commercial film distribution, explaining in detail the work that goes into distributing a major motion picture and how revenues are allocated. The section “International contexts and responses” considers the various ways in which other nations have resisted Hollywood’s international dominance. The chapter also presents selected material from a series of interviews with Melbourne-based distributors who discussed their commercial strategies, their perceived position within the cinematic field, their opinions on piracy, and a variety of other topics. As this last section demonstrates, the decisions of distributors are not purely economic; they are mediated through a variety of socio-cultural filters (discourses of taste, passion, value, and instinct) which need to be taken into account if we want to understand what kinds of films are seen on our screens.

The focus throughout this chapter is on multiplex rather than arthouse distribution. This is partly for practical reasons, as I do not have the space to go into the same level of depth about two different sectors of the distribution industry, but there is another

1 Pokorny includes Miramax and Dreamworks in the category of the majors.

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reason for this as well. My argument throughout is that arthouse distribution is a variation upon, rather than a challenge to, mainstream distribution. On this point I concur with Steve Neale, who argued many years ago that art cinema is a “mechanism of discrimination”:

It is a means of producing and sustaining a division within the field of cinema overall, a division that functions economically, ideologically and aesthetically. The terms of that division are constructed through a discrimination between art and industry, culture and entertainment, meaning and profit. However, the division and its discriminations do not, in general, function so as to challenge the economic, ideological and aesthetic bases of the cinematic institution as it currently exists. They function, instead, so as to carve out a space, a sector,

within it, one which can be inhabited, so to speak, by national industries and
national film-makers whose existence would otherwise be threatened by the domination of Hollywood. In the division of labour it sustains (with the ideology of authorship reinforcing a distinction between intellectual and manual labour); in the practices of production, distribution and exhibition it entails (with the relations between distribution and exhibition on the one hand and production on the other taking the form of commodity circulation); and in the forms and relations of representation with which it is associated, Art Cinema has rarely disturbed or altered fundamentally the commodity-based structures, relations and practices of what it likes nevertheless to label the ‘commercial’ film industry. It has merely modified them slightly. (Neale 1981, 37)

According to Neale, art cinema claims to be in an oppositional relationship to commercial cinema, but is, in effect, fully incorporated within its system. The same can be said of arthouse and mainstream circuits at the level of distribution—these two circuits are in fact one. This is not to say that the films that move through arthouse and multiplex circuits are interchangeable at the level of content, social impact, or spectatorial experience. Rather, these circuits have a great deal in common at a

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structural level—they privilege theatrical exhibition, they operate on a windowing
basis, and they are plagued by bottlenecks. This point will be developed further as the chapter progresses, but for now let me reiterate that the operative categories within this thesis are not commercial and art cinemas—this is a bankrupt framework—but formal and informal distribution.

Before I go any further, some methodological issues need to be addressed. The first is the difficulty of obtaining trustworthy data on commercial film distribution. The studios’ own box office figures, which form the basis of the MPAA’s official yearbooks as well as most of the statistics offered in trade papers such as Variety, are notoriously unreliable and are frequently inflated to increase the exchange value of a title in ancillary markets (Epstein 2005a). While some authoritative academic publications do make use of this data (Acland 2003; Vogel 2004), I prefer wherever possible to use data sourced independently by economists and industry analysts (Cones 1997; Albarran and Chan-Olmsted 1998; R. Jones 1998; Albert 1999; Scott 2000, 2002, 2005; Doyle 2002; Hanssen 2002, 2005; Squire 2004; McKenzie 2005; Sedgwick and Pokorny 2005a) or film historians (Beaupré 1977; Balio 1985, 1996, 1998; Kerr 1986; Izod 1988; Wyatt 1988, 1998, 1999; Austin 1990; Cook 1990; Maïga 1993; Moran 1996, 2000; Prince 1999; Quinn 2001; Wasser 2001; Alvarez 2005) in preference to Variety data. The “Anatomy of a Blockbuster” section below makes use of two carefully selected data sets: a spreadsheet relating to the distribution of the Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman, as tendered by Warner Bros to the Los Angeles Superior Court (cited in Goodell 1998, 1011), and a confidential profit-participant report from Disney pertaining to the 2000 Jerry Bruckheimer production Gone in 60 Seconds (cited throughout Epstein 2005a). I am confident that the information found in these sources has sufficient integrity to permit the identification, description and theorisation of common distributive logics and tactics, which is my primary aim in this chapter.

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Three things about the early years of film distribution are worth flagging here. First, early cinema was a period of European dominance; America was a net importer of film product until the end of the First World War. Second, exhibition was initially based upon a system of film sales, not rentals. Third, film was initially sold as an undifferentiated, homogenous product. These facts are all well established within film history but when considered within the context of an analysis of distribution they take on new meaning. They also have important implications for the model of subcinema I present in the next chapter.

After making its debut in the vaudeville halls of the late 1890s where it was consumed by audiences alongside an array of live entertainment, cinema found its first regular exhibition outlet in the nickelodeons of the early twentieth century. This is what Sedgwick and Pokorny refer to as cinema’s “proto-industrial” period (2005a, 14). Film was at this stage a crude commodity, sold sight-unseen by the foot for around $25 per reel (Alvarez 2005, 431). It didn’t matter all that much what the films contained, as the technology of cinema was more important to audiences than its content. Spectators did not seek out individual texts but took part in a social experience in which the films in question were more or less interchangeable.

Over time a network of film “exchanges” began to develop, the first of these appearing around 1900.2 These exchanges, the first examples of stand-alone film distribution operations, institutionalised the informal practices of swapping and trading that were common amongst exhibitors. Exchanges would purchase films from producers and then

2 Alvarez (2005) notes that some precursors to the exchanges can be traced back further, to 1896.

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lease them to exhibitors for around 20% of the original price. Over time a system of price differentiation began to emerge, with new releases attracting a higher rate than older titles. A subscription system also took hold, meaning that exchanges committed to buy the output of a particular producer or producers over a given period of time, and these films were usually delivered on a weekly basis (Hanssen 2005, 125-26).3 This was still a flat-fee system, in that exhibitors paid an agreed-upon amount regardless of how many punters showed up, but it represented an important shift away from the outrightsale system used in the early days.

The year 1908 saw the rise of the notorious Motion Picture Patents Company, also known as the Trust. This was a collusive alliance between equipment manufacturers, producers, and a distributor, led by the Edison Manufacturing Company. The Trust initially believed that control over technical patents and film stock was the key to profits. Its business model involved locking exchanges and producers into exclusive contracts and charging them handsomely for the privilege of using patented technologies. Those who refused were slapped with lawsuits for patent infringement. Strict standardisation and compliance were the order of the day. However, with the formation of its General Film Company offshoot in 1910, the Trust shifted its emphasis to distribution (Izod 1988, 18-20). Within a year it had bought all the exchanges it had previously licensed to do its distribution, bar one, and established a national distribution network. Distribution rather than patenting had become a new priority for the American film industry.

The comfortable oligarchy established by the Trust soon ran into trouble, a victim of its own collusive zeal. In 1913, one of its few remaining competitors, distributor/producer

3 A network of high-volume “junk exchanges” also existed—cut-price operators who leased older reels of dubious print quality for around three cents per foot, catering to the bottom end of the market (Alvarez 2005, 433).

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William Fox, filed a lawsuit against it on antitrust grounds. This led, some five years later, to the demise of the Trust at the hands of the US Supreme Court, which ruled that the alliance was anti-competitive. In the meantime, some of the remaining independent operators had formed an alternative alliance, the Motion Picture Distributing and Sales Company, better known as the Sales Company. Its distribution model differed from that of the Trust in one key respect: the Sales Company specialised in getting films out to exchanges, which then negotiated with exhibitors on their own terms (Izod 1988, 29).

The distribution operations of Paramount are also instructive, as they involved a new strategy which proved to be successful. Founded in 1914 from a merger of 11 exchanges, Paramount instituted a national distribution system in which its affiliated exchanges banded together to pool their advances and co-ordinate national circulation.4 Paramount covered the costs of advertising and took a 35% cut of the rentals in exchange for a $20,000–$25,000 advance paid to producers (Koszarksi 1994, 69). It initially began renting exhibitors individual titles which they could select based on a description in a campaign book, but between 1914 and 1920 the company shifted to renting multi-title programmes based around selected stars. Finally, it switched to fully fledged “block booking”, whereby exhibitors were offered large packages of between 13 and 104 films on an all-or-nothing basis (Hanssen 2005; Koszarski 1994, 72). Using this block-booking strategy, Paramount and other studios were able to secure exhibition for weak films by hitching them to more desirable ones. Block booking was one of the controversial practices that attracted the attention of the Federal Trade Commission in 1921, the first of a series of investigations which would culminate in the Supreme Court’s 1948 Paramount Decrees and the partial break-up of the studio system. Although it has been outlawed in 23 US states (Vogel 2004, 98), block booking is still practiced today via a variety of legal and extra-legal means, and it is common in the

4 Under previous “states’ rights” systems, rights had been sold on a territory-by-territory basis.

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international market. As such, it remains one of the strategies through which the Hollywood studio system has been able to tighten its grip on the global market (Miller et al 2005).5

The industry was not vertically integrated during the early feature period, though overlaps between production and distribution and between distribution and exhibition did exist. This, however, would change during the studio era, when the once fly-bynight film business matured into a stable oligopoly.


As film historians including Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson (1985) have demonstrated, the studio era was characterised by increasing levels of standardisation in film form, industrial operation, and conditions of exhibition. The same is true of distribution. During this period, distribution evolved into a technology of logistical precision carried out within a small number of large corporations. Control of distribution proved to be the basis of the studios’ dominance and the guarantor of their future prosperity (Aksoy and Robins 1992; Schatz 1999, 16; Epstein 2005a). This state of affairs endured until a series of changes reshaped the industry in the post-World War II period.

The late 1920s and 1930s had seen the number of operators in the film industry decrease and the remaining giants coalesce into modern business operations modelled

5 See Hanssen (2005) for a defense of block booking as a legitimate business practice.

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around Fordist principles. Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros, RKO and Loew’s-MGM were vertically integrated entities with their own theatre chains, either owned outright or co-owned through joint ventures. (Universal, United Artists and Columbia were partially integrated.6) This meant that they were able to provide their own films with guaranteed distribution and their own exhibitors with a steady supply of releases. The level of concentration within the industry was very high during the studio era. In 46% of US exhibition markets, all cinemas were owned by one distributor, and the studios collectively controlled the entire exhibition market in 73 of the 95 US cities with a population of over 100,000. For decades, the studios prospered in this stable commercial environment, releasing 75% of all US features by the late 1930s and pocketing 90% to 95% of the domestic box office (Waterman 1982, 17; Storper 1989, 279; Schatz 1999, 16).

The distribution strategy used at this time was called the Runs-Zones-Clearances system. It established for the first time a formal hierarchy of exhibitors, reflecting a strategic “spatial and temporal separation of markets” (Schatz 2003, 120). Theatres were divided into geographic zones and allocated a rating from one to five according to the amenities and prestige they offered. Films began their run in the swanky metropolitan theatres, then after a strictly monitored embargo period (the clearance) they would move to the second- and third-run venues located on the outskirts of cities, before ending up in regional cinemas. A film’s entire run usually lasted six months or more (Schatz 1999, 16). This trickle-down model of film distribution has been with us ever since, and its contemporary manifestation in “windowing” will be discussed shortly.

6 While vertically integrated, RKO was considerably smaller than its competitors. Its corporate ownership structure is revealing, as it combined ownership of theatres (the Keith-Albee-Orpheum chain), distribution (the Film Booking Office), and radio (RCA, from whose technical patents it benefited), as well as studio film production (RKO) and, later, television (NBC, under the umbrella of the US giant General Electric).

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Drawing on Mae Huettig’s 1939 study, Tino Balio (1993) describes the distributive logic of the studio system as “feeding the maw of exhibition”. This phrase refers to studios’ need to maintain a regular supply of standardised product to their theatres, catering for the insatiable demand for film product. One film per week was the average output of each studio, much higher than it is today, and the double-bill system (whereby a highquality “A” feature is shown alongside a cheaper “B” movie) was the industry standard. During this period, distribution operations were increasingly standardised and rationalised. The logistics were fine-tuned to allow for the most efficient circulation of prints at the lowest possible cost, making the best possible use of new technologies.7 A small army of secretaries, clerks and other administrators ensured that prints and revenues moved through the system in an orderly fashion.

Distribution contracts came to be standardised during this period. In the previous section, I noted that producers in the early cinema era shifted over time from a system of sales (for a fixed fee per foot) to a system of rentals (initially, for a fixed fee per title). Around the coming of sound in the late 1920s, revenue sharing between distributor and exhibitor became the norm. Under this variation on the rental system, distributors took a cut of the box office, often between 20% and 30%, enabling them to participate directly in the profit streams of hit films (Hanssen 2002).8 This is evidence of the increasing sophistication of distribution contracts, which evolved over time into complicated formulas designed to maximise the amount of revenue flowing back to the distributors. The studios had discovered that keeping tabs on the performance of individual films was important, and they made this the basis of their revenue-sharing

7 In the Australian context, Thorne (2007) offers a fascinating analysis of how rail technology was exploited to the fullest possible extent by film distributors in regional New South Wales. 8 This applied to first-release A titles in urban areas. B-movies were still distributed according to a flat-fee system, and a number of smaller, regional theatres also used the flat-fee system for A movies, as the margins were lower and, thus, the inclination of distributors to monitor profit-sharing arrangements through ticket-checking and other surveillance measures was also diminished.

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agreements with exhibitors. Of course, due to the vertically integrated nature of the studios, the profits often stayed within the same parent company.

Independent operators were left out in the cold under the studio system. A variety of collusive tactics were used by the studios, which co-operated with one another to reduce competition from outsiders. For example, the usual block booking practices that the distributors forced on non-affiliated exhibitors did not apply to many of the studios’ transactions amongst themselves, where unspoken agreements ensured studio cinemas always received the best product available. While non-studio theatres affiliated with nationwide circuits had some bargaining power, many independent theatres could not compete and were forced out of business. Independent producers were also excluded from this closed circuit and found it very difficult to secure exhibition for their films. Mary Pickford, who co-founded United Artists partly in response to these oligopolistic conditions, lamented at the time that she had to “worry so much about distribution that my ability as an actress is impaired” (cited in Koszarski 1994, 79). The situation was made even worse by the fact that the studios had obtained the go-ahead from the US government, via Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act, for a series of dubious trade practices designed to eliminate outside competition (Balio 1993, 8; Schatz 1999, 14).

The Warner Bros Archive at the University of Southern California contains extensive primary documentation of distribution contracts during the studio era, much of which has not yet been analysed by scholars. During a visit in August 2008, I was able to peruse the records of numerous theatres screening Warner product, and I present some of this data here as evidence of the protocols governing studio-era distribution. A case study of the distribution of Frank Capra’s 1941 film Meet John Doe reveals much about how money moved through the industry during the late years of the studio era. A Meet

John Doe exhibitor schedule—the agreement between distributor and theatre to screen

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a particular film—for the Paramount Theatre in Long Branch, New Jersey details the terms which governed the lease of the film (contract 3322, folder 500275). According to this document, the Paramount was permitted to screen the film for three consecutive days in May 1941, with Warner Bros retaining between 35% and 50% of the gross box office according to a complex sliding scale with a built-in “floor” (the minimum percentage payable to the distributor).9 Admission prices were contractually fixed, ranging from 15 cents to 44 cents. However, when the film screened again at the Paramount the following week, the rental was slightly lower (exh. sched. 5 May 1941, contract 3783, folder 500275). Furthermore, a June 1941 film billing sheet for the firstrun Red Lion Theatre in Philadelphia shows it paid back 35% to Warner for the same film (sheet #263, box 6 of 8). By the time it reached the third-run Highland Theatre in Chicago, it was being screened for a $165 flat fee (folder #SW755A).10 Other documentation reveals how the film earned international sales fees ranging from US$175 in Nicaragua to £106,505 in England (letter from TL Martin to Capra/Riskin, 3 April 1948, #12935). On 23 January 1942, Frank Capra even wrote personally to Warner’s General Manager Joe Berhard to congratulate him on the handling of Meet

John Doe, signing off with: “We expect some nice fat checks along with all the other
papers you are going to send us. Keep ‘em rolling!” (file 12935).

These documents demonstrate that as films moved outwards through the theatre network, the amount payable to the distributor decreased along with the complexity of the contracts and the “care factor” of the distributor. It is also worth noting that the arrangements in place for non-studio titles are much less complex. The Warner Bros archive also contains exhibitor schedules for B-movie distributors like Monogram,

9 The schedule specifies: “If Gross Box Office Receipts on this engagement are in excess of $1700.00, it is agreed that above terms [60%/40% in favour of the theatre] shall be increased by one per cent (1%) for every increase of $51.00 in such receipts. If Receipts are less than $1700.00, then above terms shall be decreased by one per cent (1%) for every drop of $51.00 in said receipts. In no event, however, shall Distributor’s share be less than 35% nor more than 50% of the Gross Box Office Receipts.” 10 Theatres’ film billing sheets contained weekly documentation of attendance and revenue.

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which charged bargain-basement rates for their low-budget exploitation films. Monogram titles Her First Romance and The Gang’s All Here11 were booked for flat fees of between $30 and $65 when they played in 1941 at the Appleton Theatre, Wisconsin. Similar rates were commanded by the Chicago distributor Al Dezel when he screened the exploitation flicks Sinful Souls, Virgin Bride and Damaged Goods in Milwaukee. Other booking sheets in the Archive also contain interesting information on the early diasporic circuits in the US. For example, in 1940 and 1941 the Polish Film Company of W.E. Weisman screened eight Polish films, including patriotic features like Still Poland

Is Not Lost and Poland Fights for Democracy, at the Granada Theatre in Milwaukee,
according to a 50/50 split arrangement (various booking sheets 1940-41, box #SW724).

These records offer evidence of the diversity of contractual arrangements in studio-era film distribution. They also demonstrate the capacity of distributors to stratify audiences, some of which were considered prime markets worthy of surveillance and prompt servicing while others were considered to be barely worth bothering with. The more valuable the audience demographic, the more complex the contract. As the distribution contracts described above reveal, Meet John Doe’s revenue-sharing formulas were designed to extract as much revenue as possible while still providing an incentive for exhibitors to promote the feature effectively. Temporal and spatial separation of exhibition markets was a crucial part of this process. The B-movie and ethnic movie audiences were not considered worthy of this same level of attention, and simpler formulae (flat feeds, 50/50 splits) were in place for these screenings.

By the end of the studio era, the runs-zones-clearances system had been entrenched as the distributive logic of the film industry. Its direct descendant, the windowing system, has been with us ever since. E

11 This is a 1941 Monogram action/adventure film, not the 1943 Busby Berkeley musical of the same name.

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The post-World War II period was marked by a series of structural changes with farreaching implications for the movie industry. Entertainment preferences were changing as a result of suburbanisation and the baby boom, and television was just around the corner. While these shifts at first appeared threatening to the studios, over time they came to be accommodated in their business models, which increasingly emphasised control over distribution pipelines as the basis of future prosperity.

First, let me briefly discuss the Paramount antitrust case. We have already witnessed evidence of the disempowerment of non-affiliated exhibitors as compared to their vertically integrated competitors. The independents’ cries were eventually heard by regulators, who in the late 1930s initiated a series of investigations which led to the Supreme Court rulings of 1948. These became known as the Paramount Decrees, so named for the first company listed in the lawsuit. These events have been thoroughly documented elsewhere and need not concern us here, other than to note the Decrees’ effects on distribution practices, which were as follows: (1) the long-standing runszones-clearances system was abolished, along with the widespread practices of blind bidding, block booking12 and ticket price fixing; (2) the studios were forced to vertically disintegrate by selling off their theatre chains; (3) as a result of this disintegration, rental-sharing calculations between distributors and exhibitors became extremely important and ever more complex. For example, many distributors adjusted their rental contracts throughout the 1960s to include a “floor” figure, a minimum payment required regardless of actual attendance, in addition to their percentage of the total rentals (Monaco 2001, 45).

12 Block booking had been officially banned since 1946, in an earlier stage of the antitrust action (Lev 2003, 9), but as I noted earlier it is continues to be practiced in the industry via a variety of means, and is common in international markets (Miller et al 2005).

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It took more than a decade for disintegration to be fully achieved, and its effects were mixed. Mini-majors like Columbia and United Artists were now able to compete more fully with the majors at the A-film level by securing plum exhibition deals for their movies. Independent exhibitors benefited from a greater degree of flexibility in programming, but also faced higher levels of risk. Over the next two decades the formerly dominant studios responded to these structural changes by shedding staff and transforming themselves into financing-distribution operations, relying more and more on independent producers with whom they worked on a profit-sharing basis. Staiger (1985) refers to this new industrial configuration as the “package-unit” system. One of its effects was to focus the studios’ attention ever more keenly on distribution strategy.

Indeed, it has been argued that the Decrees actually worked in the studios’ favour by forcing them to sever their links with an ageing exhibition infrastructure increasingly under threat from TV, the baby boom, suburbanisation, and a diversified array of competing leisure options. There was no denying that cinema audience numbers were falling sharply at this time, and even though the drive-in explosion and rising ticket prices offset these losses to some extent, the halcyon days of mass cinema-going were well and truly over. Paul Monaco (2001, 45), for example, cites figures suggesting the average profit margin for a cinema in the 1960s was no greater than 3%. As a result many once-grand picture palaces were bulldozed or converted into car parks, leading to a drop in the number of hardtop theatres from 16,904 in 1950 to 12,291 a decade later (Lev 2003, 212). The newly restructured financier-distributors, however, had a brighter future ahead of them, thanks to two factors. The first was the expanding overseas market, which now accounted for more than half their earnings (see the next section). The second was television.

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TV was a novelty at the end of World War II, but by 1950 there were 98 commercial channels in operation across the US. Within a decade, this number had risen to 440 (Lev 2003, 5). Debate still rages over the degree to which Hollywood resisted or embraced this new distribution outlet. Conventional wisdom has it that the studios were at first resistant to broadcast television, pumping money into their own alternatives such as theatre TV and subscription TV. However, Wasko (in Lev 2003) notes that the studios were in fact investing heavily in TV series production while also attempting to appease their exhibition arms, which had not yet been fully disinvested, by restraining the sale of feature films to the networks.13 In either case, by the mid1950s the studios had well and truly recognised the value of the TV market and now saw it as a potential outlet for their product rather than as a threat. This solidified the studios’ power base in distribution even further.

A limited foreign film circuit also began to emerge in the post-War period, as struggling cinemas converted into small arthouses, screening an eclectic variety of imported titles such as The Bicycle Thief and Rome: Open City. Located in major cities, these cinemas were the breeding grounds for a nascent US cinephile culture (Wilinsky 2001). However, it is important to acknowledge that their emergence can be explained primarily by economic factors. In many cases it was more profitable for struggling smaller theatres to show cheap European fare than to compete for a diminishing share of a diminishing mass market. Schatz (1999) has argued that this ghettoisation of foreign film was in fact an effective containment mechanism, allowing a handful of titles a limited release but never seriously granting foreign producers access to the American marketplace. In any case, the rise of alternative film culture in the US needs to be seen in the context of this distributive development and its economic context, and not purely as a product of 1960s anti-establishment sentiment (cf. Cowie 2004).

13 Lafferty (1990) makes a similar argument regarding the studios’ strategic resistance to television.

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One of the biggest players in the arthouse circuit was United Artists (UA), whose distinctive model of distribution would be selectively adopted by other studios over the coming decades. After hitting rock bottom in the late 1940s, UA was brought under the control of two lawyers, Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin. Through a case study of UA’s distribution agreement with producer/director Stanley Kramer, Tzioumakis (2006, 115-17) notes that one of the key characteristics of the UA model was its granting of a level of creative freedom to independent producers, ensuring a high quality for the product it would then distribute through its worldwide network, or through subdistributors in minor markets. UA had similar agreements with a variety of other producers, who participated in both gross and net profit-sharing agreements; however, UA’s 30% distribution fee would come off the top first (with any advances and loans it made to the producers following not far behind in the payments queue), ensuring that it was exposed to a relatively low level of risk. The formula was a winning one, and it saw UA grow and prosper throughout the post-War decades.

These new distributive models reflected the structural realignments of the industry in the post-studio period. But how did distribution actually work “on the ground”? The following account gives a sense of the logistics of the business in the 1960s:

Most films in the sixties were exhibited regionally which helped amortize distribution costs. The movie would open in either New York or Los Angeles and play those cities before being released in other major markets. Part of the revenue from New York could pay for advertising costs in Chicago and so on. Approximately 400 prints were made for “A” titles and 100 prints for “B” films. These prints would be sent to an exchange between engagements which inspected and repaired them before the next date. There were 330 exchanges in the US which included those of major companies like MGM (31) and smaller distributors like National General (14). The exchanges also supplied trailers, posters, press books and publicity materials to the theatres. One of the largest

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was National Screen Service. Older prints were kept in storage for double bills, drive-ins, art houses and repertory cinemas… (Haines 2003, 12)

As this account suggests, platform releasing was still the dominant model at this time. Under this model, films would premiere in a major US city and then slowly work their way around the country. Press materials, prints and rolling capital would be reused, and the primary marketing strategy was newspaper advertising. This model has endured in the US for certain kinds of niche films, but from the mid-1970s onwards a new distributive phenomenon, saturation releasing, emerged as the dominant distribution model. (This will be discussed in the next section.) A variation on this was the

roadshowing release strategy, which was used for certain “quality” films and featured
higher ticket prices, reserved seating, and other special frills (Wyatt 2005).

Cultural histories of this period normally climax with 1970s New Hollywood and the films of Bogdanovich, Scorsese, Lucas, and Cassavetes. However, it should be noted that New Hollywood did little to reshape distribution at a structural level, even though it revolutionised Hollywood film style. This period witnessed many experiments in selfdistribution and collective distribution, such as the New American Cinema group’s Filmmakers Distribution Centre (see Tzioumakis 2006, 172-183), but these ultimately came to nought. Smaller distributors such as Embassy and American International Pictures remained in operation but were very peripheral in terms of revenues, and the extent to which they were oppositional as well as independent is debatable. Even Easy

Rider, the flagship film of New Hollywood, was distributed by Columbia. The explosion
of creativity that marked this moment in US film history could do little to overcome the structural limitations of the distribution landscape. Then as now, distribution remained “the insurmountable obstacle for every independent” (Tzioumakis 2006, 181).

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After the instability of the previous three decades, distributors struck on a new model of corporate organisation in the late 1970s which has served them well ever since. While the studios increasingly moved towards a system of production based on the “high concept” model—special effects, energetic merchandising, television advertising and pitchable plotlines (Wyatt 1988)—the studios were reorganising structurally through a series of mergers and acquisitions. In terms of distribution, this period involved a shift from the platform releasing model discussed earlier to “wide” or “saturation” release, along with the blossoming of ancillary markets such as home video and pay-TV. The previous movement of films through exhibition circuits was replaced with a system of movement across formats, otherwise known as windowing.

Saturation releasing, or the simultaneous release of thousands of prints across the nation, was the distributive logic of high concept. Saturation releasing had been used in the exploitation market for decades but was adopted by the majors in the late 1970s, following the runaway success of Jaws. National television advertising was becoming increasingly important in film marketing and simultaneous releasing was the best way to take advantage of this. Saturation releasing recouped box office revenues more quickly, reducing the interest studios incurred when they borrowed money to finance productions. Saturation releasing also proved to be a boon for distributors in their dealings with exhibitors—during this period, the distributor’s share of the rentals rose dramatically, extending up to 90% minus a “house nut” covering exhibitor expenses. Blind bidding also began to make a return, along with restrictions on season length and non-refundable guarantees (Cook 1990, 15-17).

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Saturation releasing was fundamentally linked to the emergence of the multiplex in the 1980s and would reshape film culture in profound ways over the coming decades (Acland 2003). It also introduced new kinds of distributive strategies, such as the “hit and run” release pattern in which a dud film is foisted on an unsuspecting public, maximum opening weekend revenue extracted, and the title pulled from cinemas before bad word of mouth can spread. Production became more closely integrated with marketing, as under this system advertising and publicity campaigns were essential to a film’s success. This shift to saturation releasing also helped to institutionalise market research as a commercial strategy (Cook 1990, 15-17). All these developments served to concentrate yet more power in the hands of the distributors, who are of course also in charge of marketing.

At the same time, the major studios were being integrated into giant multinational entertainment conglomerates. Fox was purchased by News Corporation in 1985, Columbia by Sony in 1989, and Universal by Matsushita a year later. (Paramount, UA, Warner and MGM had already been sold off to non-Hollywood interests by this time.) As the Reagan administration began to soften its stance on antitrust, the 1980s also witnessed a new wave of vertical integration. Warner and Paramount jointly purchased Cinamerica Theatres (Reardon 1992, 318), and other strategic investments in theatre chains were also made by other studios. These theatres became part of a multinational corporate structure whose entertainment wings were built upon a base in distribution. The changes at Warner during the 1980s are a good example of this process:

In addition to owning one of Hollywood’s most consistently successful studios, a formidable film and television library, and the largest record company in the world, Warner had acquired the distribution systems associated with each of its product lines, including Warner Cable Communications, the nation’s second biggest cable operator with 1.5 million subscribers. Warner added considerable

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muscle to its distribution capability when it merged with Time Inc. in 1989 to form Time Warner, the world’s pre-eminent media conglomerate valued at $14 billion. (Balio 1996, 28-29)

Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, the majors also began incorporating independent studios and distributors into their businesses. Their interest piqued by the success of Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape (1989), studios entered into distribution arrangements with, acquired the libraries of, or purchased outright smaller companies such as Miramax, New Line, USA Films, Touchstone and Castle Rock. Numerous studies of this period (Aksoy and Robins 1992; Balio 1996; Wyatt 1998; Tzioumakis 2006) point to the difficulty of remaining independent in this climate, as it was often impossible to get effective distribution for independent films without the support of a studio. As Aksoy and Robins (1992, 9) conclude, getting into bed with one of the majors became “the essential means of survival for independents”.

These independents and mini-majors were caught in a catch-22. On the one hand, they could opt for the safety of a distribution deal with a major and see the lion’s share of their revenues swallowed up by distribution fees, interest charges, and spurious “expenses”. On the other, they could take their chances with self-distribution, an activity that involves substantial initial outlay and ongoing costs (staffing, property, shipping, overheads, marketing) which can only be recouped if there is a steady stream of product moving through the pipeline. Unfortunately, the costs involved in running a distribution network make this an activity in which size definitely matters. The majors benefit from economies of scale (larger rosters of titles reduce overheads) and

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economies of scope (synergies with other arms of the corporation achieve fortuitous savings).14 As a result, the industry is prone to high levels of concentration.

The most important development of the 1970s was the rise of home video. The first Betamax machines appeared on the market in 1976, and by 1981 three million VCRs had been sold in America (Cook 1990). Video was not immediately welcomed by studio heads, who were slow to recognise its potential value. The 1980s witnessed many turf wars between hardware and software producers, most notably the Sony vs. Betamax case, during which MPAA head Jack Valenti compared the VCR to the Boston Strangler. This hyperbole died down once the conglomerates came around to the idea of video as an additional sales outlet which could be slotted into their existing distribution system. Indeed, home video is now where the studios make most of their money. The proportion of total revenues from theatrical exhibition has fallen consistently since the invention of video. Disney’s The Lion King took in $80 million at the box office but $220 million on video (Elsaesser 2002, 11).

Home video is a window in which distributors are able to leverage an extremely high proportion of the profits. The economic backdrop to these arrangements is a series of deals forged in the early days of video which laid the groundwork for the kind of industry contracts that would be signed in future years. In the chaotic early years, retailers operated on a business model which involved a large number of returns and thus high transportation and handling costs. As a result, a royalty system emerged in which producers received a flat fee of around 20% of sales. This figure has not been updated since, even though the home video industry has long since matured into a profitable and stable business and costs have fallen dramatically. This anomaly is one of

14 For example, Warner could farm out the distribution of its press materials to its music arm, WEA, whose distribution and logistics network was as sophisticated as one would expect from a global record company (Reardon 1992, 311).

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the most controversial aspects of Hollywood’s operations, as it enables distributors to retain four-fifths, or more, of gross home video revenues even after other costs have been deducted. Wasko (2003, 89) notes that this 20% is subject to distribution fees and charges as well, which can reduce the producer’s dividend to a paltry 10%.

Like producers, retailers also find themselves at the mercy of home video distributors. Terms for the distributor/retailer split have changed over the years as the market has evolved. Studios initially sold their product through wholesalers15 or entered into joint venture arrangements, but by the late 1980s they had set up their own direct distribution operations (Wasko 1985; Wasser 2001, 98). Cassettes and DVDs were at first sold outright to stores, with prices between US$50 to US$100 per cassette. The stores would then lease them to customers and pocket the profits. However, since 1998 revenue-sharing arrangements between distributors and major chains have been widely used. DVDs now commonly sell for around US$3 to US$8 but stores must pay back 40% to 60% of their rental revenues to the distributor (Mortimer 2008). There is a whole secondary industry dedicated to facilitating these revenue-sharing transactions with sophisticated software programmes, such as those supplied by the Portland-based company Rentrak.16 The point I want to stress here is that, in moving from a system of sales to a system of rentals, the video industry has thus followed the same trajectory as theatrical film distribution—increasing complexity of distribution technologies, including revenue-sharing formulae, to the ultimate benefit of distributors (Mortimer 2008).

15 The first studio to experiment with home video was Fox, which in 1977 licensed a selection of its titles to a small Michigan company named Magnetic Video. 16 The logistics involved in calculating and administering rental-sharing are considerable. Rentrak claims to “collect, process and audit over 1 billion transactions each year” ( and sells its Pay Per Transaction™ software to all the major studios. This testifies to the enormous complexity of contemporary distribution operations as well as to the layers of go-between corporations which intervene in the distributive process and take a cut of the profits it offers.

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The other major window that appeared during this period was pay-TV. The origins and evolution of cable have been documented elsewhere (e.g. Wasko 2003) and need not detain us here, but its function as a profitable ancillary window for distributors should not be overlooked. Indeed, Epstein (2005b) has argued that television (network and pay-TV) is in fact the most profitable window of all, as the revenues earned here are not subject to the same level of marketing and logistics costs. Most of the key US pay-TV channels are owned in part or whole by the same multinational media giants that own the studios, and long-term output deals between distributors and cable channels are the norm. In effect, vertical integration prevails in this sector of the US market, and in this sense it is not dissimilar to Hollywood before the Paramount Decrees.17

It is also worth noting at this point that there have been a few instances of selfdistribution in which producers are able to bypass established distributors, though these are rare. One example is the “four-walling” strategy used by Sunn Classics, a small US company which specialised in films for rural audiences. Sunn’s distribution strategy involved hiring theatres for a flat fee on a state-by-state basis in exchange for all the box office takings (Wasser 1995). Other films to have been distributed this way include the family movie Benji (Wyatt 2005). However, this kind of distribution is very risky. It requires great skill and can only succeed for specific genres with clearly defined audiences. For films which seek a national multiplex audience, self-distribution is not a viable option.

As we have seen so far, ancillary markets such as video, DVD and pay-TV have reshaped the industry’s distribution operations and reduced studios’ reliance on box
17 Finally, there are additional windows that attract smaller amounts of revenue, including sales to airlines, libraries, hospitals, hotels, military facilities, schools, government bodies, and so on. These agreements normally take the form of flat-fee sales or a fixed amount per viewer (Wasko 2003, 90). While they rarely constitute much more than a small percentage of the profits of individual films the combined value of these markets is substantial.

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office revenues. However, it is important to understand that the kinds of sales that a film can attract in these ancillary markets are determined by the film’s performance

during its theatrical window. In other words, a film’s theatrical release pattern, its box
office takings, its critical reception, and the initial advertising spend are the key determinants of a film’s exchange value at the video store or in the in-flight marketplace, so the box office still plays a crucial symbolic role even though it is no longer the main source of revenue. This counter-intuitive logic is why box office figures are so fetishised by the film industry, though they no longer count for much on their own terms. It is also why distributors are willing to lose money on lavish advertising and promotion during a theatrical run in order to boost the value of a film which may only make its money back in ancillary markets. “Sleeper hits”—films which tank at the box office but do well on video—do exist, but they are rare (Wasko 2003; Spratt 2007). For most movies, success in ancillary markets cannot occur without a box office presence, which is very difficult without the support of an established distributor. Distribution thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. To do well on DVD a film must do well at the box office, which requires extensive marketing and a wide release, which requires the support of a major distributor, which requires stars/marketing assets, which requires a decent budget, which requires outside funding, which requires a distribution guarantee. The end result? Distribution begets distribution begets distribution. For those films already inside the system, this arrangement works well. For everyone else, the outcome is an artificial narrowing of film culture.

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Finally, no account of the recent history of distribution is complete without reference to new media technologies. It is difficult to make general statements on this topic, as the digital environment is constituted by a variety of distributive channels, which each have their own histories and specificities. Although this thesis does not attempt to tackle the complexities of the digital environment in full, some brief comments are in order. My broad argument is that digital film distribution is not so much a paradigm shift as a commercial evolution. As I will explain, digital distribution outlets invariably come to be accommodated within the windowing system that has been used so successfully over the years. Digital piracy remains a recalcitrant force, but its impact on studio revenues is overstated. I argue that we must be very careful not to let ourselves be seduced by the “digital sublime” (Mosco 2004), the boosterist rhetoric of innovation and change, at the expense of critical analysis of digital technology’s actual, rather than promised, effects.

Let’s begin with the DVD. Despite all the hyperbole about the “DVD revolution” (Barlow 2005), the DVD boom has not revolutionised commercial distribution at a structural level. The DVD was a technology designed and marketed by the studios, one which was quickly allotted its own spot in the windowing cycle where it reaped spectacular profits for the major players. While certain properties of DVD technology have given rise to new and significant cultural practices, the most important function of DVD has been to reinvigorate the home video business to the ultimate benefit of distributors. In this respect it has been very successful, fostering new kinds of consumption practices and generating windfall profits for studios. Casual filmgoers in the West now cultivate large movie collections in a way that was rare in the VHS era, and the higher resolution of DVD, and now Bluray, has come to be fetishised by

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affluent Western consumers in the context of a general shift toward immersive homecinema environments with large-screen televisions and high-end audio equipment. Existing linkages between film purchasing, household technologies, and consumptionbased identity formation are thus consolidated. The DVD has functioned to extend rather than subvert the distributive logic of windowing.18

Furthermore, digital cinema exhibition has, at the time of writing, not gained much traction outside the US and parts of Europe. Squabbles over technical standardisation and who is to pay for conversion have been major sticking points (McQuire 2004; Tiley 2008); as a result, the promised cuts in print and shipping costs that digital projection would entail have not yet materialised. It is likely that mass conversion to digital will take place at some point in the near future, but at the moment it is too early to speculate about its effects on film culture. Initiatives such as the UK Film Council’s Digital Screen Network, a £12 million initiative to install digital projection equipment in 210 cinemas, do offer hope that digital projection may increase the diversity of films in cinemas.19 Another example of a government-supported digital rollout with the potential to increase the diversity of screened content in Australia is the Regional Digital Screen Network pilot programme, which equipped country cinemas with digital projectors.20 However, digital projection is unlikely to reduce the proportion of revenues retained as profits by distributors. Nor is there any firm evidence that it will increase the total number of screens available. As a result, its capacity to diversify the theatrical film environment will probably be marginal, even though its cost-saving potential is significant. For these reasons, I suspect that digital exhibition, like DVD

18 This is not true of all disc technologies, however. See my discussion of the VCD (video CD) in chapter six. 19 However, the fact that this extra capacity has been used to screen such “independent” and “classic” films as The Lives of Others and Goldfinger suggests this is functioning essentially as a cheap way to tap existing audience niches rather than open up new ones. See the project’s website at (accessed 22 November 2008). 20 See the project’s website at (accessed 22 November 2008).

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technology, will not undermine the distributive structures mapped out earlier in this chapter, but will more likely find comfortable niches within them.

When it comes to online movie distribution, the situation is somewhat similar. It has taken iTunes to demonstrate the commercial potential of legal downloads, which the studios at first resisted then bungled comprehensively. Their failed joint-venture Movielink download site, which was rolled out to much fanfare in 2002, has been a total failure. Nor have other start-up sites such as CinemaNow and Intertainment been able to make any real money from downloads—the former burned through US$40 million in venture capital and was offloaded in 2008 for a mere US$3 million (Fritz 2007; Netherby 2008). Every month it seems that a new digital portal is unveiled and another one goes bankrupt. iTunes is now dominant in this market, and the deal it has struck with distributors means that the latter now make as much money from a download as they do from a DVD sale (Fritz 2008). This points to the very high levels of concentration that are characteristic of digital media economies, and to the replication of existing pricing structures across new media platforms. For all these reasons, I feel that the legal download sector of the market is unlikely to replace theatrical exhibition and home video at any point in the near future. Even in the US, where the market is most developed, video downloads account for only 3% of home entertainment expenditure (Ault 2009). Globally, limited broadband access, unevenly distributed technological know-how, the social pleasures of cinema-going and video/DVD rental, and residual reluctance on the part of audiences to watch movies on computer screens will ensure the survival of existing channels of distribution for now. Direct downloads to mobile phones, game consoles, and other devices have considerable potential as new revenue sources, but they will not compromise the fundamentals of the windowing system.

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The other issue most frequently raised in relation to digital distribution is illegal downloading. Digital piracy has been a constant source of anxiety for the studios; however, it is not going to put them out of business. This topic will be dealt with in more depth in chapter six, but at present there is little credible evidence that piracy represents a serious threat to the operations of the entertainment conglomerates. A historical perspective on this issue can also help to dispel persistent myths about piracy, for illegal downloading is not the first thing to be hailed as the scourge of the film industry. Every distributive technology gives rise to its own bogeyman—distributors in the first half of the century were plagued by illegal “bicycling” and “jackrabbiting”; the rise of 16mm unleashed bootlegging; home video gave rise to illegal dubbing; and so on ad infinitum.21 A growing body of evidence also points to the strategic over-estimation of piracy losses on the part of the studios (Yar 2005). Many argue that piracy simply extends the “Hollywood habit” (Miller 2006) to new sectors of the global population which, it is hoped, will one day ripen into profitable markets. For these reasons, I argue that piracy poses no real threat to existing distribution structures in the short to medium term, though it does function as a convenient moral panic for the studios to invoke in their dealings with regulators.

Let me sum up some key points before moving on to the next section. As I have argued, by the time stand-alone distribution had evolved into a mature industry in the early studio period, the fundamentals of a durable template for commercial film distribution were in place. The key characteristics of this template were rental systems based on revenue-sharing, and the incorporation of new exhibition technologies as additional windows for existing content. The windowing system has been resilient and lucrative.

21 Bicycling refers to the covert exhibition of film prints in venues other than those agreed upon with the distributor, while jackrabbiting refers to the exhibitor practice of secretly setting up extra screenings of a given title. See Segrave (2003) and Gaines (2006).

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In the final analysis, control of distribution pipelines has been the guarantor of prosperity for studios, and this will remain the case for the foreseeable future.


I now want to build on the preceding historical survey by discussing the range of activities involved in the distribution of a typical mass-market film today, in order to give the reader a feel for how all this works in practice.

I will begin with the distribution contract. Contracts may take any number of different forms, but in general they can be divided into these five broad categories (adapted from Cones 1997, 29-30):

 In-house production/distribution: a major studio distributes its own product through its distribution arm  Production-financing distribution agreement: production/completion funds are advanced by the distributor to an independent producer in exchange for distribution rights  Negative pickup: distributors make a commitment to distribute an externally financed film, usually before it is completed (thus enabling the producers to attract external funding if required)  Acquisition deal: distributors acquire the rights to a finished film, often at a film festival

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 Rent-a-distributor: the services of a distributor are used to secure exhibition outlets for a completed film, with marketing and other costs borne by the producers. Relatively rare.

Creative autonomy on the part of filmmakers is highest in the latter scenarios, but so too is risk. Correspondingly, the first three scenarios will most likely involve a greater level of commitment on the part of the distributor, as its profit participation will be higher. The upshot is this: the more you are willing to sacrifice from your gross takings, the more you can expect from your distributor.

What are the factors that determine a given film’s distribution strategy? One of the most important is timing. Audience maximisation coupled with the minimisation of competing leisure options are the key objectives when deciding on the release date of a particular movie. Factors to be considered may include such things as public holidays (these are peak times for moviegoing), weather patterns (the US summer is the key season for blockbusters), geography (transportation of prints from cinema to cinema is always an issue), the schedules of competing distributors (should your minor thriller go head to head with the new Scorsese?), major events (releasing a film during the Olympics is a bad idea), and so on. An enormous amount of time and effort goes into these calculations, and release dates often change as other films get moved around the distributors’ schedules. Unforeseen events can torpedo carefully laid plans, as was the case with Collateral Damage and Spider-Man which were delayed and re-edited respectively so as not to offend national sensibilities in the wake of September 11.

The distributor must also decide on a release pattern for a film. For blockbusters, this is usually quite straightforward—distributors try to secure the widest release possible, covering all the multiplexes across the country. However, for smaller titles this can be a

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risky business. Each arthouse cinema has its own personality and attracts a certain audience demographic. The rules of saturation releasing do not apply here: spreading your release too thinly can soak up your market too quickly, not allowing sufficient time for word of mouth to build (Clunies-Ross 2007).

Distributors are also responsible for marketing, which is crucial to the success of any film. In many cases, the cost of promoting and advertising a film can exceed its production budget. Marketing may take the form of advertising (print, TV, online, radio), co-promotions with exhibition and media partners (joint ads for Omega and

Quantum of Solace), merchandising (Cars Happy Meals™), publicity (press screenings,
interview and photo opportunities, TV appearances, feature articles), guerrilla marketing (stencil campaigns on city streets), giveaways, and so on. The labour involved in orchestrating marketing campaigns for a major motion picture is enormous, and a phalanx of outside publicists and PR companies may be brought in to help. In fact, marketing begins the day a film is “green-lighted”, for distributors often have direct input into casting, titles, soundtrack, still photography, and much more. For example, the Hong Kong action star Michelle Yeoh was cast in Tomorrow Never Dies to boost the film’s profile in international markets (Miller et al 2005, 269). This is further proof of the feedback loop that exists between distribution and production. Far from being a neutral process of content transmission, distribution shapes the textual form of films in intricate ways.

Then there are the logistics of distribution. Distributors must arrange for the import and shipping of prints,22 the payment of duties and taxes, the collection of revenues from exhibitors and retailers, accounting, the redistribution of revenues to profit participants

22 One distributor I spoke to suggested that shipping a print from Europe to Australia often costs around A$1000 per film (Castro 2007).

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and studios, and so on (Wasko 2003). Home video releases involve the pressing, labelling, warehousing, transportation and eventual sale and/or rental of thousands of DVDs, often accompanied by a new marketing campaign to publicise the film’s entry into this window. Television sales require the supply of a digital tape to the station along with relevant press materials and, in some cases, additional subtitling and editing. All this, in addition to the costs involved in running an office, a warehouse, and possibly a theatrette adds up to a sizeable capital outlay. This is why a steady stream of product is needed to feed a distributor’s pipeline. Films must be spread out evenly across the whole year, otherwise a distributor’s resources are not being used effectively. Too many releases in a given period will mean that each will not receive the attention that it needs, too few releases and the employees are sitting around idle. Bigger companies thus find themselves in a better position to take advantage of economies of scale and to spread their risk across a larger “portfolio” of films, while barriers to entry into the market are effectively raised for everyone else. This results in highly concentrated markets dominated by a few major players, in which big distributors get bigger and the small ones go bust or get bought out.

Once the film has worked its way through each window, the accounting begins. This is the most controversial stage of distribution, and tensions between distributor and producer and/or exhibitor arise frequently. Epstein’s “clearinghouse” model is a useful way of conceptualising the functions of the studio-distributor at this stage of the process:

The main task of today’s studio is to collect fees for the use of the intellectual properties they control in one form or another and then to allocate those fees among the parties—including themselves—who create, develop, and finance the properties. It is now essentially a service organization, a dream clearinghouse rather than a dream factory. (Epstein 2005a, 107)

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As Epstein goes on to explain, the art of distribution accounting is the ability to conjure the right kind of narrative from an endless stream of numbers. Profitable films must be made to look unprofitable in order to forestall payouts to producers and to boost the debt to the studio incurred during production, thus allowing studio-distributors to retain the proceeds of future ancillary sales. Poorly performing films can be crosscollateralised with other releases to tell a different story to shareholders. Costs can be recouped several times over by charging them to the accounts of different films simultaneously.

Table 1: Standard US distributor fees (Sources: British Film Institute 2001; Cones 1997; Vogel 2004; Wasko 2003) Theatrical release in the US: 30% fee plus costs Theatrical release in Canada: 40% fee plus costs Theatrical release in other territories: 45% fee plus costs Home video: 80% fee plus costs Television: 30%

Table 1 shows the average fees charged by distributors for different exhibition windows. These figures may seem reasonable at first glance, but the devil is in the detail. “Costs” is a very flexible category which includes every conceivable expense incurred by the distributor, and usually some fictitious ones as well. Advertising, promotion, overheads, salaries, caviar, champagne—everything gets charged back to the producer’s account. In most cases these cancel out any revenues earned, meaning that no money is paid back to the producer.

To illustrate the kind of creative accounting in which distributors are known to indulge, let us examine the financial records of two US blockbusters. Tim Burton’s

Batman was one of the biggest movies of the last few decades, raking in more than $285
million worldwide upon its release in 1989 (Goodell 1998, 11). Several years later the

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film had still not reached “breakeven”, the point at which a film has repaid its debt to the studio and becomes profitable for the producers. According to Warner Bros, Batman was both a record-breaking blockbuster and a flop. How is this possible?

Table 2: Accounting for Batman (Source: adapted from Goodell 1998, 11) Gross receipts less distribution fee (30% of gross receipts] less expenses (prints, advertising, publicity, taxes, trade associations, freight, insurance, etc) less negative cost and/or advance less interest Net profit/loss

$285,264,271 - $88,962,584 - $81,436,900 - $120,895,652 - $14,141,373 - $20,172,238

The answer is in the way revenues are calculated. Consider the data offered in Table 2. These figures are taken from legal documents tendered by Warner Bros to the Los Angeles Superior Court. “Gross receipts” refers to the distributor’s share of box office takings and other revenue sources (home video, television, and so on) once the retailer/exhibitor’s cut has been deducted. From this amount, an array of expenses are subtracted, including print and advertising costs, interest, studio overheads, guild payments, residuals and insurance charges.23 The initial production cost for Batman was only US$53 million (Vogel 2004, 215-16), but “first-dollar” gross profit participation payments to Jack Nicholson and other above-the-line talent pushed the purported “negative cost” up to US$120 million. Note, however, the distribution fee of US$80 million. This amount is pure cream for the distributor, as all its costs have been covered in the other sections. How then can Warner Bros claim to have made a loss? This sleight of hand has to do with the wording of distribution contracts, which specify that the top talent and the distributor are to be paid off before anyone else. This form of distributor accounting is ubiquitous among the big studios is, and it means that the

23 An extensive list of some of the charges that distributors levy can be found in Cones (1997).

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promises of “net profit” participation extended to minor talent almost never materialise. The purpose of this is to allow studio/distributors to retain as much of the profit stream as possible. This all goes to substantiate Mel Brooks’ joke that studio accounting is a case of “interest on overhead and overhead on interest” (Brooks 2004, 48).

Like Batman, most conventionally distributed films never reach “breakeven”, even when they have done very well at the box office. The Australian Film Television and Radio School’s Centre for Screen Business suggests that 70% of films receive nothing back from distribution at all, and only 5% of total box office revenues make their way back to producers (Centre for Screen Business 2007). This is the reason why Hollywood is able to claim that a majority of its films do not make their money back. This claim is true only if we are prepared to take their accounting at face value, for as many studies have demonstrated, the studios consistently profit through the fees extracted by their distribution arms (Aksoy and Robins 1997; Wasko 2003; Miller et al 2005).

Epstein offers an analysis of another document containing revealing data on studio distribution—a confidential profit participant statement issued by Disney to select personnel involved in the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster Gone in 60 Seconds. If we take the film’s accounting at face value then it appears that the film made a “loss” of $US160 million, even though it was one of Disney’s biggest films in 2000; but, once more, the devil is in the detail. I will focus on the home video figures here, as they tell a particularly interesting story. The video takings (VHS, DVD, and other formats) saw Buena Vista Home Entertainment International reap almost US$200 million from global sales. This would have been more than enough to make up for the shortfall in box office takings, and since Buena Vista is an arm of the Disney empire, funds could be credited back to the production account without further ado, after legitimate costs had been

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deducted. However, as Epstein explains, the historical anomalies of distributor accounting meant that Disney ended up with more than 80% of this revenue stream:

By 2002, Buena Vista Home Entertainment International, a wholly owned division of Disney, had earned $198 million from sales and rentals of videos and DVDs of the movie. Of this sum, Buena Vista paid another Disney subsidiary, Walt Disney Pictures, a 20 percent royalty, or $39.6 million, as if Buena Vista International and Walt Disney Pictures were separate companies engaged in an arm’s-length transaction. This $39.6 million then became the video’s gross rentals, from which $20 million was deducted—$12.6 million for the videodistribution fee and $7 million for expenses—leaving only $18.4 million credited to the film. Meanwhile Disney retained in its home-entertainment account the $159 million that remained after it paid the $39.6 million “royalty”. To be sure, it had expenses—about $29 million for manufacturing, packaging, and returns costs—but the balance, some $150 million, was its profit. (Epstein 2005a, 119-20)

As the two analyses offered above demonstrate, the controversial accounting methods used by distributors mean that they are able to retain the lion’s share of the monies that flow through them.24 The vertically integrated nature of the studios means that different arms can shuffle costs and revenues between them in order to maximise profit. This helps to explain why distribution is the most consistently profitable sector of the film industry.

Having examined the way distribution has developed within the domestic US market, I will now consider how the American studio-distributors came to conquer markets abroad.
24 Such accounting methods are controversial to say the least, and have been the subject of many lawsuits. JFK and Coming to America are other examples of hit films that failed to “break even”. The latter was the subject of the important court case, Buchwald vs. Paramount. Details on these and other disputes can be found in Cones (1999), Goldfarb (1997) and Goodell (1998). Also see Cubitt et al (2008) for information on the legal skirmishes surrounding the studio accounting for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

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Overseas sales have long been vital to the success of the Hollywood majors, and the international dominance of American cinema has also been an explicit objective of US foreign policy. Critiques of US dominance can be made on both economic and cultural grounds, and have at times overlapped with questionable cultural-nationalist agendas (Maltby and Stokes 2004, 4-5). The question of the cultural influence of Hollywood cinema, though important, will be deferred for the moment, as I wish to focus here on the structural inequalities which underwrite global audiovisual trade.

The story of the US film industry’s overseas expansion begins towards the end of World War I. With the centre of world film distribution shifting from London to New York, the soon-to-be-major studios (Famous Players-Lasky, Universal, Goldwyn, Fox) began to establish direct-distribution networks across Northern and Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Far East, and Australasia (Thompson 1985). Recall that up to this point the US was a net importer of movies: film production was dominated by the Italians, French and Germans. Most accounts credit World War I as a key factor in this shift, as it devastated the economies of Europe and crushed their film industries. Other factors in play included the coming of sound in the 1920s, which allowed the US to capitalise on the benefits offered by a language shared with many Commonwealth countries, as well as the size of America’s domestic market. Debate continues around the relative influence of these, but the upshot was that Hollywood’s international revenues were steadily increasing. By 1920 overseas audiences contributed somewhere between 20% and 40% of total US revenues (Thompson 1985, 103, 148). By 1930, that figure had risen to 30% to 50% (Schatz 1999, 22), with Hollywood controlling almost three-quarters, or US$200 million, of the global film market (Garnham 1990, 188).

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Collusion between studios and support from the US government played crucial roles in Hollywood’s competitive advantage. In 1922, key Hollywood players banded together under the banner of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), a lobbying body headed by Will Hays. Part of the organisation’s remit was to represent the studios abroad, and Hays was particularly effective at quashing protectionist trade practices such as quotas and tariffs. In the 1940s, the MPPDA split into two bodies: the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the domestic representative of the eight majors, and the Motion Picture Export Association of America (MPEAA), which represented their interests overseas. Between 1948 and 1957 the MPEAA also functioned as a distributor, jointly representing all the majors and selling their films in 13 countries including Germany, Korea, Japan, the Netherlands, Austria and the Soviet Union (Schatz 1999, 302; Guback 1985b).25 This was the kind of commercial arrangement that would not have been allowed on American soil—it was inherently anti-competitive, achieving significant economies of scale for its members, and it relied on dubious trade practices such as block booking that had been banned under the Paramount Decrees. However, by hiding behind the protection of the WebbPomerene Export Trade Act of 1918, under which export trade associations were deemed exempt from antitrust scrutiny, the MPEAA was able to continue its collusive activities abroad with the blessing of the government (Guback 1985b, 115).

This fact points to the Janus-faced nature of US industry policy. The state’s purported trust-busting agenda, which dissolved the vertically integrated studios in the name of free trade at home, did not extend to the industry’s operations overseas. This brings us to the second factor in US global dominance. An extensive body of research attests to the keen interest the US state took in the export of Hollywood cinema, for both

25 While it no longer functions as a joint distributor, the MPEAA (rechristened as the Motion Picture Association) still operates as a global lobbyist for the US film industry. One of its principal activities today is anti-piracy operations.

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economic and ideological reasons (Jarvie 1992; Thompson 1985; Guback 1969, 1985b; Trumpbour 2002; Miller et al 2005). It had been widely acknowledged by American captains of industry since at least World War I that the success of US cinema abroad was beneficial to other export industries. American cinema projected a libidinal modernity, a shiny new world of cars, appliances, soft drinks, furniture, fashion, and cigarettes. An MPPDA spokesperson claimed in 1926 that “our films are doing more to sell American goods than 100,000 travelling salesman could do” (cited in Thompson 1985, 123). It is unsurprising, then, the US government worked closely with Hollywood on a number of fronts. The Motion Picture Section of the US government’s Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce supplied the studios with valuable information gleaned from their network of trade representatives, who operated as spies for the industry by analysing developments in overseas territories and feeding this information back to the studios.26 MPAA/MPEAA head Eric Johnston was even sent overseas on diplomatic business by President Eisenhower (Guback 1985b, 119).

In recent decades, the distributive power of the majors has been boosted by international free-trade agreements. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the predecessor of the World Trade Organization, was one such watershed in the structural consolidation of the audiovisual free market. Underlying the US position on audiovisual trade was the argument that cinema is a product no different from any other, a commodity whose circulation should be determined by the operations of the market alone. The TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) provisions of the GATT have been particularly important in shoring up at a global level the restrictive intellectual property regimes upon which the studio-distributors base their

26 “In 1929, when the Section was upgraded to the Motion Picture Division, it added a bi-weekly publication, Motion Pictures Abroad . As a result, members of the trade had access to a remarkable amount of material on foreign markets: figures on American import and export by country, details on all legislation abroad, methods of distribution, average rental fees and theatre admissions, the progress of theatre wiring as sound came in and virtually any other topic which might affect American sales.” (Thompson 1985, 118)

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current business models. These factors will be discussed in greater depth in the chapter on piracy.

How have other nations reacted to these developments? There are two common policy approaches: the fortification of local industries through financial or other support (subsidies, film commissions, tax concessions, state-owned broadcasting, training), and regulatory interventions in film trade (quotas, tariffs, reciprocal agreements). Most nations employ a combination of the two. The discussion here will focus on the latter category, which is more closely related to the issues at hand.

Film quotas were first used in the early 1920s in Germany, when imports were restricted to a level corresponding to 15% of German film product.27 Similar policies were introduced in Britain in 1926, France in 1928, and Hungary a year later (Neale 1981; Thompson 1985). Whether quotas are calculated per feature, screen, foot of film, or day of screen time, and whether they are fixed or reciprocal in nature, their objective is to boost production by facilitating relatively easy access to distribution for local titles, and thus influencing audience tastes in the long-term. An example of a contemporary quota is the Chinese system, under which only 20 US films are allowed entry into the market in any given year (this is up from ten a few years ago).28 However, quotas are an increasingly endangered species, having been the target of decades of protectionbusting campaigning by US trade representatives and the global bodies which do its bidding. Thompson (1985) argues that quotas were relatively ineffective throughout Europe in the post-World War I period, but this has not always been the case. The success of the “Korean wave” in the late 1990s and early 2000s, for example, was due in

27 This was later raised to 50%. 28 In March 2009 it was reported that the Chinese government is planning to relax this quota further, but only in Shanghai. The Guardian reported that the authorities are “planning a free market zone in Shanghai where controls on imported movies will be relaxed, and where local film-makers will be encouraged to export to the rest of the world” (Child 2009).

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large part to the film quota implemented by the Korean government, a protectionist measure which has now been quashed by the new US-Korea Free Trade Agreement. This said, the problems with quota systems have been well documented, and include the problematic notion of “national cinema” on which they rely. Furthermore, when confronted with quota restrictions, US trade bodies often respond with the threat of boycotts, a move which invariably sends local exhibitors into panic at the prospect of a product shortage and thus pits local exhibitors against local filmmakers to the ultimate benefit of Hollywood.29

Tariffs are another form of import restriction. Tariffs usually involve the imposition of a tax or levy of some kind on imported product, thus making local product more attractive to the consumer and boosting government revenue at the same time. Japan imposed a $15 per reel tariff on US imports in the early 1920s (Thompson 1985, 141), and many other countries have used similar policies. The MPAA and its overseas wings, in concert with US trade bodies, have lobbied very hard against tariffs.

Other protectionist measures are enacted at a regional rather than national level. Various attempts over the years to foster pan-European distribution are instructive in this regard. These activities can be traced back to a 1920s initiative known as Film Europe. Involving major film players such as Ufa, Aubert and Pathé, the Film Europe project comprised various cross-border ventures between producers and distributors including reciprocal distribution deals, the creation of a common audiovisual market, and even an attempt to build a vertically integrated European film giant which could achieve the same economies of scale as the American studios. However, Film Europe never really got off the ground, as it was crippled by the rise of German and Italian fascism in the 1930s (Putnam 1997, 96-114; Thompson 1985, 111). Still, the spirit of

29 This was the case in France in the 1920s.

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Film Europe lives on in contemporary EU film policy, which features some distribution initiatives as part of the EU’s MEDIA programme. These include financial support for a chain of cinemas dedicated to the screening of European cinema as well as support for various festivals and exhibitions. Results have been mixed and it is too early to tell what effects these measures will have in the long term; but it is safe to say that none of these policies have seriously threatened Hollywood’s dominance just yet.

It is also worth recalling the role of international organisations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in shaping the distribution environment, especially during the New World Information

Communication Order (NWICO) initiatives of the 1970s. This important episode in global communications governance began when representatives of third world nations and the Non-Aligned Movement, in tandem with various NGOs, secured passage of a series of UNESCO motions calling for the “decolonisation of information”. The objective of these motions was to redress Euro-American control of the world’s communication systems and content through such measures as tariffs, redistribution of radio frequencies, and support for national audiovisual industries (including film). Underpinning these demands was a conception of media as something more than a commodity to be bought and sold; rather, it was conceptualised as a carrier of (national) identity and a route to development (Roach 1990; Sparks and Roach 1990). NWICO ultimately came to nought. In the mid 1980s the US and the UK pulled out of UNESCO in protest and within a decade NWICO was off the agenda permanently, but this episode still represents a welcome reminder that global communications could well have taken a different path. NWICO’s failure also demonstrates the power wielded in the sphere of American economic and communications policy by the media industries, including the film studios, as their fierce lobbying was a key factor in American opposition to the movement.

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Some of these issues were revisited in the early 1990s during the final Uruguay round of General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) negotiations, in which film came to occupy a central role. The American position, as outlined earlier, involved treating film as a service that could be bought and sold like any other commodity, with no special restrictions. The European position, articulated most aggressively by France and to a lesser extent Spain and Italy, insisted on a “cultural exception” for audiovisual products, arguing that cinema’s status as a cultural industry meant that it should be permanently taken off the table in trade negotiations. As the French president François Mitterand argued, “creations of the spirit are not just commodities; the elements of culture are not pure business” (cited in Puttnam 1997, 7). During these debates, which have played an important role in structuring the global film trade environment, some critics of America’s free-trade rhetoric responded by questioning the closed nature of the American market itself. If free trade is in fact free, they asked, then why is it the case that foreign films make up such a tiny proportion of the American box office? As Wasko (1985, 102) noted several decades ago, “attempts [by foreign distributors] to penetrate the US film market continue to fail”. One example of this is British entertainment giant EMI’s unsuccessful attempt to set up its own distribution operation on American soil at the end of the 1970s. Unfortunately, this de facto protectionism has been the rule rather than the exception: foreign films still only make it to American screens in very small numbers, and when they do it is almost always the result of a distribution deal with one of the majors or an established US distributor. This reflects one of the central myths of laissez-faire discourse—the presumption that the terms of free trade do not in fact mirror the underlying structural inequalities which work to lend competitive advantage to existing centres of power.

In the end, the GATT battle finished in a draw: neither plan prevailed. France’s Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, was jubilant, boasting that the decision was “a victory

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for art and artists over the commercialization of culture” (Puttnam 1997, 343). In retrospect, we may well choose to be less optimistic, critically interrogating both the defence mounted by the Europeans as well as the purported stay of execution offered by the GATT resolution. The fact that the European defence was elaborated largely within the paradigm of national culture is not insignificant, and certainly not unproblematic. As various critics have argued (Higson 1989; Bergfelder 2005; Goldsmith 2006), the discourse of national cinema is internally incoherent and politically dubious. Furthermore, a deferral is not necessarily a victory, and while the GATT story may have seemed like good news at the time, the proliferation of bilateral free trade agreements suggests the free trade juggernaut may take a variety of alternative routes.30 For example, the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement signed in 2004 contained a variety of concessions to the US in the area of copyright and TV quotas (Malbon 2004).

In summary, let me clarify one or two things about my position on these debates. Firstly, I would like to reiterate that I am not making value judgments about the films which are fortunate or unfortunate enough to be distributed through the Hollywood studios. Nor am I trying to suggest that American cinema is not in fact globalised in its own way, for international capital has been the studios’ lifeblood since the 1980s and Hollywood producers are increasingly attuned to global sensibilities. However, if we limit the discussion to the structural constraints of distribution, as I have done here, it becomes clear that a very small number of corporations control a very large amount of the world’s film consumption, and that this stability has been achieved in part through corporate collusion and state support. This is not a recipe for a democratic distributive landscape. Of course, it is the nature of both capitalism and the nation-state to act in this way; the US is not exceptional here. There are many other examples of national

30 The US-Australia Free Trade Agreement signed in 2004 contains a variety of concessions to the US in the area of copyright and TV quotas (see Malbon 2004; Oliver forthcoming).

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film industries achieving positions of dominance on a smaller scale (see Lii 1998 on Hong Kong, and Iwabuchi 2002 on Japan). I have focused here on the American studios because they, more than any other players in film history, have shaped the distribution system that is now the global standard in conventional film industries. In so doing, they have shaped global film culture in their own image. One cannot ask why Film A receives global multiplex distribution while Film B disappears without a trace, without taking into account the political economy of international distribution.

I now want to turn my attention to the distribution landscape in Australia, and specifically to interviews I conducted with distributors in 2007. These findings help to illuminate how some of the dynamics I have mapped in this section play out in practice at a micro-level, and also point to other socio-cultural factors at play in distribution work which cannot be measured through political economic analysis alone.


While Australian film distribution turns over almost A$2 billion per year (IBISWorld 2006), a landmark Australian Competition and Consumer Commission report has described the market as “tightly oligopolistic” (R. Jones 1998, 26). The bulk of the profits goes to a small number of large companies, all of which are subsidiaries of or alliance partners with US studios, while an array of smaller independents competes for the leftovers. This section of the market is risky and unstable. New distributors tend to come and go quickly, and to change hands frequently. Survival is very difficult, and it is rare for an independent company to command any more than 5% of the market (R.

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Jones 1998, 14). The Australian industry is also vertically integrated. Major exhibition chains Hoyts, Village and Greater Union have financial interests in distribution and vice versa.31

Although Australian distributors come in a variety of shapes and sizes, their operational objective is the same—namely, to maximise the audience (and thus the revenue) for the titles they lease to exhibitors. However, the industry is also shaped by discourses of taste, quality, instinct and professionalism, which may play an intangible but important part in the actions of distributors.

This section of the chapter contains profiles of two Australian distributors at opposite ends of the industry. Based on interviews with key personnel, the profiles offer a snapshot of different distribution strategies at work in the contemporary Australian cinema scene, combining a description of the company and its commercial operations with a critical reflection of their specific distributive strategy and its relation to some of the theoretical models examined throughout this thesis.

The major: Sony Pictures Releasing Australia

Sony Pictures Entertainment is one of the global distribution giants, and like its competitors it is an arm of a multinational audiovisual conglomerate. Its parent company is the Japanese electronics/audiovisual giant Sony Corp, which entered into the film business with the purchase of Columbia Pictures from The Coca-Cola Company in 1989. Sony has interests in hardware, film production, games and music

31 See also George (2007).

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through divisions including Sony-BMG, Sony Computer Entertainment, ColumbiaTristar Films and Columbia-Tristar Home Video. Sony Pictures Releasing International is Sony’s film distribution arm, and is based in California. It distributes in-house productions such as Spider-Man 3 and The Da Vinci Code as well as titles from its specialty divisions—Sony Pictures Classics, Screen Gems, and Tristar. Its Australian arm, Sony Pictures Releasing Australia (SPRA), is headquartered in Sydney. Its three divisions – sales, marketing and finance – report to a Managing Director, who oversees both Australian and New Zealand operations. In part its present structure seems to have evolved around its key personnel, as well as the company’s acquisition of ColumbiaTristar, whose trading name it retains for some of its activities. The following information is from a phone interview with SPRA’s National Sales Manager, Angus Clunies-Ross, on March 16, 2007.

According to Clunies-Ross, Sony’s local releases are determined to a large extent by its US-based parent studio, from which it receives an annual schedule of releases with mandated date ranges of two to five months for each title. Local executives, with their specialised knowledge of the Australian market, have considerable input into programming decisions and frequently negotiate with the studio to include or exclude certain titles. However, Clunies-Ross notes that in some cases Sony is contractually bound to release certain films whose contracts may specify worldwide distribution, even when executives in Australia feel they will not be successful. In these cases, they must tailor their plans to minimise losses.

Planning can begin up to a year before a film’s opening and involves close collaboration with the other divisions of the company, especially marketing. Timing is “very, very important”, and can make or break a film. An array of variables, such as holidays, weather forecasts, media schedules, advertising pricing, and so on, are taken into

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account when deciding on a release date. Significant amounts of “historical research”— analysis of what strategies have worked well in the past—inform these decisions. In the case of wide releases, theatre selection is fairly “automatic”; however, with more specialised titles theatre choice is crucial as this will affect the type of audience the film will ultimately attract. Clunies-Ross also notes that with specialty titles, there is a danger of “spreading the audience too thin” by opening more widely than the film warrants. While Sony does not discuss release schedules with other distributors, like all major companies it sends its rosters to the Motion Picture Distributors’ Association of Australia. This longstanding industry practice enables a degree of co-ordination between distributors without the need for direct communication. In addition, Sony occasionally does market research, including test screenings.

When asked about exhibitor negotiations, Clunies-Ross explains that each film is treated individually. He does not divulge details of the revenue splits that Sony uses, but he offers a general outline of the process. “The way it generally works,” he explains, “is that we go in with a wish list, which includes session policy and terms.” An anticipated box office figure is then nominated, and “we work back from that.” Sometimes rentals are calculated on a performance basis—if a film takes in a certain amount, then the distributor’s terms apply; if it doesn’t, then the exhibitor gets to impose their terms. In negotiations, the distributor’s history with the exhibitor is taken into account and both the process and the terms will vary “a bit” from one exhibitor to another. When asked about block booking, Clunies-Ross responds that this is “highly illegal” and is not practiced by any SPRA staff, though he notes that he cannot speak for other companies.

While they are “not the most prolific acquirers of Australian films”, Sony executives make occasional local acquisitions, which may take the form of scripts or completed films. John Hillcoat’s revisionist Australian western The Proposition was one such

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script—Sony monitored its development for four years and ultimately released it in 2005. Clunies-Ross is closely involved in the acquisitions process, reading more than 50 scripts a year and ultimately rejecting “98%”. Those scripts with perceived potential are then taken to the US studio for approval and further negotiations. From Clunies-Ross’s description it is clear that there is a formal acquisitions process in place at Sony; however, in the end it comes down to a subjective “choice” made by key executives (a description which is not dissimilar to the ways in which the independent distributor profiled below represents its decision-making process). When asked to nominate common problems with the scripts he reads, Clunies-Ross suggests that many are simply not well written, or need years of further work; others are “smaller, personal journey films that won’t cut it in the marketplace.” He also notes that the ancillary marketplace is much tougher now; the DVD bonanza “has boomed and plateaued”. However, the most important criterion for selection is marketability—the power to “cut through… all of that noise”.

Sony is actively engaged with anti-piracy campaigns. It works closely with exhibitors, fielding tips about infringement and passing them on to industry body AFACT, the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft. The company is “very careful” with preview screenings, in order to avoid seeing “a million copies [of Sony releases] on the streets of Asia”. While simultaneous worldwide releasing has helped combat piracy in relation to the bigger blockbusters, anti-piracy activities are still a priority for Sony.

In conclusion, Sony Pictures Releasing Australia embodies all of the tendencies summarised in the history of commercial distribution outlined earlier in this chapter. As a semi-vertically integrated multinational conglomerate, it achieves significant economies of scale and focuses much of its energy on the marketing and distribution of a relatively small number of blockbusters. (At the time of our interview, the focus was

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Spider-Man 3 .) However, what is surprising about its Australian operations is the
relatively small number of staff involved and the degree to which intangible qualities such as choice and instinct still play a decisive role, especially in acquisitions. While Clunies-Ross was candid about the commercial context of his day-to-day work, the terms in which he described his policy did not differ greatly from those used by the independent distributor profiled below. Both distributors emphasised textual quality as being the priority in acquisitions, though Clunies-Ross was more upfront about market realities. The level of discretion exercised by local executives over studio-mandated release plans also complicates any kind of simplistic centre-periphery transmission model, and the relative significance of Sony’s classics divisions also makes any easy division between commercial and independent cinema problematic.

The arthouse distributor: Potential Films

Potential Films is a Melbourne-based distribution company with a staff of two which specialises in arthouse films, often from France. Potential’s operations follow a variation on the windowing pattern, with films being acquired largely at film festivals or through existing networks then distributed locally in arthouse theatres, with DVD release and occasional TV sales (primarily to the Australian multicultural broadcaster SBS) following in that order. The following interview with Potential founder Mark Spratt and his colleague Nicola White was conducted in March 2007 at their offices in North Melbourne.

Spratt’s entry into the world of distribution came in the 1980s when, as the manager of a suburban moviehouse (the Brighton Bay Cinema), he became involved in the small-

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scale distribution of selected films. In 1989, he began “to acquire a couple of films for myself”, establishing Potential Films around this time. The company initially operated out of a home office, moving to its current North Melbourne premises around 2003, and now releases around six or seven films a year to a small circuit of arthouse cinemas across Australia. Spratt also runs a second company, and the story of its formation is particularly instructive. Chapel Distribution (a partnership with Astor Theatre owner George Florence) was founded in 1998 when Warner Bros decided to divest itself of its library, which comprised film prints of all Warner films made prior to 1950.32 Warner had been unable to relicense the titles to a major distributor, and seemed uninterested in pursuing further cinematic exhibition of the prints. In 2000, Chapel completed a similar deal to purchase film prints of all MGM/UA titles up to 1986, substantially expanding its library. Since then, Spratt has kept many of these archival prints in circulation, primarily via the Astor Theatre, which runs a repertoire programme based around the Chapel library.

According to Spratt and White, Potential’s acquisition policy is based around “favourable gut reaction” and takes place primarily at festivals (especially Berlin, Cannes and Toronto). “Personally I’ve never felt comfortable going into anything on a scientific ‘checklist’ way,” says White when asked if there are any systematic attempts to measure the market for a given title. “I don’t think it can be done that way.” However, she notes that the climate for foreign film has changed in Australia, and the quality of a film is no longer sufficient grounds for purchasing rights to a title. “It used to be just ‘this is a very good film’… Now you need a hook of some sort … [or] a star.” White also suggests that there are more competitors in the Australian arthouse market in recent years, so

32 Spratt actually purchased the archive from an intermediary distributor called Hollywood Classics, which specialises in selling territory-specific deals for global libraries. This testifies to the complexity of global licensing arrangements.

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competition for key films is tougher. Attending film festivals and film markets is more important than ever for Potential.

The orientation towards French cinema in Potential’s catalogue is the result of both commercial factors and the perceived quality of the titles. According to Spratt, “French films have always been very popular and somehow culturally acceptable here, and of course mostly they’re very good—there’s a lot of good French filmmakers.” However, Spratt also notes that Potential has a close relationship with European film agents, and suggests that French filmmakers are “better at marketing and better to deal with” when compared to, for instance, Italian directors. Interestingly, some of Potential’s key Asian titles, such as Hideo Nakata’s J-horror film Ringu (The Ring), were purchased through these same European agents, rather than from Japan.

Potential uses a standard contract with most exhibitors, one which has been in operation for many years. Under this arrangement, it receives between 25% and 50% of the box office on a sliding scale; the amount decreases throughout the film’s season. Even though there is no house “nut” (a minimum payment covering the exhibitor’s overheads), this still means that Potential’s returns are significantly lower than mainstream distributors, whose net takings usually do not go far below 50%. Spratt does not discuss his home video arrangements, which are usually sub-licensed to the independent distributor Madman. However, he does dispel what he sees as one myth in the DVD phenomenon—that films which bomb in cinemas can do well on DVD. According to Spratt, the “films that do well [on DVD] are ones that have done well in release.” This is evidence of the crucial role of theatrical release in setting a film’s value in ancillary markets, as discussed in the previous section.

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Outlets for Potential films have been drying up in recent years as a result of a series of independent cinema closures around the country. Spratt attributes this to the usual economic pressures on smaller cinemas, as well as to the increased popularity of film festivals, screenings in bars, and other alternative film events which have impacted negatively on many traditional arthouse venues. Though Spratt does not see his company as being under threat from these closures, he does note several negative impacts. Firstly, it is now taking much longer to get Potential’s films into cinemas―often up to a year (up from a former average of two months). The length of seasons has also decreased. As a result, Potential has recently focused on acquiring titles which they see as easily marketable:

We are being a little more cautious about what we get, because the cinemas we are now dealing with show a lot of mainstream films—mainstream foreignlanguage films as well as mainstream English-language films. They are really much less interested in things that are experimental or obviously for a smallish audience. So they just won’t show them, or you’ll get a very minimal kind of release.

In relation to Potential’s position within global film markets, several themes emerged in our discussion. Firstly, the company frequently localises its marketing campaigns for foreign films, changing ad designs or taglines in order to appeal more directly to Australian audiences (though both Spratt and White are reluctant to describe their work in such instrumental terms). They also feel the internet has made Australian audiences more aware of international trends and upcoming titles. Piracy of Potential titles is not considered to be a threat, though this was an issue with DVD sales of The

Ring. Parallel importation is more of a concern—video stores “try to get ahead of the
game” by buying in DVDs from overseas, often before Potential’s official version, distributed by Madman, is available. When asked about the possibilities of digital

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projection, Spratt notes that this is increasingly an option for smaller and regional cinemas, though this is generally of the “low-end” variety of digital projection, such as the Nova Digital programme of Melbourne arthouse Cinema Nova.

Spratt and White are reluctant to use terms like “market”. They present themselves as cinephiles rather than businesspeople; “gut reaction” plays a key role in acquisition decisions. While Potential is in every sense an independent operator, it operates within a globalised cultural economy (as exemplified by its purchase of the Warner library and the parallel-importation problem) and is adept at cultural translation. It sees its work as springing from a commitment to cinephilia rather than profits. It uses a more traditional model of arthouse distribution than younger Australian independent distributors such as Madman and Hopscotch, which often handle films with crossover appeal and are comfortable dealing with multiplexes and marketing in digital environments. Potential’s model of distribution is more artisanal than this, and it presents itself as a series of activities structured around relationships with particular texts and individuals, rather than as a commercial activity. The case of Potential also provides evidence of the overlap between cinema management and small-scale distribution at this undercapitalised end of the arthouse market.


What lessons can we extract from the preceding analyses? How does all this fit into the master argument of the thesis? Let me contextualise the information offered above with some closing comments. First, it may be useful to stress the obvious point that the film

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distribution business looks different from different perspectives. When it is viewed through the lens of industrial history and political economy, long-term tendencies towards conglomeration, rationalisation and various forms of corporate collusion become very visible. The interviews in the previous section, however, offer a different perspective, highlighting the agency of individual workers within the industry along with the importance of discourses of taste and quality at all levels. These findings are not necessarily irreconcilable.

This leads me to my second point. Long-term trends towards fragmentation and the cultivation of niche markets have increased the diversity of films available through official channels in Australia, especially on DVD. This phenomenon is usually restricted largely to the inner-urban areas of major cities and to audiences with sufficient cultural capital to enjoy this increased audiovisual choice. In other words, there is considerable diversity in the Australian distribution landscape, but most of this is concentrated in the “long tail” end of the market where profit margins are slim. At the same time, the boundaries between mainstream and independent film culture, which were quite distinct when Potential started up, are now very blurry. Studio blockbusters like Baz Luhrmann’s Australia now screen in independent cinemas while Bollywood films screen in inner-city multiplexes. All this is typical of late-capitalist economies, in which a diverse array of cultural production circulates while profits are concentrated within the hands of a small group of corporations, and in which marginal forms have the potential to be quickly and efficiently commodified. However, this does not change the fact that for the most part the Australian distribution landscape is still marred by structural bottlenecks. We must not equate increased choice for privileged consumer markets with higher levels of audiovisual diversity for all.

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Finally, I would like to underscore once more the role of distributors in shaping patterns of cultural consumption. While at one level distributors are responding to public demand in their acquisition decisions, in the long term these decisions shape the very tastes to which they respond, for consumer preferences are inevitably formed around the set of commodities to which one has access. Taste formations internally demarcate and stratify this field according to an innumerable number of variables, which include class, age, and gender; however, these operations of distinction—of audiences, texts, and their relations—are necessarily performed as a second-order processing of the cultural options available in a given space at a given time. Distributors cannot directly mandate the preferences of audiences, but they do determine the grounds on which the game of cultural consumption is played.

Most research in film studies ends here, with the multiplexes and the arthouses, as though these were the north and south poles of cinema. However, as the next chapter will argue, this formal film culture is in fact one among many.

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Chapter three

The previous chapter of this thesis examined the historical evolution of commercial film distribution in the US and explained how the windowing template used by the major studios since the invention of television has come to be the default form of industrial organisation within conventional film industries worldwide. I now want to suggest that these specific forms of cinematic circulation are far from universal. Film cultures across the world vary widely in their industrial structures and exhibition contexts. Numerous alternative distribution models which bypass cinemas and established distribution companies exist. Attention to these other cinematic spheres is a necessary component of a transnational film studies.

This chapter sets out a theoretical framework for the analysis of nontheatrical film economies and their circulatory systems. I introduce and explain my model of subcinema, which I define as film cultures characterised by distributive informality. This model helps us to distinguish the (largely) formal economies of the major studios from the (largely) informal/semi-formal economies that are the focus of the rest of the

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thesis. I argue that informal distribution and exhibition are the precondition for a high proportion of actually-existing film culture in a global context, and I offer examples of distributive trajectories operating at different levels of informality. I want to stress that the subcinematic field is constituted by a very diverse range of practices and it also interfaces with conventional distribution in many ways, which makes generalisation difficult. For this reason, I see the subcinema model not as a bulletproof taxonomy but as a heuristic device. It cannot speak for every film culture in existence, but it functions as a frame through which commercial film cultures that are rendered invisible in EuroAmerican film studies may come into view.

This chapter draws on concepts from economics, urban studies, and anthropology to analyse these subcinematic economies. In the first section, I introduce the concept of economic informality, before making a case for its utility within media studies. I then go on to define subcinema and to offer some examples, using the Evangelical Christian DVD industry as a case study. The argument throughout is that informality in distribution and exhibition is widespread, that it results in a qualitatively different spectatorial experience, and that a theoretical model of informality is a necessary component of transnational film studies.


A term frequently used in the social sciences, informality has considerable explanatory power when applied to contemporary practices of media distribution and consumption. The theorisation of informal distribution I offer here is a variation on models of

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informality used in economics and urban studies, in which “informal” refers to economic exchange that goes unmeasured, untaxed, and unregulated.

However, before I launch into this material, I want to note that scholars in other disciplines have at times used the concept differently. For example, in certain strands of sociology and anthropology, informality is used to describe forms of community-based labour and exchange which bypass the market or are characterised by a sense of intimacy. While such phenomena seem increasingly marginal to the consumer side of contemporary capitalism, as evidenced by the rise of online banking and self-checkout terminals at supermarkets, the informality of face-to-face exchange still retains important symbolic dimensions (Misztal 2000) and can constitute a parallel, nonmonetary economy (Offe and Heinze 1992). These are not the dimensions of informality that I wish to foreground in my analysis, although of course studies in this area have many insights to offer. Nor does my definition of informality have much in common with that of Lovink et al (2008), in their celebratory discussion of what they describe as informal digital media—blogs, YouTube, and so on.1 In my usage of the term, informal invokes forms of exchange which occur within capitalist economies outside the purview of the state. Governmental technologies such as taxation (income, sales and company taxes), trade regulation (tariffs and quotas), consumer protections (fair trade laws, ombudsman offices), labour law (health and safety regulation, minimum wages), and all their related compliance costs, have little hold over informal enterprises. This often makes for competitively priced, flexible service provision at the same time as it may encourage flagrant abuses of workers and consumers.

1 Also worth noting here is a compelling study of the informal media economy in India by Adrian Athique (2008b). Athique’s definition of informal media overlaps with the approach used in this thesis, however his focus is on the production sector, rather than on distribution.

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In urban studies, the concept of informality is often used as a prism through which to study forms of economic development and spatial organisation, often in developing nations. Much of the early literature in this field came from scholar-activists in Latin America, the most notable being Manuel Castells (Castells and Portes 1989). Abdoumaliq Simone (2001), John Cross (1998, 2000) and Ananya Roy (Roy 2004, 2005, 2009; Roy and Alsayyad 2004) have also published incisive analyses of the dynamics of urban informality in other parts of the world. The neo-Marxist orientation of these studies means that the spotlight regularly falls on urban slums, the sprawling settlements which encircle metropoli such as Mexico City and Cairo but which are largely off the map in terms of regulation, policy, and public culture. A key United Nations Human Settlements Programme report (UN-HABITAT 2003) suggests that the world’s slums are home to almost a billion people. It paints a horrific picture of the many social problems which stem from or are exacerbated by such urban (un)planning, from poor sanitation through to illiteracy. “Slumification” has also recently been examined by the urban historian Mike Davis, who argues in Planet of Slums (2006) that informalisation will be a key trajectory of global change over the next century. For Davis, this represents a process of increasing urban disenfranchisement which is structurally connected to international divisions of labour and to neoliberalism’s erosion of the welfare state.

In economics, the term informality is used slightly differently to refer to production and exchange which goes untaxed, unregulated and unmeasured (Mattera 1985). Economic research on the informal economy – also known as the dual, black, hidden, subterranean, shadow, clandestine, and concealed economy – has taken different forms in different contexts. In neoclassical economics, research tends to use a legalist framework and be concerned with monitoring, quantifying, or disciplining informal economic activity (Rakowski 1994). A 1978 article by Peter Gutmann was particularly

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influential in this respect, as it claimed that around 10% of US revenue went untaxed. This estimate was trumped by a subsequent paper by Feige (1979) which suggested that the “irregular” economy accounted for 27% of GDP. Much of the literature since then (e.g. Schneider and Enste 2002) consists of technical debates about how best to measure and/or eradicate the informal sector within first-world settings, and has no critical component.

In development studies and Marxist economics, the structural nature of informality is emphasised. Many of the debates in this field can be traced back to two papers which were published in the early 1970s. The International Labour Office report Employment,

Incomes and Equality: A Strategy for Increasing Productive Employment in Kenya
(1972) was influential in attracting interest to the informality model as an alternative to the model of unemployment, which presumes an industrialised economy and regulated labour. The ILO report foregrounded the various forms of production engaged in by those outside salaried labour, and defined informality according to the following six criteria:

a) ease of entry; b) reliance on indigenous resources; c) family ownership of enterprises; d) small scale of operation; e) labor-intensive and adopted technology; f) skills acquired outside the formal school system; and g) unregulated and competitive markets. (International Labour Office 1972, 6)

Keith Hart’s (1973) subsequent study of informal economic activities among the Fra-Fra in Ghana highlighted the role of the informal sector as an economic buffer and a survival mechanism for the “reserve army of urban unemployed and underemployed”

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(61) whose needs are not met by salaried labour.2 Later studies of the informal economy vary in their political orientation. Marxist accounts tend to foreground the difficulties faced by those excluded from participation in the official economy and the tactics they use to survive (Sethuraman 1976; Bromley and Gerry 1979; Rakowski 1994; FernandezKelly and Shefner 2006). Hernando de Soto (1989, 2000), however, controversially points the finger of blame at the overregulated nature of many third-world economies and their under-developed property rights systems. According to de Soto, excessive red tape acts as a brake on entrepreneurial energy, deterring informal enterprises from becoming legal or from capitalising on the considerable material wealth embedded within them. His championing of the free market as the panacea to global poverty has been embraced in Washington as an ideologically appropriate solution to the global poverty “problem”.3

These various definitions of informality illustrate the term’s slipperiness and its connection to an assortment of political projects. Critics continue to debate whether informality is best conceptualised as a discrete section of the economy or as a mode of production, a symptom of neoliberalism or a repository of entrepreneurship, a problem to be solved or a potential to be harnessed. Few, however, dispute the fact that informality is “a fundamental politico-economic process at the core of many societies” (Castells and Portes 1989, 15). Like many of the researchers cited above, I would suggest that the informality model is best thought of as an analytical prism through which we can examine not only economies which for various reasons have never been formal but also the structural mutations in formal economies undergoing informalisation via

2 Hart’s paper was presented at a conference in 1971 and published in 1973. It notes, among other things, the heavily gendered nature of the informal economy, which accounted for the activities of 95% of active women in Ghana compared to 40% of active men. 3 The cover of de Soto’s The Mystery of Capital features endorsements from Presidents Clinton and Bush. See also the 2007 World Bank report Informality: Exit and Exclusion, which attempts to play up the voluntary circumstances in which people may exit the formal workforce, thus privileging rational action over structural inequality, and Boudreaux’s (2008) recent argument for the further deregulation of African housing markets.

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processes of outsourcing and casualisation. While it is difficult to make general statements about the different structures and practices which make up the informal sector, the informality model is useful as a way of thinking about the nature of subterranean economic networks and their characteristics. It is almost always the case that traders in informal economies have little in common with large, verticallyintegrated corporations of formal capitalism. The corporate sector may indeed benefit from or dictate conditions within the informal sector (hence the term shadow economy), but the forms of industrial organisation in each sphere are quite distinct. This is certainly the case in informal media distribution, which is usually the domain of ephemeral operations with flexible structures and smaller spheres of commercial ambition.

My broad argument up to this point has been that much of the world’s cinema is distributed in ways that can best be described as informal; therefore, a theory of both economic informality and distributive informality can help us to make sense of these phenomena. Before I go on to discuss informality in the context of film distribution, however, let me further refine the definition of informality offered so far by adding a few clarifications to clear up my position on some recurrent debates. First, I view the formal and informal spheres as overlapping and mutually constitutive, rather than discrete. There is a great deal of slippage and traffic between the formal and the informal. Over time, formal economies can become informal, and informal economies can become formal (Castells and Portes 1989). The outlawing of alcohol under Prohibition is an example of the former trajectory, while the formalisation of the kind of micro-financing previously undertaken by loan sharks is an example of the latter. In the neoliberal era, informalisation is an appealing strategy for multinational corporations at the core of the formal sector, who are increasingly fond of relocating labour-intensive manufacturing to shady enterprises in the developing world and

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outsourcing certain types of high-end tasks to first-world creatives working on a freelance basis. Even the most legitimate-looking products may have been produced using informal labour of some kind—blouses sewn by outworkers in Melbourne, computer parts made in invisible factories in export processing zones in the Philippines—before they enter the formal realms of distribution and retailing. This is equally the case in the film industry. Even though the major studios discussed in the previous chapter operate largely in the formal realm, their business models involve all kinds of informal activity—reciprocal product placements, unpaid cameo appearances, production in unregulated third-world sites, and so on. I thus concur with Roy (2005), who argues that it is better to think of informality as a mode rather than a clearly defined set of activities.

A second issue relates to the binaristic nature of the term informality. As an inversion of formality, informality is discursively subjugated to its etymological root in the same way that the concept of woman becomes secondary to man in a patriarchal order. This, however, should not lead us to believe that formality is some kind of organisational constant from which informality departs. As Harding and Jenkins (1989, 15) argue, the reverse is in fact the case:

[A]n absence of formal regulation is the historical norm. History may be viewed as the progressive encroachment of formality upon widening areas of social life, as a consequence of literacy and the introduction of ever more sophisticated information technology, on the one hand, and the increasing power and bureaucratization of the state, on the other.

For this reason, we should not be Eurocentric in our thinking by conceptualising formality as the rule when it is, in many places and many ways, the exception. We need to acknowledge that, from a global perspective, the kind of regulating state that

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characterises formal economies cannot be essentialised as some kind of universal. As Davis (2006, 191) notes, many cities (he uses the example of Kinshasa) are in fact characterised by a “figure-foreground reversal of formality and informality” which “reinvents the categories of political economy and urban analysis”. Even where it exists, state regulation is often strategically withdrawn in the name of competition. Roy (2005), drawing on Giorgio Agamben, stresses this point by defining informality positively, as a “state of exception” rather than an absence, foregrounding the fact that informality can be systematically produced by the dismantling of welfare-state protections (or the creation of particular exclusionary protections). Like these accounts, the model of subcinema offered below seeks to decentre formality as the default state of affairs and to reconceptualise informality not as an exotic aberration but as an integral part of the global political economy.

Finally, it is important to remember that informal economic activity is the domain of an extremely diverse group of actors. Informality does not correlate directly with illegality, for informal activities operate on either sides of the law. Corporate espionage in Birmingham, after-hours study schools in Mumbai, counterfeit DVD trading in Cairo, cash-in-hand maintenance work in Adelaide, and methamphetamine production in New Mexico are all equally informal, which makes it difficult to sustain any kind of moral argument about informality. There is little to be gained from its wholesale condemnation, as the informal sector is a means of survival for many millions of people excluded from wage labour through no fault of their own, but we should also resist the temptation to fetishise economic anarchy as political resistance, given that informalisation is an important dynamic within the corporate sector, or to gloss over the systematic exploitation of women, children, and immigrants that is common within informal economies (Hart 1973; UN-HABITAT 2003). This thesis seeks to do neither of these things. While I do suggest that the informal sphere is often the site of dynamism

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and creativity, I do not make any claims about the inherent worthiness of either formality or informality as an empirical reality or a political, moral, and organisational principle. Such claims would be necessarily reductive given the diverse nature of the activities occurring within, and crossing between, each realm.

Having offered a brief history of the informality model, specified my own position in the debates around this topic, and argued for informality’s potential as a heuristic device, I will now explain how this concept can be productively used in media studies.


Let me recap the argument presented so far in this chapter. Subcinematic film cultures are facilitated by various types of informal or semi-formal distribution, reaching their audiences via routes marginal to those of mainstream film releasing and arthouse distribution. Although a precise quantification is impossible, the global subcinematic field is immense. Building upon these arguments, the following section constructs a necessarily partial model of subcinematic circulation, and offers several examples to illustrate my argument. As we shall see, distributive informality, like economic informality, often interfaces with formal distribution and occurs across legal, extralegal, and illegal spheres. For this reason, I conceptualise subcinematic distribution as an adjunct, and in many cases a predecessor, to formal distribution, rather than some kind of resistant or oppositional force. This said, the conditions under which subcinema circulates are often so different to those which underwrite the presumed textual encounter of classical film theory, which is rooted in a thoroughly formal distribution

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and exhibition model, that an alternative theoretical paradigm is required. My intention is therefore to build an analytical model which challenges the presumption that formal distribution and exhibition channels are the only, or even the most empirically important, delivery mechanisms for films.

The qualities of cinematic and subcinematic distribution can be arranged across a spectrum (Table 3). Individual film cultures and circulatory systems will possess differing levels of formality and informality at different times in different spaces, and their position on the spectrum will vary according to which specific characteristic is being discussed. They may even occupy multiple positions simultaneously.

Table 3: The spectrum of distributive informality
FORMAL DISTRIBUTION (Cinema) Linearity Territoriality Surveillance Vertical integration Textual stability Immersion INFORMAL DISTRIBUTION (Subcinema) Instantaneity Deterritoriality Invisibility Cockroach capitalism Textual instability Distraction

      

The first characteristic of subcinema listed in the table is instantaneity. In the windowing system upon which the Hollywood and arthouse distribution models are based, linear movements through formats (theatrical to DVD to TV) function to monetise time, creating a hierarchy of value based on a text’s newness (Cubitt 2005). Subcinematic networks do not use such a model, preferring in general to get product to consumer as quickly and directly as possible. Take the adult industries as an example. Pornography is present everywhere in the world in one form or another; attempts to eliminate it have been notoriously ineffective. Markets for pornographic material exist in every medium, from print to mobile media, and they appear to constitute a

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quantification is very difficult). However, even in consolidated and regulated media economies porn distribution is largely informal or semi-formal. Australia’s Adult Industry Copyright Organisation claims 85% of the videos and DVDs in circulation are pirated (, yet healthy profits are still enjoyed by all involved in porn distribution.4 Both the official and unofficial wings of the industry are paragons of distributive efficiency: they move media to market with maximum speed and minimum fuss, even and especially when this occurs outside the legal distribution channels. This results in a rapid turnover of titles, which appear on shelves shortly after being filmed. In the DVD/VHS sell-through sector, still the most popular distribution channel among Australian porn consumers (McKee, Albury and Lumby 2008), new releases attract a price premium but there is no established windowing process at work and thus no temporal restrictions on content provision. In this sense the instantaneity of the porn industry is fundamentally different from the linearity of conventional film distribution, even though this linearity may be changing in the digital environment.5 Like most subcinematic enterprises, porn distributors supply their audiences with what they want, when they want it, in as great a volume as the market will bear. They have little interest in or capacity for creating value by withholding content.

Second, subcinema is deterritorial.6 Mainstream film distribution divides the world into discrete technological zones (DVD region coding) and markets in which selected distributors are granted exclusive distribution rights. Global theatrical film releasing has developed around a diffusion model, in which new releases premiere in the US and

4 This is not the case in the production sector, as the exploitation and underpayment of performers is notorious. 5 As I noted in the previous chapter, black-out periods between windows in mainstream distribution have been steadily decreasing in length over the last decade, and the prospect of simultaneous releasing promises to bring yet more change. However, the principle of value-maximisation via windowing endures as a key structural feature of the formal film business. 6 It is not my intention to engage in the many technical debates which occur in commentaries on the work of Deleuze and Guattari, where the term deterritorialisation originates. As was their original intention, I am appropriating the term here and using it in a loose way, to refer to degrees of mobility on the part of media texts.

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move outwards through the Western world before ending their days in the smaller markets. Legal parallel-importing and illegal piracy operations mean that this global hierarchy is an ideal state rather than a reality, but as I argued in chapter two, this distributive structure is problematic at a number of levels. Subcinema, on the other hand, is uninterested in these modes of territorialisation. The circulatory networks which make up the subcinematic field are largely subterranean, meaning that texts are able to move through space and time with a lower level of interference from copyright law, taxes, tariffs, and state censorship. The most obvious example of this deterritorialisation is the Bit Torrent software used by millions of consumers across the world, which enables films to be transported over great distances at great speed and at negligible cost. Of course, file-swapping is not completely outside the sphere of regulation, as ongoing controversies over network neutrality in the US attest; but by any definition it is located at the informal rather than the formal end of the spectrum. Less dramatic forms of deterritorialisation include the common practice among diasporic subjects of transporting DVDs from home to host country in their luggage (Cunningham and Sinclair 1999), a form of subcinematic distribution which is regulated, in theory, by customs and immigration laws but results nonetheless in the movement of huge amounts of media from one place to another without the help of official distribution channels. In other words, there is a special kind of mobility at the subcinematic end of the scale which relies not on the muscle of vertically integrated conglomerates but on the small-scale movements of large numbers of minor actors.

Third, subcinema is often invisible, or in any case less visible than its formal counterparts, when it comes to official estimations of industry size. This invisibility has multiple causes and effects. On the one hand, many subcinematic texts are invisible because they are of limited appeal and have no reason to be of interest to more than a small number of people. A home video is subcinematic but of course we would not

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expect it to be anything else. The kind of invisibility that I wish to focus on here, however, relates to indexes of film culture within industrial self-representation and enumeration. As the previous chapter noted, mainstream distributors have long sought to gain accurate data about film consumption practices, both for the purposes of market research and to guarantee supply-chain integrity. “Checkers”, staffers who lurked in cinema foyers to ensure that exhibitors reported the correct attendance figures back to distributors, were commonly used in the studio era (Segrave 2003). Technologies of surveillance have now evolved to the point where rental transactions at suburban video stores can now be monitored in near-real-time from the distributors’ headquarters via Rentrak and Nielsen software. These data constitute the sales figures and box office results which dominate the trade press, and also inform various other kinds of industry discourse. Distributors invest huge amounts of time and effort in these systems of surveillance, which play an important part in acquisitions and marketing strategies (Cubitt 2005). However, few equivalent surveillance systems exist in the subcinematic sector. The precise quantitative characteristics of subcinema are a mystery, and no amount of market research can ever hope to make sense of the infinite number of textual engagements that take place informally. This is true both in the illegal sector of subcinematic distribution, where monitoring is obviously very difficult, and in its legal equivalent, where technologies such as point-of-sale tracking are less common and industry-wide sales data gathering tends to be ineffective. For example, a recent Video

Business article (Wilson 2007) notes that the large market for Evangelical media in the
US, discussed in the following section, is of considerable interest to the major studios, which see it as a growth area. However, the studios have been obstructed in their efforts to expand into this market by the fact that their analysts “have found it difficult to gain the kind of point-of-sale data that can help them decide what types of content work best” (n.p.). This is because semi-formal industries such as the Christian media market are the domain of smaller companies which have until recently tended not to

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use the industry-wide sales tracking systems of Rentrak/Nielsen. In other words, the ability to monitor media consumption drops off sharply as we approach the informal end of the distributive spectrum. Most of the subcinematic field remains an empirical blind spot.

This brings me to the fourth characteristic of subcinema. I have found the concept of “cockroach capitalism”, as suggested by Chuck Kleinhans and other theorists, to be useful as a way of representing the logic of informal economies.7 Cockroaches live in the cracks between things; they move fast, eat whatever is available, and are difficult to squash. Stripped of its abject connotations, the cockroach is an evocative metaphor for the kinds of commercial activity which are common within the informal sector. Subcinema travels via subterranean channels but is not underground in any deliberate way and derives little pleasure from its marginal status. The kind of large-scale vertical integration which still characterises the major studios’ distributive operations is unheard of in the subcinematic field. Subcinema is the space of fly-by-night operators and handshake deals, of flat-fee sales and copyright infringement, rather than the revenue-sharing arrangements discussed in the last chapter. This point is developed further in the discussion of straight-to-video (STV) releasing in chapter four, in which I explain how flat-fee presales were used by STV distributors in the early home-video era and how these arrangements in turn shaped the formal properties of video productions. Other evidence of this tendency is offered in an exemplary study of Hong Kong films in the Indian B-circuit by S. V. Srinivas (2003). Srinivas describes how films are bought and sold in lots by entrepreneurial “distributors” who may not have a background in the film industry and whose normal line of business may be something like preserved

7 I first encountered this term via Darrell Davis (2003), who credits Chuck Kleinhans as its source. The term was used in John Galbraith’s The New Industrial State (1971) and has also appeared in other texts by Harrington (1962) and Kofsky (1970), though its usage is differently inflected in these cases. Lash and Urry’s “disorganized capitalism” (1991, 1994) is also a useful metaphor, although with its emphasis on global markets, service industries, and the disintegration of the welfare state, the focus is somewhat different.

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vegetable trading. Prints are then sent out to the most run-down and far-flung theatres, where they are screened until they are no longer usable. What we have here is an industry sector which operates outside many forms of conventional regulation and is near-invisible in terms of its discursive status in global film business and culture—yet at the same time, it is highly organised and efficient. As Srinivas argues, the decentralised nature of the B- and C-sector distribution system means that it not only gets films to every corner of the country but also “exploit[s] films to the fullest extent possible under the circumstances” (2003, 56). In this market, profit margins are so slim that the majors cannot be bothered competing, so this particular form of subcinematic distribution works to fill gaps in the market and facilitate film cultures that would not otherwise exist. It is a form of cultural provision for populations which are not considered profitable enough to warrant formal distribution systems, a cultural service provided by a decentred network of small-scale entrepreneurs―a cockroach-capitalist model of enterprise.

Fifth, films which circulate in the subcinematic field tend to feature higher levels of textual variability. Formal distribution is the domain of global standardisation and brand integrity—multiplex distribution offers the consumer an implicit guarantee that the experience of watching Spider-Man 3 will be more or less the same whether you live in Singapore or South Africa. Other windows in formal distribution offer different guarantees. When we rent a DVD from Blockbuster we can usually be confident that we will receive the film we have asked for, that it will conform to the requirements of its rating category, and that it will play when we insert it into the DVD player. As we move into the subcinematic realm, these guarantees begin to fall apart. Texts in the subcinematic circulation accumulate interference—textual additions, subtractions, inflections, distractions—as they move through space and time. Subcinematic distributors have less of an economic incentive to ensure textual standardisation, so

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films are commonly recut, redubbed and retitled at will. (The Indian distributors interviewed by Srinivas [2003] often see this as a process of “improving” the original.) Pirate markets are particularly susceptible to textual change, and examples of textual fluctuations within illegal distribution are numerous. Regular file-swappers know all too well that many of the Hollywood movies circulating in P2P networks may feature unexpected extras like Russian dubbing or Japanese subtitles. Bootleg DVDs sold in pirate markets may be illegally copied before final post-production and have been known to contain alternative endings and unfinished special-effects sequences. As Ziauddin Sardar (2005, 659) writes, “The ending in these ‘fake films’ can sometimes be different from the commercially released version, or contain scenes that do not make it to the cinema”. Indeed, subcinema’s textual instability hit the headlines in 2009 when a rough cut of X-Men Origins: Wolverine with unfinished CGI work was leaked onto the internet, prompting an FBI investigation into its source. Even legal subcinematic distribution has its risks, as evidenced by the misleading cover images and taglines of low-cost B-movie DVD multi-packs, the kind one encounters at discount stores, which substitute one star for another and inflate walk-on appearances into starring roles. All these examples remind us of the relative instability of textual context in the subcinematic sphere, and of the ways in which distribution shapes not only the textual encounter but also, in the most material sense, the text itself.

This brings me to my final point. The forms of exhibition that arise from subcinematic distribution are what we might call anti-cinematic. They frequently take place in a state of distraction, being consumed in the home or in social spaces beyond the cinema. In many of its manifestations, subcinematic distribution results in a form of spectatorship which rarely resembles the encounter between autonomous text and sovereign spectator imagined by psychoanalytic film theory. Film studies concepts like immersion or suturing cannot be transplanted wholesale into the subcinematic realm, whose

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rhythms and texture often have more in common with television or radio than cinema. Film in the subcinematic context is not so much an apparatus as a distraction, an audiovisual presence—something that may be on in the background while you travel, eat, sleep, socialise, or work. The experience of watching a film in a darkened cinema is fundamentally different from watching the same film on YouTube in a Chicago college dorm, on an Alitalia flight, at a video parlour in Guangzhou, through the window of an electronics store in Douala, and so forth. These points will be further expanded in the section on Nigerian video film exhibition in chapter five, which discusses the variable contexts in which videos are consumed and the specificities of each setting. As we will see, films are watched at home in large family groups, on street corners, in hairdressers, in bars, on overnight buses, and in many other settings. However, they are rarely screened in cinemas and very rarely watched alone; video viewing is a social act, one characterised by differing degrees of distraction. As Jonathan Crary has suggested, the way we respond to visual stimuli has been disciplined over time by institutions and technologies, from the pinwheel to the projector. Distraction needs to be understood not as the Other of respectful attention but as an “effect, and in many cases a constitutive element, of the many attempts to produce attentiveness in human subjects” (Crary 1999, 49). Crary’s argument is complex but its emphasis on the historically constructed nature of “paying attention” is relevant to a discussion of subcinema, as it is these norms and practices which tend to break down in informal distribution. In subcinematic scenarios, one’s relationship to other bodies in the viewing space is as important as one’s relationship to the text. I do not go so far as to attribute to the subcinematic audience the kind of resistant unruliness that has often been ascribed to the audiences of early cinema, but the difference between many viewing situations arising from informal distribution and the idealised textual encounter of classical film theory is inescapable.

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The six qualities outlined above constitute the essential characteristics of subcinema in its most concentrated form. As I have noted, most forms of subcinematic distribution do not meet all these criteria all the time, but even in subcinema’s semi-formal modes the moments of contact between texts and audiences are rather different in their social and textual dimensions from what we normally imagine to be a filmic experience. Let me offer two additional examples to flesh out the model further. An extreme instance of subcinema, one which erases textuality altogether, has been described by the urban theorist Abdoumaliq Simone (2006). In an extraordinary essay published in the journal

Urban Studies, Simone reflects on his experiences living in Cameroon and South Africa
and the ways in which urban African communities reconstruct meaning from material, social and symbolic infrastructures in various states of decay and dysfunction. He emphasises everyday actions which respond to situations of scarcity and dysfunction through attempts to “multiply the uses that can be made of documents, technologies, houses, infrastructure, whatever” (358). The essay includes an account of “cinemagoing” in Douala, one which would occupy a position at the extreme edge of the spectrum of informality. As such, it provides a powerful account of one of the myriad ways in which filmic infrastructures can be put to social use. I quote from it here at some length so as not to remove the cinematic encounter he describes from its context:

Not even two minutes from the Western entrance to the [Machouchou] quarter stand the remains of what was once Douala’s largest cinema, now closed for the past several years. Next door stands a four-storey building that once housed one of the city’s better Catholic high schools, now moved to another more suburban location. The demise of both has a lot to do with the relationship between them. The pupils would miss classes to attend matinee showings next door of an endless fare of cheap kung fu movies. The young people would barely pay attention to the films; it was more a place to smoke marijuana and have sex. Some efforts were made to get the authority at least to close the place during school hours. But this was to no avail, especially as the very popular soft

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porn showings at the weekends drew crowds of local functionaries. While over the years the cinema had been stripped clean—of seats, carpet, even major sections of the roof—the locked projection room strangely remained intact. Given its proximity to Machouchou, the cinema was a convenient hangout for neighbourhood youth, a beguiling place of refuge since, despite its present locked down fortress appearance, its status as a gathering-spot of criminals was well known to the police. But as far as I could make out, there were no raids, no arrests. Unlike the high school kids, these youth actually came to watch cinema, perhaps as a respite from just how much their lives had become clumsy imitations of third-rate movies. The thing was that there were no movies per se to watch. Rather, they had managed to attach the projector to a small generator simply to get it running and would then sit, often for hours, watching the rays of light as they reached the surface of the screen. Afterwards, they would get beers and have long discussions about what they had seen, arguing over plot lines and characters. (Simone 2006, 367)

There is no place in mainstream film theory for this kind of cinema-going experience. It not only rewrites the space of the cinema and its presumptive social functions but also displaces the text from its usual position at the core of film culture, in a way that may help us to rethink some of the assumptions of text-centric film studies.

Another kind of argument about the uses of subcinema can be found in Arif Hasan’s (2002, 2004) account of informal media networks in Karachi, where the majority of the population lives in informal settlements. Extensive networks of small-scale private enterprise provide many core services here, from education to public transport. Trade liberalisation has meant that lifestyle commodities are now available to certain sectors of society at the same time as it has led to the devaluation of the rupee, rampant inflation, the privatisation of state industries, and the emergence of a Westernised corporate class. An important component of this new economic landscape is an informal media sector consisting of pirate video clubs, video halls, software vendors,

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and cable TV companies which provide various forms of audiovisual entertainment to consumers who would be otherwise excluded from these services. For Hasan, these phenomena represent “the emergence of a First World economy and sociology, but with a Third World wage and political structure”, and it has been the role of the informal media sector to provide a “bridge” between these two disparate worlds (2004, 73).

While the Douala story recounted by Simone above suggested a role for informal media as a phantasmatic infrastructure across which unrelated social practices may take place, in the case of Karachi informal audiovisual infrastructures perform a mediating function, linking economies and cultures. Note, however, that there is nothing inherently progressive about the type of media and the forms of access such markets provide. For Hasan, subcinema surfaces as a symptom of structural economic change, a form of cockroach capitalism operating in tandem with economic liberalisation. This is a common characteristic of informal media markets, which frequently present to their customers an affordable smorgasbord of audiovisual options in places where other kinds of goods and services—including housing, water, and schools—are in short supply.

The political functions of subcinematic distribution are, therefore, highly variable. On the one hand, there are many examples of subcinematic networks which have facilitated the circulation of material blacklisted by the state. In the Philippines, a documentary about the former president Joseph Estrada became a best-seller in pirate markets, even though it had been banned by the official regulator, the Optical Media Board (Baumgärtel 2008, 267). A similar situation occurs in China, where banned or restricted feature films by Sixth Generation directors circulate freely as pirate DVDs. However, I want to stress that resistance and oppositionality are by no means inbuilt properties of subcinema, or informality for that matter. Informal distribution networks

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host everything from Zapatista documentaries to child pornography, horror films to hate crimes. While such channels have the potential to undermine mainstream media institutions, informal distribution can just as easily operate in the service of corporations or the state. Ganley and Ganley (1985) offer a fascinating story of informally distributed audiocassettes produced by the KGB and circulated

internationally during the Cold War years which contained “recordings” of Ronald Reagan and other famous figures. The tapes were fakes; they had been edited together from Reagan’s speeches and doctored in such a way that Reagan appeared to be threatening the Soviet Union with invasion. Other tapes purportedly featured Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger orchestrating illegal arms deals, and Neil Armstrong converting to Islam. Propaganda like this often circulates informally, but in this context it could hardly be called resistant.8 Equally, we could think of the numerous viral videos on YouTube which attract large numbers of viewers on the basis of their quirkiness but which turn out to be part of marketing campaigns for consumer products. These examples are a useful reminder of the need to resist “resistance” as an analytical optic (Bennett 1988), and this is especially important in the case of subcinema.

I also want to stress, again, that subcinema is not restricted to the developing world. Although subcinematic distribution generally facilitates a larger proportion of film consumption in media economies which have yet to experience the kind of consolidation characteristic of European and North American nations, informality in distribution is thoroughly global. For this reason, I conclude this chapter with a more detailed example of a subcinematic economy operative within a Western context. The

8 Ganley and Ganley (1985, 67) also quote from an unclassified USIA (United States of America Information Service) document which demonstrates how film piracy has operated in the service of US foreign policy in Iran: “As a result of strict control over films shown in public theaters, an enormous black market in video cassettes has come into existence to provide Western films for a high price to the middle and upper classes… According to a participant in the black market, the most popular films in Iran today are Footloose (which deals in part with rebellion against fundamental religious principles) and The Return of the Jedi (which is politically controversial as many Iranians have compared Khomeini to the evil and aging emperor of dark forces portrayed in the films).”

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discussion of the US Christian video market which follows is intended to function as a short case study to illustrate the points made above and as a prelude to the more detailed analyses of straight-to-video, Nollywood, and pirate media which make up the remaining chapters of the thesis.


The last few years have witnessed a boom in Christian B-movie production by independent operators in the United States, along with a series of interesting developments in their distribution. An account of current commercial practices in this semi-formal industry also reveals overlaps between informal and formal distribution, which is characteristic of many of the film networks discussed in this thesis.

Left Behind, a series of movies released straight-to-DVD, is the most successful
franchise to emerge from this mini-industry. The three films which make up the series—Left Behind: The Movie (2001), Left Behind II: Tribulation Force (2002), and

Left Behind: World at War (2005)—are based on a series of books by Tim F LaHaye and
Jerry B Jenkins which have sold 63 million copies around the world (Monahan 2008). They feature an end-of-days Armageddon plot which draws on the thriller, romance, horror, and disaster-movie genres. The films have the production qualities of a telemovie, with low-rent stars like Lou Gosset Jr and Kirk Cameron accompanied by a cast of unknowns.9

9 There are a number of other, lesser-known franchises in the evangelical sub-genre. An example is The Omega Code and its sequel Meggido: The Omega Code 2. Curiously, the director of the second film, Brian Trenchard-Smith is an Australian director with a

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The Left Behind series has rarely been advertised or reviewed in mainstream media. Most filmgoers have never heard of it, yet more than six million DVDs have been sold to date (Hettrick 2005). This is a huge amount by anyone’s standards, and more than the vampire blockbuster Twilight sold in the week after its DVD release (Magiera 2009). So how did the Left Behind films achieve such a level of success? The popularity of the books is obviously important, but the other factor here is a well-organised and largely informal distribution system involving a network of two thousand churches across North America. Screenings of the film were held for congregations and publicised by strong word-of-mouth, usually with the active involvement of the preachers at these churches. Stars of the movie series would also make appearances from time to time. In this manner, the distributors were able to mobilise an estimated 700,000 to 1,100,000 believers to attend (Walker 2005). Combined with the six million DVDs sold, this represents an enormous amount of distributive power and is testament to the potential efficiency of subcinematic networks.

The circuits through which Left Behind moved meet most of the criteria set out in the preceding section (recall that few film cultures are entirely informal all of the time). For these reasons, I see the film as quintessentially subcinematic. Its DVD-based circulation reversed the trajectory of formal distribution; it was produced and initially distributed outside the studio system; screenings were held in churches and private homes rather than cinemas; and DVDs found their way to many other nations via churches and specialist bookshops catering to the Christian community. The millions-strong audience for Left Behind may be invisible to those outside its orbit, but as a cultural and political force the films are significant. This demonstrates how marginal or alternative

long history in STV who has also made films with Antony I Ginnane, head of the STV company International Films Management which is profiled in the following chapter.

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distribution is not necessarily the domain of progressive ideology, and it reaffirms the point expressed earlier regarding the heterogeneity of informal distribution.

The story of Left Behind also foregrounds the many overlaps and interfaces that exist between formal and informal distribution. After the breakthrough success of the first film, it actually went on to receive a small theatrical release. A distribution deal was also signed with Sony Pictures Entertainment, which now handles the retail end of the DVD distribution. This is an increasingly common strategy of the Christian production sector, which is being incorporated into formal distribution through alliances with spin-off arms of the majors catering to the “faith market”, such as News Corporation’s Fox Faith distribution arm (its slogan: “Movies you can believe in”), which has a commercial relationship with leading independent Christian distributor Word. Fox Faith claims to have sold over 30 million Christian DVDs, and its database includes details of 14 million American households. Other distributors with Christian divisions or distribution arrangements include Lionsgate and Warner (Ault 2006; Wilson 2007). The breakthrough success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has increased interest in this end of the market, which is now seen by the majors as a growth area. It is expected that this market will experience further incorporation into formal distribution in the near future.


The example of Left Behind demonstrates how subcinematic film cultures can have elements of both formal and informal distribution—in this case, nontheatrical

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distribution combined with some degree of audience surveillance, strategic linkages with the major studios, and a small-scale theatrical release strategy. This means that at some points on the spectrum Left Behind is close to the centre (semi-formality). The opposite trajectory can also occur when, for example, a Hollywood blockbuster enters a pirate circuit or when a second-hand copy is traded informally at a garage sale—at this point, a product of formal distributive systems enters the realm of informal distribution.

As we can see, the categorisation of texts, cultures and practices as cinematic or subcinematic is not an exact science, nor is it really the point of the model I have proposed in this chapter. Subcinema is best thought of as an analytical optic, one which foregrounds the variable distributive processes underwriting everyday media consumption globally and which provides theoretical tools to analyse them. This model will be developed further in the following chapters on straight-to-video, Nollywood, and pirate media, which take up different positions on the spectrum at different times and in different places. However, the point I would like to stress here is that the critical frames through which cinema studies has tended to approach its object of analysis are not always helpful given the conditions under which film is commonly experienced by audiences. The subcinematic model has attempted to close this gap by drawing attention not only to the empirical significance and potential efficiency of subcinematic distribution, but also to the overlaps between the formal and informal spheres, to the multiple trajectories of filmic texts as they move through time and space, and to the crucial role of distributive context in reception.

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Chapter four

In chapter two, I examined the evolution of Hollywood distribution over the course of a century, investigating the relationship between changes in industry structure and the various distributive technologies used at different times by the majors to get their product to consumers. The present chapter builds on these foundations by taking a close look at one particular moment of change in this history and the transnational subcinema circuit it produced. As I will demonstrate, new technologies open up spaces for new modes of distribution, which in turn breed new social practices and new forms of film culture. In the case of straight-to-video, distributive change has also given rise to a specific set of industrial exchanges between developed and developing world film industries, along with some peculiar, even perverse, reconfigurations of cinematic value.

The early years of home video were a boom period for low-budget genre features, which circulated through the new medium of the videocassette and the new cultural space of the video store. Although video markets worldwide are usually dominated by a small number of blockbusters, there has always been a section of the market devoted to

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cheaply made, independently produced films which never make it to the big screen. These are called straight-to-video (STV), or direct-to-video (DTV), movies.1 The STV sector is an important part of the film economy in terms of its audience and the number of films it circulates, even though its public profile is low. It has played a crucial role in the evolution of genres like horror and action and has fertilised an array of new subgenres. This kind of distribution also provides a platform for films which have fallen through the cracks of commercial distribution.

Reliable data on the nontheatrical movie sector is rare, but according to an authoritative study by the Harvard economists Anita Elberse and Felix Oberholzer-Gee (2008, 35), 59% of titles in the US video/DVD marketplace for the period 2000 to 2005 were released straight-to-video.2 Combined with made-for-television releases, these films account for around two thirds of the titles in the marketplace. According to one industry estimate, the STV market adds up to nearly US$3 billion per year (Snider 2003). It is also worth remembering that the STV sector has been responsible for many bona fide blockbusters. Jane Fonda’s million-selling exercise video of 1982 is one example of a STV release which became a cultural phenomenon, while STV kids’ titles such as The Return of Jafar and Aladdin and the King of Thieves have performed extremely well for Disney, which until recently dominated this corner of the market (Orwall 1997; Sanjek 1995; English 1998). The American Pie franchise, which includes six STV features, has grossed half a billion dollars (Caranicas 2009). And, as I noted in the previous chapter, the Evangelical DVD series Left Behind with its 60 million sales is an STV breakthrough of the highest order. So, while it may seem an obscure object of analysis, the nontheatrical movie plays an important part of the larger film economy,
1 I use the term straight-to-video, which is the norm in Australia and the UK, rather than direct-to-video, the American equivalent. 2 The data used by Elberse and Oberholzer is based on a five-year sample from Nielsen Videoscan, the leading monitoring service for the US video sell-through market. The sample size was 5455 titles. Figures for original release windows were as follows: directto-video 59%, theatrical 26%, television 25%. Note that around 15% of titles were released in multiple windows simultaneously (day-and-date releases in all windows, simultaneous cable and video releases, and so forth), which is why the sum of these figures exceeds 100%.

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and its audience, though dispersed, can be very big indeed. STV movie cultures are therefore worth taking seriously—but first we must come to terms with the specificities of STV distribution.

This chapter begins by recounting the history of STV as a distributive technology. I focus initially on the evolution of the American STV circuit3, as it has been a structural influence on video industries overseas, before moving on to consider STV from a transnational perspective by examining connections with offshore financiers and producers, the international itineraries of STV texts, and STV equivalents in nonWestern film industries. I conclude by considering some of the lessons STV has to offer about the possibilities—and the perils—of nontheatrical distribution. Even though the video market had the potential to become a more diverse distribution outlet than the theatrical circuit, which is limited by obvious capacity constraints, it has instead become an echo chamber of the box office: a small number of blockbusters accounts for the lion’s share of revenues, and everything else, including almost all STV, is crowded into the “long tail” (Anderson 2006). Nonetheless, at various points in its history, other futures have seemed possible for video. One aim of this chapter is to explain how the particular releasing model used today came to triumph over others. This, I suggest, may offer lessons for the future, especially in relation to online distribution.

3 The movies that make up the STV field come from various places—some are made for cable television then sold on to video after their premiere (MFTV); others are made specifically for the STV market; others are films that failed to receive a proper theatrical release for one reason or another. Some films which are referred to as STV releases even have very brief theatrical seasons of one or two weeks, while others may be picked up by cinemas after their video release. (This was the case with John McNaughton’s 1986 thriller Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which was made for around US$100,000 as an STV movie but subsequently became a hit at arthouses [Hartl 1991].) All this makes defining the field somewhat difficult. I will be using the term STV in a loose way to refer to low-budget films, generally produced and released outside the studio system, whose primary means of circulation is through home video formats, including both VHS and DVD. I focus here specifically on films designed for this form of distribution, especially Bgrade action and horror, rather than those A-grade titles that end up there accidentally, having been denied theatrical release for one reason or another.

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Along the way, the chapter also addresses the issue of cultural value. How are we to understand STV? Is it really “cinema”, or is it closer to television? Is it something else entirely? By pushing this line of thought, I arrive at the overarching argument of the chapter, which is that STV raises questions about the blind-spots of film theory. STV films are audiovisual mass commodities in their purest form. Cheap, fast, and frequently nasty, they are a mass-market product marginalised by virtue of their mode of distribution. STV, I suggest, can help us to rethink the commercial/underground binary which plagues film scholarship and popular discourse. Through the analysis of STV circuits offered in this chapter, I propose a new model of filmic value which establishes grounds for comparison with the other film cultures studied in this thesis.


As I explained in chapter two, home video technology led to major structural changes in the US film industry and other industries around the world which take their cue from North America—which is to say virtually all of them. The VHS and Beta systems, having dispatched the remaining format rivals, battled it out throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with VHS emerging victorious around 1988. Soon video was generating more revenue than box office receipts and its potential as an untapped market had been well and truly acknowledged by the studios, who have based their business around a windowing model of distribution ever since. At the same time, the rapid domestic takeup of VCRs created a serious product shortage on the software side. Demand for movies to fill the shelves of video stores and the schedules of cable stations (which began operation around the same time as video appeared on the scene) was such that US

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production skyrocketed from around 350 pictures per year in 1983 to nearly 600 in 1988 (Balio 1996, 23). As in the very earliest days of cinema, when producers madly cranked out whatever they could in order to “fee[d] the maw of exhibition” (Balio 1993), or in the early days of TV when the networks were desperate for movies to screen, this was a seller’s market. The following quote from a former senior vicepresident of New Line Cinema attests to this:

Perhaps the biggest boon that has ever occurred in the independent sector was the explosion of home video in the early eighties. It was a voracious market for anything with sprocket holes, and even the major studios couldn’t provide enough product to satisfy the demand. All of a sudden there was enormous capital available to independent theatrical distributors as advances against the home-video rights. Not only was all this money being used to acquire films, it also fueled the entrance of many independents into production. (cited in Squire 2004, 322)

American consumers were not the only ones clamouring for anything with sprocket holes, as the video boom also coincided with the ongoing deregulation of broadcasting in much of Europe, Asia, and Latin America. As formerly state-run stations were commercialised and/or privatised, the demand for “average or below-average American films” (Wasser 2001, 122) increased exponentially and a new market niche was born. According to figures cited by Wasser (2001, 118-120), in 1984 home video was generating $1.4 billion for US film suppliers, with more than half of this going to independent companies (non-studio distributors).

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Table 4: Structure of the US video economy, 1980s-1990s (Sources: Wasser 2001; Balio 1996; Wyatt 1999; Wasko 1995) MAJORS MINI-MAJORS VIDEO INDEPENDENTS
Fox Sony/Columbia Disney Paramount Universal MGM Miramax Orion Cannon De Laurentiis Group New Line Island Avco Embassy Filmways/AIP Virgin Vision Lorimar Nelson Prism Entertainment Hemdale New World Carolco Vestron Media Home Entertainment Family Home Entertainment International Video Entertainment Vidmark Magnum Entertainment Lightning Video ThrillerVideo Monterey Home Video Alive FilmDallas Atlantic Releasing Avenue MCEG Weintraub Entertainment Group and others

By the time STV releasing hit its peak in the mid to late 1980s, an array of small US operators was actively competing for a slice of the action (Table 4). These independents worked on a flexible model of dispersed, small-scale production and ad-hoc distribution through the mini-majors, the larger independents, small fly-by-night operators, or through self-distribution.4 This sector of the film industry was chaotic and undercapitalised, but there was money to be made for those who knew how to tap the right market.

While many of these new video entrepreneurs were entering the film industry for the first time, others were established players. Of these, quite a few had connections to the B-film and exploitation industries, including at least one major STV player—Noel Bloom, head of the ironically named Family Home Entertainment—who had a

4 This is not to say, however, that STV is or ever has been entirely the preserve of independents. For example, the video rental giant Blockbuster for a time produced its own STV/made-for-TV productions, including Richard Lang’s Texas (Wasser 2001, 148). The majors, Disney especially, have also been active in STV production. Warner has a series of what it calls “DVD premieres”, which is a euphemism for straight-to-video.

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background in porn distribution (Wasser 2001). The context of New Hollywood is worth mentioning here, as studio directors of the late 1970s were becoming increasingly open to sex, violence, swearing, and other racy content, and as a result the mainstream film industry was felt to be encroaching further and further on territory that used to belong to genres traditionally associated with B-producers, such as Blaxploitation, soft porn, and monster movies (Cook 1990, 3-4). What was left of the exploitation industry needed to find a new market niche, and a lot of it ended up in STV. Producers and distributors traditionally associated with B-genres, such as Roger Corman, were able to transition from theatrical B-films/exploitation into an equivalent position at the bottom of the video hierarchy. The discourses that frame STV in industry commentary and film criticism testify to this legacy—STV is frequently referred to as a dumping ground for low-quality productions, a criticism also levelled at B-movies. The cheap action flicks and horror movies that dominated the video market therefore represent the relocation of the residual forms of exploitation cinema from the big to the small screen.

Just as it is important to note the structural connections between STV and the B-film tradition, we also need to take into account the relationship between STV production and the massive made-for-TV (MFTV) industry, which accounts for 12.3% of US film industry expenditure, or US$2.5 billion annually (Vogel 2004, 68). According to Wasser (2001, 116-18), cable was the biggest source of funding for independent production between 1978 and 1984, when video took over the mantle. However, in many cases they worked in tandem, each providing partial financing to producers. The expanding video market allowed MFTV producers to give their films a second “window” and thus to increase their value. The recent domination of the DVD sell-through market by TV box sets, along with the role played by cable channels like HBO in film financing (Wasser 2001, 117; Malkani 2004), is further evidence of the close links between the

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video and television industries. The overlap between TV and video also registers textually, as many nontheatrical films are punctuated by fade-to-blacks where the ad breaks would have been, testifying to their previous incarnation as cable movies.

This brings me to STV aesthetics. Like all texts, STV films have traces of their industrial history in their textual organisation. STV aesthetics and STV economics are inextricably linked, though neither is reducible to the other. What then is the relation between the industrial context of STV and the formal qualities of STV movies? How can we theorise STV as a kind of distributive genre? As a way into this question, I will now discuss some of the most common textual features of STV movies and link them to contingencies of production and distribution, beginning with budgeting.

Production budgets for nontheatrical movies are small by Hollywood standards, generally ranging from a few hundred thousand dollars to the low millions. This constrains production quality but makes it much easier for these films to make their money back—Landis (1993a) notes that many STV erotic thrillers of the 1990s could turn a profit on the basis of 15,000 to 20,000 sales, which was not difficult considering the number of video stores and retailers in the global market at that time. Low budgets also mean employing non-union casts and crews, another characteristic of informal economies (see chapter three). Major independents like Cannon, a company active from the late 1970s through to the early 1990s which specialised in B-grade action and exploitation videos, were able to negotiate labour agreements at 50% of regular union rates (Yule 1987, 61). Smaller companies will usually attempt to bypass unions completely, which means that health and safety regulations are less strictly enforced on set. As such, STV is a site of exploitation in more than one sense of the word. Porn is the worst offender in this regard, as both the working conditions for performers and their levels of remuneration are notoriously poor.

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This has other implications. For one, it means that the STV industry is more geographically dispersed than its formal counterpart, because producers seek out savings by relocating production to lower-cost sites. Most North American STV production takes place in Canada and other locations where labour and rents are cheaper than they are in Hollywood. Toronto is an important centre for telemovies, while the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles is the hub for porn productions. The STV division of labour also extends beyond North America—STV action films are commonly shot in the Philippines, Thailand, and Mexico. This will be explained in more detail in the case study of IFM World Releasing below, where the politics of the STV New International Division of Cultural Labor (Miller et al 2001, 2005) will be discussed more fully, but for the moment let us simply note that STV movies are more likely to be made in interstices within the global film economy, or to feature one location masquerading (often unsuccessfully) as somewhere else, or to feature an incoherent polyphony of accents and costumes.

This also affects the kinds of sets and locations that are used in STV movies, which in turn structures the generic landscape of STV. For example, the villa/mansion on the outskirts of the city is a staple of international STV movies and is frequently used as the venue for X-rated rendezvous, drug deals, or shoot-outs. Anyone who has watched more than a couple of B-grade films will know this architecture well—wide staircases, glass brick walls, minimalist white décor, all of which functions to connote a kind of 1980s glamour without being detailed enough to distract from the spectacle of sex or gunfights. Cheaper than a studio soundstage, the villa/mansion is a production costsaving device which over time has become a generic hallmark. Likewise, the numerous STV films shot in Toronto are easy to spot—there is a ubiquitous cloudy sky, no matter what the tone of the scene is. This is another quirk of production: the muted light of

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Ontario lends many of these films a uniform greyness, and shorter shooting schedules mean crews can’t wait around for sunny days.

As these examples demonstrate, STV is a distributive genre in the sense that many of the films designed for this market have a common “feel” to them, no matter their generic identity. But genre is also extremely important to STV’s internal industrial organisation, as it demarcates production and reception in specific ways. There is no room for generic ambiguity in STV: producers specialise in particular genres—action, horror, kids’ movies—and stick within these generic boundaries. More than any other sector of the film industry, the STV market bases its continued existence on the voracious appetites of genre buffs for whom the number of films released theatrically each year is never quite enough. Similarly, an STV film is doomed to failure if it cannot fit easily into one particular section of the video store. What we have here is a kind of film consumption that doesn’t expect or even desire the exceptional; the important thing is that the film covers the right generic bases. Thus, when critics berate STV movies for being unoriginal, they are missing the point. STV does not try to compete with the A circuit—it is a film culture in its own right, with its own logics and pleasures. “Derivative”, normally used as an insult in film criticism, is in fact a compliment in this field, for the key to market success is the efficiency with which an STV film can internalise and respond to the norms of its genre and the expectations of its audience. To some extent this is true of mainstream film culture as well, but the tendency is particularly pronounced in the STV field.

STV has also spawned its own specialty genres, which owe their existence to video distribution. Martial arts movies and the erotic thriller are two STV favourites, as they

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are cheap to produce and have global “playability”.5 Another is the kind of “mockbuster” movie made by US production house The Asylum (Potts 2007)—examples include Transmorphers, The Da Vinci Treasure, AVH: Alien vs. Hunter, and Snakes on

a Train. STV is also known for its endless sequels, which offer lower-budget leveraging
of franchises like American Pie and Bring it On. Porn, however, is the most important STV genre of all. Adult movies drove VCR take-up in the first place and they still make up a large chunk of the STV market, though the informal nature of the porn industry means that it is impossible to quantify this exactly. It is also worth noting that the shift from theatrical to STV porn altered the balance of power of adult genres, resulting in the rise of hardcore at the expense of narrative-based soft porn. This is yet another example of the structuring effect that distribution has on film form and social practice. Changes in the distribution landscape lead to new kinds of reception patterns, and new kinds of cultural experience are born out of this.

STV has its own star system, which cross-pollinates in interesting ways with the Hollywood A-list as well as with modelling, tabloid culture, the music industry, wrestling, bodybuilding, and sporting cultures. On the one hand, there are some actors who seem to work exclusively within STV and are famous in this field without ever having had a presence in “real” movies. One such actor is Nick Cassavettes, the son of John Cassavettes and a popular star of B-grade erotic thrillers during the 1990s.6 Other stars are more mobile and can move in and out of STV at different points in their careers. The recent films of Steven Seagal, formerly one of the biggest names in A-list action and now the overweight star of European productions for the small screen, exemplify the latter trajectory. It is often said that in STV you’re “on the way up or the

5 On the industrial context of erotic thrillers, see Landis (1993), Eberwein (1998), L. R. Williams (2005), Andrews (2006), Martin (2007). 6 Nick Cassavettes has directed theatrically released films including She’s So Lovely (1997), starring Robin Wright-Penn, but his acting has rarely been seen on the big screen.

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way down” (L. R. Williams 2005), a quip which alludes to STV’s function as both breeding ground and dumping ground. For some actors, STV is a self-enclosed field in which careers can be built and maintained, while for others it functions more as a springboard, temporary refuge, or final destination.

Let me illustrate these trajectories in and out of STV with two examples. Prior to her death in 2007, Anna-Nicole Smith starred in several STV/MFTV vehicles including the action films To the Limit and Skyscraper, which are still commonly found in the bargain bins of discount retailers. Featuring taglines such as “Her code name was Colette, her mission was danger”, these movies were clearly not made with the critics in mind. Equal parts soft porn, melodrama, and B-action, they function essentially as vehicles for a celebrity whose star-text traversed gossip mags (the J Howard Marshall marriage and inheritance), modelling (for Guess Jeans and other companies), reality TV (The Anna Nicole Show), and the tabloid/paparazzi culture in which she felt most at home. A different kind of STV trajectory can be found in someone like Dennis Farina, an ex-policeman and character actor who has starred, usually as a detective, in a handful of critically acclaimed films by Michael Mann along with innumerable telemovies and STV features with titles like Street Crimes/Dead Even, Drug Wars: The

Cocaine Cartel and The Corpse had a Familiar Face. As such, Farina has a different kind
of STV presence from Smith and a different kind of mobility. This speaks both to the coherence of the “STV star” as a category in contemporary popular culture, as well as to the diversity that exists within this category.

Having mapped the key features of STV in relation to the history and economics of video releasing, I now want to examine some of the cross-border connections that underwrite this sector of the film industry, render its existence possible, and inform its textual content.

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At first glance, the global STV market seems to be as dominated by American product as the theatrical market. There are few parts of the world in which someone like Steven Seagal or Chuck Norris is unknown. I have watched low-budget American action and horror films on buses in Poland, at state-run theatres in Cuba, in chain video stores in Serbia, and at video bars in Sri Lanka. However, in what follows I will suggest that STV is in fact less American than it appears, both at the level of industry structure and even in the content of US-produced STV films. STV financing and distribution are underwritten by complex transnational networks: STV operates largely on the basis of foreign presales, which have functioned as a key driver of internationalisation, and offshore tax havens are used to maximise profits (a strategy which has legal implications that often lead to overseas shoots). US-produced STV films often feature transnational casting, narratives, and thematics to maximise their appeal to foreign audiences. Global STV is also a polycentric industry, with many regional giants—Mexico is well known for its “videohome” narcotraficante movies, Hong Kong for its STV martial arts police movies, Japan for its anime and porn, and so on. How then can we theorise the peculiar transnationality that is characteristic of this sector?

As a way into this question, let me begin by analysing the presale system used widely as a financing template in the STV economy. Described by Simon During (1997, 814) as the point at which “First World production is most directly inscribed by global tastes”, presales involve one-off payments from various international distributors to a producer on the basis of a pitch for a future film, which is then used as collateral to finance the funding of the film. This is not a profit-sharing system but an outright sale. Distributors acquire exclusive rights for their territory and retain all revenues generated there. This method of financing was pioneered in the early 1970s by Dino de Laurentiis and the

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Dutch banker Frans J. Afman, who would become a major player in independent film financing in partnership with the French bank Crédit Lyonnais. It was subsequently used successfully by many independent filmmakers, including many Hong Kong producers (Stokes and Hoover 1999; Curtin 2007). Here is how the system worked in practice for Cannon, the company behind films such as the Charles Bronson Death

Wish sequels, Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra, and numerous Chuck Norris movies:

Often with no more than a catchy title and a star name, together with the now familiar, hurriedly-prepared and lurid Cannon poster, [Cannon co-owner Menahem Golan] would describe the film to foreign independent distributors. If they liked the sound of it, they would open a letter of credit with Cannon, the agreed sum payable only on delivery of the finished film to their territory. Cannon then took these letters to Credit Lyonnais who advanced 75% of the letter of credit’s paper value, accepting the letter as collateral provided it came from an accredited source. Golan would often boast that these presales put projects into profit before they even commenced production… Golan claimed that foreign distributors would soon come to know that they could rely on the delivery of a Golan/Globus production and that if they happened to lose money on one film, then another down the line would make up for it. (Yule 1987, 17) 7

Film critic Roger Ebert’s account of a Cannes meeting with Cannon’s Menahem Golan gives a further sense of how such deals were put together:

When I was in Menahem Golan’s hotel room at the Cannes film festival… he had one entire wall covered with this giant chart and shown down the lefthand side were names of 27 would-be movies, or possible movies, and across the right of the chart were 60 different territories like Italy, France, but then also Angola, Zambia, and then they had gold stars. It’s like bingo. When a

7 Most Cannon films received a minor theatrical release, however their primary circulation was through video. “Globus” refers to Golan’s business partner in Cannon, Yoram Globus.

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movie has enough gold stars, it’s been sold in enough markets with advance payments or guarantees, then they’ve got the money to make it, then they make it and ship it out. (Ebert cited in Yule 1987, 56)

As these quotes suggest, presales were considered unorthodox in Hollywood but were an effective way for small companies to make back their production budgets and hopefully turn a profit. In comparison to the majors’ complex revenue-sharing formulae, presales were quick, simple, and easy, and they provided a form of financing for films that might not have been made otherwise. These flat-fee payments precluded the possibility of the producers participating in the ongoing returns of hit movies, but in most cases preselling proved to be a lucrative arrangement for both parties during the video boom period. For Dino de Laurentiis, presales accounted for between 65% and 72% of the budgets of his productions (Wasser 2001, 125), and we can assume that the figures would have been as high, if not higher, for a company like Cannon.

As a number of scholars have argued, presales contributed in an important way to a deeper kind of internationalisation of the film industry throughout the 1980s, which had implications both in the US and elsewhere. Michael Curtin (2007) is quite clear on this point: he argues that the presale system led to Hong Kong films developing a kind of pan-Asian quality, and that this was especially the case with action films.8 Lii DingTzann (1998) goes further, suggesting that the presale system used by Hong Kong producers, and the corresponding sensitivity to regional tastes that such deals required, endowed Hong Kong movies with a unique “yielding” quality—the ability to adapt to

8 Interestingly, both Curtin (2007) and Wasser (2002) also suggest that the kind of fast-and-cheap film production involved in presale deals created a situation where the virtual guarantee of profits upfront meant that there was less incentive on the part of producers to maintain quality control of their products, contributing to the late-1980s shakeout in the US and the Hong Kong industry’s deep slump in the mid-1990s.

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local tastes, to conform to a regional imaginary, to “Asianise”.9 As Lii and Curtin note, presales required films to be culturally translatable to the maximum degree, which is partly why the visual spectacle of the action genre is well suited to this financing method.

Many video independents also made use of foreign tax shelters to boost their bottom lines.10 This was another factor in the transnationalisation of the video industry from the 1980s onwards. Cannon used an offshore haven in the Dutch Antilles where the effective tax rate was between 1% and 3%, however this meant that the money they funnelled through this tax haven was not able to be returned to their base in the US unless they were willing to pay higher American tax rates (Yule 1987, 76). Investing in offshore production was one way around this problem. As a result, Cannon and other companies operative in the STV market ended up shooting war films in the Philippines, superhero movies in Canada, dramas in Australia,11 and various other features outside the US. Whether runaway production of this kind constitutes a New International Division of Cultural Labour (Miller et al 2005) or the potential building blocks of new kinds of transnational film industries (Goldsmith 2006) remains a point of debate, one which will be addressed in more detail in the following section. In my view, it is probably both these things at once, and it also has transnational textual implications that are worth exploring. We would be foolish to downplay the damage that runaway production has done to natural environments and occupational health and safety standards around the world, yet at the same time it is hard to disagree with Allen Scott (2005, xii) when he argues that “place… leave[s] deep traces on the form and cognitive

9 I have many reservations about Lii’s analysis, including the crude content analysis which makes up the latter part of the essay, the romantic Asianism inherent in the argument, the downplaying of Hollywood’s awareness of global markets (on this point, see Miller et al 2005), and the inconclusive and dubious statistics used throughout. The theoretical framework, however, is compelling. 10 The major studios do this as well (Epstein 2005a). 11 An example of one such Australian production is Fred Schepisi’s critically acclaimed 1988 film Evil Angels. The US title was A Cry in the Dark.

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meanings of products (and above all cultural products) as they emerge from localized systems of industrial activity”.

The Black Cobra STV films from the 1980s provide an interesting example of how these industrial dynamics shape textual form. These three ultra-low-budget exploitation films (Black Cobra, 1987; Black Cobra 2, 1988; Black Cobra 3: Manila Connection, 1990;

Detective Malone/Black Cobra 4 , 1990) brazenly copy elements from Cannon’s
aforementioned Stallone vehicle Cobra and also borrow from Dirty Harry, The Dead

Pool and Die Hard along the way. American footballer-turned-action star Fred
Williamson, best known for his lead role in Larry Cohen’s Blaxploitation classic Black

Caesar, stars as a renegade Chicago detective who takes the law into his own hands.
Over the course of the series, Williamson’s character Robert Malone takes on a gang of bikie psychopaths, a Filipino rebel army, and two separate Islamic terrorist cells, dispatching them with poorly-shot karate kicks accompanied by cheesy one-liners. The directors, financing, and principal crew are all from Italy, one of the very few territories in which the films made it to the big screen. The first Black Cobra is shot in Rome but set in Chicago; the later films were made and set in the Philippines (the narrative pretext: an Interpol officer exchange) and star a motley collection of American expats, European B-movie regulars, and Filipino extras.

The Black Cobra films are textbook examples of the tendencies I have documented so far in this chapter. They are ultra-cheap productions which confound even the most basic norms of narrative cinema: the editing is disjointed, the plot incoherent, and the dialogue dubbed Italian-style.12 The possibilities of spectatorial suturing are remote to say the least. The capacity for distraction and textual instability, however, is very high.

12 The quality of the dubbing is particularly poor—at one point a young boy appears to speak with the voice of a middle-aged woman.

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Black Cobra 4 does not even star Fred Williamson, as claimed: the producers have
simply recut the first film, added some new footage featuring additional villains, stitched the whole thing together with some sly editing, and passed it off as an original production. Furthermore, the transnational production context of the films takes full advantage of cheap Asian labour, as per the international division of labour model, yet much of the demand for these films comes from the traditional action markets of East Asia, France, Italy, and Eastern Europe.13 The latest Fred Williamson film, Black

Kissinger, is a Jamaican production, which complicates things even further. My point
here is that the Black Cobra series and hundreds of other similar 1980s STV actioners like it emerged from a once-booming subcinematic network which spanned several continents and employed thousands of people, an invisible economy which is not opposed to Hollywood but is, in important ways, structurally disconnected from it.

Meaghan Morris (2004) has offered a compelling theorisation of the transnational dimensions of North American STV action movies. Hers is one of only a handful of published studies on this topic,14 and it offers a useful model which can be extrapolated to other STV genres as well. Nominating the years 1985 to 1993 as the dominant period of STV action, Morris performs a virtuoso analysis of the inter-textual politics of these films, which draw heavily on the Hong Kong kung fu movie as an aesthetic template and are typically funded through international presales. She describes STV action as a “minor” cinema, in the Deleuzian sense of being a different, yet overlapping, way of “handling the same material” (189) as A-grade action. The minor action mode involves such things as transnational film crews, fast shooting schedules, cheap shooting

13 These are also markets which have traditionally been more receptive to black leads than the US. Indeed, Williamson’s blackness is played up in his Italian productions–hence the title, Cobra Negra—but played down in his US-produced post-Blaxploitation films. In the poster art for Foxtrap, for example, Williamson is sketched in such a way that he appears white. The racial politics of these Bgenres are fascinating, and while I do not have time to go into them here this appears to be a fruitful area of future research, one partially taken up by Morris (see below). 14 Other work in this area includes Srinivas (2003), Vasudevan (2002), Kleinhans (2003), Hunt (2004), Tasker (2004), Willis (2000), and the edited collection Hong Kong Connections (Morris, Li, and Chan 2005).

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locations (often in the third world), a “‘sleazy’ look” (190), and informal modes of exhibition. Morris argues that STV action cinema is transnational both in its content and its distribution, which circulates “scenarios of ‘contact’ between rival ways of life to diverse audiences worldwide” (184). She also suggests that there is a cross-cultural class imaginary to be found in transnational action, one which revolves around narratives of “emulation”, the process of learning from a master, which is a common trope in martial arts films.

Noting that research into B-grade production is “extremely difficult”, Morris suggests that investigating the histories of the fly-by-night producers that made these films would be a worthwhile project, “particularly as they [the producers] interacted in often hostile ways with the institutions, creative talent and film critics devoted to developing national cinemas” (186). This is an important point which I would like to explore with reference to the situation here in Australia. Historically, the production subsidies handed out by state and federal institutions including the Australian Film Commission have positioned the kind of adult drama favoured by arthouse audiences as the dominant genre of “official” Australian national cinema, which has helped to direct producers towards international markets based around restricted theatrical releasing rather than to video-based markets in which other genres are dominant. The 10BA tax initiatives introduced in the 1980s had positive implications for the handful of producers who chose to target the STV market (such as Antony I Ginnane, profiled below), but supplying or creating a video economy has never been a focus of state policy, even though STV production can be a lower-risk and more sustainable business model. It is also worth noting that the kind of transnational casting which is so central to minor STV action would have been made very difficult by Australian actors unions, which played an important role in getting the domestic industry off the ground but took a hard line against imported talent (Dermody and Jacka 1987, 1988). So, Morris is

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right to point to this uneasy relationship between STV and national cinema as seemingly incompatible industrial paradigms. I would like to suggest, however, that this need not have been the case, for the interests of both sectors in any national film economy will tend to overlap. Strong STV industries have flow-on effects in terms of infrastructure and talent, which feed back into feature production. So, while the prospect of a low-budget, video-oriented production industry may well have seemed antithetical to the development of an Australian national cinema, the latter would in fact have benefited from the infrastructural inputs generated by a healthy STV or genre-movie sector. The two development paths are in no way mutually exclusive at a structural level, even though they appear incompatible through the lens of cultural policy.

Some of these policy questions will be revisited later. But before we move on, I want to make a final point about transnational comparison of video industries. Some video economies outside the US and Europe have developed along their own lines; their distribution practices do not always resemble those models outlined above. I will offer just two examples here. The first is the Japanese tradition of V cinema. V cinema is a term used to refer to direct-to-video releases by directors such as Takashi Miike, many of whose films, such as the yakuza feature Gozu (2003), have been distributed this way. Emerging in the 1980s and booming in the 1990s, V-Cinema releases by companies such as the giant entertainment company Toei sit somewhere between theatrically released movies and the more defiantly subcinematic STV economy in terms of visibility and prestige (Schilling 2003; see also Dixon 2005).15 A related Japanese phenomenon is Original Video Animation, or OVA, which refers to the massive video-only anime market that has been around since the late 1970s. Thailand also has an established

15 Like other STV films, some V-cinema releases may make a quick theatrical appearance, though this is purely for promotional purposes. Occasionally some will be picked up for a proper theatrical release if the buzz is hot enough, as was the case with Shimizu Takashi’s Ju On (2000), which the director later remade in the US as The Grudge (2004) starring Sarah Michelle Gellar.

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straight-to-VCD release model, and there is a long tradition of lower-budget independent filmmakers using the format as the primary platform for lower-budgeted features, thus bypassing theatrical exhibition. These Thai “telepics” have boomed in the last decade, and in some cases can recoup costs with sales of around 50,000 (Chaiworaporn 2003). Thai movies have traditionally been cheap and easy to buy, and for this reason have been largely untouched by the thriving pirate economy through which Hollywood releases tend to circulate in Thailand.16 And as we will see in the next chapter, Nigeria’s booming film economy is run entirely on an STV model, which has reinvented the possibilities of nontheatrical releasing. It is important therefore to remember that the US-centred STV circuit that I have analysed above is, of course, just one of many.

In the next section, I offer a case study of an Australian-American STV company with extensive cross-border connections, in order to give a sense of the specific kind of minor transnationalism at work in STV.


IFM (International Films Management) World Releasing is a company headed by the Australian producer Antony I Ginnane, who has produced 59 feature films since the late 1970s. Ginnane’s company specialises in the STV and MFTV markets, and most of


Unfortunately, recent reports suggest that this STV industry may be in danger. As Musikawong (2007) notes, powerful players in the Thai industry have been attempting to get rid of STVCD/STDVD releasing practices under the rubric of clamping down on porn and/or piracy, or for reasons of “quality” control.

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his recent productions have been movies-of-the-week, mini-series, and B-grade genre movies. Ginnane, who used to joke that his middle initial stood for “International” (Hills 1988), has also been one of Australia’s most aggressively global producers and is well known in the local industry for his vocal support for the internationalisation of the Australian film industry. He divides his time between Australia and the US, and has recently been elected head of the Screen Producers Association of Australia. The telephone interview on which this profile is based took place on 23 January 2008.

Ginnane’s film activities began in the early 1970s. After an unsuccessful directorial debut with a European-styled art film called Sympathy in Summer , Ginnane became a producer and decided to target the exploitation market. Working with directors such as Richard Franklin and Brian Trenchard-Smith, Ginnane released a large number of genre movies with abundant nudity and violence throughout the 1970s and 1980s. These included the erotic adult comedy Fantasm, the horror flicks Patrick and Thirst, and the sci-fi/action movie Turkey Shoot, famously described by the Australian intellectual Phillip Adams as “a film of unrivalled sadism and brutality” (Adams 1982, n.p.). These were all low-budget films designed to play well in overseas markets. The emphasis was on visceral entertainment, and they represented a radical departure from the government-funded AFC/AFDC projects of the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, as Dermody and Jacka (1987) suggest, Adams and Ginnane represent two competing visions of Australian film culture during the 1980s, the former championing a government-subsidised auteur cinema modelled along European lines with defiantly “local” thematics, and the latter championing a commercial cinema with a global orientation and a Hollywood format.17 This approach to film-making was reflected at a number of different levels in Ginnane’s productions. He cast overseas leads such as

17 See also The Australian Film Industry: Homegrown or Foreign-Owned? (Adams and Ginnane 1983), the transcript of a debate between Adams and Ginnane held at Murdoch University in the early 1980s.

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David Hemmings in his movies to boost their international sales, much to the anger of local actors’ unions, and most of his features are faithful contributions to established exploitation sub-genres with global “playability”, such as the vampire film, the martial arts film, and the humans-as-prey film.

The commercial context of Australia’s 10BA tax laws is important here. IFM was one of the key beneficiaries of 10BA, a tax write-off scheme which was introduced in 1980 by the federal government and which had the effect of funnelling huge amounts of private money into the Australian film industry. Scaled back in several stages throughout the 1980s, 10BA enabled many investors to realise profits by securing flat-fee international presales. The video market allowed what Ginnane described as “no-star average” features to rake in, on average, advance sales of around AU$500,000 for US home entertainment rights and AU$350,000 from other territories (Dermody and Jacka 1988, 32). These two factors ushered in a type of prolific, fast-and-cheap film culture that has not really been seen in Australia since, and they also contributed in significant ways to the internationalisation of the Australian film industry by encouraging producers to seek presale deals abroad to underwrite their projects.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ginnane made a number of action films in the Philippines. These include the supernatural horror film Demonstone, the hostage/action feature Savage Justice, the action/sci-fi film Driving Force, and the Vietnam War movies The Siege of Firebase Gloria and A Case of Honor. These productions were thoroughly international affairs, as Dermody and Jacka note:

These films, all around [A]$1 million, were funded by US and Australian banks (including NZI Securities) and presold to US distributors like J&M, Atlantic, and Fries Entertainment. Again generally genre pictures, they were based on Australian scripts, used some Australian directors and key crew and US actors,

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and otherwise used Filipino crew and facilities, although post-production was done in Australia. The move to the Philippines was clearly designed to take advantage of the lower labour costs and to bypass union problems in Australia. (Dermody and Jacka 1988, 31; see also Ginnane, forthcoming)

Ginnane himself is very candid about this prerogative, describing the Philippines in our interview as “a low-cost production centre where we could maximise production for minimal costs”. The strong history of local Filipino production was a factor in his decision, along with the natural landscape (the jungle settings could stand in for numerous Asian locations), the success that Roger Corman had with his Philippines productions, and a number of other commercial connections Ginnane was developing at the time which involved expanding the IFM distribution network into South East Asia.18 Over the years Ginnane has also offshored to other destinations including Mexico, Canada, Lithuania, and the former Yugoslavia. He nominates Bulgaria and the Ukraine as countries that represent particularly good value for money today (Ginnane 2008).

The Philippines productions were made in partnership with two Manilan entrepreneurs, Marilyn Ong and Rod Confessor, with whom Ginnane founded the spinoff company Eastern Films Management. He also had extensive dealings with the aforementioned David Hemmings, who aside from being an actor was also the cofounder of Hemdale, another independent production and distribution company catering mostly to the home video market. (When Hemdale went bankrupt in the late 1980s, this almost sank Ginnane as well.) The distribution of IFM films tells a similar story. Via presale deals with small distributors such as the UK/Irish outfit Liberty, the US independent Vestron, Roger Corman’s New World, and a collection of other small

18 An IFM office was opened in Hong Kong briefly, but Ginnane pulled out of Asia following the Wall Street crash of 1987.

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operators, many IFM films achieved a thoroughly global presence in the straight-tovideo market without the benefit of a distribution deal with one of the majors. The following passage, taken from Ginnane’s autobiography, gives a sense of the sales environment for one of his films at the time:

Germany was sold to Highlight for $125,000; the UK (video only) to Braveworld for $110,000 with Sky picking up UK pay TV at $30,000 per title. Pacifica in Japan paid $70,000 each and 2 competing companies in Spain bought the 2 titles for $25,000 each. Other territories initially licensed included Israel, Portugal, Korea, Greece, Turkey, South Africa, Sweden, Middle East, Taiwan and Central America. Filmpac took Australia on both titles and paid $85,000 for the pair. (Ginnane forthcoming, n.p.)

What we have here is a company actively participating in Miller’s New International Division of Cultural Labour (2001, 2005), in that it is increasing its profits by offshoring the labour-intensive parts of its productions to lower-cost destinations. But it is an Australian-run company, doing so from a peripheral position in the global film economy and, in the case of Eastern Films Management, in partnership with local industry players. This represents a parallel rather than a centrifugal trajectory, a movement from one periphery to another, which is nonetheless beholden to the same logic of capital theorised by Miller in his NICL model. The account of the Philippines productions that Ginanne provides in his autobiography testifies to the subcinematic nature of this end of the sector—films were made on the fly in unpredictable conditions, with slim budgets allowing little margin for error. Ginanne preferred to operate this way in order to keep costs down, and he understood that STV audiences were forgiving of low production values provided that films adhered to generic norms by offering the required number of explosions, car chases, and topless girls.

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These international flows are piecemeal and subterranean, rather than global in the grand sense. They ape Hollywood in terms of form and genre, but they are small-scale and ad-hoc flows that operate for the most part outside the studio system. The transnational dimensions of Ginnane’s Philippines films are inescapable: the mixed-race cast and crew, the polyphony of accents, the strange cultural elisions that occur when “local” talent is recruited onto international productions (Eddie Romero, who directed several of the IFM productions, is one of the Philippines’ most prolific and famous directors). In other words, the films bear the legacies of their production context at a textual level, and they are not directly comparable to the kind of Global Hollywood productions which seek to suppress these histories by making one place stand in for another, as was the case with other Philippine-lensed US productions such as Platoon. This is not to say that this kind of periphery-to-periphery offshoring is not problematic in any number of ways, but it does add weight to Morris’ argument regarding the textual transnationalism at work in minor action cinema.

The example of IFM illustrates the cockroach-capitalist model of much STV production. IFM seeks out small market niches, provides cheap and accessible product, and runs on the basis of steady, small-scale turnover rather than tentpole mega-successes. Existence in this sector is precarious due to the high levels of competition and the undercapitalised nature of the sector—finding secure financing was always one of Ginnane’s biggest problems—but the nature of the audiovisual market is such that there will always be a small but healthy market for low-budget genre films. It is to the perceived cultural value of this vast body of production that I now want to turn.

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In a series of recent works, the Italian literary scholar Franco Moretti (2000, 2005) has raised a question of considerable importance to both literary studies and film studies, one which an analysis of STV may help to answer. His essay “The Slaughterhouse of Literature” begins with a lengthy list of book titles, all long-forgotten nineteenthcentury detective stories which never made it into the canon of crime fiction. These obscure texts are the departure point for Moretti’s retheorisation of literary value—they are the “forgotten 99%” (Moretti 2000, 208) that make up the bulk of literary production, the bulk of popular consumption, yet which are rendered invisible by the optic of literary studies and its fetishisation of the exceptional:

The history of the world is the slaughterhouse of the world, reads a famous Hegelian aphorism; and of literature. The majority of books disappear forever— and “majority” actually misses the point: if we set today’s canon of nineteenthcentury British novels at two hundred titles (which is a very high figure), they would still be only about 0.5 percent of all published novels. (Moretti 2000, 207)

For Moretti, canons are merely the tip of an iceberg whose submerged bulk is an equally interesting object of analysis. In this vast literary wasteland, the scholar can find answers to questions which are regularly elided in literary studies. Why do we read and study Arthur Conan Doyle today rather than one of his contemporaries? What does the other 99% of literary production have to offer?

Moretti argues that taking this literary excess seriously allows us to see literary production in a more holistic way. He uses quantitative methods in an attempt to find patterns that can explain why some texts, writers, and styles endure at the expense of

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others, theorising literary production as a competitive field in which textual conventions operate as forms of product differentiation. To illustrate this principle, Moretti tracks the emergence of the clue as a formal device in detective fiction of the nineteenth century, demonstrating how it operated as a kind of evolutionary technology which writers either adopted or ignored at their own peril: detective stories which used clues to engage their readers became dominant, while those without faded into obscurity. For Moretti, literature is thus a Darwinian battleground in which styles, formats, and genres are born and die off according to intricate laws of textual competition.

I want to draw some parallels between Moretti’s suggestive argument about nineteenthcentury detective stories and the preceding discussion of STV movies, but before I do so, I feel it necessary to point out two flaws in Moretti’s logic. Despite its quantitative aura, “The Slaughterhouse of Literature” ultimately poses a formalist hypothesis— Moretti looks only to literary style to find his own clues as to why some writers, genres, and styles flourish at particular points in time and space. In his model, readers and publishers feed off each other until the pool of writers is narrowed to a holy handful: “As more readers select Conan Doyle over L. T. Meade and Grant Allen, more readers are likely to select Conan Doyle again in the future, until he ends up occupying 80, 90, 99.9 percent of the market for nineteenth-century detective fiction” (2000, 211). This is an astute observation which is at the same time reductive. Moretti develops this model through reference to Art de Vany’s influential work on Hollywood economics. However, Moretti, unlike de Vany, does not acknowledge that distributors of cultural products not only supply markets with these products; they also always create difference within this market in all the other ways that I have analysed in previous chapters, and which in the literary context could include book reviews, author tours, advertising, and their various historical precedents. For this reason, I feel Moretti is

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insufficiently attentive to the ways in which the publishing industry itself structures demand.19 One cannot simply presume that because texts x, y and z were in circulation at a particular point in time that they were equally accessible to consumers who could choose between them on the basis of their textual features alone. One must also ask how much these books sold for, where they were sold, how readers came to hear about them, and so on. (This is also an issue in Moretti’s work on “Planet Hollywood” [2001].) The other problem is that Moretti’s model still has at its core the notion of a rational consumer making informed decisions based on their likes and dislikes. The rational consumer is of course the central figure of neoclassical economics, and of neoliberal politics, though critical economists have long since rejected this model. In other words, by privileging form as the driver of literary evolution, Moretti claims to be making an advance on the “economic model” (211), but in fact his argument is premised on one of the crudest economic models around.

These reservations aside, let us take some elements of Moretti’s model at face value for the moment and see how they can help us understand something like the nontheatrical movie market. What I want to suggest here is that STV may be to cinema what the long-forgotten detective novels which Moretti studies are to literature. As I demonstrated earlier, STV movies constitute film’s empirical bulk—they make up around 60% of the video market, not counting MFTV features. STV also has the lowest discursive status of any kind of film, being ineligible for Oscar nominations and for most other markers of institutional recognition.20 Cinema studies is often burdened

19 For evidence of this, see the following passage (Moretti 2000, 210-11, quoting de Vany 1996): “A demand that develops ‘dynamically’ and ‘sequentially’: what this means is that ‘the probability that a given customer selects a particular movie is proportional to the fraction of all the previous moviegoers who selected that movie.’ It’s the feedback loop of ‘increasing returns,’ where ‘past successes are leveraged into future successes’ until, in the end, ‘just 20% of the films earn 80% of box office revenues’ (1501, 1505). Twenty percent, eighty percent: what an interesting process. The starting point is thoroughly policentric (thousands of independent moviegoers, without hidden puppeteers of any sort)—but the result is extraordinarily centralized.” My point is that to conceptualise any cultural market as being a self-regulating space of demand and supply, free of puppeteers, is empirically false and politically dangerous. De Vany, as an economist, does not make this mistake—see his book Hollywood Economics (2003). 20 Apparently there is an STV version of the Oscars named the DVD Premiere Awards (Mankiewicz 2003).

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with a vaguely romantic idea of what cinema is and should be—a grand imagination of film as a medium endowed with effects, potential, magic. I feel that the scale of STV output renders this intimate relationship with the filmic text impossible. How can one possibly care about, let alone watch, all those thousands of obscure titles hitting video shelves every year? It is an impossible task. Most of these films are not made to be remembered or cherished; they are designed to deliver a modest amount of pleasure and then to be forgotten. STV, I feel, is the point at which film stops being film in this grand cinema-studies sense and becomes something else—a pure, cut-price audiovisual commodity. Cheap production, cheap thrills, cheap spectatorship. STV is the slaughterhouse of cinema.

This brings us back to canons, and to the broader notion of cultural value. To whom are STV films valuable? What kind of value are we talking about? Do canons articulate STV value? Granted, in an age of niche markets and the internet, the film canon is larger and more complex than the literary canon Moretti analyses. Despite the endurance of such things as BFI and AFI Top 100 lists, film canons today are far from uncontested and are constituted by an infinite number of sub-canons (genre-specific canons, star-based canons, subcultural canons, guilty pleasure canons, IMDB user canons, and so on). Nonetheless, the importance of canonisation as a discursive technology has not diminished; it is how critics, consumers, and filmmakers alike make sense of the endless cinematic landscape, which is only ever knowable in fragments. Individual STV films may be famous or infamous at different registers of value. Some of them are genuinely loved; others are enjoyed in a tongue-in-cheek way, for containing the worst special effects, the cheapest costumes, and so on. But despite the occasional exception, most come and go without making any kind of splash. In STV we have a distributive genre which is based around the pleasures of mediocrity, and this is why it is so difficult to theorise using the traditional literary studies/cinema studies toolkit.

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To call an STV film mediocre is a statement of the obvious. I do not mean this as a value judgement, in the manner of a publication like Film Comment which can snobbishly claim that “[t]hough straight-to-video titles are inadequate in many different ways, the fact of their mediocrity is reliable” (Smith 1995, 80). Rather, what I want to suggest is that perhaps mediocrity can be theorised as a mode of production. Consider the following quote from Cannon’s Menahem Golan, who was speaking at the high point of the 1980s video boom:

Theatrical is not the only mouth to feed. If Hollywood produced five times as many films as it does now, it would still not meet the demand. There is space for the mediocre! (cited in Wasser 2001, 123)

Given the kind of cheap, ultra-violent movies that Cannon was responsible for, Golan’s open embrace of the mediocre may come as no surprise. However, this comment also tells us something interesting about the STV economy, an economy which quite literally treats the film as product, as something to be bought and sold and watched and forgotten. In this space for the mediocre, the function and value of the text are different. STV films are not individualised and autonomous in the same way as theatrically released films; like the B-film or the early short, they are interchangeable and disposable. As such, STV films are a curious combination of mass and flexible production tendencies, being pumped out in large numbers by small studios to a reliable formula. In fact, their status as commodities echoes the kind of minor action thematics theorised by Morris: like the anonymous henchmen in an action movie, STV films come out of nowhere and are dispatched just as quickly. STV is thus so vast it is unknowable; one is awed by its scope, but one also despairs at the thought of having to care too much about these ephemeral texts. We return again to the same set of questions: Do these

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films matter? In what ways do they matter? Should we care about them? Should we attempt to preserve them?

The work of archivist and film theorist Paolo Cherchi Usai is particularly illuminating on this point. In his book-length polemic The Death of Cinema (2001), Usai poses some fascinating questions about film preservation, and along the way he also invites a retheorisation of cultural value for the digital age:

It is estimated that about one and a half billion viewing hours of moving images were produced in the year 01999 [sic], twice the number made just a decade before. If that rate of growth continues, three billion viewing hours of moving images will be made in 02006, and six billion in 02011. By the year 02025 there will be some one hundred billion hours of these images to be seen. In 01895, the ratio was just above forty minutes, and most of it is now well preserved. The meaning is clear. One and a half billion hours is already well beyond the capacity of any single human: it translates into more than 171,000 viewing years of moving pictures in a calendar year. Some may say that a good deal of that figure is produced by video cameras monitoring bank counters and parking lots, but I do not. With or without security monitors, the overall number of moving images we are preserving today is infinitesimal compared with mainstream commercial production. In India alone several hundred films are made a year, and only a tiny portion of them end in the archives. Television in developing countries is produced on videotapes that are erased every few months. If so many of these images come and go without our even hearing about them, then how in the world can we form an idea of what cultural heritage is? (Usai 2001, 111-12)21

21 India’s annual output is actually much higher than this. According to Screen Digest, 1,325 films were produced in India in 2008 (cited in Screen Australia 2009).

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Here, Usai expresses the archivist’s dilemma: it is not possible to keep everything, but who decides what should be remembered and what should be forgotten? Do we need to preserve films that no one, not even their creators, care about? After all, more than a few stars, directors, and producers would be only too happy to erase their STV movies from the public record. Addressing this issue of scale in all its complexity is beyond the scope of this thesis, but the vastness of the STV landscape can help to throw the stakes of this problem into relief. If nothing else, taking seriously the audiovisual excess that is STV can help us to think of cinema in a different way—as something other than a genealogy of great directors, or a signifying system, or a set of psychic effects; but rather, as an industrial field that exceeds all knowable limits.

The inherent disposability of STV also has implications for the way we conceptualise consumer choice, and I want to return now to the economic dimensions of STV for just a moment. Much cultural analysis takes it as a given that culture is consumed because it is meaningful in some way to its audience. Scholars including Moretti look for answers to the riddles of consumption in the text itself, assuming that the popularity of a text is inevitably a function of its content. However, it doesn’t always work like this in the movie economy, and especially in the STV market. An STV film may sell purely because its cover has been made to look like a recent Hollywood blockbuster, or because it has been placed next to the checkout of a discount store, or because the consumer had seen every other movie on the shelf. As I mentioned earlier, STV consumption is not (just) about consumer choice and the fulfilment of psychic needs. Like all entertainment consumption, it is also the product of marketing and distribution strategies whose effects are not always predictable. This point also applies to our conceptual model of STV audiences, who I feel should not be thought of as “communities” in way many researchers prefer to imagine their subjects. One of the reasons why STV is difficult to theorise through the existing methodologies of screen

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studies is that its audience is too dispersed and fragmentary to have the kind of visibility required to constitute a coherent audience formation. While certain STV genres such as sci-fi and horror have a high “fan factor”, much of the STV audience is an imaginary audience, an audience without any kind of discursive constituency. (Who really knows how many people watch fly-fishing videos?) This is not easy to reconcile with the subcultures model of cultural consumption, nor with the kind of fan studies practiced by scholars like Henry Jenkins (1992). Aside from a couple of isolated pockets of fan activity, the STV audience-scape cannot be feasibly conceptualised as discrete communities actively making meaning through appropriative/resistant reading practices. The semi-formal mode of STV distribution erodes the power of meaning and choice as explanatory concepts: the further we venture into informal distribution, the more vulnerable these frameworks become.

Just as STV confounds norms of cultural analysis, so too does it problematise other models of cultural consumption. I am thinking here of something like Chris Anderson’s (2006) influential argument about the “Long Tail”, which refers to the 80% of cultural production that is unpopular on an individual basis, but substantial if considered collectively. Anderson’s analysis of the Netflix mail-order video rental system suggests that if consumers are provided with appropriate search tools and access to a film library unfettered by warehousing constraints, they will end up renting more obscure titles than they would be willing or able to at your average Blockbuster. What is interesting about Anderson’s argument is that it too is framed as a celebration of unfettered consumer choice rather than as an analysis of the structuring effects of distributive technologies. The following quote is representative of the tone of his rhetoric:

The lesson is that what we thought was a naturally sharp drop-off in demand for movies after a certain point [along the demand curve] was actually just an artifact of the traditional costs of offering them. In other words, give people

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unlimited choice and make it easy for them to find what they want, and you discover that demand keeps on going into niches that were never even considered before—instructional videos, karaoke, Turkish TV, you name it. (2006, 130)

This takes us some way towards understanding the subcinematic circuit of STV, which, with very few exceptions, finds itself at the far end of Anderson’s long tail. But in Anderson’s approach, there remains the presumption of a rational consumer actively making meaning through consumption, as well as the presumption of underappreciated “quality”, which is to say unextracted value, on the part of Long Tail texts.22 This model of consumption may work for self-consciously marginal cultural production with high levels of (sub)cultural prestige—Iranian cinema, Takeshi Kitano movies, and so on—but the sprawling subcinematic underground of STV is not really this kind of long tail. Many of its texts may not be valued by anyone in particular, yet the industry as a whole continues to sustain itself. So, although I have argued throughout this thesis that popularity is partly a function of distribution, I do not follow Anderson in suggesting that there is an underlying “level playing field” which can be restored if we fix the distribution bottlenecks. My aim here has been to demonstrate that distribution is in fact constitutive of demand, and of reception. The level playing field is a fantasy.

It is time to exit the slaughterhouse in search of other subcinematic pastures, so let me conclude by reiterating some of the key points I have raised in this chapter. I began by pointing out the STV sector’s economic importance to the conventional film industry, providing data in support of my claims regarding its huge annual output of titles, its semi-formal structure, and its absence from conventional indexes of film culture. The international dimensions of STV financing were then discussed and a case made for the
22 There is a section of the book called “Is the Long Tail full of crap?” (115-17) in which Anderson addresses this point, concluding, reluctantly, that the Long Tail is indeed full of crap. However, this isolated moment contradicts the overall rhetoric of the book, which works around the aforementioned, decidedly romantic logic of surplus cultural value.

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existence of a minor form of transnationalism within STV films (Morris 2004). Throughout the chapter, I also argued that STV film cultures are limit cases for theories of cultural value. STV films are comprehensible neither as art nor as mass culture. They are simultaneously marginal and mainstream. They do not respond well to an analysis based on notions of textual meaning, consumer choice, or fan communities. By foregrounding the constitutive role of distribution in shaping reception practices and textual content alike, my subcinematic analysis of STV has produced new answers to some of these questions by pointing to the deterritorial nature of STV financing and distribution, the reformulated notion of value at play in STV consumption, the cockroach-capitalist mode of enterprise that characterises this sector, and its resistance to conventional modes of cultural and economic evaluation.

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Chapter five

“Nigeria has been the first country in the world to accept and develop digital video as an origination format for feature films. Nigeria was the first country in the world to make direct-to-video as the first line of release. The Americans are coming to that now. DVD has actually saved the studios in Hollywood. But Nigeria went there first.” — Video film producer Charles Igwe, Lagos (cited in Good Copy Bad Copy 2007)

If the straight-to-video distribution networks analysed in the previous chapter represent semi-formal interstices within the Hollywood system, other subcinematic circuits exist entirely outside the international film industry. One such circuit is the Nigerian video economy, sometimes referred to as Nollywood.

Against all the odds, Nigeria has over the last two decades become home to the world’s most energetic film industry, and by many estimates the country is now the world’s largest film producer. The Nigerian informal economy generates up to two thousand “video films” a year, catering to the growing appetite of a pan-African audience.1

1 A precise quantification of Nollywood’s output and revenue is impossible, given the informal nature of the industry. Nigeria’s National Film and Video Censors Board (2009) claims to have classified 1588 films in 2007, the most recent year for which figures

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Industry revenue is estimated at somewhere between US$50 million and US$200 million annually (Okome 2007d, 6; Haynes 2007c, 7), a considerable sum given the context. By way of comparison, recall that Australia—a nation with a GDP approximately seven times that of Nigeria—barely manages to get 20 films a year into commercial distribution (World Bank 2008; Screen Australia 2009). Nigeria has no such problem. The informal distribution system that is the backbone of the video economy has dissolved many of the circulatory blockages that plague film industries in other parts of the world.

Video film culture is closely integrated into the everyday lives of its audience and responds directly to their needs and tastes. It has little in common with the kind of African cinema favoured by film festival programmers in the West—the contemplative auteur films of directors such as Souleymane Cissé and Ousmane Sembène. Contemporary Nigerian cinema is rough, raucous, and rampantly commercial. It is founded upon a low-budget production formula characterised by rapid shooting, loose scripting, and the use of no-frills home-video technology. Its distribution is almost entirely nontheatrical: Nigerian video films circulate on VHS, VCD, and DVD, channelled through informal trading routes based around pre-existing pirate networks (Larkin 2004). As Charles Igwe notes in the quote that opens this chapter, the Nigerian video economy has been the only large-scale media industry to take full advantage of the distributive possibilities of video as a platform in its own right, rather than as an adjunct to theatrical release. In this sense, Nigeria is leading the world in distributive innovation within commercial film cultures, even though its video economy may
are available. Given that many more films circulate without official approval, the real figure is believed to be at least 2000. This puts Nigeria ahead of the US, which produced 520 features in 2008, and India, which produced 1325 features (2008 Screen Digest data cited in Screen Australia 2009). The question here is how to determine what counts as output, and definitional problems arise. As Nigerian video films are not theatrically released, they are not included in most international tallies of national film industry output, such as those of UNESCO or Screen Digest. However, given that video is the dominant distribution medium in Nigeria, video films are for all intents and purposes ‘real’ movies – they are what millions of Nigerians watch, think about, and talk about. Thus, if we adjust our criterion to reflect the number of films commercially circulated through the dominant release platform (video), then Nigeria shoots to number one.

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appear at first glance to have little in common with the industries studied so far in this thesis.

This chapter will recount the history of Nigerian video film and argue for its potential as a driver of social change and economic growth. Much of the existing literature on African video is anthropological in nature, involving detailed analyses of the representational politics of particular films or the cultural contexts into which they are inserted (see, for example, Larkin 1997, 2002; Wendl 2007). It is not my aim to contribute to this particular wing of African video scholarship, fascinating though it is. My focus here is on the circulatory histories and futures of Nigerian cinema. I am especially interested in what scholars of non-African cinemas can learn from this industry, and in Nollywood’s implications for the theoretical frameworks media scholars bring to their objects of inquiry. To this end, the second half of the chapter will explore the benefits of conceptualising African video as a transnational media practice (Adejunmobi 2007; McCall 2007), and by this I mean two things. The more straightforward aspect involves taking into account the cross-border circulation of these defiantly “local” texts, and with this aim in mind the present chapter includes discussions of two topics not currently covered in the existing literature on video films: the online distribution of Nigerian films, and the diasporic circulation of films in Australia among the African diaspora. The second, and more complex, requirement of a transnational approach is to position Nigerian video within a global landscape of circulatory options and possibilities. I argue that we should approach Nollywood’s industrial organisation as a response to a set of material conditions which can be found, at differing intensities, across a variety of global sites. In other words, I seek to employ a comparative perspective in my analysis of Nigerian video so as to avoid the romanticism and tokenism that has frequently framed discussion of third-world cinema. The final

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pages of the chapter attempt to do this by re-reading Nollywood through the lens of creative industries theory.

Before we begin, two terminological clarifications. Since it first appeared in a series of

New York Times articles in 2002, the term Nollywood has gained currency in the global
news media as a nickname for the Nigerian video film industry, but critics have rightly pointed out that the Californicentricity of this term offers a distorted optic on an industry which has its own logics, histories and dreams (Haynes 2005; Marston, Woodward and Jones 2007; McCall 2002). For this reason, I prefer terms such as Nigerian video, West African video, or video film, though I will use the Nollywood moniker from time to time for the sake of brevity. I also acknowledge that the use of the term video film, which is how these movies were initially known in Nigeria, is somewhat anachronistic given that they are now largely shot on digital video, watched on VCD and DVD, and referred to simply as movies by fans. However, I will stick with video and video film as descriptive categories in order to distinguish contemporary West African film production from the entirely different kind of African celluloid cinema seen at film festivals, and also to foreground in an affirmative rather than apologetic manner the formal specificities that have arisen from African video production, which is often more televisual than cinematic.


Before we turn to the Nigerian video boom, a discussion of the evolution of celluloid film distribution in Sub-Saharan Africa is required. The following section offers an

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overview of 35mm film distribution before and after independence, in both Francophone and Anglophone Africa. It will argue that the current video economy has its roots in a set of material and economic conditions which rendered celluloid cinema a redundant medium across most of Africa and cleared the way for low-cost video production to emerge as an alternative.2 Of course, to speak in any general way about the 50-odd nations that make up contemporary Africa is impossible; nonetheless, common patterns and tendencies exist within both colonial communications policies and the structures that emerged in their wake, and it is to these broad tendencies that I limit the discussion here.

Although film screenings were held on the African continent as early as the 1890s, these were for white audiences only. This alerts us to an important point which must be foregrounded in any discussion of African film culture: the history of cinema in Africa is indivisible from the history of colonialism. Film has functioned over the years as a vehicle for propaganda, a signifier of Western modernity, and a status symbol for whites in Africa, but rarely has it been a means of communication between black Africans. As Brian Larkin (2002, 2008) has argued, the cinema, like the beer parlour and the university, was a product of colonial urban planning which embodied a racialised ideology through its segregated seating and the imperial connotations of cinema names like The Rex and The Plaza. Cinema-going was, and still is, an elite practice. In Africa there is one cinema seat for every 100,000 people; in Australia, it is one seat for every 48 people.3

2 I draw here on the studies of and commentaries on different aspects of distribution in Africa by Boughedir (1987), Diawara (1987, 1992), Ukadike (1994), Eko (2001), Ditmars (1995), Guback (1985), Bakari and Cham (1996), Ruelle (2005), Larkin (2004), Haynes (1995, 2000), Gugler (2003), Teno (n.d.), Anyanwu (1996) and the dossier on distribution in volume four of Ecrans D’Afrique (1993, 53-78). It is to these sources that I direct the reader for further information on this topic. 3 The African data is from Kabore (1995). The Australian figure, calculated from figures supplied by George (2007), is 457,000 in 2007 for a population of 22,000,000. The 1995 figure is slightly lower, at 332,000, but still enormous compared to the figure for Africa.

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Films made in Africa during the colonial era were designed as educative technologies for colonial subjects. In British West Africa, the Bantu Educational Cinema Experiment and the Colonial Film unit, established in 1935 and 1939 respectively, were charged with the mission of disseminating propaganda about cash-crop farming, Western hygiene, and Christianity (Diawara 1992, 1-2). Exhibition was tightly regulated to conform to this ideological programme. Nigeria’s Theatre and Public Performance Regulation Ordinance restricted screenings to officially licensed venues, and scripts were monitored by the authorities (Ugor 2007). This agenda was legitimised by a body of imperial audience research which sought to justify colonial communications policies by demonstrating the inability of Africans to distinguish between reality and illusion (Burns 2000).

With the coming of independence to Nigeria in 1960, there were high hopes for a film culture which could embody the revolutionary spirit of the times. The new government had access to (some) film equipment, an exhibition infrastructure, and many eager young filmmakers ready to step behind a camera. Unfortunately, little would come of these dreams. By the mid 1990s, African films accounted for less than 0.1 per cent of titles screened in Africa (Kabore 1995). In Nigeria, features by directors such as Ola Balogun, Adeyenu Afolayan, and Eddie Ugombah have had some degree of success, but 35mm production has been largely defunct since the 1970s and 16mm features numbered only a handful per year (Haynes 1995, 97). As Emmanuel Sama (1993, 54) puts it, African films have until very recently been “foreigners in their own countries”.

While 35mm production wasn’t cheap, the key impediment to the growth of local film culture proved not to be getting the films made but getting them into cinemas. Part of the problem was that distribution networks were largely controlled by foreign interests. In most Anglophone African nations, the Motion Picture Export Association was

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dominant. Its practice of dumping Hollywood product at low cost into African markets helped to quash any possibility of a sustainable African film industry. As Ola Balogun put it a decade after independence,

film distribution in Nigeria remains in the hands of foreign companies (U.S. and Lebanese), which dictate their will in the matter of cinema. Since the distributors benefit more in buying up at a very low price old U.S., English, and Indian films, their policy has consisted then in discouraging all attempts to create a national film production. (Balogun 1972, cited in Diawara 1987, n.p.)4

This diagnosis is supported by a substantial body of research into the structural problems of African film industries (see especially Armes 1985; Bakari and Cham 1996; Boughedir 1987; Diawara 1987, 1992; Guback 1985a; Maïga 1993; Sama 1993), which provides further evidence of the anticompetitive MPEA practices that I analysed in chapter two.

It is also worth mentioning the situation in Francophone Africa, where cultural policy was a higher priority for colonial governments. The context was different here, but the problem was the same. Most cinemas were controlled by two French companies run out of Monaco, the Compagnie Africaine Cinématographique Industrielle et Commerciale (COMACICO) and the Société d’Exploitation Cinématographique Africaine (SECMA), which made a tidy profit by filling their cinema chains with European and American Bmovies. A 1993 study estimates that films screened in Libreville, Gabon, were 65% American and 25% French, with only the very occasional African title making it onto screens (Sama 1993, 62). Several nations including Burkina Faso and Guinea attempted to solve this distribution deadlock by nationalising exhibition and distribution, but

4 NB: When this article from Jump Cut (Diawara 1987) was reprinted in Diawara’s African Cinema: Politics and Culture monograph of 1992, the quote from Balogun cited here was attributed to Diawara. It appears, however, to be Balogun’s.

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retaliatory boycotts by COMACICO and SECMA starved exhibitors of prints and forced an eventual backdown (Diawara 1992; Sama 1993). There was some limited support for production, enough to ensure a steady trickle of 35mm features from the former French colonies, but the directors of these contemplative, auteurist films were reliant on financing from Paris.5 The distribution of these films was also routed via Europe, where many of the directors were originally trained, and the mode of address and festivalbased circulation of these films has meant that they were seen only by European cinephiles and a tiny circle of elite Africans, usually at the Festival Panafricain Du Cinema et de la Television de Ouagadougou (FESPACO). This is a textbook example of postcolonial dependence, and it has served the interests of France by cementing its role as the nerve centre of African film culture. It has also meant that films such as Ousmane Sembène’s La noire de… and Mandabi, now considered masterpieces by film critics, were never publicly screened in their home country, Senegal (Diawara 1992).

Not all the blame can be placed at the door of foreign distributors, however, and the situation of economic dependence I’ve described should not necessarily be equated to a systematic programme of cultural imperialism. This is a subtle but important distinction which I would like to stress. We need to bear in mind that there was considerable heterogeneity in the West African mediascape before the video boom. Indian films have always been popular in Nigeria, especially in the Islamic northern states, as have Hong Kong martial arts films and Latin American telenovelas. Control of the exhibition sector was divided between Lebanese, European, South African, and local elites (Larkin 2002, 2004; Haynes 2005). The absence of African films from African screens is, therefore, the end result of a complex set of economic and political processes rooted in but not wholly reducible to strategies of colonial domination, which together brought about a situation

5 For a detailed guide to the current state of French film funding in Africa, see Lamant (2006).

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where it became more profitable for distributors to screen foreign films acquired at low cost than to support a local film culture.6

Another structural challenge for African cinema is the small size of national markets. It is difficult for productions from smaller media markets to recoup their budgets from domestic box office alone, so most nations are at a disadvantage when it comes to revenues. On this count, African nations, even very populous ones like Nigeria, have much in common with smaller first-world nations like Australia. The logic of capital thus favours cross-border expansion: industries which produce films that play well in foreign markets are more competitive and can more easily sustain their own production. This was something that had long been recognised by film communities in Africa, but the tendency of many African governments to place steep taxes on movie tickets and tariffs on film imports tended to make a bad situation worse. One proposed solution to this market size problem was the creation of an African common market for cinema. In the 1970s, interested parties began planning a transnational organisation which would, it was hoped, ease the distributive burdens described above by building a regional market for African films. After much discussion, the Inter-African Consortium of Cinema Distribution (CIDC) was established in Ougadougou in 1979 with a mandate to boost African film production, distribution, and exhibition by facilitating reciprocal trading of African films across national borders. Backed by the French government, the CIDC acquired a string of French-owned cinemas in 1980 and established a production arm called Ciprofilms (Inter-African Consortium of Film Production) to fund new African features. But the CIDC found its task to be more difficult than expected, and in the mid-1980s it was dissolved amidst allegations of mismanagement, excessive spending, and internal squabbling between member states (Sama 1993; Diawara 1992).

6 One 1995 estimate suggests that “imported films cost the exhibitor around a fifth to a tenth of the daily rental Nigerian films must demand” (Haynes 1995, 99).

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Although there have been other attempts to create a pan-African audiovisual market— for example, in TV programming (Eko 2001)—state-driven policy initiatives have failed to do the job. However, as I will argue in the following section, the informal economy in Africa now offers a workable alternative, which is one of the reasons why it is necessary to take it seriously as a viable distribution system.

In foregrounding the distributive problems that faced African film industries in the post-independence period, I certainly do not wish to downplay the achievements of individual filmmakers, many of whom have been vocal critics of the distribution monopolies and the colonial legacies which structure film culture on the continent.7 Nonetheless, we do need to acknowledge that the majority of Africans have had little interaction with “high” cinema culture. The 35mm auteur films—or “embassy films”, so named because they are only screened in Africa at foreign consulates (Larkin 2007, 110)—are an elite art form in terms of their distributive politics, even though their textual politics may be radical. They are the products of a film culture founded on a class division. Bearing all this in mind, it is not difficult to see how the emergence of low-cost video distribution represented a development of genuine historical importance both for African media industries and African society. It is to video that we will now turn.


The origins of the video industry are difficult to pinpoint. It is generally agreed that video films became a serious cultural phenomenon in Nigeria in the early 1990s, but the
7 See, for example, the collected essays in Ruelle (2005).

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roots of the economy can be traced back further, to small businesses specialising in videotaping family events and ceremonies in the late 1970s, and especially to the Yoruba theatre performers who took to taping their performances for public consumption in the late 1980s.8 Two external factors also contributed to the take-up of video: the IMF-imposed devaluation of the Nigerian naira in the 1980s, which made imported film prints and raw film stock much more expensive, and a 1981 boycott by the MPAA, which led to a drought of Hollywood movies. Cinemas across the region were forced to close down, and many were converted into churches. All these events increased the demand for alternative sources of entertainment and helped to get the video economy rolling (Anyanwu 1996; Larkin 2004; Haynes 2000, 2005; Haynes and Okome 2000; Okome 2007d).

Popular histories of the industry offer other kinds of origin stories. One tale cited in many studies involves a Nigerian trader who came into possession of a large number of blank videotapes from Taiwan. Deciding that these might sell better if they had some content on them, he rounded up a group of actors and technicians and cobbled together a film based on a Yoruba theatre piece. This became one of the first video film hits. While there may be an element of urban myth in this narrative, it nonetheless alerts us to one of the industry’s defining features—its rampant commercialism. As anyone who has had anything to do with the video industry will tell you, Nollywood is highly competitive and full of entrepreneurial energy. Its roots in the electronics trade mean that for a long time film was seen as a kind of value-adding process to enhance sales of hardware and recording media, rather than a film industry in the conventional sense.

Video producers operate at a breakneck pace and on a shoestring budget. Films are scripted, shot, and released within a matter of weeks. Every Monday another batch or

8 The Yoruba are a West African ethnic group resident in Nigeria, Ghana, Benin and Togo.

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films hit the streets and older titles disappear (Okome 2007d, 6). Careers are made and unmade overnight, and the Nollywood star system is constantly accommodating new entrants. Newsworthy events and scandals find themselves represented in movies shortly after they hit the papers.9 Budgets average around US$20,000 to US$40,000, although they can occasionally climb to US$75,000 (Good Copy Bad Copy 2007; Haynes 2007c, 3)—in either case, less than what an average production in the West would spend on catering. And while the last decade has witnessed dramatic improvements in the quality of videos, many still suffer from clumsy camerawork, cursory scripting, hammy performances, and, above all, poor sound, which are all legacies of the industry’s undercapitalised and overextended production base.10

The routes through which videos travel to meet their audiences are labyrinthine and informal, but they are also organised and efficient. Part of the reason for this is the fact that these networks evolved from pre-existing circuits formerly occupied with the illegal distribution of Hollywood and Bollywood bootlegs. In his groundbreaking research on this topic, Larkin describes how this system evolved over time to accommodate legitimate trade in Nigerian video films and to return revenues to producers. The following passage explains how Hausa-language video distribution operates in northern Nigeria:

The everyday practice of piracy in [the regional capital] Kano was based around the mass distribution of the two most popular drama forms, Indian and Hollywood films, and the reproduction of televised Hausa dramas and Islamic religious cassettes. Nearly all of those who might be described as pirates were at

9 See McCall (2004a) on vigilante movies. 10 Many Western reporters have drawn attention to the spectacular dimensions of Nollywood’s informality—the amateur actors, the lurid sensationalism, the cursory scripting, the wherever-whenever filming practices, and so on But we should be careful not to make too much of these aspects, lest we trivialise what is in fact a complex and mature industry. Despite the miniscule budgets, Nollywood is a highly organised and increasingly professionalised ecology of technicians, thespians, tradespeople, distributors, publicists, writers, assistants, logisticians, make-up artists, and a plethora of other cultural workers. It is focussed on, and quite good at, making money for its participants.

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the same time involved in the duplication and sale of legitimate media, and the organization that emerged made Kano the regional distribution center for electronic media in northern Nigeria and the wider Hausaphone area (which covers parts of Chad, Cameroon, Benin, Ghana, and the Sudan). The system is this: the main dealers are based at centers in Kano, like Kofar Wambai market. They then sell to distributors in other northern cities, and these in turn supply smaller urban and rural dealers who provide goods for itinerant peddlers. The system is based on a complex balance of credit and trust; and although it depends, in part, on piracy, it has evolved into a highly organized, extensive distribution system for audio- and videocassettes. The success of this new form of distribution has not been lost on the government, which—though critical of piracy—has used cassette distribution as a way of spreading political messages. As Alhaji Musa Na Sale, president of the cassette sellers association, told me, if something is popular, “even the nomads will hear it.” (2004, 295)

Larkin argues that this represents the formalisation of an informal economy, or a “migration” of the decentred networks of pirate operations “into the mainstream” (297). This is an example of the productivity of piracy, the ability for informal economies to lay the groundwork for legitimate counterparts and to generate social and economic capacity.

Interestingly, attitudes towards piracy are now changing as the industry, led by the Nigerian Copyright Commission, attempts to shore up copyright protection for producers and recast the illegal copying upon which Nollywood’s success has been founded as a socially unacceptable practice (Nwauche 2003). Piracy is increasingly figured as a problem to be overcome, and representatives of the producers’ associations monitor street markets to identify violations. Illegal copying is so widespread that the full-colour disc jacket sleeves are the real currency of the industry, and it is these rather than the discs themselves that are the marker of a legitimate video—discs are easy to copy, printed jackets somewhat harder.

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Other features of Nigerian video are its linguistic and generic diversity. Englishlanguage movies are the most mobile and are now consumed widely across and beyond the continent. Video films are also produced in Nigeria’s three main ethnic languages— Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa—and lower levels of production also take place in some of Nigeria’s 250 other minority languages.11 Each industry has its own specialty genres, and the general trend has been towards “a diversification of style and content motivated by the emerging delineation of audiences for particular types of video film” (Adejunmobi 2002, 78). For example, the Hausa video industry centred in the Islamic northern city of Kano is conservative in its content and favours Bollywood-inspired romances with lengthy music and dance sequences (but no kissing). Action, drama and comedy are the strong suits of the Igbo and English-language films, which tend to have bigger budgets. Other popular genres include occult/supernatural horror, comedy, and melodrama. Religious videos are a significant part of the market. In all cases, new narrative forms are continually cross-pollinating older genres and formats including television drama, the Yoruba theatre tradition, and popular African literary forms including the Onitsha Market literature and the pulp romances (soyayya) common in Northern Nigeria (Larkin 1997).

The video film has predominantly been an urban cultural form, addressing issues faced by residents of West Africa’s sprawling cities (Oha 2001). Narratives of crime and corruption, of romance and social aspiration, of enrichment and deprivation, unfold within an urban landscape of fast cars, spacious houses, and the latest fashions. This is not the world inhabited by most video fans, but it does reflect commonly held desires and aspirations in its iconography. In this sense, the films are vessels of African modernity, embodying a kind of glamour articulated in a distinctively African mode.

11 English titles tend to be released by Igbo producers. Igbo marketers also control the distributive sector of the industry. See Adejunmobi (2002) for a fascinating analysis of the commercial functions and the sociocultural signification of English within the video market.

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For evidence of this we need look no further than one of the all-time hits of Nollywood, Kenneth Nnebue’s Glamour Girls (1994). This was the first English-language video and it set a precedent for the kind of narrative scenarios and generic fusions to come. It explored the world of “senior girls”, women who have foregone marriage in favour of a career. Populated by streetwalkers, young studs, millionaires, and other colourful character types, the film presented a rather sensationalist take on the senior girl phenomenon and encapsulated many of the favoured themes of the burgeoning video industry—the “corruption, moral turbulence and pervasive anxiety of the post-oilboom era; the garish glamour of Lagos; [and] titillating and dangerous sexuality” (Haynes 2007a, 30-31).

This aspect of the video industry is one of the key gripes of its detractors, many of whom come from the African literary establishment and who see in video culture the intrusion of Western vulgarity and individualism into the African cultural space (Abissath 1993; Ukadike 1994; Adamu 2002). And while it is certainly true that the films tend not to offer easily identifiable critiques of colonialism or social inequality, as per earlier movements in African literature and 35mm cinema, many critics have noted that they still serve other public-sphere functions. As Larkin (1997) suggests with regard to Hausa romance movies, video films can facilitate wider conversations about social issues such as the changing status of women in Nigerian culture, the ethics of arranged marriages, and the role of Islam in public life. Through their close engagement with both the realities and fantasies of everyday life in Nigeria, videos give voice to certain kinds of popular sentiment, even when they do not seek to make political points. This is Chukwuma Okoye’s argument:

The negative criticism which the Nigerian video film has engendered is characterized by an elitist textuality which elides the very material fields of its production. By simply analyzing these films in the manner of literary texts,

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inflating form and content over social and historical context, its critics invalidate the very vibrant sociological fields which inform the narratives: the writing of an aggressively mobile postcolonial identity with all its challenges, grandeur, and charm, as well as its greed, poverty, and deceit. (Okoye 2007b, 26)

This is an important point which hinges upon the status of Nollywood as a popular film culture. From a distributive perspective, this comes down to one thing: accessibility. The industry cannot afford to be selective in its reach. The video film is by definition a mass medium, a relatively cheap leisure activity for populations who cannot afford to go to the movies and surf the internet. This, however, is not to say that everyone can afford to buy these movies and build up their own personal library in the manner of DVD buffs in first-world nations. In reality, video is consumed across a number of different public and private sites, with one’s level of access dependent on such variables as income, class, and gender (Okome 2007b; Ajibade 2007).

The primary site of consumption for Nigerian video is the home. Even though many Nigerians do not have access to electricity and rely on petrol-powered generators, the level of VCR penetration in Nigeria households is relatively high. Home viewing is seen as a more desirable option than venturing out into the crime-riddled streets to go to the cinema. This is especially the case for women, who in northern Nigeria may be obliged to stay at home during daylight hours according to the Islamic kulle tradition. Films typically cost around 400 naira (US$3.5) to buy outright, a substantial amount of money in this part of the world, but they can also be rented for about an eighth of this price (Ajibade 2007; Künzler 2006). In almost all cases, movies are passed around among extensive networks of family and friends, and are commonly viewed in large groups. As a result, the maximum value possible is extracted from each outlay, making participation in video culture relatively accessible to most Nigerians.

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Thousands of informal video parlours also offer those without a VCR an opportunity to watch video films. A video parlour is simply a room with a TV screen, some benches and an electric generator, maybe decorated with some movie posters, where videos are shown to crowds of locals every couple of hours. Entry to these venues costs around 20 to 30 naira, less than US$0.25 (Ajibade 2007). These spaces are as much about group discussion as film viewing. Animated debates over the virtues and vices of particular characters or the quality of the film are common. However, this space is not without its exclusions: video parlours are male-dominated venues where women are not typically present (Okome 2007b). This is also the case in the few cinemas that remain in operation across northern Nigeria (Larkin 2002). As with Habermas’ coffee-houses of the eighteenth century and all public spheres since (Fraser 1990), the social space of Nigerian video is structured by gendered exclusions.

The video exhibition network also includes various public sites of film consumption frequented by what that Okome (2007c) refers to as “street corner audiences”. Videos are screened day and night at street stalls, hair dressers, shops, bars, and many other small businesses, and Nigerian fans are known for their willingness to “stand or sit nearly anywhere and anyhow to see the video film” (Ajibade 2007, 11). In some of these spaces, access requires the purchase of a drink, a haircut, or whatever else is on sale; in others it is free, although of course one has no control over the environment and may be moved along at any moment. This kind of spectatorship is a very important part of the West African mediascape, and in some senses it performs roles in public culture previously assigned to state broadcasting. As Larkin (2000) has persuasively argued, video is a “privatised” medium—the product of a commercial industry which has no interest in the universalist public sphere of African independence movements—but within the context of a dysfunctional state apparatus it functions as a de facto public sphere, as a more-or-less accessible space of communication and debate.

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The last few years have also seen a curious movement within video distribution back towards theatrical and TV exhibition. Having established itself entirely outside these circuits, video now seems to have reappropriated them on its own terms. This phenomenon can be traced back to February 1997, when Zeb Ejiro’s video film

Domitilla, a popular drama about prostitution, was released in several Lagos cinemas in
conjunction with African Independent Television (Adesanya 2000). Today video films are often broadcast on satellite TV networks such as Multichoice Nigeria and the South Africa-based MNet, which features two 24-hour Nigerian movie channels—Africa Magic and Africa Magic Plus (Esan 2008). Sometimes video films are shown in the few remaining cinemas as well. These movements back into theatrical and televisual space make sense given the entrepreneurialism of the video marketers and the expansionist logic that is characteristic of Nollywood, but the significance of an indigenous black audiovisual culture making its presence felt within the colonial institution of the cinema should not be understated.

As these accounts suggest, audiences have multiple points of entry into video film culture, and different sectors of society have different access privileges. In this regard, video is no different from any other medium. However, by any measure, the level of video penetration is high. The overwhelming consensus in the literature on this topic is that for the majority of Nigerians video culture is accessible most of the time, by one means or another. This is especially so among city-dwellers and the young, who embrace video culture with great passion and participate in it not only through film viewing but also through the booming ancillary media that brings Nollywood off the screen and into domestic space—movie magazines, fan publications, radio programmes, and so on. The point, however, is that neither the popularity of video nor its potential for social transformation would exist were it not for the agile distribution system upon which the industry is founded. Subcinematic distribution has been integral to the

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success of African video, and it is a stellar example of the power of culturally appropriate and economically accessible systems of circulation to spawn new film production cultures. The cheapness and versatility of video and VCD formats, a highly efficient and decentralised network of informal trade, and intense competition at the point of sale have helped to ensure that video culture is now a part of everyday life throughout West Africa.


Increasingly, Nigerian video film is a transnational business. Films circulate widely, not just in Africa but throughout the rest of the world. This section of the chapter will examine the transnational dimensions of the video film industry and present the findings of my research into the circulation of West African video in Australia, a nation with a small diasporic population which is nonetheless well serviced by informally distributed video films. The material presented below is taken from a series of interviews I conducted with viewers of Nigerian and Ghanaian videos in Australia, of which I have selected the two most striking accounts.12 The purpose of these interviews is to present micro-level case studies of the macro-level patterns and movements which constitute African video’s global presence.

12 Interviewees were recruited through direct contact with African community groups in Melbourne and Sydney, and via postings on the Africanoz website ( Interviews were conducted throughout the first half of 2008. Note that these interviews are not intended as full-scale media ethnography; as I outlined in chapter one, I make no quantitative claims on the basis of the anecdotal information offered here. As the Nigerian diaspora is very small, and video films are popular in Ghana and among the larger diasporic Ghanaian population in Australia, I have included Ghanaian video culture in the discussion as well.

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But first, some background on the cross-border circulation of Nigerian videos. I draw here on the work of Moradewun Adejunmobi (2007), who has proposed a helpful typology of the different levels of transnationality at work in African video. First, Adejunmobi reminds us of the geographic situation of African ethnic groups who found themselves divided by one or more national border after the colonial powers’ carve-up of the continent in 1885. The Yoruba people, for example, can be considered transnational as they reside in Nigeria, Benin, and Togo; the Hausa population is similarly spread across Nigeria, Niger, Sudan, Cameroon, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Chad. Second, she points to the movement of videos throughout the African continent and throughout diasporic communities in Europe and North America. In cities such as Amsterdam, New York, and London, stores catering to diasporic West Africans will inevitably boast a shelf full of video films and other video-related media such as magazines.13 Third, video films themselves frequently exhibit a textual kind of transnationalism, for an increasing number are now shot or at least set outside Nigeria and Ghana, whether in other neighbouring nations such as Benin (Àbẹní), in Europe (Osuofia in London , Manchester Bound, Dangerous Twins, Mama Mia Italiana, Fateful

Love), or in the United States (One Dollar, African Youth) (Haynes 2007c, 7;
Adejunmobi 2007; Ugochukwu 2007). To Adejunmobi’s list we might also add the numerous promotional initiatives through which the industry is seeking to position itself on the world stage, including the annual Nollywood Foundation convention in Los Angeles, and the Afro Hollywood Awards in the UK.

As these examples suggest, it is not just an academic conceit to read African video as a transnational phenomenon; it is a statement of fact. This is not always reflected in the scholarly literature on African video, however. Research investigating the circulation of

13 One example is the London publication Nigerian Videos, which was popular in the African diaspora in the UK (Haynes and Okome 2000). Much of this activity has now migrated online to websites such as

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Nigerian movies in the Caribbean (Cartelli 2007), Cameroon (Ajibade 2007), across Africa (McCall 2007) and in the UK (Esan 2008) has recently appeared, but to my knowledge there has been no work which investigates the circulation of these films in the Asia-Pacific. The following discussion of African video distribution in Australia may therefore be of interest to future researchers of diasporic Nollywood.

The West African community in Australia is very small and dispersed. According to the 2006 Census, over 190,000 people born in Sub-Saharan African live in Australia, but of this number only 2,496 were born in Nigeria and 2,771 in Ghana, with most African Australians hailing instead from Southern and Eastern Africa (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006). My interviews with members of the West African community, however, suggests that videos are widely available for those who know where to look. Eric Tweneboa, a 50 year-old Ghanaian-Australian from South-Western Sydney, migrated in 1995. He is a former president of the Ghana Association of New South Wales and is well informed about the audiovisual habits of his community. When asked what proportion of his community watch African video films, his response was “we all do”. As Tweneboa explained, films are distributed informally through personal networks within the community. Both Nigerian and Ghanaian videos are widely available, in a number of different languages. DVDs are sold in a few stores catering to the African diaspora in the suburbs of Newtown, Fairfield, and Parramatta, but these tend not to have as large a range as the informal stores which operate out of people’s houses and which are the primary means of distribution. All outlets are stocked by Australian-based authorised representatives of the marketers. While this is in most cases a legitimate distribution arrangement in which some revenues are returned to the producers, Tweneboa also noted that piracy is common and is generally accepted. Videos are viewed in social situations, generally at home with family or friends, and most often on weekends. Discs are swapped at weekend get-togethers, where

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recommendations and industry gossip are exchanged. In addition to these informal promotional circuits, news about videos is circulated in community publications such

The African Weekly, which is based in Bankstown. Tweneboa also noted that West
African video viewing is common among the Fijian diaspora, and among other African communities in Australia. He had not yet met any white Australians who enjoyed watching videos (phone interview, 20 February 2008).

The preceding account of diasporic distribution involves the exchange of hard-format tapes and discs, frequently in a context of reciprocity. The circuits involved in this kind of exchange are informal and efficient, though they are generally limited to members of a community. Other distribution channels, such as online streaming, offer other kinds of experiences. Streaming of African movies is just starting to take off and this competitive industry is sure to experience growth over the next decade. At the moment there is a mix of operators in the market—many are fly-by-night websites which do not inspire confidence when it comes time to hand over one’s credit card number, while others are advertiser-supported sites which stream movies for free, usually without the filmmakers’ permission., the most established of the streaming sites, is a legitimate digital rental operation. In operation since 2004, Izogn is based in Maryland, US, with offices in Chicago and Nigeria. It charges US$0.99 or US$1.99 per movie, which subscribers can access for a seven-day period. According to its Director of Operations, Tony Kavukattu, Izogn hosts around 2000 Nigerian features and facilitates around 38,000 movie purchases a month. The average user watches a whopping 38 titles a month, or 9.5 per week. Subscribers prefer English and Yoruba titles (sometimes subtitled in English) in roughly equal numbers. Drama edges out romance and comedy as the most popular genre. For commercial reasons Kavukattu is unwilling to divulge the number of

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subscribers to the site, though he advised that it receives around 93,000 visits a month. He estimates that around 98% of his subscribers are diasporic Africans, the majority of these being Nigerian. Kuvakattu also provided data which suggested that around 42% of Izogn’s subscriber base is located in the US and another 24% resides in the UK. Much smaller numbers live in Canada and Northern Europe, and there are also a handful of subscribers from nations including Malaysia, China, Cyprus, and Jamaica. Australia is home to only a very small number of subscribers (0.34%). Ghana is the only African nation boasting any Izogn subscribers, which reflects both the ubiquity of hard-format videos and the very low levels of ICT access in most parts of Africa (email interview, 12 February 2008).14

The viewing habits of Tina, 23, take full advantage of this new distributive technology.15 An emigrant from Zimbabwe, Tina has lived in Melbourne for the last four years and uses Izogn Movies to view one or two English-language or subtitled Igbo Nigerian video films every couple of weeks, paying with a credit card. Like Eric, she also watches the VCDs and DVDs that her friends bring back with them from Africa. She is not aware of any shops or individuals selling discs in Melbourne, and does not obtain copies of films this way; personal networks and online streaming are her primary modes of access. While the poor quality, sound, and costumes of Nigerian movies are sometimes disappointing, Tina says that she likes them for their humour and their realism. For Tina, this relates to a shared cultural repertoire of styles, characters, and other codes. “The movies remind us of home—the people, the lifestyle, the issues they face,” she says. “Every dramatic person will remind you of someone you know, even the way they eat, the foods, cultural behaviour.” When she visits Africa, she watches

14 Izogn Movies has also recently introduced a “low-bandwidth” streaming option. 15 Pseudonym used at the request of the interviewee.

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Nigerian movies on MNet. “Pretty much anyone from an African community will watch it because it’s on TV there,” she explains (phone interview, 23 June 2008).

As these examples illustrate, Nigerian movies are freely available within African diasporic communities in Australia even though there is very little formal infrastructure to facilitate this. Access to these films is stratified by the usual factors that affect media consumption: the ability to stream or download video films, for example, requires a certain level of income and media literacy. All interviewees commented on the social dimensions of video—films are usually watched with friends and family, often in large groups. The other thing to note here is the diverse make-up of video film audiences. Just as Nigerian video has become a pan-African cultural phenomenon, so too is its diasporic audience a pan-African audience. Australian viewers I interviewed included Kenyans, Zimbabweans, and Ghanaians; note also Eric’s mention of his Fijian friends who enjoy watching video films. This all goes to show that Nollywood is not the anthropological oddity it is sometimes portrayed as—an impossibly local quirk of appropriated technology. On the contrary, these long-distance connections reflect Nollywood’s status as an expanding, internationally-oriented dream factory acutely aware of its position within a transnational entertainment economy.


The reading of diasporic Nollywood I have offered here can help us to remember that transnationality is a useful optic through which a variety of contemporary cultural phenomena can be appreciated as well as a constitutive feature of many media industries in different parts of the globe today, including those, such as Nollywood,

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which appear at first glance to be thoroughly and defiantly “local”. I now want to push this point further by arguing that the best way to approach the West African video industry is to think comparatively about its size and scale, its challenges and accomplishments, and its textual strategies and its sites of consumption. It can be productive to study Nollywood alongside other film industries, including Western industries, and to look for both points of contact and departure.

I want to begin by gesturing towards some potential areas of overlap between the findings presented in the last section and debates around cultural industries in the West. As I have argued, the Nigerian video industry has become a de facto public sphere in which issues are debated and fantasies of social aspiration are given voice, but we should remember that the video boom has also had very tangible and material effects on the lives of thousands of film producers, creative personnel, distributors, and retailers, and thousands more who have benefited directly and indirectly from their involvement in this media economy. Consider the following quote from Chukwuma Okoye, which clearly explicates the ripple effects of video production:

the video film provides a counter narrative to not only the silencing of the ordinary people but a remapping of the postcolonial social, cultural, and economic landscape by providing both entertainment and employment, by lifting countless [Nigerians] out of debilitating conditions, and offering viable possibilities for many more in other engagements. Without dependence on imperial and local state agencies these films demonstrate their viability through the many unemployed, poor, and hungry people, undoubtedly millions of them—marketers and importers of video cassettes and CDs, the film producers and their production crew, screen writers and actors, score composers, operators of the thousands of video rental outfits all over the country, distributors, visual artists who design the posters, printers, media practitioners, publicity outfits, journalists, even academics, and countless others—whose

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standards of living have witnessed considerable improvement. A great many of these professionals have attained the enviable status of urban millionaires. (Okoye 2007b, 26)

Such benefits are not limited to video workers. Indeed, the many film crews that can now be found throughout West Africa are often obliged to contribute in a reciprocal manner to the communities in which they operate—for example, by repairing a section of road in return for permission from a tribal chief to shoot in a particular village or neighbourhood (McCall 2004b, 101). These examples reflect video’s function as a driver of economic growth and a de facto service provider, as well as a medium of communication. Of course, multiplier effects are commonly presumed to be side-effects of most forms of commercial film production, hence the enormous subsidies that governments across the world extend to foreign film crews (Miller et al 2005). However, in the context of contemporary West Africa, where opportunities for economic advancement are limited, they need to be taken seriously.

This brings me to my next point. To understand the video boom in West Africa, we need to acknowledge the role played by informal markets. I argued in the Distribution and Dependency section that one of the problems faced by 35mm production in Africa was market size, an obstacle which the establishment of the CIDC had failed to overcome. However, the informal trading networks established by the bootleggers and studied so carefully by Larkin (2004, 2008) have in fact come to constitute something approaching a common market on their own terms. Videos are now traded right across Africa, from Cape Town to Free Town. Their subterranean routes and the dispersed nature of these networks means that for the most part they circulate freely and at

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relatively low cost, which was precisely the objective of the CIDC.16 The moral of this story is that informal and semi-formal regional markets based around cheap technology and distributive accessibility can sometimes work where state intervention has failed. For this reason, I argue that film industry research needs to have an inclusive definition of what constitutes film business and film culture, and it should also look beyond US and EU national cinema models for examples of sustainable industry structures. If we only take into account the formal indexes of film business (box office records, export figures, theatrical sales deals, and so on), we may miss other opportunities for growth and other, more subtle, traces of film’s social footprint. A mode of analysis sensitive to these subcinematic indicators would represent a useful kind of transnational media research, one which is able to think comparatively about disparate industries and to appreciate its objects of research in the broadest possible frames. Such an analysis may even lead to more flexible and pragmatic kinds of film policy.

The third point I would like to emphasise is the importance of the material qualities of media formats (Larkin 2004). Consumer economies, whether in London or Lagos, are complex enough to allow for the emergence of new forms of popular media in even the direst economic circumstances, but this only works when such media fits the contours of everyday lifestyles and budgets. Video worked in West Africa because it was cheap and mobile, because it responded to its audiences’ needs, interests, dreams, and habits. Technologies mean little if they cannot be productively domesticated (Morley 2003); they must be affordable and they must able to make a useful place for themselves within patterns of quotidian life. Video, then VCD, satisfied these criteria for West African audiences in ways that the iPod, the Laserdisc, and the Tivo never could have. It is important to stress this point lest we fall prey to the kind of technological

16 I leave to one side the issue of whether or not taxation of the video economy is in the public interest, though it should be noted that much general service provision in West Africa is the responsibility of the informal sector and takes place with no help from the state. However, taxes are commonly applied on blank video media (Larkin 2004, 297), so some revenue is returned to government.

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determinism that constantly rears its head within commentary on media industries, especially in relation to new media. For instance, the term “innovation” is used constantly and uncritically in media policy, public discourse, corporate self-promotion, and even within some spheres of media studies. Deeply rooted in a modernist teleological tradition as well as neoliberal ideology, the concept is commonly invoked in relation to developments within digital media, where it functions as a kind of talisman signifying newness, desirability, and the possibility of untold riches. Thinking of Nollywood as an example of low-tech, informal innovation gives us a new understanding of what innovative media production and distribution might look like. If we think of innovation in this way—as problem-solving rather than futurology—then Lagos would surely be the innovation capital of the world.

Having just dismissed futurology, let me indulge in some of my own in order to make a final point about informal media markets. As we saw in chapter three, Mike Davis’ apocalyptic vision of the urban future is characterised by the informalisation of the cities of the second and third world: public housing eclipsed by slum housing, state service provision by the black market, salaried jobs by the subterranean economy. If even some of this scenario holds true, it means that from a global perspective a large amount of the growth in markets and audiences over the next century will occur within the same kinds of grey economies which were responsible for the success of the West African video networks. This is, I believe, the true measure of Nollywood’s relevance to film scholarship. Rather than the mythic prehistory to which it is discursively chained by colonial discourse, Africa is now offering us a glimpse of the future. As cities swell and conventional cinematic infrastructure (theatres, video stores) declines in importance, the role of informal transnational markets will only increase. So too will the role of pirate markets, which are the subject of the next chapter. In the first world, some of this capacity will inevitably move online, but hard-format circulation along the

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lines of the Nigerian video film model will remain the most important distributive channel globally.

This chapter has argued for the significance of Nollywood on multiple levels—as a transnational media industry, an economic template, and a paradigm for new kinds of media theory. I have offered a material history of the video economy and analysed some of the emergent forms of social change that it has facilitated. Nigerian video is unique in that it has evolved from an economy based on illegal duplication of foreign films to a legitimate, though thoroughly informal, economy trading in locally produced product built on the back of these pre-existing networks. In the next chapter, I turn my attention to distributive systems which have yet to make this leap out of illegality.

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Chapter six

The public profile of intellectual property (IP) issues has never been higher than in the last decade. Newspapers regularly feature coverage of piracy prosecutions, columnists debate the pros and cons of copyright extensions, studio-funded anti-bootleg promos appear on DVDs and in cinemas, and Hollywood trade papers overflow with updates on studio IP policy. A familiar cast of characters appears again and again—the teenage downloader, the corporate big-wig, the struggling independent artist, the “foreign” pirate-cum-terrorist (Miller 2006).

In these debates, pirate distribution either looms large as scourge and scandal or is talked up as the way of the future, but rarely is it analysed systematically or contextualised historically. This is the aim of the present chapter, which addresses the role of intellectual property law in structuring global film culture. In this chapter, I want to shift the focus away from the ethics of piracy towards its social and economic impacts. Through a series of six critical readings of piracy, I argue that we should understand it as, among other things, an alternative distribution system for media content, one of considerable complexity. Indeed, instead of thinking of piracy as a

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singular practice, it is necessary to think in terms of piracies. There is nothing to be gained from romanticising piracy as a form of resistance, but nor should we deny that some pirate economies fill the gaps between formal distribution systems, providing film culture where it would not otherwise exist, while others perform important cultural archiving functions. These points are illustrated towards the end of the chapter with a profile of a pirate DVD vendor at the Tepito market in Mexico City.


Piracy networks almost always exist within the informal sector, but piracy is distinct from other areas of the informal economy like the drug trade because pirate goods are not illegal in their own right. Rather, the illegality of pirate products is a function of their reproduction and sale.

The MPAA defines piracy as “the unauthorized taking, copying or use of copyrighted materials without permission” (, and is keen to remind us of its economic and social cost by invoking dramatic statistics such as these:

 the major US studios lose $6.1 billion globally each year as a result of piracy,  losses to audio-visual industries worldwide are estimated at $18.2 billion annually,  more than 34 million illegal discs and 3,362 burners were seized in anti-piracy operations in 2005,

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 80% of global piracy originates from outside the US, with especially high levels of pirate audio-visual consumption occurring in China (90%), Russia (79%) and Thailand (79%),  piracy operations have links to terrorist outfits, prostitution rings, drug smugglers and other organised crime syndicates (Motion Picture Association of America 2005; LEK Consulting 2005).1

Other industry bodies such as the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA) define piracy more broadly, as “any form of revenue leakage from any point in the value chain” (Osborne 2003), which highlights how piracy can function as a scapegoat for the industry’s own structural problems. However, little evidence exists to suggest that piracy is affecting the studios’ bottom line in any meaningful way. Box office records continue to be broken every year, with the domestic theatrical market generating almost US$10 billion for American distributors in 2008 despite a severe economic downturn (DiOrio 2009). Anti-piracy campaigns, however, are useful to the studios because they perform other strategic functions which will be explained below, and it is in these that their real value lies.

Piracy is as old as cinema itself. Early film producers were so anxious to assert their copyright that they would include their trademarks in the set design of their films so that dishonest traders would have a harder time passing the film off as their own. Meliès’ classic 1902 film A Trip to the Moon was widely pirated, especially in the US where the director was unable to secure any profits from its exhibition. Later, in the studio era, distributors were constantly plagued by “bicycling” and “jackrabbiting”, where film prints were screened in unapproved venues, extra screenings were put on

1 Australian industry bodies, and many government bodies, provide similar estimates which go unchallenged in press coverage of the piracy issue. See for example Australian Institute of Criminology (2008), Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (2008).

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without the distributors’ permission, or film prints were illegally copied while on loan to exhibitors. In the early 1970s, some distributors went so far as to take aerial photographs of drive-ins with infra-red cameras to check exhibitors were accurately reporting the car count. The market for 16mm bootleg prints and private projection equipment which emerged in the post-War period would also prove to be a headache for the studios, with US army officers frequently emerging as the culprits in bootlegging rigs.2 And with the invention of the VCR, home-based illegal dubbing became the biggest nightmare yet for the movie industry, which feared that its entire existence was under threat.

In chapter three, I suggested that subcinema circuits are characterised by instantaneity, deterritoriality, invisibility, textual instability, distracted spectatorship, and a cockroach-capitalist mode of production. Most forms of piracy—we must recall that it comes in many shapes and sizes—easily meet these six criteria. Piracy is usually a commercial activity carried out for profit, and in most cases without an overt political agenda. It is also an informal and non-legal distribution system which operates in the interstices between “official” media. Pirate texts are often “degraded” versions (Larkin 2004) which do not meet the standards of cinephiles or film scholars. In many cases, the lines between pirate media and legal media are tenuous, and films can slip into pirate circuits during or after their official lifespan. Piracy operations also cross borders with relative ease. Thinking about piracy means thinking beyond the nation, and for this reason it is an excellent place to begin a transnational media studies.

I shall have more to say later about this later, but to fully appreciate the implications of piracy we must first examine the legal framework against which it is defined.

2 The preceding examples are all taken from Segrave (2003), a compendium of archival piracy coverage from Variety and other trade papers.

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Copyright law is promoted by media industries as a common-sense way of protecting the rights of cultural producers, rewarding them for their efforts, and fostering future innovation. The extent to which copyright in its present form does these things is open to debate; however, what I would like to suggest here is that as well as being a legal framework, copyright is also a historically and culturally specific ideology, one founded on a modernist notion of progress and deeply embedded in capitalist thought and practice. The philosophical foundation of copyright―the concept of private property as an organising principle of society and the economy―can be traced back to changes in social structure in early modern Europe and is therefore historically contingent rather than morally absolute. For this reason, it is important not to take the normative claims of copyright as gospel.

The history of copyright is long and convoluted, and has been the subject of numerous works from across the disciplines (e.g. Bettig 1996; Frow 2000; Vaidhyanathan 2003; Frith 2004; Lessig 2004; Barron 2006; Pang 2006; Hilderbrand 2009). Interestingly, one of the earliest forms of copyright was a de facto form of state censorship—in sixteenth century England, a group of publishers known as the Stationers Guild were granted the right to publish commercially on the condition that they steer clear of anything critical of the Crown. Other precedents can be found in ancient Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands. However, most scholars trace the origins of modern copyright to early eighteenth-century England, and specifically to the passing of the Act of Queen Anne in 1710. The Act of Anne provided authors and publishers with the first enforceable period of monopoly control over their intellectual labour—a period of 14 years, extendable once only, after which a work would enter into the public domain. This was considered to be a fair trade-off between the competing demands of individual authors

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and society at large, which was presumed to benefit from a freely accessible archive of cultural production.

The globalisation of copyright law has been underway since the late nineteenth century. In 1886, the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works was signed by a number of European nations, and would go on to become the key template for global copyright regimes of the twentieth century.3 An AngloAmerican agreement was also signed in 1891, harmonising some of the discrepant traditions in both nations. This process was consolidated and extended with the 1948 Brussels Convention (which granted copyright protection to cinema) and the 1994 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which formed part of the final Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The GATT’s successor, the World Trade Organization, has been a prime disseminator of the “new world order in knowledge” (Frow 2000) ever since, supporting policies which favour established players in the IP industries. Those few recalcitrant states that have attempted to water down their copyright protections—a group which has included Hong Kong, China, and Brazil—have been bought off with trade incentives or disciplined with restrictions and embargoes (Bettig 1996; Wang and Zhu 2003).

Three key points can be extracted from the potted history of copyright I have just recounted. First, copyright regimes, particularly in their current “hard” incarnation, function to convert knowledge into capital. Copyright is thus inextricably linked to the development of free market capitalism and to what is sometimes dubbed information

3 Interestingly, the USA was not a party to the Berne Convention until 1989. Berne’s moral rights (droit d’auteur) provisions were not recognised by the United States—though some legal protections for creators can be found in other areas of US law—and were phased out in the final version of the GATT. This fact is as a reminder that America’s championing of unified global copyright regimes has been selective.

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capitalism. Furthermore, we should be aware that copyright’s reach extends beyond the realms of the economic and the legal and into the symbolic: it designates forms of cultural production as legitimate or illegitimate based on a set of values which privilege originality and innovation. In contrast, the public domain is always defined negatively as that which is “left over after all other rights have been defined and distributed” (Frow 2000, 182).

Second, copyright terms have increased steadily over time, meaning that cultural production is kept out of the public domain for longer and longer periods. Copyright terms now extend up to 70 years after the death of the creator in many territories. Term extensions have been a key feature of recent US trade pacts, such as the 2004 USAustralia Free Trade Agreement which required that Australia fall into line with the restrictive IP framework outlined in the 1998 “Sonny Bono” Copyright Term Extension

Act. This Act was the end result of intensive lobbying on the part of American software
and media corporations, led by Disney. (The law is commonly referred to as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”.) Similar agreements have recently been signed with many other nations. The US-Korea FTA of 2007 has already had a negative impact on the Korean film industry, as it mandated the partial dismantling of a key driver of the industry’s success: the domestic screen quota. And wherever IP industries have political clout, constant pressure for further extensions exists. For example, an alliance of British record companies, with the help of The Who’s Roger Daltrey, mounted a high-profile campaign in 2007 to lobby for legal changes in the EU with the aim of instituting a new music copyright term of 90 years (Allen 2007). This proposal was eventually rejected by the British government, but it is only a matter of time before it is put back on the agenda.

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Third, it is important to note that “art” and “business” are not always diametrically opposed Others in IP debates. The history of copyright is full of examples of cultural producers who, sometimes understandably, have been more interested in their incomes than in the future of the public domain. Wordsworth, Twain and Dickens were all champions of copyright, as are the band Metallica and the director George Lucas today (Vaidhyanathan 2003).4 Even Spike Lee, a filmmaker admired for his radical politics, has been a vociferous defender of his own IP rights.5 We should also note that copyright law has on many occasions been used as a legal tool to protect the rights of individual artists against corporate interests. For example, the “moral rights” (droit d’auteur) provision of European copyright law was the basis for John Huston’s court victory over MGM in relation to the colourisation of the 1950 film The Asphalt Jungle (Miller et al 2005).

Nonetheless, the implications of current copyright regimes for many types of cultural production are alarming. One frequently cited example of draconian copyright enforcement concerns an independent filmmaker whose documentary on opera stagehands unintentionally included four seconds of The Simpsons. (During one take, the program had been playing on a TV set in the background.) Even though he had the blessing of Matt Groening, the filmmaker was threatened with a lawsuit by the copyright holder, Fox, which demanded a whopping $10,000 clearance fee. The filmmaker’s legal advice suggested that even though the sequence would probably be covered by Fair Use provisions in US copyright law, which allow the use of copyrighted material in certain circumstances, the potential court battle would most likely be

4 Lucas, on record as a strong defender of IP regimes, is nonetheless more lenient than his contemporaries when it comes to Star Wars fan activity, and his championing of digital technology has had some positive implications for alternative models of film production and distribution. 5 “When Mr. Lee's film Malcolm X came out in 1992, he took some of his friends, ‘muscle,’ he calls them, to 125th Street with baseball bats to clean the bootleg copies off the street” (Lee 1997, D1).

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decided by the size of each side’s legal team—and given the resources of Fox’s parent News Corporation, he had little chance of success (Lessig 2004).

Violations of an ethical/legal system can only be considered inappropriate if we believe in the principles and the efficacy of that system to begin with. If we accept that copyright is a flawed system built around a specific political and economic worldview, does this not occasion a reappraisal of pirate reproduction? Given the high visibility of current debates around file-sharing and digital IP law, it may be time to complicate the common-sense assumptions which inform our understanding of copyright, and, in doing this, to open up a series of vantage points on its opposite number which do not necessarily involve reflex condemnation. With this aim in mind, the next section offers a critical reading of six different arguments about piracy.


Let’s begin with the most common understanding of piracy, one which is dominant in public discourse around IP. As I have outlined so far, IP regimes see creativity as a form of capital. Copyright is the regulatory mechanism which oversees this property system, ensuring that markets remain healthy and that levels of protection for IP rights-holders are on a par with those extended to other property owners such as land owners or car owners. From this perspective, it is suggested, copyright is something that should be not only defended but also legislatively boosted and pedagogically entrenched. Piracy, on the other hand, is imagined as a parasitic act of social and economic deviance―that is, as theft.

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The views of Pat Choate (2005) and Paul Paradise (1999) are representative of this kind of argument, which is in line with mainstream political and legal thought throughout the West. In the world of film, this approach to piracy is best exemplified by the actions of the Motion Picture Association of America. No one has been more vocal in their denunciations of piracy, nor more florid in their rhetoric, than the MPAA’s expresident Jack Valenti. A former aide to Lyndon Johnson, this powerful lobbyist ran the MPAA from 1966 until 2004. He contributed significantly to several landmark legal offensives, including the failed 1984 Sony Corp vs. Universal City Studios case (“the Betamax case”), which sought to stamp out the booming home video industry, and the much-maligned Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998. Now deceased, Valenti was a legendary orator. During Congressional hearings for the Betamax case, he famously quipped that “the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone”. He regularly referred to piracy as “a pandemic” which robs IP industries of what is rightfully theirs, and was also fond of making unsubstantiated connections between piracy operations and terrorist groups including Hezbollah, Hamas, the IRA, Al Qaeda and Lashka-e-Toiba (Miller et al 2005; Govil 2004).

The MPAA’s war on piracy seeks to embed an ethics of copyright in the global mindset. In the past, MPAA ad campaigns have attempted to counter the belief that piracy is a victimless crime by featuring Hollywood technicians and tradespeople lamenting the threat that piracy poses to their livelihoods (“Tipping Hollywood” 2003). MPAA competitions such as the “Xcellent Xtreme Challenge” offer DVDs and Hollywood studio trips to children who submit anti-piracy essays. The organisation’s website even promotes a cheerful “Copyright Kids” game ( where children can familiarise themselves with the virtues of IP by registering their own poems, paintings and drawings for protection (Gates 2006).

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Much of the MPAA’s rhetoric unravels upon closer inspection. MPAA statistics on piracy losses are often based on calculations which presume that for each movie accessed illegally a legitimate version of the same film goes unsold. This logic is fundamentally flawed, for it ignores the influence of pricing levels and distributional contingencies in media consumption, both of which were discussed in the previous chapter on Nigerian video distribution. Furthermore, MPAA reports of industry “losses” are usually based on gross rather than net figures, and are necessarily suspect given that piracy’s subterranean and disreputable nature means attempts to quantify it are speculative at best (Wang and Zhu 2003). And even if such figures were reliable, the purported piracy boom of recent years has as much to do with increasing amounts of everyday activity being criminalised as with verifiable increases in illicit activities. As Majid Yar (2005) argues, piracy statistics are self-fulfilling prophecies:

[H]igh figures put pressure on legislators to criminalize, and on enforcement agencies to police more rigorously; the tightening of copyright laws produces more ‘copyright theft’ as previously legal or tolerated uses are prohibited, and the more intensive policing of ‘piracy’ results in more seizures; these in turn produce new estimates suggesting that the ‘epidemic’ continues to grow unabated; which then legitimates industry calls for even more vigorous action. (690)

Like the music industry’s campaigns against illegal downloading, the film industry’s war on piracy is in many senses a public relations exercise aimed at reinforcing a deferential relationship to copyright at the level of everyday consumption and showing the vulnerable side of an oligopolistic industry. Piracy is still a form of film consumption, and this consumption can be made profitable in other ways. As Miller (2006) has argued, piracy breeds a “Hollywood habit”, familiarising global audiences with American film product and softening up markets for future exploitation. It also adds

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value to pre-negotiated product placement deals, increasing revenue streams via the back door. Finally, it is also worth recalling that digital piracy is actually Hollywood’s own digital Frankenstein: not only is it a side-effect of technology developed by the major studios, but it is also made possible in many cases by DVD preview discs secretly copied by US technicians during post-production—and even, in one memorable case, by an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences member.6 Similar links between formal film industries and the pirate underworld also exist in other countries. In Hong Kong it is widely known that producers sell finished copies of their own films to piracy outfits in order to recoup tax-free profits (BBC World Service 2006).

Having discussed some of the distortions and contradictions that underlie mainstream anti-piracy discourse, I will now offer another reading of piracy, one which sees copying less as a scourge than as a potential business model.


While several of the other alternative approaches to piracy that I will outline here involve a critique of capitalism, one does not. This perspective—what we might call an extreme laissez-faire model—reads piracy as the purest form of free enterprise. Unimpeded by restrictive legislation and monopolistic market structures, piracy from this vantage point can be appreciated as a flourishing of commercial activity catering directly to market needs.

6 Carmine Caridi, who once played a cop on NYPD Blue, was investigated by the FBI in 2004 for copyright infringement. An Academy member (and thus an Academy Awards judge), he had reportedly been selling his Oscar screener DVDs to a disc piracy operation (Birchall 2000).

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As Bettig (1996, 103-06) notes, more than a few economists have argued over the years that greater economic efficiency can be achieved in a liberalised regulatory environment where the reduced returns to copyright holders would be offset by the productivity gains arising from lower prices and wider availability of cultural goods. For example, a recent editorial in The Economist (July 2, 2005) suggested that copyright terms should be stripped back to 14 or 28 years. In other words, an argument can be made on economic grounds alone that strong copyright is undesirable. If we push this argument to its logical limit, it becomes possible to read piracy as the quintessential form of free enterprise. This view suggests that the two competing objectives which copyright seeks to balance—collective progress and individual profit—are in fact collapsible into a brave new world of entrepreneurial innovation.

In a recent paper, the historian Adrian Johns (2008) argues that this dimension of the piracy debate—piracy as a business force—has long been a driver of anti-IP critiques, right up to those of today’s open-source movement. Johns notes that many of the economists and public intellectuals associated with a critique of copyright in the UK— Ronald Coase, Friedrich von Hayek, Oliver Smedley—were motivated not by antiestablishment sentiment or a commitment to redistributive justice but by a combination of free-enterprise orthodoxy, a philosophical commitment to individualism, distrust of state regulation, and loathing of the BBC “monopoly”. This argument was articulated most powerfully by the Institute for Economic Affairs, a proto-think tank that in 1965 published a tract on radio regulation in the UK which included a section entitled “Piracy as a Business Force”. According to Johns, these figures “made the publicmonopoly broadcasting system into a lynchpin of their arguments against Keynesian orthodoxy” (2008, 49). These anti-copyright debates were taking place at the same time as the pirate radio ships moored off the coast of England were beginning their infamous illegal broadcasts, but Johns argues that the two events were ideologically connected.

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He even notes that one of these ships was called the Laissez-Faire. In tracing this alternative history to pirate practice—a history that connects pirate radio culture with what would become Thatcherite neoliberalism—Johns provides compelling evidence of the close link that has existed between piracy and the laissez-faire imaginary.

Another set of connections between laissez-faire economics and pirate practice can be found in present-day China. The PRC’s thriving pirate economy is often represented as the Mr Hyde to global capitalism’s Dr Jekyll, but this only reveals part of the story. In many ways, piracy is in fact a side-effect of the boom in “legitimate” enterprise that has followed China’s accession to the WTO, as piracy is dependent on factors such as increased consumer activity, availability of digital technology, and new levels of commercial autonomy for Chinese businesses. In fact, Warner Bros’ subsidiary in the PRC even chose as its first home video licensee a well-known piracy outfit (the Xianke company), which makes a mockery of the MPAA’s moralistic IP rhetoric (Wang 2003; Clark 2000). The point to note here is that piracy is still a form of exchange—it is economic activity which provides employment and generates a surplus. From this perspective, it can be argued that the only difference between legal and pirate distribution is the fact that revenues are not returned to the copyright holder—but as we saw in chapter two, this is more often than not the case in mainstream distribution as well.

The recent history of DVD technology offers another example of this principle at work. Consumers shopping for new DVD players are often faced with an interesting choice. One can buy an expensive brand-name unit loaded with all the irritating anti-copying mechanisms that make life difficult (region coding, Macrovision, copy protection, and so on). Or for half the price one can choose a generic brand which will allow you to play what you want, where you want, when you want, for the manufacturers of these

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units are not part of vertically integrated audio-visual empires and have little to gain from the extra expense involved in building copy-prevention technology into their players.7 Here we have two competing models of capitalism: on the one hand, an oligopolistic, vertically integrated, top-heavy capitalism which perpetuates itself through collusion with the state via technical standards, trade deals, copyright regimes, and so on; on the other, cockroach capitalism.

Over the years Sony has evolved from cockroach to insect-killer. At the time of the Betamax case, the Japanese electronics giant was primarily a hardware manufacturer on the receiving end of the MPAA’s anti-home video offensive. It was portrayed by the studios as a rogue company trying to erode copyright protection and destabilise the industry. Two decades later, Sony is now in the opposite position—since its purchase of Columbia, it is a Hollywood giant with a hard line on IP regulation (see profile of Sony Pictures Releasing Australia in chapter two). One recent attempt by Sony to shore up IP protection in the face of cockroach competition involved concealing spyware and datacollection utilities in the copy-protection software on Sony BMG CDs, a sneaky strategy which became a public relations disaster (Miller et al 2005, 246; “How Sony became an ugly sister” 2005).

The manufacture of cheap hardware that ignores the technical standards of Big Hollywood is close to a pure version of cockroach capitalism, but piracy is its epitome. In the laissez-faire imaginary, piracy fills gaps in the market with maximum efficiency, catering to demand when and where legitimate industries are unwilling or unable to do so. Consider the following quote from the GM of Hong Kong chain UA Cinemas (cited in Groves 2002, 10):

7 Cheap Chinese VCD and DVD hardware is not entirely outside the established circuits of transnational audio-visual industry capital, however, as chip and component patent licenses have to be leased from the likes of Time Warner, Hitachi, Sony and Philips (Wang 2003, 51-53).

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The pirates have become so wealthy they have superior manufacturing equipment lines over legitimate manufacturers and licensees. Their network of distribution is to be envied. They can get movies and music CDs onto the streets of Asia virtually overnight…

Here we have a reading of the pirate which begrudgingly admires his/her speed, flexibility and technological savvy. These are all characteristics of cockroach capitalism, and they are also the fetishised qualities of the network society’s idealised citizen. Indeed, while the normative reading outlined earlier frets over the “viral threat” of piracy (Miller et al 2005, 232), a laissez-faire reading sees the informal networks that constitute piracy operations as the ultimate “new economy” and as a potential model for other distribution circuits.

The laissez-faire approach to piracy is gaining traction as the P2P revolution forces the entertainment industries to develop business models based around revenue sources other than box office admission and disc sales.8 Piracy has precedents in other informal economies. One example is the adult industry, a “grey” zone which remains one of the more profitable sectors of the entertainment market even though piracy levels may run at up to 85%.9 However, rather than bemoaning the loss of their customers, astute porn distributors accept piracy as a given and build this into their business models. As the CEO of adult distributor Nectar Entertainment has commented, “If someone’s stealing my stuff, I see it as great PR and great marketing” (Harris 2005, 8).

Whereas Valenti sought to damn piracy through discursive connections to porn and the criminal underworld, the laissez-faire brigade might notice something more appealing

8 This possibility is canvassed by the industry analyst Mark Pesce (2005), who develops an advertising-based model of profit generation for pirate circulation of TV shows. 9 This figure is an estimate by Australia’s Adult Industry Copyright Organisation Limited ( and is therefore likely to be exaggerated.

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in this connection. Such is the logic of the shadow economies. This reminds us that piracy is always more than an ethical issue; it is at the same time economic, social, and, as we shall now see, political.


Arguably the most effective critiques of the current copyright regime have come from a group of vocal, tech-savvy American liberals. Affiliated with the open-source movement and such bastions of techno-libertarianism as Wired magazine and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, writers such as Lawrence Lessig, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Michael Strangelove and JD Lasica have published popular critiques of copyright culture over the last few years, helping to give the issue a degree of public visibility. They argue that copyright’s intended balance between free speech and the free market is increasingly favouring the latter over the former: consumer rights are being compromised and the future of innovation is under threat. Furthermore, these writers—and many others—feel that the piracy issue is inextricably linked to the right of free speech.

The sympathies of Lessig and his contemporaries lie with consumers and creatives. They are concerned, on the one hand, with the harsh penalties that P2P downloading attracts, with our inability to legally transfer data between different pieces of hardware, with the bugs and spyware that jam up our computers. At the same time, they seek a way through the copyright minefield for directors, writers, musicians, DJs, animators, and software developers, via legal recognition of appropriative cut’n’paste techniques as

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legitimate forms of expression. At its core, theirs is a consumer rights argument which privileges above all else the practices and liberties of a subset of first-world consumers.

In his book Copyrights and Copywrongs (2003), Vaidhyanathan discusses the history of copyright as it relates to literature, film, music, and software, arguing that the current hard-lockdown phase of IP regulation is stifling creativity. He proposes a system of “thin protection” as the best way to ensure the fair compensation of creatives while still fostering a culture of innovation and freedom of information. Strangelove takes a more anarchic approach in his study The Empire of Mind (2005), lamenting the internet’s transformation from a space of culture-jamming and activism into a marketplace ruled by IP autocrats. For Strangelove, piracy is a progressive act designed to take back what should rightfully belong to everyone—the liberating potential of digital technology. However, it is Lessig, a former Young Republican turned Stanford law professor and free speech activist, who is the most powerful figure in this group. Lessig is the man behind Creative Commons, an easy-to-use alternative to copyright which has been attracting considerable attention within creative industries circles (Flew 2005; Fitzgerald 2005). Creative Commons operates on a “some rights reserved” principle. Artists who license a work under the Creative Commons system can still benefit financially from copyright protection, but they also give permission for the work to be used creatively by others (as samples, as source code, and so on) or for non-profit purposes.

Lessig’s influential books The Future of Ideas (2002), Free Culture (2004), and Remix (2008) have become bibles for the online libertarian movement. Free Culture is grounded in the information-wants-to-be-free rhetoric of cyberpunk. It argues that important forms of cultural production are under threat from the “copyright warriors” whose restrictive IP laws are harming free enterprise. In Lessig’s words,

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Overregulation stifles creativity. It smothers innovation. It gives dinosaurs a veto over the future. It wastes the extraordinary opportunity for a democratic creativity that digital technology enables. (Lessig 2004, 199)

The sentiment expressed here is libertarian in that, like the laissez-faire crowd referred to earlier, Lessig sees state regulation as a threat. His argument valorises innovation for its own sake; it is a reformist position which seeks a softening of certain aspects of the existing IP regime rather than the wholesale overthrow of the political and economic systems of which it is a part. Lessig is very clear about this, insisting at one point that his “message is absolutely not antimarket” (2004, 227).

Although Lessig notes that piracy has been a constitutive feature of the content industries since the invention of mass communication technologies, he shies away from celebrating piracy per se. In fact, he declares on many occasions his opposition to “theft”, drawing a line in the sand between acceptable piracy (cut’n’paste cultural production, culture jamming, remix culture) and stealing. But as Kavita Philip (2005) correctly notes, there is something a little US/Euro-centric about this argument, given that many of the “bad” pirates Lessig has in mind are “foreign” in origin, or at least are constructed as such. Consider the following quote from Lessig, which makes a classically liberal connection between property rights and freedom:

A free culture is not a culture without property, or in which creators don’t get paid. A culture in which creators can’t get paid, is anarchy, not freedom… Instead, the free culture that I defend in this book is a balance between anarchy and control. A free culture, like a free market, is filled with property. But just as a free market is perverted if its property becomes feudal, so too can a free culture be queered by extremism in the property rights that define it. (2004, xvi)

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The careless use of the word “queered” here should alert us to some of the exclusions that underwrite Lessig’s distinction between appropriation and theft, and which also animate the arguments of Vaidhyanathan, Strangelove, and Lasica. This is a point to which we will return shortly. But in the meantime, let us consider another reading of piracy from a poststructuralist perspective.


While the readings of piracy offered so far have revolved around issues of access, economy, and politics, postmodern theory has critiqued normative IP regimes by attacking a concept at the very heart of the discourse: authorship. By insisting on the author’s status as a textual effect rather than a sovereign expressive agent, Derrida, Foucault, Barthes and other key theorists of postmodernity have reframed our understanding of such concepts as originality, innovation and expression. The brief discussion offered here does not seek to add anything new to the massive amount of critical commentary that this work has already generated; I seek only to take one aspect of this rich body of theory and push it in a slightly different direction, by demonstrating how authorship itself can be read as a form of piracy, and thus how piracy can potentially be read as authorship.

Before examining the postmodern critique of copyright, let us consider how IP discourse and law defines originality. Copyright law makes a distinction between an idea and its expression. While ideas cannot be copyrighted, their expressions, in the form of films, books, poems, songs, and so forth, can be. However, this line of reasoning

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presents several problems. First, the line between an idea and an expression is often a rather arbitrary one (Pang 2006). Second, it has also been argued that the definition of authorship that is codified in copyright law is tipped in favour of those types of cultural production which are commodifiable and/or fixed in certain types of recognised sign systems (written language, musical notation, code, etc). As a result, vast swathes of cultural production—oral texts and traditions, dance and physical theatre, communitybased forms of knowledge and information—are excluded from copyright’s scope. As James Boyle argues, the kind of authorship privileged by copyright and IP discourse functions as a

gate that tends disproportionately to favor the developed countries’ contribution to world science and culture. Curare, batik, myths, and the dance ‘lambada’ flow out of developing countries, unprotected by IP rights, while Prozac, Levis, Grisham and the movie Lambada! flow in… (cited in Miller et al 2005, 224)

As a result, copyright tends to privilege those forms of cultural production in which Euro-American cultural industries specialise. This is no accident; on the contrary, it accurately reflects the cultural specificities that have shaped the legal traditions upon which copyright is founded.

Copyright also tends to erect boundaries between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” cultural activity. What passes for originality or appropriation, as opposed to theft or forgery, is in most cases determined by IP law rather than any universal standards of creative conduct. Some interesting examples of these tensions can be found in postmodern art of the 1980s. The American artist and provocateur Jeff Koons was famously sued for producing a sculpture (String of Puppies, 1988) based on a kitsch postcard image. Sherrie Levine re-photographed the Depression-era images of Walker

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Evans and exhibited them under her own name, while the video artist Douglas Gordon screened a slowed-down version of Hitchcock’s Psycho and called it 24 Hour Psycho. All these works were attempting to make points about what constitutes an “original” art work and to highlight the blind spots of copyright law, which offers many artists little more in the way of protection than the easy publicity of a ready-made scandal.

The theoretical foundations of these provocations, as well as the conceptual tools with which we can begin to unpack them, come courtesy of Foucault, Barthes, and Derrida. I will begin with Foucault. In his 1977 essay “What is an author?”, the French philosopher famously set about rethinking the notion of authorship in relation to cultural production in general, and to literature in particular. Rather than being the outward expression of a writer’s identity, authorship is interpreted here as being a “function” that does certain kinds of discursive work. Foucault identifies four characteristics of the author-function: it is a legal and economic property; its power and role is relative to the field and the historical moment in which it is situated; it is constructed according to the rules of already-existing discourses and structures (which in the case of European literature are based on a Christian dialectic of authorial “holiness”); and it is a narrative which gives an illusory cohesion to a given set of texts. He goes on to argue that our object of analysis should be the moment of reception rather than that of production, that instead of asking who is speaking through a text, we should be more interested in interrogating the social relations and models of unified subjectivity that underlie notions of authorship. “What matter who’s speaking?” (138) is the rhetorical question with which the essay concludes.

Foucault’s arguments have been so thoroughly absorbed into contemporary literary studies that they are now more or less canonical. However, they continue to have interesting implications for film theory. For example, even though the auteur theory

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that came of age in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema during the 1950s and 1960s has been thoroughly critiqued by an endless procession of post-structuralists and Lacanians, “authorship” remains a key category of analysis in much contemporary film studies. Fuelled by a publishing industry which sees commercial potential in appreciations of individual directors, a steady stream of auteurist commentary continues to leak out of our tertiary institutions. Prominent online journals such as Senses of Cinema produce lengthy biographies of “great directors”, while the issues of circulation, commerce, and control that Foucault urged us to consider are left to communication studies, political economy and some branches of cultural studies to negotiate. In cinema studies, it seems it still matters a great deal who’s speaking.

Another famous attack on conventional notions of authorship comes via Roland Barthes, whose frequently misinterpreted essay “The death of the author” (1977) pursues a related line of questioning. Arguing that “it is language which speaks, not the author” (143), Barthes seeks to cut the text loose from the discursive anchors provided by what we understand as authorship. By “death”, he refers not only to the redundancy of the author as a critical category but also to a kind of transformation that occurs during the act of writing: “the author enters into his own death, writing begins” (142). Most importantly for our purposes, Barthes sees the act of creation not as the labour of a unified expressive soul but as the selection and combination of fragments of alreadyexisting discourse:

a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture… the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is

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to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as to never rest on any of them. (146)

This model of authorship sounds the death-knell for the modernist fantasies of originality, innovation, and authenticity upon which copyright law is founded. So, if there is nothing new under the sun and the role of the artist or writer is simply to rearrange existing discourse in new combinations, what makes a pirate any different from an artist? Only the fact that they rest too long on one particular site, resisting copyright’s call to move along in a timely fashion.

The final critique of authorship that I will offer here comes from Jacques Derrida, whose essay “Limited Inc a b c” (1977) engages explicitly with copyright law. Written as a response to John Searle, who had earlier published a scathing critique of Derrida, this long and mischievous essay delights in mocking his opponent along with the principles and practices of copyright. The purported authorship of Searle (to whom he slyly refers as Sarl; SA in French stands for société anonyme, the corporate acronym for a publicly limited company) is sent up in the opening paragraphs, in which Derrida suggests that his opponent’s claim to copyright is fraudulent given that their correspondence is dialogic in nature, the two writers have colleagues in common, and that Searle acknowledges a family member in a footnote:

If John R. Searle owes a debt to D. Searle concerning this discussion, then the ‘true’ copyright ought to belong… to a Searle who is divided, multiplied, conjugated, shared. What a complicated signature! And one that becomes even more complex when the debt includes my old friend, H. Dreyfus, with whom I myself have worked, discussed, exchanged ideas, so that if it is indeed through him that the Searles have ‘read’ me, ‘understood’ me, and ‘replied’ to me, then I, too, can claim a stake in the ‘action’ or ‘obligation,’ the stocks and bonds, of this holding company, the Copyright Trust. (1977, 418-19)

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In this passage, Derrida cheekily unravels what remains of the myth of authorship, acknowledging that every act of creation is in itself indebted to what has gone before it, and that all this sits precariously on the shifting sands of language, a system of arbitrary webs of signification. If the materials with which the artist is working with are not their own, how can one claim to be the sole creator—much less the owner—of a particular text?10

To illustrate the utility of this mode of analysis, let’s consider the role of genre in cinema. Key genre theorists such as Steve Neale have defined genre as an agreed pact between producer and audience (Neale 1980, 5), and in so doing have sought to qualify the once-dominant auteur theory with a more sophisticated model of formal evolution, one which acknowledges the cultural labour of audiences (Miller et al 2005). The shift from the auteur model to the genre model of cultural production necessitates a rethinking of not only the role but also the value of the author. Any text, whether it conforms to or confounds the norms of established genres, relies on our familiarity with at least some of the texts and styles it does or does not invoke. Without this, it would be meaningless—and unprofitable. This is how genres work; they convert audience labour (prior film-going experience) into capital. An auteur’s “innovation” lies in their selection and combination of pre-existing elements. All films function in this way, including films which may claim to break every rule of narrative cinema while still conforming to the well-established meta-genres of the art film, the experimental film, the amateur film, and so on. Genre theory teaches us that cinema is a hall of mirrors, with each new text reflecting its constituent parts. From this perspective, it is difficult to see how a copyright system which attributes authorship to one entity alone can equitably redistribute revenues.

10 This is also the spirit that animates the opening to A Thousand Plateaus (1987, 3), in which Deleuze and Guattari write that “Since each of us was several, there was already a crowd.”

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In summary, Foucault, Derrida, and Barthes all offer models of cultural production which read creativity as a form of piracy; thus it many also be possible to read piracy as a form of creativity. My intention here has been to demonstrate the incomplete logic of originality upon which systems of intellectual property are founded through the interrogation of one of their central tenets: authorship. Now it is time to see what a Marxist critique would offer on this topic.


While film industry lobbyists decry piracy, postmodernists read it as an intrinsic component of authorship, and the IT community sees it as a necessary evil or potential business model, some Marxist critics have interpreted piracy as a form of subversion. Prominent works in the critical political economy tradition, which I surveyed in chapter one, foreground issues of power and resistance within the media industries. They draw our attention to the “expansionary logic” of capital (Bettig 1996) and to issues of ownership, regulation and control (Mosco 1995). As well as being texts, films are seen as “commodities whose value is derived from the labour that makes them” (Miller et al 2005, 5). From this perspective, copyright is a hegemonic legal institution which converts information and labour into capital. Thus, as copyright’s maligned Other, the act of piracy has a certain political value. Unlike Lessig, these political economists are decidedly antimarket; they view the media as an architecture of control and exploitation which operates in the service of capitalism. They insist on the importance of class as an explanatory category, whether in reference to IP-rich ruling classes or the workers whose surplus value they extract.

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Ronald V Bettig’s authoritative 1996 book Copyrighting Culture: The Political Economy

of Intellectual Property argues that copyright represents a strategy of property
regulation and market colonisation which operates in the service of the international bourgeoisie. Bettig provides a detailed history of copyright law, highlighting the “essential connection between the rise of capitalism, the extension of commodity relations into literary and artistic domains, and the emergence of the printing press” (9). He notes how the US government, in close consultation with the MPAA, has spread copyright culture globally through trade sanctions against recalcitrant nations, FTAs with built-in IP boosters, multilateral initiatives such as GATT and the WTO, and increased infringement penalties and enforcement efforts. His reading of the home video turf wars, of which the Betamax case was the most spectacular moment, draws the following conclusion:

The ultimate goal has been to raise the effectiveness and comprehensiveness of the international intellectual property system in order to create or extend markets exploitable not only for US home-video distributors but for other communications and mass media transnationals as well. (210)

For Bettig, pirate circuits are simply spheres of commercial activity which have yet to be (re)colonised by transnational audio-visual empires. As he argues, the conversion of pirate markets into legitimate markets invariably means handing them over Hollywood. Bettig thus implicitly positions piracy as a practice which, in its obstruction of capitalist domination, represents a form of resistance.

In addition to exploring issues of control and ownership, Miller et al (2001, 2005) open up a new area of class analysis within media studies by exploring the political economy of film labour. The groundbreaking Global Hollywood is concerned not only with media owners but also with the “below-the-line” workers who paint the sets and drive

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the delivery vans. They argue that intellectual property law is one of the key enablers of the major studios’ exploitative practices: “IP’s transformation of knowledge into property traditionally prioritises ownership over use, creators over audiences and production over reception” (226). Global Hollywood lists countless examples of heavyhanded IP “enforcement”, such as Disney’s lawsuit against a Florida school over the copyrighted cartoon characters painted on its buildings (234). Miller and his co-writers offer a sophisticated theorisation of piracy which revolves around a question central to this thesis—whether piracy should be taken seriously as a form of film distribution. They argue convincingly that the MPAA’s war on piracy is about markets rather than morals. In their eyes, IP law is a “strategic weapon” used to “lubricate international exhibition and open up new areas of information management” (216). While noting that pirate operations frequently involve exploitation of various kinds and may interface with state and corporate networks in myriad ways, they approvingly invoke Michel de Certeau’s model of the tactical in their discussion of “mobile, small-scale pirate networks that cater to local populations rooted in the practices of ‘transformative appropriation’” (222). Here, as in the work of Bettig, piracy is implicitly valorised for its challenge to the Hollywood status quo.

The Hong Kong-based film theorist Laikwan Pang (2004, 2006, 2008) takes this argument further. In polemical style, Pang mounts a reading of pirate media “as a critical interrogation of today’s international cultural politics” (2006, 82). Through a textual and industrial reading of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, she argues that Hollywood has freely pilfered textual content from Asian cinemas while simultaneously waging rhetorical war against copyright infringement. For Pang, the difference between the two forms of piracy is legality, which is of course defined according to structures which favour Hollywood. Pang’s work mounts a compelling challenge to dominant copyright discourse – but it also tends, at certain moments, to construct a binary opposition

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between a pillaging West and a cowering Rest, with “Asia” (the unity of which is not questioned) presented as the passive victim of cultural imperialism (2004, 19). 11 This is one of the problematic features of “anti-anti-piracy” arguments, which sometimes tend to obscure as much as they reveal. Pang’s focus throughout much of her work is on China’s position in the copyright wars, and the last chapter of her book (2008) addresses the difficult issue of piracy’s negative impact on film production in Hong Kong and the PRC. This presents an interesting, and in this case unresolved, question about the limits of anti-anti-piracy discourse. Under what circumstances can piracy of non-Western cinemas be excused, and how does this fit within a pro-piracy philosophy? By extension, is the piracy-as-resistance argument unwittingly US-centric?

One way around this issue is to jettison the moral dimensions of the argument in favour of a materialist approach. As I have demonstrated, the assumptions that undergird normative copyright discourse (innovation, originality, property, and so forth) can no longer stand up to close scrutiny, which means that critiques of piracy levelled on moral grounds alone become terminally compromised. At the same time, an ethics of copyright based on the total rejection and inversion of Western IP discourse is equally problematic. One way around this impasse is to think in specific rather than general terms about what piracy achieves for information dissemination and whether or not this outweighs the possible disadvantage to producers and distributors, where these exist. We need to come back to the issue of access.

11 The same criticism could be levelled at Miller et al, although they are careful not to fall into the trap of reifying Hollywood’s Others.

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Recent work from postcolonial, legal, and development studies offers a different reading of piracy, one which is concerned less with its ethics than with its potential. This approach is interested in the transformative aspects of piracy, in piracy’s capacity to disseminate culture, knowledge and capital. It interrogates the relationship between technology and development, asking not “whose property?” but “whose right to access?”

Earlier, I referred to the familiar cast of characters that populate piracy debates: the teenage file-sharer, the struggling cultural producer, the corporate bigwig, the pirateterrorist syndicates, and so on. Missing from this picture are those forms of everyday piracy which take place in contexts where accessing media legally is not an option. Many communities in the developing world are not included in the Marxist critiques outlined above because they may not belong to a working class per se, much less the creative class to whom Lessig addresses his arguments. For many millions of people, piracy is simply an access route to media, and in some cases it can help to counteract embedded social and economic inequalities. Himpele (1996, 57), for example, notes that pirate economies in Bolivia have been able to “upset the staggered class correspondences” entrenched by conventional movie release patterns which ensure that the poor are the last to see new films. This has less to do with resistance as a “counterstance”12 than with a pragmatics of media consumption. Piracy in this sense is not necessarily empowered with an oppositional charge but is a banal, everyday activity practiced in a context where alternatives do not exist.

12 “[I]t is not enough to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions. A counterstance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed” (Anzaldúa 1987, 78-79).

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This kind of everyday media piracy is common in Southeast Asia. A 2006 article from

The Bangkok Post features interviews with pirate consumers, who explain their reasons
for violating IP law (Rithdee 2006, n.p.):

Recently, self-confessed cinephile Saner Lohvithi bought a pirated DVD of Rainer Fassbinder's In the Year with 13 Moons from a shop at Chatuchak Weekend Market. On another recent evening when he was downtown, he dropped by at a sidewalk stall on Silom to purchase bootlegged discs of

Saraband, Ingmar Bergman's new movie, Princess Raccoon, Seijun Suzuki's cult
musical, and Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 classic Aleksandr Nevskiy. "I know it's illegal, I know about intellectual property," says the 33-year-old. "But I'm not buying pirated King Kong or The Lord of the Rings. I'm only buying the movies that, if I do not resort to pirated DVDs, I won't have any chance of seeing. But since I really want to see them, I do not have any choice, do I?" […] A number of cinephiles in Thailand share Saner's opinion: without piracy, they wouldn't have any chance to watch daring, unusual, non-Hollywood movies from around the globe. Thai theatres wouldn't dream of showing, say Princess

Raccoon, a madcap musical by the maverick Japanese director, or the
Expressionist classic Dr Mabuse, and a legal copy of each bought over the Internet will cost over 1,500 baht (each "ghost" copy costs around 100 to 150 baht).

Rithdee makes the important point that Thai DVD piracy operations provide their own subtitles for discs, as many imported official versions, especially of arthouse films, do not contain Thai subtitles. This has led to pirate versions of international films being shown in film courses at Thai universities (see also Baumgärtel 2008 on pirate DVD use by universities in the Philippines). The article concludes by suggesting that the pirate economy may have done more to stimulate “highbrow film culture” than the 2006 Bangkok International Film Festival, which did not subtitle its films for local audiences.

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This raises some interesting questions about the functions of pirate distribution within global film culture. While DVD pirates may be helping to foster a nascent cinephile film culture in Thailand, this is a culture modeled along Euro-American, and to some extent Japanese, lines. Pirates tend not to touch Thai films because official copies are reasonably priced and the profit margins are slimmer (Rithdee 2006). As a result, a hegemonic “international arthouse” film appreciation is reproduced, and so are the omissions that structure the film festival circuit. This observation resonates with some of the early studies of piracy, which highlighted its potential as a driver of cultural imperialism (e.g. Chesterman and Lipman 1988). This is also the position advanced by Miller (2006) in his comments on piracy’s capacity to breed the “Hollywood habit”. This is why it is important to stress that piracy, like most subcinematic circuits, has no

inherent political agenda—it is an open circuit through which all manner of content
may travel, with variable effects and consequences.

It is also worth noting that the piracy-as-access position differs in important ways from the libertarian freedom-of-speech critique. In a compelling essay, Kavita Philip (2005) unpacks some of these differences. Philip suggests that the figure of “the technological author”, whose shaky foundations we would expect to be further eroded by the simulations of digital culture, is in fact rearing its head once more in order to shore up the proprietary rights system that underwrites techno-capitalist expansion. She invites her reader to reconsider this narrative of authorship from the perspective of “sites in the global south which are perceived, in the liberal democratic discourse of development stages, to be mired in the ‘not yet’”:

What does it mean that, at the very historical moment that technological authorship seems to become widely accessible, the law marks off certain authorial spaces as transgressive? What difference does it make that a particular kind of ripping off happens on the margins of the industrialized world, among

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the ‘less developed’ members of the WTO, at the apparent edges of the reach of western liberal democratic law, where the lines between authentic original and corrupted copy are being blurred by street vendors and high-tech entrepreneurs? (207)

Philip argues that the libertarian reading uses the type of commercial piracy practiced in Asia as a rhetorical Other against which the free-software movement can define itself. Western technoculture thus maps out a desired narrative for developing nations, a developmental trajectory from “illicit to licit sameness” (210), which strictly specifies the limits of acceptable copying. According to Philip, Asia is encouraged to imitate the West by replicating its political and economic systems and by promoting responsible digital citizenship, but is instructed at all times to keep its hands off “our” IP capital.

One of the inspirations for Philip’s argument is the work of Bangalore-based legal scholar Lawrence Liang. In his essay “Porous Legalities and Avenues of Participation” (2005), Liang stresses the fact that legality itself is a relative concept. He notes that millions of Indians break the law every day—for example, by bribing officials for essential services, or stealing electricity because no legal sources exist. According to Liang, the “porous legalities” which characterise life in much of the developing world may be the only routes through which contact with the technological modernity that the West takes for granted may be realised. Piracy is therefore not about morality, freedom or even resistance; it’s about “ways through which people ordinarily left out of the imagination of modernity, technology and the global economy [find] ways of inserting themselves into these networks” (12). Liang’s argument does not suggest that these networks are the only or the best trajectory (he is no developmentalist); but he does defend the right for individuals and communities to choose their own path.13

13 Note that Liang, in a very recent essay, has questioned the emphasis on appeals to access rights if it also involves a dismissal of the experiential and creative dimensions which are at the core of consumer rights movements in the West: “ideas of access cannot

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This kind of critique invites us to look past Western libertarian and radical discourses and to think of piracy as an issue of communication rights. It also helpfully qualifies the vision of piracy-as-resistance offered by Pang, foregrounding another aspect of illegal copying—its sheer banality. While Valenti renders piracy as a carnal sin and the neohacker generation enjoys the kicks it provides, the piracy-as-access perspective asks us to remember that piracy is often an everyday act evacuated of overt political content. Pirated software, for example, may act as the infrastructure for entire economic and cultural formations, from the accounts of small businesses to email list-servs to digital art practices, yet it would be foolish to pretend that pirate versions of Windows necessarily carry any kind of resistant charge simply because they are illegal. This is why both legality and illegality need to deconstructed and demystified, and why Liang’s work is so important.

A third writer who has been able to give some experiential detail to these arguments is the Indian new media theorist Ravi Sundaram (2001, 2004, 2007, 2009). In his absorbing essay “Recycling Modernity: Pirate electronic cultures in India”, Sundaram defines “recycled electronic modernity” as an urbanised, everyday, non-legal sphere characterised by speedy, small-scale practices of circulation (rather than production). This is a culture of cassette-based music trade, DIY computer networks, cheap mobile phone repairs and pirate VHS/VCD movies; a “world of informal technological knowledge existing in most parts of India, where those excluded from the upper-caste, English-speaking bastions of the cyber-elite learn their tools” (2001, 95).

Sundaram’s recycled modernity is a set of practices which conform neither to boosterist hype (India as a brave new world of service-sector growth) nor to Marxist models of

be examined without simultaneously looking at issues of desire and subjectivity” (Liang 2009, 4). This is a serious problem with the piracy-as-access position that needs to be addressed.

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economic imperialism (India as a source of cheap labour and object of exploitation). It is founded upon a variety of piracy which is non-oppositional and non-countercultural, and which has little in common with the kind of cut’n’paste postmodernity fetishised by Western academics. Instead, recycled modernity is “a strategy of both survival and innovation on terms entirely outside the current debates on the structure and imagination of the net and techno-culture in general” (96). In a later essay, Sundaram (2004) expands on this idea further. He describes how pirate distribution networks are remodelling Indian cities, frustrating the panoptic fantasies of urban planners and creating new media circuits and industries in “the interstices of contemporary urban growth, disorder and fragmentation”:

[U]rban residents are now assaulted with a deluge of cultural products, cassettes, CD’s, MP3’s, VCD’s, cable television, grey market computers, cheap Chinese audio and video players, thousands of cheap print flyers, and signage everywhere. What is remarkable here is that the preponderance of these products comes from the grey or informal sector, outside the effective regulation of the state or large capital. India today has the world’s second largest music market, a large film industry with global dreams, a majority grey computer market, hundreds of thousands of tiny phone and word processing shops and cybercafes. And as if from the ruins of urban planning new media bazaars, which supply these networks, have emerged existing in the cusp of legality and non-legality. (2004, n.p.)

Is this not an example of piracy providing the material routes along which an alternative technological modernity travels? Doesn’t this recycled pirate modernity offer important forms of access, perhaps not to a public sphere of democratic enlightenment as per the developmentalist teleology (Pieterse 2001), but rather to emergent social practices, economies and possibilities of change? Important as they are, consumer rights issues pale in comparison to piracy’s potential as a productive force. If

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we support communities’ right to technological self-determination, we should be open to the possibility that piracy may function as an enabling energy rather than an “evil echo” (Pang 2004).

In noting piracy’s productive potential, let me reiterate that I am not mounting a moral defence of piracy per se. Piracy does indeed hurt (some) filmmakers and artists, but given the low rates of return offered to independent artists by the market structures analysed in chapter two, I feel it is worth taking other alternatives seriously. Recent developments in the music industry have seen many artists abandon record sales as a revenue stream and focus on touring and merchandise. Likewise, the open-source movement is helping to show that profit and ethical information management are not necessarily incompatible—but this alone is unlikely to lead to progressive forms of copyright law. What is required over the medium to long term is a deeper interrogation of the very foundations on which our concepts of IP are built. This is by nature an interdisciplinary project, one in which academics, filmmakers, programmers, economists, lawyers, artists, consumers, and community groups may all find a voice, for there is more at stake here than entertainment. Skirmishes over DVD ripping and music downloading are linked in important ways to debates over affordable AIDS drugs, agribusiness patents, the "evergreening" of pharmaceuticals, and the future uses of the human genetic code. As the most visible tip of this IP iceberg, the piracy debate may well influence outcomes in these fields.

Having established a critical framework for understanding piracy, I now want to see how these various arguments about piracy can be placed into a dialogue with reference to a concrete example. The following case study of a pirate economy in Mexico is based on research and interviews conducted in September 2008, and will help to put some

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empirical and experiential weight on the bones of the theoretical models I set out above.


For residents of Mexico City, buying DVDs typically means engaging with the informal economy. Although legal copies of films are available at chain stores and shopping malls, their high prices mean that pirate DVD versions are a far more attractive option. For most people in Mexico, a nation where 40% of the population lives below the poverty line, they are the only option. Mexico’s poor are unable and unwilling to pay the equivalent of US$20 for an evening’s entertainment, and they turn to the black market for a solution.14

Piracy is big business here. In 2006, an estimated 800 million blank media units were imported into Mexico from Southeast Asia, most of which are thought to have ended up in the illegal economy (International Intellectual Property Alliance 2008, 55). Another estimate suggests that 300,000 residents of Mexico City make their living from media piracy (“Pirated goods” 2005). As I argued earlier, IIPA and MPAA data is invariably exaggerated, so we should not put too much faith in these statistics; however, nobody disputes the fact that the pirate economy is the most important and effective audiovisual distribution system in Mexico. It is the default circulatory system for most of the people who live here, the standard from which formal distribution departs. Piracy in Mexico City is not about resistance or free speech; it is a mundane and unremarkable activity in which almost everybody engages in order to partake in film culture.

14 Asset-based poverty line estimate is from the CIA World Factbook (2009). Average full-priced DVD figure is for a typical Hollywood DVD at the Mexico City chain Gandhi (see

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Pirate DVD vendors, ubiquitous throughout the city, constitute a dispersed and evershifting geography of informal commerce. Clon (pirate) discs can be bought from markets, from ambulantes (itinerant street vendors), from makeshift shacks by the roadside, from stalls outside metro stations, and anywhere else large numbers of people congregate. Enterprising young men hawk DVDs to drivers stuck in traffic jams or passengers on the metro. Discs cost between five pesos (US$0.50) and ten pesos (US$1), depending on the film, the level of competition between vendors, and the quality of the copy. Much of what is available is the usual Hollywood fare, with copies of the latest blockbusters hitting the streets within days of the film’s official release, or sometimes beforehand. This accounts for the largest part of the market. However, the pirate economy is diversified and has a “long tail” of its own, which will be the focus of this section. Some stalls cater to niches rather than to a mass audience. I have seen street stalls in Mexico City with signs reading cine de arte, and even in the mainstream stalls Colombian, Argentinean, Brazilian, and other Latin American films may share shelf space with US blockbusters. In a city the size of Mexico City, all tastes are catered to if you know where to look—this is as true in the pirate economy as in its formal variant.

The downtown Tepito barrio is the centre for pirate DVD distribution in Mexico City, and it is here that the complexities of the city’s informal film economy are most visible. Tepito covers 57 blocks and is home to 50,000 people. At its core is a giant open-air market, in which over 8000 vendors do business six days a week. The Tepito area also includes an indoor market area housing a further 2600 stalls, a Sunday antiques and craft bazaar, and a night market where shoes are sold wholesale. All this amounts to an estimated 15,400 formal and informal economic units and an estimated average daily turnout of over 220,000 shoppers (Hernández 2006).15 You can buy anything at Tepito,

15 For studies of various aspects of Tepito’s history and economy, see Grisales Ramírez (2003), Piccato (2005), Hernández (2006), Castro Nieto (1990), Cross (1998, 2005), Peña (2000). See also Mitchell (2007) and Fernandez-Kelly and Shefner (2006) for other studies of informal markets in Latin America.

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from candles to counterfeit watches to cocaine. It is regarded by middle-class Mexicans as a dangerous area, and few of them venture here.

Tepito’s history can be traced back to the precolonial period, when it was part of the city of Tenochtitlan. In the 1920s it became infamous as the city’s trading place for stolen goods. During the import substitution era of the 1950s and 1960s, Tepito was the place to buy fayuca—electronic and luxury goods smuggled into the country to avoid tariffs. Today, Tepito’s pirate operations take full advantage of trade liberalisation. As John Cross (2005) notes, piracy has flourished here in part because GATT and NAFTA have encouraged the importation of cheap hardware from Asia, and because the structural adjustments of neoliberalism have pushed more and more Mexicans into the informal sector. In this sense, piracy in Mexico, as elsewhere, is a kind of bastard child of globalisation, an unacknowledged by-product of economic integration.

Tepito is often held up as a worst-case scenario for copyright violation. A recent article in The Economist (10 March 2007, n.p.) marvels at the subcinematic spectacle that awaits: “Pirated DVDs abound, with copies of children’s shows incongruously placed next to pornographic films…” On a 2005 trip to Mexico, which included a face-to-face meeting with Mexican President Vincente Fox, MPAA head Dan Glickman visited Tepito to inspect the markets and collect evidence of infringement. "I've been to pirate markets all over the world,” he said. “This is the largest I've ever seen" (cited in Bensinger 2005, 3). A Special 301 watchlist report from the IIPA echoes these sentiments by singling out Tepito as the premier site for illicit audiovisual distribution and urging local authorities to develop an “intense enforcement plan” as soon as possible (IIPA 2008, 52).16 The report also notes, with regret, that markets such as

16 IIPA Special 301 reports are annual updates on the worst piracy offenders. The 2008 report nominates 13 nations for special mention on the “Priority Watchlist”: Argentina, Egypt, India, Mexico, the PRC, Peru, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Ukraine, Chile, Costa Rica, and, surprisingly, Canada (for its lack of legislative reform).

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Tepito are “well organized” and “politically protected” (54). This is true, but only to a certain extent. The area’s reputation as crime centre does not endear it to local authorities, who have to be paid off regularly. Tepito’s long-term viability is in no way guaranteed and is always under threat from urban regeneration and gentrification initiatives.

Tepito’s pirate economy is complex and fragmented. Many vendors operate as both wholesalers and retailers, catering to a diverse array of customers who include consumers, distributors, and other vendors. Stacks of printed DVD sleeves are a common sight—these are sold in bulk for around 40 centavos (US4c) each to other vendors who wish to do their own duplication or who have sourced discs elsewhere (“Juan”, interview, 2008). Most Tepito stallholders seem to switch between these functions: there is no clear line between distribution and retailing here. Movies are often sold alongside pirated music and software. This flexibility is characteristic of subcinematic economies, in which the materiality of the medium itself is as significant as the textual value of the content it carries. At Tepito, discs are discs and sleeves are sleeves; each has an exchange value and can be bought and sold if the price is right.

Many vendors stock the usual selection of Hollywood movies and are difficult to distinguish from one another, but others choose to specialise. One stall I saw sold Asian and kung fu films. Another seemed to specialise in boxing films. Yet more stocked various kinds of pornography. (One stall proudly advertised its large zoofilia and

hermafrodita collections.) One consequence of this specialisation is that the films
available at Tepito and the film cultures they facilitate are very diverse. This is equally true of the vendors, all of whom are there to make money but who may have other motives as well. In this sense, Tepito is home to many different piracies, all equally illegal but not necessarily equivalent in terms of motivation, economic impact, or social

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function. The following case study of one particular DVD vendor will help to explain some of these subtleties and how they deviate from the usual scripts of who a pirate is, what their activities involve, and why they do what they do. All the material that follows is taken from interviews conducted in Spanish with a Tepito stallholder, whom I shall refer to as Juan, on September 4-5, 2008.

Juan’s family have traded at Tepito for many years. His brother works in the shop with him, and his father runs another branch of the business a short distance away. Juan’s stall is crowded but simple, with shelves running along either side, a long table in the middle, and a TV suspended overhead. Shelves are covered with DVDs, piles of printed sleeves, and assorted paraphernalia. Attached to the stall is an open-air browsing section. Here, several hundred titles are displayed in their cases and hung in racks, ready for inspection or sale. The arrangement of all elements is simple but carefully organised to maximise the available space and the visibility of the merchandise. Film posters, including some vintage promo material, are pasted up around the shop. As well as Juan and his brother, there are normally a few other traders hanging out here chatting. The atmosphere is relaxed and convivial.

Juan’s store is a pirate operation, and he freely admits this. However it is a different kind of piracy from that practiced by many of the other DVD vendors at Tepito. Many of Juan’s activities are better described as a kind of film archiving. His specialty is Mexican films from the 1950s to 1970s. He has an extensive catalogue of titles, though only a few hundred of these are on display. At his store, you will find some of the oldest Mexican features in circulation, such as Mexico’s first sound film, the 1932 prostitution drama Santa, obscure Mexican go-go films (Amor a ritmo de gogo) and disco films (Rigo

es amor), the ever-popular Santo series of wrestling/superhero movies, Mexican
westerns (El potro salvaje), and numerous films by auteurs such as Arturo Ripstein.

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There are also several films about Tepito itself, including Los fayuqueros de Tepito, a feature about the market’s contraband economy, along with independent

documentaries. This is only a random sample: the selection is huge. While Juan does stock other miscellaneous product—Harry Potter, boxing and narcotraficante movies, the Buñuel back catalogue—the majority of the titles in the store are old Mexican movies.

Juan’s products are sourced in various ways. Some are simply copied from the official DVD versions sold by established distributors or boutique labels like Criterion and JC Films. This accounts for around 70% of his catalogue. However, other films are transferred onto DVD from old 8mm and 16mm reels, or from VHS or Beta recordings of TV broadcasts. For these titles, Juan and his associates execute the transfer from the original format, source content for illustrations from the internet or from promo material kept in the store, and design a professional-looking cover. Juan is particularly proud of these covers, which are often very impressive and are usually marked with the brand of his family’s company, as in “Rica Films presents Santo vs. las mujeres


What is distinctive about Juan’s particular form of piracy is that in many cases it is the only distribution these films receive. Some of the films he stocks have no formal distributor. Others appear to be titles which have been “orphaned” when studios changed hands or ceased operation. In any case, official versions of these films would be far too expensive for most members of the Tepito community, which Juan sees as his primary market. He thinks of his pirate stall as a social service as well as a business, one which keeps films in circulation and keeps Tepiteño culture vibrant.

17 Name of Juan’s company has been changed here.

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Juan’s stall also contains a very impressive collection of old movie posters, postcards, and photographs. This is even more noticeable in his father’s stall around the corner, which is full of scrapbooks of newspaper clippings of film-related advertisements and articles dating back to the 1950s. Much of this material is arranged lovingly, though haphazardly, in cheap plastic folders. Sourced from old bookshops and libraries, it is the kind of material that official film institutions in Europe or North America would keep in temperature-controlled vaults with computer indexes. The informal archive that is Juan’s store, however, has neither the space nor the funds for this. Film culture here is tactile and material, embodied in things you can touch and take home with you.

Table 5: Pricing at Juan’s store DVD + case + printed sleeve = 10 pesos (US$1) Cost per unit: 7 pesos Profit margin per unit: 3 pesos
Printed sleeve only = 40 centavos (US$0.04)

A close look at the economics of Juan’s operation reveals much about the way the Tepito pirate economy works. Most of Juan’s discs sell for 10 pesos (US$1). His average cost per disc amounts to seven pesos, which leaves him with a margin of three pesos (US$0.30), or 30%. This is a slim margin, and the business needs a high number of sales per day to be viable—Juan tells me that on an average day he sells around 250 discs. Like most vendors here, he switches between wholesale and retail. The DVDs in their cases are sold to shoppers, while sleeves are sold to other Tepito stallholders or distributors. Bartering and other informal trading is also common. At one point, I see Juan do a swap with another local trader—two DVDs for four rolls of toilet paper.

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Juan’s DVD store, like many Tepito enterprises, comprises a number of secondary activities. A proportion of his business comes from selling individual films at higher prices to specialist collectors or enthusiasts. These are generally ultra-rare films, or films which have been restored to their original versions, and they can fetch up to 10,000 pesos (US$1000) each. Some of this business is conducted online with overseas buyers, including enthusiasts from Europe who order films by email. If there is a film you are after, Juan will try to track it down for you, transfer it to DVD, and send you a copy. To my great surprise, Juan mentions that his customers have included Imcine, Mexico’s state-run film institute—he claims that on around ten occasions they have released under their own label films which they have acquired through pirated copies bought from his store. Juan can provide details to back up this claim, though I cannot reprint them here.

From the account presented here we can see that Juan’s business is highly organised and diversified yet thoroughly informal, in that it is untaxed and invisible to the statisticians. Regulation is limited to pay-offs to the police, who are well aware of the existence of the store.18 Juan has no hesitation in talking to me openly about his work, as he knows the police tolerate his activities. Although this is undeniably a pirate operation, the purported immorality of this kind of activity is complicated by the fact that Juan’s distribution is the only thing keeping many of these films in circulation. Even where legal copies of these films are available, they cost ten times what Juan charges and are therefore beyond the reach of the Tepito community. So while Juan appears to be profiting from these sales at the expense of copyright holders, he is also helping to build audiences for films, stars, and genres which would not otherwise exist. In this sense his activities are contributing to the maintenance of Mexican film culture,

18 Cross (2005) and Peña (2000) note that political donations and other forms of support also help to keep the Tepito community on-side with the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) and other Mexican political parties.

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and they are of a generative rather than redistributive nature (see chapter five). Note, however, that Juan and his family take little pleasure in their status as pirates. The term is an uncomfortable one for them. There is certainly no sense of proud oppositionality here, and Juan’s father told me that they would prefer to build their business into a formal operation were it possible to do so. The romanticism attached to piracy-asresistance arguments does not translate in this context. Even in Tepito the practice of piracy is a source of some embarrassment and plays out as a pragmatic response to material factors rather than a political act.

All this raises questions which have ramifications not only for the study of informal economies like Tepito but also for our ideas about the role of formal institutions within film culture. Would the kind of low-cost, efficient distribution being achieved here informally be possible in a conventional distribution environment? The profit potential for these titles is often slim or nonexistent, and few legitimate distributors would bother with them. One could argue that if piracy were not so widespread costs would eventually come down and distributor incentives increase, but given the kind of films Juan sells and the incomes of his customers it is hard to see this happening. As I argued in chapter three, informal economies predate their formal counterparts but they can also end up picking up the slack in situations where Structurally Adjusted formal economies downsize—a neoliberal catch-22 which is felt all too acutely in Latin America. The archival functions performed by Juan in this sense represent a privatisation of what is seen in other national contexts to be the role of the state, but the duties he is performing—keeping films in circulation, keeping a film heritage alive—clearly have beneficial effects for Mexican national cinema culture. This presents an interesting counterpoint to the trope of film-as-waste that I offered in my reading of straight to video cultures. In the Western video store environment I argued this kind of encounter with STV-cinema-as-commodity invites a reconsideration of the cultural

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value of the filmic text. In Tepito the registers of value are different, even though the subcinematic space is comparable. In Juan’s store we are presented with the materiality of cinema in a very palpable sense—spindles of discs, piles of printed jackets, fading movie posters―but this is no slaughterhouse. For Juan and his customers, each dusty movie is a part of Mexican film history, a memory to be protected, and the fact that every one of these discs amounts to a violation of IP law does not reduce their importance.


Towards the end of our conversation, Juan tells me a fascinating story about a customer of his, one which I feel brings into focus the pedagogical potential of piracy that I discussed earlier. This man, a Tepito local, had a very disadvantaged childhood and received little formal education. He was also an avid viewer of pirate movies. Now he is a doctor in the Mexican army—an incredible accomplishment for someone in his situation. According to Juan, movies were partly responsible for this man’s transformation: he had taught himself to read by studying the subtitles on pirated discs and tapes bought from Tepito.

As this anecdote suggests, sometimes there is more than entertainment at stake in movie piracy. Pirate pedagogies can offer routes to social and economic empowerment that may not otherwise exist. As Sundaram and Liang argue, whole infrastructures of social relations, of exchange and communication and control, have been built on foundations provided by piracy. The case study of Nigerian video in the previous chapter provided further evidence of this potential, given the structural connections between piracy and the current video distribution networks in West Africa. Of course,

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not all of the social phenomena to which piracy may give rise are inherently progressive, but the point I want to stress here is that piracy bring things into being, it creates new ways of living and thinking and surviving, and it is on this basis that it should be judged rather than in terms of the black-and-white ethics of intellectual property. In the case of the Tepito doctor, it has clearly improved his life; in the case of underground circulation of white supremacist DVDs or the viral spread of Paris Hilton sex tapes, the question is not so clear-cut. Not all pirates can claim self-education as a defence, but we should not forget that all movie consumption is always inherently educative in a broader way. Whether for good or ill, movies provide a set of coordinates for the future self: they teach us how to be women, men, children, mothers, fathers, workers; they show us how to walk, talk, dance, love, and think; they contribute to shared reservoirs of cultural capital, shaping what is knowable and sayable at particular points in time and space. The role of pirate distribution in structuring these collective cultural reservoirs is immense given its empirical significance on a global scale. Thus, it is difficult to overstate the social implications of pirate distribution, just as it is foolish to condemn or celebrate them per se.

Nor should we automatically dismiss the potential of piracy as a foundation for viable film industries. As I have demonstrated in this thesis, piracy sustains film cultures at the consumption end, feeding movie viewing habits and generating future demand. It is no accident, after all, that the prime market for Hollywood product in the developed world—teenage males—is also the prime pirate demographic. In the internal organisation of pirate economies, we can also find templates for future film industries. In most pirate economies, no profits are returned to producers—revenue flows one way only, providing no stable basis for future production—but as I have attempted to demonstrate with the various examples offered in this chapter there is great heterogeneity in pirate industries and a few do function as economic feedback loops,

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albeit in a limited way. One example is the system used in Hong Kong which I discussed in chapter six. Producers, knowing that their films will be pirated anyway, sell a copy direct to pirate distributors who are happy to pay a small but substantial amount for the convenience of a clean copy delivered in a timely fashion. This is not that different from the presale situation in STV economies—small flat-fee payments, combined with advances from traditional channels and foreign territories, are enough to keep production rolling. Nigeria offers another kind of example, where the infinite reproducibility of discs is counter-balanced by a trade in the full-colour disc jackets which become the principal currency of exchange. Indeed, we can see a comparable kind of value-adding at work in the major studios’ emphasis on special features and original packaging of recent DVDs, to compensate for the diminished aura of the disc itself. Taking a comparative, transnational perspective on these industrial strategies reveals points of overlap as well as points of difference, and it demonstrates how in some senses pirate economies are not all that different from their formal counterparts. In most cases, piracy offers little or no economic incentive to producers, but nor does commercial distribution; value-adding can increase this reverse revenue flow, and is used by studios and pirates alike. We need therefore to be alert to the existence of

hybrid economies which contain elements of both legitimate and illegal distribution, as
these may well be the media economies of the future.

I want to conclude this chapter with a slightly counter-intuitive move by suggesting that perhaps it is time we abandoned piracy altogether as an analytical concept. (It is ironic that it has taken me a chapter to define, theorise and then ultimately negate the concept I am exploring, but so be it.) Piracy is a legal descriptor which obscures as much as it reveals. It tells us nothing about the histories of the commodities that end up in street stalls in Bangkok or floating around cyberspace as Bit Torrent files; it reduces material questions of access to abstract principles; it is a discursive sleight of hand

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which in its condemnation of activities at one end of the chain of production legitimises domination elsewhere. We need to think in terms of varieties of informal distribution instead. When populations across the world have equal access to film culture, when international law adequately protects the intellectual property of developing nations, when the Hollywood studios call an end to audiovisual dumping and oligopolistic collusion, when the New World Information Communication Order finally comes into being, when pigs take to the sky, then maybe the concept of piracy will start to have some analytical purchase. Until then, we need to resist the too-easy call to IP moralism and focus our attention on the ways in which the systems of distribution defended in anti-piracy campaigns involve their own forms of theft.

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Conclusion • 247


The path taken by this thesis through film culture has been a peripatetic one. I analysed distribution structures in Africa, the Americas, and the Asia-Pacific, moved from Hollywood boardrooms to streetside DVD stalls, and drew on a range of social-scientific and humanistic disciplines. The common thread tying together these elements has, however, been consistent—the material politics of film distribution.

I began by mounting an argument for the importance of distribution networks in shaping film culture, consumption, and content, and I demonstrated how film scholarship has been insufficiently attentive to these dynamics. I then synthesised material from existing studies to create a framework for a theory of distribution. Having established distribution as an issue worth investigating, I showed how looking at cinema from the perspective of distribution opens up a new kind of understanding of global film culture. I then demonstrated how distribution works to structure demand in the case of the major studios and their international affiliates, explaining how some of the defining characteristics of the mainstream Hollywood film industry—bottlenecks, concentration, standardisation—have their roots in the organisation of distributive systems. I argued that the arthouse circuit has similar problems in this respect, and is also subject to other kinds of forces which stratify and exclude audiences.

My next step was to argue that the multiplex and arthouse economies, which together constitute what we tend to think of as film culture and film business, are in fact only two circuits among many. Formal film culture accounts for a minority share of the

Conclusion • 248

world’s film consumption and should not be where our maps of global film culture begin and end. I argued for the importance of informal distribution as both an empirical reality—it is widespread in all nations and dominant in many—and a theoretical problem. My subcinema model was presented as an alternative analytic template, one which is alert to and can account for some of the characteristics of informal distribution, such as its deterritoriality, its statistical invisibility, its textual instability, the distracted forms of spectatorship it produces, and its cockroach-capitalist structure.

The remaining chapters examined three quite distinct systems of semi-formal and informal circulation, analysing the consumption practices, the social relations, and the modes of transnational engagement which they have brought into being. I began by looking at a subcinematic circuit which exists within the interstices of Hollywood—the straight-to-video distribution of B-grade genre movies. I explained how, even though the home-video market dances to the tune of the box office, there has always been a subcinematic space for a minor form of commercial film culture here. In its combination of mass- and niche-market tendencies, its peculiar mode of circulation, and its unusual scale—simultaneously marginal and immense—STV is a conundrum which can help us to develop a new model of cinema as something other than, or as well as, an apparatus, a textual system, and a series of ideological effects.

I then asked a similar set of questions of the very different kind of distributive system used in the Nigerian video film economy. As an almost entirely informal industry that exists outside conventional systems of production and distribution, Nigerian video is a compelling example of how informal media economies can house circulatory infrastructures which may in time solidify into legitimate distribution networks. As a distributive system, Nollywood is highly efficient; it gets films to people cheaply, quickly, and in great numbers. It is different from STV in numerous ways—its low level

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of capitalisation, its distinct textual forms, the demands of its audiences—but it also contains areas of overlap, including its marginal status within institutional film culture. I also made a case for the inherent transnationality of Nollywood. Even though it is often considered to be a thoroughly “local” film culture, Nigerian video is in fact a panAfrican dream factory which has global ambitions and is actively tapping into diasporic audiences.

Finally, I turned my attention to pirate economies, which are informal but also illegal. I argued that piracy is a mode of informal distribution which is used across the world and which is the only functional distribution system in many nations. I argued that we need to stop discussing piracy in moral terms, and that we need to start thinking about the kinds of practices that it makes possible. I offered a critical reading of six different arguments about piracy, demonstrating the shaky foundations upon which legal and moral arguments are built and the internal contradictions within the normative, laissezfaire, Marxist, postmodernist and free-speech readings of piracy. A case study of a pirate operation in Mexico City demonstrated how illegal duplication can in fact help to keep film cultures alive and facilitate forms of economic and social empowerment. These pirate literacies, I suggest, must have a place in any argument about the rights and wrongs of illegal distribution.

The informal distribution landscape is of course incredibly diverse, as I noted when explaining my subcinema model, and these three case studies do not cover all of its territory. There are many subcinematic networks that I have not had the opportunity to discuss here, such as the “video-letter” art projects of the 1970s, second-hand tape and disc trading networks, or the diasporic cinema circuits that exist right around the world (see for example Verhoeven 2007). Rather, the purpose of the case studies in this thesis

Conclusion • 250

has been to offer a representative sample of some of the modes of industrial organisation common within commercial subcinematic economies.

Each of the networks analysed here displays a different mix of characteristics and takes up different positions across the spectrum of informality at different times. Even within each network, there are conflicting tendencies and qualities. STV exists within a crevice of the mainstream film industry; piracy distributes mainstream and niche products but exists outside (and in antagonistic relation to) Hollywood’s industrial networks; while Nollywood is structurally disconnected from all conventional film industries. Nigerian video is legal and informal; STV is legal but semi-formal; piracy is illegal and informal. Despite their structural differences, these circuits have certain things in common which I have used as the basis for a comparative, transnational analysis, the benefits of which I set out in chapter one. As distributive systems they are all remarkably efficient and can circulate a high volume of product across vast spaces at relatively low cost. They are less prone to bottlenecks than formal distribution systems, as they do not rely on theatrical exhibition—in this respect they differ from the multiplex and arthouse distribution systems in which exhibition capacity constraints and the saturation release model artificially limit the number of films that can be released, and relegate most of these to obscurity. The kind of film consumption informal networks facilitate is often “degraded” in terms of the quality of images and sounds and is subject to higher levels of textual instability than official circuits. The mode of industrial organisation employed is decentred, flexible, and furtive. As such, these three distributive systems are consistent with the subcinema model I set out in chapter three, and they testify to its utility as an analytical template.

This thesis has its limitations, which I hope I have acknowledged throughout. One of these is the quality of the data which has guided my research and shaped my argument.

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Although I have gone to great lengths to ensure the accuracy of key statistics by crosschecking with multiple sources and being selective in regards to referenced sources, absolute integrity cannot be guaranteed due to the informal/semi-formal nature of these networks I have studied here. Unreliable data is not just an issue in informal industries—the level of manipulation to which box office figures from the major studios are subject renders Hollywood’s own data just as problematic, which is why I have steered clear of studio-supplied box office data. It should also be noted that the scope of the thesis could not accommodate fieldwork in Nigeria, and although I have included a series of original interviews I have for the most part relied on material by other scholars and analysts. Nonetheless, I am confident that the figures offered here are more than sufficient as a basis for the identification, description, and theorisation of common

logics and trends in formal and informal distribution, which has been my primary aim
throughout. As Manuel Castells argues in his study of the global criminal economy, even though data-gathering in informal settings is difficult, “we must use whatever evidence is available” (Castells 2000, 171). Future research on this topic would benefit from further empirical studies of individual subcinematic distributors, as these are lacking in the literature.

Another limitation of this thesis is its medium-specificity. By restricting my research to feature films, rather than documentaries, TV shows, or other audiovisual texts, I have excluded a large part of the audiovisual field from consideration. This necessarily involves an of analytical shrinkage as the mediascape is increasingly convergent, but it could not be helped here given the practical constraints of the thesis genre and my desire to develop a theoretical intervention speaking directly to the discipline of film studies. The way I framed the project also tended to exclude from consideration other fields of activity such as online distribution. Given the amount of research currently being conducted into digital cultures, I felt comfortable focussing instead on hard-

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format exchange, but the importance of developments in the digital sphere to all forms of distribution mean that it is increasingly difficult to make these distinctions. I hope that future work will pursue these connections further.

Despite these constraints, this thesis has offered a sustained intervention in the field of film scholarship backed up by a body of new research. Its principal contributions to existing scholarship can be boiled down to a handful of key points which I will briefly recap here. The first relates to cultural policy. The case studies in this thesis have demonstrated how informally distributed films are largely invisible when it comes to conventional indexes of circulation—trade statistics, box office figures, and so forth. As such, there is very limited information about who is watching what in the informal realm. Developing effective film policy under these conditions is difficult, and the end result often seems to be ineffective initiatives which privilege formal cinema institutions at the expense of what is happening on the ground. Policymakers, at the very least, need to be alert to informal circulation when developing benchmarks for the success or failure of subsidised films, taking more of an interest in what people are actually watching as well as what makes it into the box office charts. Whether film culture bodies want to get more involved in fostering subcinematic economies is a separate question. Subcinematic distribution will not be helpful in realising many of the objectives of national cultural policy, such as fostering national prestige through recognition at film festivals, but in other respects they can be extremely effective. Subcinematic distribution of films can boost tourism through the effective dissemination of images of a nation and can provide a cheap way for people to become involved in and even produce audiovisual culture, contributing to a sense of cultural citizenship. The recent turn towards creative industries policy frameworks is promising in this respect, for the creative industries approach may be better able to account for the social and economic outputs that media industries generate; however, I do feel

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policymakers need to be careful not to generalise creative industries’ preferred model of individualised, digitally-enhanced entrepreneurialism across sites where this is neither materially feasible nor culturally appropriate. I hope that the arguments of this thesis may therefore help in establishing subcinematic circuits as the legitimate objects of future cultural policy, within a transnational rather than Eurocentric framework.

Another way in which this thesis has contributed to debates in the field is by reconfiguring the relation between the material and symbolic dimensions of film consumption, and of materialist and culturalist forms of analysis. Throughout the thesis, I have demonstrated the inextricability of industrial organisation, textual content, and social practice, using an interdisciplinary approach which moves between different registers of analysis as needed. In doing so, I hope to have mapped out one way in which the theoretical bifurcation between film studies and political economy can be overcome. I want to conclude by stressing that this kind of film research should never be a case of “add economics and stir”. By theorising distribution as a cultural technology, I hope to have demonstrated that an analysis of industrial context is not only an essential consideration within cultural research but that it can itself constitute a basis for new forms of theory. As such, the cultural-materialist theory of distribution which I have developed here has not only generated new knowledge about film industry structure but has also helped to realise objectives of humanistic cultural analysis by theorising the relations that mediate between texts and texts, texts and people, and people and people. While the thesis has used an industrial vocabulary, it is at its core a project of socio-cultural analysis.

Finally, I hope this thesis has also offered a new perspective on the scale of cinema—a figure-ground reversal in which conventional maps of cinema dissolve and new territories emerge. In showing how formal film industries constitute only one part of a

Conclusion • 254

much larger, global film culture, the thesis has contributed to film studies by decentering the cinema as the privileged site of film exhibition and the West as the default location of film culture and film business. The significance of subcinematic networks as circulatory systems, cultural agents and textual mediators cannot be understated, and nor can the challenge they pose to conventional imaginaries of global media. I have demonstrated how, in subcinema, regimes of value and textual power are altered, new social relations are created, and film becomes refigured as a messy, entangled field of material circulation rather than an apparatus, an ideology, or a system of effects. As such, the subcinematic model can help us to finally say goodbye to the idealist model of cinema which insists on divorcing film from its socio-economic contexts and turning a blind eye to issues of access. This, I conclude, can only be a good thing for film studies.

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Filmography • 293


24 Hour Psycho, dir. Douglas Gordon, 1993 A Case of Honor, dir. Eddie Romero, 1988 A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune), dir. Georges Méliès, 1902 Àbẹní, dir. Tunde Kelani, 2006 African Youth, dir. Vigil Chime, 2007 Aladdin and the King of Thieves, dir. Tad Stones, 1995 Aleksandr Nevskiy, dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1938 American Pie, dir. Paul Weitz, 1999 Amor a ritmo de go go, dir. Miguel M. Delgado, 1966 Australia, dir. Baz Luhrmann, 2008 AVH: Alien vs Hunter, dir. Scott Harper, 2007 Batman, dir. Tim Burton, 1989 Benji, dir. Joe Camp, 1974 Black Caesar, dir. Larry Cohen, 1973 Black Cobra (Cobra nero), dir. Stelvio Massi, 1981 Black Cobra 2 (Cobra nero 2), dir. Stelvio Massi, 1988 Black Cobra 3 (Cobra nero 3), dir. Edoardo Margheriti, 1990

Filmography • 294

Black Cobra 4 / Detective Malone (Cobra nero 4), dir. Umberto Lenzi, 1990 Black Kissinger, dir. Jeff Ward, 2009 Bram Stoker’s Dracula, dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1992 Bring it on, dir. Peyton Reed, 2000 Cars, dir. John Lasseter and Joe Ranft, 2006 Cobra, dir. George P. Cosmatos, 1986 Collateral Damage, dir. Andrew Davis, 2002 Coming to America, dir. John Landis, 1988 Damaged Goods, dir. Phil Goldstone, 1937 Dangerous Twins, dir. Tade Ogidan, 2004 Death Wish, dir. Michael Winner, 1974 Demonstone, dir. Andrew Prowse, 1989 Dirty Harry, dir. Don Siegel, 1971 Domitilla, dir. Zeb Ejiro, 1997 Dr Mabuse (Dr. Mabuse, der spieler, ein bild der zeit), dir. Fritz Lang, 1922 Driving Force, dir. Andrew Prowse, 1989 Drug Wars: The Cocaine Cartel, dir. Paul Krasny, 1992 Easy Rider, dir. Dennis Hopper, 1969 El potro salvaje, dir. Rafael Baledón, 1958 Fantasm, dir. Richard Franklin, 1976 Fateful Love, dir. Simi Opeoluwa, 2004

Filmography • 295

Glamour Girls, dir. Kenneth Nnebue, 1994 Gone in 60 Seconds, dir. Dominic Sena, 2000 Good Copy Bad Copy, dir. Andreas Johnsen, Ralf Christensen, and Henrik Moltke, 2007 Gozu , dir. Miike Takashi, 2003 Her First Romance, dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1940 In the Year with 13 Moons (In einem jahr mit 13 monden), dir. Rainer Fassbinder, 1978 Jaws, dir. Steven Spielberg, 1975 JFK, dir. Oliver Stone, 1991 Kill Bill: Vol. 1, dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2003 King Kong, dir. Peter Jackson, 2005 La noire de… (Black Girl), dir. Ousmane Sembène, 1966 Lambada, dir. Joel Silberg, 1990 Left Behind II: Tribulation Force, dir. Bill Corcoran, 2002 Left Behind, dir. Vic Sarin, 2000 Left Behind: World at War, dir. Craig R. Baxley, 2005 Los fayuqueros de Tepito, dir. José Luis Urquieta, 1982 Mama Mia Italiana, dir. Bob Smith Jr, 1995 Manchester Bound, dir. Vigil Chime, 2007 Mandabi, dir. Ousmane Sembène, 1968 Meet John Doe, dir. Frank Capra, 1941 Night of the Living Dead, dir. George A. Romero, 1968

Filmography • 296

One Dollar, dir. Gabriel Moses, 2003 Osuofia in London, dir. Kingsley Ogoro, 2003 Patrick, dir. Richard Franklin, 1978 Platoon, dir. Oliver Stone, 1986 Poland Fights for Democracy, dir. unknown, n.d. Princess Raccoon, dir. Seijun Suzuki, 2005 Quantum of Solace, dir. Marc Foster, 2008 Rome: Open City (Roma, città aperta), dir. Roberto Rossellini, 1945 Santo vs las mujeres vampiro, dir. Alfonso Corona Blake, 1962 Saraband, dir. Ingmar Bergman, 2003 Savage Justice, dir. Joey Romero, 1988 sex, lies, and videotape, dir. Steven Soderbergh, 1989 Sinful Souls, dir. unknown, n.d. Skyscraper, dir. Raymond Martino, 1996 Snakes on a Train, dir. Peter Mervis, 2006 Spider-Man 3, dir. Sam Raimi, 2007 Spider-Man, dir. Sam Raimi, 2002 Still Poland is not Lost, dir. unknown, n.d. Street Crimes (Dead Even), dir. Stephen Smoke, 1992 Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, dir. Todd Haynes, 1987 Sympathy in Summer, dir. Antony I Ginnane, 1971

Filmography • 297

The Asphalt Jungle, dir. John Huston, 1950 The Bicycle Thief, dir. Vittoria de Sica, 1948 The Corpse had a Familiar Face, dir. Joyce Chopra, 1994 The Da Vinci Code, dir. Ron Howard, 2006 The Da Vinci Treasure, dir. Peter Mervis, 2006 The Dead Pool, dir. Buddy van Horn, 1988 The Gang’s All Here, dir. Jean Yarbrough, 1941 The Lion King, dir. Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, dir. Peter Jackson, 2001 The Passion of the Christ, dir. Mel Gibson, 2004 The Proposition, dir. John Hillcoat, 2005 The Return of Jafar, dir. Toby Shelton, Tad Jones, and Alan Zaslove, 1994 The Ring (Ringu), dir. Hideo Nakata, 1998 The Siege of Firebase Gloria, dir. Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1989 The Simpsons, Fox Broadcasting Company, 1989 Thirst, dir. Rod Hardy, 1979 To the Limit, dir. Raymond Martino, 1995 Tomorrow Never Dies, dir. Roger Spottiswoode, 1997 Transmorphers, dir. Leigh Scott, 2007 Turkey Shoot, dir. Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1982 Virgin Bride, dir. unknown, n.d.

Filmography • 298

X-Men Origins: Wolverine, dir. Gavin Hood, 2009