Shadow Economies of Cinema: Mapping Informal Film Distribution

Ramon Lobato,
Shadow Economies of Cinema: Mapping Informal Film Distribution
London: British Film Institute/Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-84457-411-7
US$85 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Palgrave Macmillan)

Ramon Lobato opens this impressively researched book with a personal anecdote about attending the Melbourne International Film Festival and finding many of the same films at a shop “of dubious legality” just around the corner. Hi Ramon, remember me? I was the guy rifling through the buy-one-get-one-free Korean dvds. So here’s my MIFF story. In 2009 all of the Chinese films were pulled from the festival after the Chinese government’s angry response to the festival’s inclusion of The Ten Conditions of Love (2009). I simply went around the corner and, for $12 each, bought copies of all the films I was going to miss. We probably all have anecdotes such as these – which illustrates the author’s point about the actual centrality of supposedly marginal practices.

Lobato identifies his work as a “counter-narrative” (13) and constantly returns to what his study is not. It is not an aesthetic approach to cinema. He gleefully admits that the mountain of straight-to-video (STV) production that swirls around the film markets, dvds shops and the lonely hours of pay tv is pretty forgettable stuff (“they do not respond well to an analysis based on notions of textual meaning” [36]). The sheer existence of so much of this stuff and its continued consumption are grounds for taking an interest in it. Lobato claims that the key question is access rather than textual power or affect. Where the psychoanalytical paradigm placed power in the textual structures, this author wants to relocate it into distribution pipelines. People may or may not make what they will of films, but only those films they have a chance to watch.

He makes the eminently sensible observation that the power of governments to control what we see and under which circumstances, pales into insignificance beside the power of the distribution sector. For many in cinema studies, distribution has generally equated to the study of global Hollywood, the international hegemony of almost the last hundred years. However, this is not another book about defining national cinemas through their accommodations of Hollywood’s global system. Far from it. Lobato writes of “approaching global industries not as surfaces for US domination but as a complex of networks with their own logics, strategies and ambitions” (3).

The task can be summed as one of multiple decentrings – moving film studies away from textual analysis to industrial analysis, and moving industrial analysis away from a preoccupation with Hollywood to the multitude of other sets of films, institutions and practices which constitute a majority of the ways that films move around the world and encounter audiences. The starting premise of the study is that “moving image culture is increasingly disembedded from the major studios’ product pipelines” (1). The enemy here are authors like Edward Jay Epstein or Toby Miller, both of whom paint pictures of the inescapable logic of global Hollywood’s blockbuster-multiplex-wide release strategies.[1] If you look at the way that Disney’s The Avengers (2012) opened on 621 screens in Australia earlier this year and accounted for 67% of the total theatrical box office that weekend, you might be forgiven for raising a sceptical eyebrow in Lobato’s direction.

He sees this decentring process as giving more bottom-up (or least mid-level accounts) of image circulation that are based on the experiences of a wider number of people around the world, rather than simply on economic size. This holds out the possibility of an account of international film distribution that has more spaces in it for local agency, which might evade the dominance of Hollywood, but which might also be autonomous in relation to it (for example, the rise of Nigerian production and distribution that has spread throughout much of Africa.)

As much as the Motion Picture Association of America would like to claim that it constitutes the lion’s share of the international cinema market, Lobato points to three major ways in which image circulation evades the top-down narratives of Hollywood domination. First, he draws his examples from lower down the food chain of Hollywood-style production by invoking straight-to-video genre production, which draws in the multitude of exploitation bottom feeders, porn, special interest filmmaking, even Anthony Ginnane. The book outlines differences in the mode of production and distribution: geographic dispersal rather than concentration, simultaneous saturation release rather than sequentially windowed exploitation of different platforms; opportunistic circulation rather than orderly movement across neatly bounded territories and platforms.

The second form of image circulation that evades Hollywood does so by virtue of its geographic locus in what might loosely be called third world markets. The primary focus here is the circulation of popular cinema in countries such as Nigeria and Mexico. Nollywood – as much as Lobato wants to find clear air beyond Hollywood even the nomenclature keeps on dragging him back – is the second biggest production industry in the world if measured by the sheer number of features produced each year (though of course, not once we start to talk about money) and if we define feature filmmaking broadly to include the circulation of material shot on video, according to a televisual aesthetic, financed and circulated by those who sell dvds and vcds. Once again, there is a decentring here of the model of what constitutes the primary textual unit of the industry.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there is piracy. One of the great virtues of this book is that it provides such a fine introduction and overview of this contentious topic. After a quick recap of the historical development of copyright law, Lobato sets out the sensible position that there is no single ontological status that can be claimed for piracy. It is a simplification to label it as inherently good or bad; rather it functions in different ways with different effects in different social, historical and industrial contexts. Instead of setting out a simple theoretical framework, he reviews the literature in a broad-ranging way and helpfully divides it into six theoretical positions. Piracy can be seen (1) as simple theft, (2) as the flourishing of commercial activity in a way that actually aids the maintenance of markets by broadening participation and consumption, (3) as a way of facilitating freedom of expression, (4) as a postmodern celebration of the death of individual authorship, (5) as a tactical form of resistance, and (6) as a means of making available otherwise inaccessible texts. Lobato draws no conclusion, other than to signal that different arguments might have different degrees of persuasiveness depending on the context in which they are deployed. Along the way he provides a rich commentary on the ideas on which the literature is based.

As valuable as the theoretical bases of the study of piracy are practical examples of the integration of pirate economies with the commercial media industries in Nigeria and Mexico. In the case of the former, the institutions whose origins were in piracy have provided the basis for much of the infrastructure of the new production industry. In the latter, the pirate retail sector was done much of the work of preservation and access in an economy where the state is severely curtailed in its capability.

The final study of piracy extends its overview into the internet and the ‘grey zone’ of on-line lockers, video sharing sites and bit torrenting. Lobato might be complimented on the thoroughness of his work here although I am sure the chapter will be out of date quickly. He focuses on the continuum of practices to be found on-line and the ways in which copyright-holders will encourage the circulation of works on sites such as Youtube for promotional purposes, while at the same time decrying the violation of their rights. There is much that was new to me concerning linking sites and video-hosting as well as the growth in denial of service attacks launched by copyright enforcement services, which are themselves of dubious legality.

It is important to point out that Lobato’s emphasis on the bottom up study of distribution does not result in a facile celebration of power from below. He never denies the power of the established distribution sector, nor does he join the celebration of putatively liberating powers of new technologies.

Shadow Economies of Cinema is a strong addition to the literature on contemporary industry studies. It also demonstrates an admirable grasp of a wide range of fields upon which cinema studies is starting to impinge. Lobato ends with a call for cinema studies “to open up a dialogue with other fields that specialise in cultural circulation from anthropology to economics” (116). We can see this dialogue in the ways that cultural geography and media law have become more central to the work of many film scholars in the past decade. Lobato is clearly a young media scholar (the book stems from his thesis at the University of Melbourne) who is widely read across a broad range of these fields and this is a significant contribution to the types of dialogue that he is seeking to encourage.

[1] Edward Jay Epstein, The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2010); Toby Miller, Nitin Govil, John McMurria, Richard Maxwell and Ting Wang, Global Hollywood 2 (London: BFI, 2005).

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.