Christie Pitts film festival

Circuits of Cinema

Last month I attended the ‘Circuits of Cinema‘ conference at Ryerson University in Toronto. The conference was impeccably hosted by Paul Moore and Jessica Whitehead, with an excellent team of student volunteers. It was part of the research project of the same name, and also doubled as the annual meeting of the HoMER (History of Moviegoing, Exhibition and Reception) Network. As with any conference, I could only be at one panel at a time, so my notes can only reflect one perspective of a rich and varied event (you can browse the abstracts by location and timeline on this Prospect visualisation). Luckily it was possible to catch up with the presenters you had missed over generous lunch and coffee breaks, the all-day workshop on Quantum GIS, and at a superb after-hours programme which included the premiere of an oral history project with some of the pioneers of Canadian distribution, many of whom attended the screening; and a memorable visit to the Elgin Theatre and Winter Gardens. You may get other glimpses of the conference’s topics under the #Circuits2017 hashtag.

These social aspects are part of individual and collective scholarship, which is why the difficulties that most researchers from the Global South face to travel to conferences are an obstacle to our full participation in any field. The acknowledgement by Paul of those missing voices was an important gesture that should be amplified in future conferences. Also very important is the decision by the organisers to programme plenary panels including emerging scholars, rather than ‘big name’ keynotes. This is important because it makes people more visible to one another, which is one of the roles of a research network. In that sense HoMER is thriving. But there is one of its old objectives that comes back time and again as a horizon to hope for: data integration. With the loss of Karel Dibbets, we lost one of the main champions for the development of common standards and shared datasets for cinema history, and it’s natural to want to take stock.

While Karel’s project, Cinema Context, will continue to develop and to lead the way as a hub for comparative cinema history, I think it is also important to recognise that research in the field is blooming in all sorts of other ways. There has always been a methodological eclecticism in this field that allows people to follow their curiosity, and the disparate nature of our projects is a strength rather than a problem to solve. The platforms for sharing datasets have existed for many years now, but the fact that we have been slow to use them suggests that it is not a priority for everyone, and I think that’s fine.

Perhaps the biggest dataset used by a HoMER researcher is the Kinomatics dataset of global movie times, but unfortunately that is not licensed to be shared. Deb Verhoeven, however, opened the conference with new work on a different, smaller dataset on gender in the Australian film industry. This is an example of where empirical analysis of a relatively modest dataset can generate new insights into how domination actually works. That men dominate the film industry is a trivial observation, but the precise mechanisms through which they maintain this control need to be understood in order to be fought, whether through policy or direct action. Verhoeven gives substance to the concept of network domination, which needs to be brought into play alongside more established notions of hierarchical power and hegemony – but it takes a very skilled data wrangler to spot and name these patterns. It takes a feminist to identify these specific forms of male domination; it takes some theory.

The ‘Gender Offender’ visualisation, using Gephi to show connections between producers and other creatives in Australian film production. By Deb Verhoeven with Stuart Palmer (click on the image to go to Deb’s analysis).

Similarly, studying distribution demands data, but it also demands a certain literacy to make sense of it. Distribution is an ideal arena for modest, grounded theorising. This has been one of the tenets of new cinema history, and so it was not surprising to see this approach articulated with particular clarity in one of the plenary sessions dedicated to more established scholars: Judith Thissen, Keff Klenotic, Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, conference organiser Paul Moore, and Project Arclight‘s Eric Hoyt all had their own ways of weaving historical understanding between the particular and the emergent. The conference also marked the retirement of Richard Maltby, who named New Cinema History and has written and edited some of its key texts. Richard’s recent work on Hollywood’s constant engagement with monopoly law is another example of this multi-level approach. Operating in the high spheres of politics as well as on the fine print of a provincial renter’s agreements, film distribution demands a structural view. However, it is easy to imagine this structure to be more solid, logical and efficient than it actually is. It is made of many overlapping patterns and localised interactions, and the kind of data required to be able to see this is not necessarily “big”. Instead, it might be more useful to have deliberate slices of data collection, used comparatively (I tried to do this when studying early distribution in Scotland, by looking at programming on two single dates across Scotland). In her presentation, for instance, Andrea Cominsky used a sample of 120 films across two seasons in ten exchange areas, allowing her to discuss the granular nuances of film selling during the classical period. This challenges the assumption of rigidity of the run-zone-clearance system, showing that less prestigious films could bypass first-run houses and premiere elsewhere.

One potential problem with film distribution research that places emphasis on systematic data collection is that it excludes most of the more informal types of circulation, and it risks privileging the types of research that are mostly available in Global North countries with reliable government records and digitised newspapers. The risk of overplaying data compatibility is to underplay, for instance, the story of film recycling in Iran as told by Kaveh Askari, where the paperwork indicates a destruction date for films at the end of their distribution, but the reality was that of prints continuing to circulate with a magnetic dubbed track pasted on top of the optical soundtrack, in a local enterprise that grew into its own production studios (and continued to recycle music). Or the story of the circulation of Cantinflas films in Brazil through RKO (as researched by Nilo Couret), or the active role of French distribution monopolies in blocking the circulation of African cinema (researched by Nikolaus Perneczky). The fact that indigenous communities in Brazil are exchanging DVD recordings of their rituals (as Samuel Leal showed) would be invisible from a data perspective.

Cara Caddoo argued that the first African-American distribution outfit, the Lincoln Film Company, were rebuffed in their efforts to market film independently as the kind of ‘hustling’ that was already untenable in the late 1910s. There’s certainly a lot of hustling in today’s film landscape, from crowdfunding indie producers to scrappy new festivals and trendy ‘start-ups’, as well as the vast informal/pirate sector. But the forces of consolidation are always closing in. Witness the missed opportunity of digital cinema, which instead of removing the access constraints posed by the materiality of a film print that cannot be in two places at once, replaced them with digital locks and arcane ways to maintain exclusivity. Leo Rubinkowski traced the emergence of ‘end-to-end facilitators’ in the exhibition industry, that is, companies concerned with the delivery of digital content to screens. Through Digital Cinema Distribution Coalition’s command of 70% of the US theatrical market, satellite delivery of DCPs to proprietary hardware has become the industry standard. However, as Rubinkowski argues, this model doesn’t serve the needs of the independent market, which cannot justify the costs for a smaller release. While there are smaller companies serving that market, the general trend is towards a standardisation of the theatrical film market, with a handful of companies becoming gatekeepers. Ian Robinson’s work on event cinema, Carter Moulton’s work on opening weekends, and Charlotte Orzel’s paper on ‘branded premium experiences’ now constituting almost half of the box office at multiplexes, all show that mainstream commercial exhibition isn’t giving up its love of exclusivity and tight grip on audience choice.

Toronto's Cineforum, holding out against premium branded experiences.

Toronto’s Cineforum, holding out against premium branded experiences.

On the other hand, non-theatrical exhibition was represented by a wild array of historical and contemporary practices. Nora Stone talked about the ITV Community Cinema, which toured PBS documentaries, pointing out that while commercial media counts on the market to increase diversity, public TV does it as part of its remit. In her talk about left-wing film distribution, Tanya Goldman pointed out that, while mainstream cinema distribution consolidated its corporate hierarchies, alternative left-wing film distribution was a collaborative process. The ideal of counter-cinema thus involved both content and context, using politically charged spaces and activating relationships between local organisations and global struggles in a practical way, through propaganda and fundraising. Diane Wei Lewis also talked about Japan’s Prokino (the Proletarian Film League), which took this grassroots approach to filmmaking and exhibition as “everyday interventions”, using first an underground mobile unit and then a network of local organisers. Politics aside, this has interesting parallels with the Highlands and Islands Film Guild, or the National Film Board of Canada, which also combined mobile units and fixed outposts, feeling that the latter allowed for a closer connection with the community.

It is a complex ecosystem, except that that metaphor suggests some kind of symbiotic harmony. There is interdependence, to be sure, but there is also domination. Not all networks are the same. It is hard to think of a historical example in which systematised data collection hasn’t led to an entrenchment of power and exclusion – and yet any emancipatory theory worth its salt has to be able to grasp and act on patterns. So in an academic world dominated by too much comparison, by constant rating and ranking, by shrinking research budgets given to fewer, bigger projects, I am glad cinema history retains its obscure nooks and crannies, its Luddite corners, its little ad-hoc datasets and its irreducibility. I’m glad too for the patient work of formatting data, cleaning spreadsheets, running stats, plotting graphs and maps to find out where all those anomalies fit in or stick out (or where, as Laura Isabel Serna reminded us in the last plenary, the margins constitute the centre). And I’m especially grateful for these opportunities to plug into other people’s curiosity, to weave this web knot by knot whether offline or on – opportunities that I certainly don’t take for granted.

Conference delegates at the Winter Gardens (photo: Paul Moore)

Live lassoing at Glasgow Film Festival's screening of Thelma and Louise

Live a little

Last week started and ended thinking about liveness and cinema. At Stirling, the symposium on Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound traced the gradual fracture of the link between live music and the moving image; then, in London, the Live Cinema conference traced its re-emergence. The histories are, of course, much less linear than this curve suggests. The Live Cinema conference marked the launch of a report on the state of ‘live cinema’ in the UK, based on research conducted over the past year (with last summer snappily identified as ‘the summer of live’), and a themed section in the current issue of Participations bringing together a series of case studies around ‘secret cinema’. The Illuminations blog has a perceptive blow-by-blow account of the day, with reflections that resonate with my argument here.

Back at Stirling, Trevor Griffiths showed how the Musicians’ Union membership had shrunk dramatically at the turn of the sound era, as cinema musicians everywhere lost their jobs; now, according to the report, film exhibition is a growing source of employment for some musicians, engaged to create and perform music for silent and classic films. Stephen Horne offered an astonishing demonstration at Stirling with his live piano accompaniment to A cottage in Dartmoor (1929), which amplified the film’s gut-wrenching emotional power, its vanguardist montage and meticulous cinematography. The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema has made a name for itself as a commissioner of new scores and prime location for silent film music. However, the report also suggests that some of the exhibitors that put on silent film with live music are hesitant to be brought under the banner of ‘live cinema’.

Here we come to the matter of definitions, which was at the heart of the discussion during the conference at King’s College. One of the aims of the Live Cinema in the UK report is ‘creating a common definition’. But common to what? Throughout the conference, different people had different visions of what the term meant, or whether a term was needed at all. That the proposed moniker refers to the concept of ‘liveness’ further complicates things. The romantic associations of liveness critiqued by Philip Auslander (magic, energy, authenticity, community) keep appearing in exhibitors’ discourse.

“Live performance […] has become the means by which mediatized representations are naturalized, according to a simple logic that appeals to our nostalgia for what we assumed was the im-mediate: if the mediatized image can be recreated in a live setting, it must have been “real” to begin with”. (Auslander, Liveness, p. 54)

From a media theory standpoint, we’ve been here before and had this conversation already, though it is by no means a closed case. What was more interesting about the panels was the evidence of how ‘live’ works as a marketing category. While some academic participants felt there could have been more reflection, the conference offered a privileged opportunity to hear about how the idea of ‘live’ is being mobilised in relation to screening events by a growing industry.

One key distinction that the report, and the conference, alternatively drew and blurred, is that between the terms ‘Live Cinema’ and ‘Event Cinema’. This is in part because there is already an Event Cinema Association, and they have positioned that term in replacement of the too-vague ‘alternative content’ to mean, essentially, livecasting: the presentation in cinema venues of live transmissions of events. Siding with Rick Altman and many other exhibition/audience scholars, I would say ‘event cinema’ is tautological, as any instantiation of cinema takes place somewhere, sometime, and is therefore an event. Pedantry aside, however, I take more issue with the notion that this is ‘cinema’ because it takes place in a cinema auditorium. The medium is, plainly, television. And the mode of spectatorship and context of performance, according to Martin Barker’s research, are completely different from those associated with film. For instance, livecast opera audiences, according to Barker, book their tickets differently, interact differently with the front of house, and expect people to be quiet and not munching popcorn. People attending a big-screen transmission of a football match will behave more like they would at a stadium than at a movie, and so on. The cinema-ness is decentred from the cinema space; as Barker said, these opera audiences feel they’ve ‘reclaimed’ the cinema space.

But for the sake of argument let’s let livecasts be called Event Cinema, and take that out of the equation when we talk about the other stuff. In the report, the researchers advance a definition of Live Cinema as “a film screening utilising additional performance or interactivity inspired by the content of the film.” (p. 4) This is an odd definition because it only mentions two of the three categories that Sarah Atkinson and Helen Kennedy have also outlined in their introduction to the Participations dossier. This is a very useful opening contribution to a research field that is only getting established, and as such I have some respectful disagreements with this taxonomy. The ‘participatory’ category is fairly self-explanatory, including singalongs, cosplay, and dancing, for instance. The ‘augmented’ category covers live or mediated performances, or exhibition contexts, that ‘add a further dimension to the filmic text’ (live music being an example). But then there’s the seemingly more modest ‘enhanced’ category, in which ‘the physical experience is enhanced but this is not relative to the story of the film’ (p. 141). Outdoor screenings are given as an example, but more often than not these are arranged with some attention to the film content. A question emerges later over whether Q&As are to be considered Live Cinema (I don’t think so). As Atkinson and Kennedy point out, theirs is a pioneering incursion into the field, and their taxonomies are meant to be tested and refined. At the moment, they perhaps try to account for too much diversity, in order to justify the inclusion of such disparate experiences in the strange agglomeration of Live Cinema.

So we come back to the question of definition. Over on Twitter, the Events Cinema Association, who are anxious about the proliferation of terms, claimed that labels are not important for audiences (while defending theirs…)

Indeed, the relatively small surveys conducted for the report show general confusion or vagueness between both exhibitors and audiences about the term ‘Live Cinema’, but then concluded that this could be resolved by educating the audience, “informing them that live cinema is a unique brand proposition”. (p. 17). And this is a crucial insight.

Responding to repeated claims for the novelty of participatory screenings, Matt Jones reminded the panel that none of this is actually new. Atkinson and Kennedy fully acknowledge this, citing ‘expanded cinema, happenings, ballyhoo’ amongst the genealogies of the phenomena they study (p. 148). What seems to have changed is, on the one hand, the commercialisation of previously marginal practices (non-theatrical exhibition, fan/cult expression), and on the other, the centering of previously ancillary promotional practices: Ballyhoo as core experience, served up by dedicated producers. The preoccupation with terminology is understandable, because, as quoted above, the term Live Cinema is intended as branding. Branding, in this case, creates differentiation and manages audience expectations, as well as helping justify increased ticket prices. As Auslander says in relation to 1990s ‘interactive theatre’,

“the ostensible evanescence and nonrepeatibility of the live experience ironically become selling points to promote a product that must be fundamentally the same in each of its instantiations” (Liveness, p. 61).

If I was asked to come up with a marketing term, however, I would propose ‘extraordinary’ or simply ‘special screenings’ (Glasgow Film Festival brands its strand simply as ‘Special Events’). Liveness is not their essence; liveness is sometimes their method, a way to create artificial scarcity in a market in which consumers are supposed to have instant access to everything everywhere all the time. Site-specificity is another way to make a screening special, and it is not covered by ‘liveness’. It is important that the events in question are ephemeral and not easily scalable; they must be exclusive in some sense, and the audience must believe their experiences are unique.

These audiences are courted and placated, engaged and reassured, allowing them to enjoy the thrills of riskless discovery. Precisely a month after the Radical Film Network weekend, this narrow devotion to pleasure and ‘fun’ rang a bit hollow. This is confirmed by the statistics included in the report, which, although preliminary, are informative. There are no indicators of socio-economic status, but 100% of the people surveyed at live cinema events claimed to be ‘frequent cultural events attendees’. When asked whether the market might have reached saturation point, panellists rejected the idea, claiming that ‘people want options’. This foregrounding of choice and consumer ‘power’ (somewhat reminiscent of the more sinister Higher Education White Paper released this month) is part of the positioning of this sector as a commercial alternative to the multiplex. More often than not, this is a choice of distinction, in the Bourdieusian sense. The motivation for ever more inventive ways to capture our overstretched attention seems to be to capture premium customers, those privileged enough to be bored of the multiplex. Interesting tropes of controlled playfulness, connected to gaming, also inform the sector’s ideology of ‘fun’, as Atkinson and Kennedy have shown elsewhere.

The attention economy is cut-throat, and there is a huge amount of creativity and hard work going into the planning of very complex ‘total artworks’. Some event producers are thriving, and good luck to them; some are surviving, most are still doing and depending on lots of unpaid labour. Commercial viability has been achieved by adopting mass-media/bourgeois aesthetics: nostalgia, novelty, lack of dissonance, comfort, etc. As the Radical Film Network attests, a critical underground continues to pose a DIY alternative to this appropriation, but it is also often subsumed in the seemingly apolitical variety of cultural consumption. The mainstreaming of non-theatrical, participatory forms, in particular, makes them available to a broader audience, but erodes their oppositional potential. The degree to which there is indeed an oppositional potential in any of these phenomena (whether mass-mediatic or not) depends on the extent of your cultural pessimism, but I remain unconvinced that ‘more stuff’ is necessarily the best use of our energies. Then again, I would say that. Discuss…

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Secrets, spectacles, suspicions

I’ve been thinking about Secret Cinema a lot this week. I used their short video of the Back to the Future screening in two lectures: First, in relation to Sarah Atkinson and Helen Kennedy’s work on the performative and gaming-inflected practices of SC audiences (and their pitfalls); and second, as part of a discussion about the way ‘pop-up’ cinema is so strongly associated with particular London happenings. In both cases, as the students watched the pyrotechnics and synchronised stunts in awe, I was once again transfixed by the spectacle (ok, also by the brief glimpse of a bearded Jarvis Cocker). The amount of preparation and precision, the commitment of the participants to dress codes and choreographed behaviours, the sheer scale of the thing are hugely impressive, especially when cut in the style of a music video to great tunes and presumably blending together the best bits over several runs of the event.
The massive, spectacular nature of Secret Cinema, its steep ticket prices, and its move from underground-ish to premium release window for films like Prometheus and The Grand Budapest Hotel have made it an obvious flashpoint for discussions of gentrification, pointing to an entitled relationship to urban space as a playground that obscures very real conflicts. Similar critiques have been directed at many other temporary uses of urban space conforming to a familiar pattern: white, young, relatively privileged entrepreneurs setting up a ‘pop-up’ shop/café/gallery/etc in a bit of the city seen as in need of regeneration, where that ‘regeneration’ implies the displacement of existing communities – either priced out of the area or straight-up evicted when housing states are condemned. (Lots of people have written about this; see for instance the work of Jen Harvie and Ella Harris) Most of these entrepreneurs have good intentions, but the playfulness of the ‘pop-up’ is often bound up with privilege, and always at risk of being co-opted. This year’s Turner Prize winners, the London collective Assemble, are arguably much more committed to grassroots, community engagement (not just the dressing-up-and-dancing-along variety); and yet, their very influential pop-up projects have encountered similar distrust.
Of course people will be suspicious when the posterboys and girls of the ‘creative economy’, whatever that is, suddenly turn up to places they had ignored before. Urban space is rife with tension, as the public becomes privatised and the state curtails its functions to focus on upholding the interests of a corporate elite. Glasgow City Council’s aborted idea of blowing up the Red Road flats as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games showed us just how blatant this spectacularisation of working-class erasure could be. So I was not surprised when I read this morning that a group of Tower Hamlet residents had posted an ‘open letter’ to Secret Cinema, with regards to their forthcoming season of immersive screenings of the zombie film, 28 Days Later. Promotional images had emerged of Ernö Goldfinger’s brutalist masterpiece, the Balfron Tower, which seemed to imply that the Secret Cinema event would take place there or nearby. The Balfron Social Club called this ‘distasteful and inappropriate’, and furthering ‘an aggressive social cleansing agenda that is destroying our communities’.
The blog post was widely retweeted – with increasing levels of outrage, as tends to be the case in recent social media debates.

Only a couple of hours later, the Balfron Social Club reported that they had received a reply from Secret Cinema, which was posted under the original blog entry. This was a brief and informal email explaining that Secret Cinema did not plan to use that location, and that ‘we’ve used images of the tower because it’s a prominent part of the original film, not because it’s the location for our event.’ This seemed to calm things down, and yet what had surfaced was a long-held suspicion that this is the kind of thing they would do.

In short, most people were prepared to believe that ‘Secret Cinema are dickheads (again)‘, and even when the confusion was cleared up, the perception persists. This is partly explained by the very real sense of exclusion produced by £65 tickets. On the other hand, there is growing weariness with and suspicion of pop-up everything. The rather uninformed idealism that propelled the start of the pop-up trend is being replaced with cynicism. A critical eye on all and any appropriations of public and community spaces is healthy, no doubt. But it is also dangerous to reject anything that looks like spectacle, or like fun, because it won’t address structural injustice: If I can’t dance, etc. Amongst all the scripting and rules and fireworks, there is a playfulness in lots of pop-up stuff that shouldn’t be ignored. We can have the playfulness without the sense of entitlement, can’t we?