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)