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Helpful Definitions and a Chart

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn

A close reading of Bajir Cannon's London School of Economics dissertation, "The united states of unscreened cinema:The political economy of the self-distribution of cinema in the U.S."reveals much insight into the challenges and frustrations that self-distribution presents to a filmmaker.

Cannon's work will continue to be a reference point as we delve further into our area of study, but for now he does provide us with what could help us work towards a functioning definition of "grassroots" film -- a difficult and tricky term, but one that we should strive to clarify.

Cannon cites another author's definition of independent film, then the problems with their definition:

"Garnham (1994) identifies three sectors of independent film: 1) Hollywood-financed subsidiary production, 2) independent production that is acquired by the Hollywood studios for distribution after completion, and 3) independent production for specialized markets that do not compete with Hollywood within the exhibition sector (for which he offers as examples ‘nature films and soft porn’). Garnham fails to locate the significant majority of films currently produced each year in the U.S.: films that must compete with Hollywood within the exhibition sectors, but are produced and distributed entirely independently of the Hollywood studios." (page 8).

We can then assert that there should be a fourth sector here, the kinds of films that Cannon names at the end, that Garnham fails to account for. Indeed, in another part of Cannon's dissertation he cites the statistic that over 1,900 films were submitted to the Sundance Film Festival in 2009, and that of that 3% were accepted (Cannon, page 3). Of that percentage, a similarly tiny percentage were then picked up by distribution companies from Hollywood. All of this points means that this fourth category -- of films that are produced and distributed totally independent of Hollywood -- is increasingly huge.

Would it be appropriate to label this fourth category as "grassroots films"? Though it's tempting, it raises serious problems. For one, it means that anything released by some of the most popular independent film distributors is grassroots. So, "It's a Disaster," starring recognizable actors like Julia Stiles and America Ferrera, distributed by (non-Hollywood-based) Oscilloscope Laboratories, would be a "grassroots" film. It would also mean that a micro-budget, regional, genre-busting film like "Beasts of the Southern Wild," starring non-professional, hitherto unrecognizable actors, would be disqualified from being a "grassroots" because it was distributed by Fox Searchlight (a Hollywood company associated with a major studio).

Could there be a fifth sector of independent film, for films that are produced and distributed entirely independently of any external company? In other words, where the filmmakers are doing everything themselves? These would certainly qualify as grassroots films, but it would exclude significant efforts made in service of films that might have formal distribution but are undeniably grassroots. For example, "Super High Me" was distributed by Red Envelope and B-Side, but in a manner that very much conjures the strictest definition of "grassroots" (read about how they did it in our post here).What we can conclude is that "grassroots" is a term that can define a whole film, or could define just the manner in which it is distributed. To define it in opposition to the involvement of Hollywood, or formal companies in general, is too simplistic. 

However, Cannon does hit upon some less problematic definitions, in breaking down what all goes into film distribution. The chart (Figure 1, Page 9), and its attendant definitions (Appendix II) are below.

Screen shot 2013-05-03 at 6.24.38 PM
Screen shot 2013-05-03 at 6.24.38 PM

Cannon defines the terms as such:

Marketing: The commercial advertising of a film. Publicity: The efforts to promote awareness of a film; through press, social networks, word-of- mouth outreach campaigns, etc. Circulation: The shipping, uploading, downloading, and sharing of a film. Transmission: The delivery, projection, and exhibition of a film. Management: The strategizing, selling, and sales fulfillment of a film.

These definitions address one fact we know about the modern cinema landscape: with online technology, everyone can be both an exhibitor and a distributor without having any formal role in the film industry. But what Cannon is tackling is the fact that it's too simple to place them all under the same broad terms. Per Cannon, sharing a trailer on Facebook, for example, transforms an audience member specifically into an agent of publicity. Downloading a film and giving it to a friend makes one part of a film's "circulation."

We can consider these terms and their relationship to each other as we go further in our study.