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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 


A Large Caveat to Remarks on a Changing Landscape

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn

Given the considerable boon in film production, met with the general stasis of "traditional" distribution channels, more than ever filmmakers have questions on how they can find effective means of getting their own films out to audiences. The intent of our research is to explore the efficacy of particular models based in political campaign structures and tactics. The flip side to the technology that creates such a glut in films produced is the technology that more easily enables their distribution. The impulse in discourse about the "changing landscape" of film distribution is to celebrate these new means of viewing films -- that modes like Video on Demand or digital distribution help match audiences to films that might otherwise go unnoticed. Take, for example this passage in Bajir Cannon's "The united states of unscreened cinema"  as he refers to "the key roles new technologies play in disrupting established power relations and increasing opportunities for democratic activism, participation, and competition (Bennett, 2003; Kellner, 1990; Picard, 2000), in challenging the concentration of ownership and media power (Compaine and Gomery, 2000; Negroponte, 1996), and, through emerging ‘horizontal’ distribution networks and the blurring line between mass and self-communications, in offering new opportunities for counter-power (Castells, 2007, 2009)" (page 3).

In summary, he is citing the litany of scholars who refer to the transformative power of the new technology -- how it can redistribute power to those who didn't have any in the former political economy of the film world.

However, if one approaches the current landscape from a political campaign perspective, the discussion at least deserves a caveat. Our study in a way is predicated on comparisons between the commonalities of film reception and the act of voting in an election: in both, organizations strive to get as much of the public to  manifest their interest/support for a particular "thing" (in politics, a measure or candidate; in film, a film). That could be said for any marketable product or brand, but the similarity is particularly apt with regard to film and politics, as there is a concentrated window of time that is of the utmost importance to the success of the endeavor that fans or voters show their support. Historically, in film, this has been a film's theatrical release, because this happens first and indicates how it's going to do in the marketplace long-term.

Now, however, the technology has disrupted the importance of this moment. First of all, most films won't get a theatrical release, but this doesn't mean they won't get any release at all... it will just occur digitally, or in phases. There is increasingly less of a science to what must happen first where to indicate that a film has indeed found its audience. But here's the caveat: no matter how the landscape changes, no matter how many new ways there is to see a film, the act of going to the theater will always be the most democratic way to see a film. This is of particular relevance to us because the ultimate act of a campaign, which is voting, also depends on a wholly democratic way for the public to show its support: as long as you are registered (which does not require money), you can go to a specific place and pull the lever and vote. Similarly, though distribution modes like VOD and digital distribution or even television depend on the ownership of some other device to experience a film, anyone with $5 to $12 can walk into a theater (the equivalent of a voting location) and go see a film.

This is important to keep in mind, because as we explore the various possibilities that new technologies present to distribution, it must with the caveat that such technologies are not in fact available to everyone. We are dealing with a limited group -- albeit not very limited, especially with regards to television, a medium that 97% of Americans have access to -- but nonetheless it is not a wholly democratic sample. Meanwhile, the endeavor of running a political campaign is predicated on the fact that everyone registered -- which could in fact be 100% of the public at saturation point -- will be able to come out and manifest their support for the candidate being pressed on them. This underscores the fact that the film industry 20 years ago, prior to the popularization of the internet and digital mediums, would make for a more direct comparison to political campaigns. In our current research, we must keep in mind that these two worlds are dealing with slightly different pools of the public. Everyone can be a voter, barring legality; but today, not everyone can be a viewer.