Digital disruption: cinema moves on-line

Australia Great Britain

Bringing together perspectives from within academia as well as industry commentators and professionals, this volume offers a broad and compelling range of perspectives on issues to do with transformations in movie circulation, online audience engagement, digital entrepreneurship and film festivals.

The essays and interviews that comprise the core of the book are complimented by a series of Appendices. These also provide a valuable resource for future scholars and others interested in further research into this growing area of film activity. The Appendices assemble detailed information on international film websites and commercial terms for leading online distributors.

The final section provides a very useful list of the extensive range of websites cited throughout the main text.

The book opens with Dina Iordanova’s exploration of the implications of the shift from traditional, vertically integrated forms of film circulation to the new frontier of the internet. This foundation essay addresses the key industrial and thematic concerns of the volume to do with shifts in attitudes towards intellectual property, transnational content flows, online business strategies, the nature of cinephilia and the place of film festivals in our increasingly digitalised world. Iordanova emphasises many of these developments are still very much in their infancy, but points to their huge game-changing potential.

Her essay evokes the concept of ‘disintermediation’ to refer to obsolescence of an intermediary within the supply chain, in this case distributors who have hitherto been central to the control and movement of films. This is a theme that it returned in various forms throughout the collection. The essays in the collection are, on the whole, positive about the opportunities created by digital technologies to help films transcend traditional market and geographic boundaries, engage audiences in wider range of content, and establish new forms of revenue generation.

However, like Iordanova, authors like Stuart Cunningham and Jon Silver and Michael Franklin are keen to point such developments are still in their infancy and there is still a relatively high degree of volatility in the online market. Cunningham and Silver’s international survey of formal (or legal) movie websites is highly informative and impressive in its scope.

The Cunningham and Silver essay points to another recurrent theme that emerges from the collection – the increased blurring of distinctions between legal and illegal film viewing to which online distribution has given rise. The authors attempt to move beyond these traditional demarcations evoking concepts such as ‘informal’ and ‘unauthorised’ as a means of exploring and accounting for the more nuanced cultural aspects of non-traditional or non-commercially sanctioned distribution.

Michael Gubbins speculates that for the commercial industry the harsh suppression of piracy may actually be counter-productive in the digital age. With audiences more fragmented than ever before squashing circulation may lead to obscurity - in this scenario Gubbins contends ‘[I]nvisiblity could become more of a danger than piracy’ (69). The collection underscores the great potential online distribution offers for non-Hollywood film to reach new audiences and deliver their product more effectively to specialised interests.

However, what is not clear is how the deregulation or disruption of traditional industrial models of circulation and consumption might influence commercial film outside the studio sector. While free or very low-cost content might be a boon for consumers it must also be of concern to filmmakers and distributors that craft and sell mid to low budget films which rely on significant investment to support production budgets that might range from anywhere from $1 million up to $25 million or more. Any significant devaluation in the value of their copyright will surely have direct implications for revenue generation and re-investment prospects.

Michael Franklin’s essay to do with the film value chain makes a valuable contribution to the collection by interrogating some of these issues and examines the new and uncertain economic contours of digital distribution. Complimenting this work, Alex Fisher, looks at the efficiencies and economies of scale that become possible for organisations when dealing in digitised materials. Fisher’s essay focuses on the development of Withoutabox, a centralised internet-based service for filmmakers that expedites entry of their films into multiple festivals.

This service frees both producers and festival organisers from the constraints of working with physical deliverables (such as film and DVDs). However, as Fisher notes, initiatives like Withoutabox have yet to make significant inroads into the mainstream festival scene. Reminding us that films are always consumed in physical places, even if that is at home in front of a computer, Marijke de Valck looks at the impact of digital technologies on the burgeoning film festival sector.

Exploring the importance of the festival as a space Valck argues that the greatest potential for digital distribution in this sector may lie in its capacity to function as a companion to live events rather than to usurp them. Valck also engages with issues to do with how audiences find and make sense of the plethora of films now available via the internet. Expressing reservations about the capacity of audiences for self-learning, it is suggested that film festivals may have a valuable role in helping to frame and direct online film encounters. Extending ideas around the way in which online audiences engage with films is Ben Slater’s essay on cinephilia and the poignant story of the work of the digital native, new-age cinephile, Alexis Tioseco. This book is very timely.

It should appeal to a wide readership from cinema scholars to those with interests in digital media, copyright law, film production and cultural studies. Further, its accessible style and wealth of source material will make the collection a highly useful resource for both critical scholars and those involved directly in the film trade.

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