The ‘authoritative’ intermediary in its traditional sense has been slowly disappearing throughout all of the major publishing industries. The ‘authoritative’ intermediaries are the privately owned publishers who had been tightly regulated in comparison to the freedom the digital space offers. Previosuly film studios operated a more tightly regulated distribution process than any other publishing industry. As recently as the early 20th century studios owned even the theatres their film played in, keeping all profits in house. At what point did the studio start going into decline though? Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press is probably the most likely starting point. The printing press initiated a hunger for knowledge and a revolution almost equal to that of the development of the highly connected ‘Web 2.0’ internet of today (Rusbridger, 2010). Through the replacement of slow scribes, the equivalent to today’s publishers, with the far quicker method of printing authors were able to open a direct dialogue with their audience. An audience that was now considerably wider than before.
Moving forward to today film studios, are undergoing a similar transition. As a result the role of films, and the way viewers interact with them and their television counterparts is changing. The internet and social media have brought about an increasingly open and free platform for sharing media content making piracy a bigger concern. Yet, the internet has also allowed the studios and especially independent filmmakers to embrace new platforms of distribution that bypass traditional cinematic releases in favour of direct distribution to the home. Fans have also become a part of the film’s production process itself, by providing funding and generating their own content. They are now on a considerably more equal playing field to the content owners, no longer does there exist a singular top down flow of information that Rusbridger described as “transmission” (2010). Film content is shared, transplanted and communicated universally with publishers and audience members acting as equally weighted ‘nodes’ in the process.
Torrenting and the illegal file-sharing of content has been a concern of publishers of all forms throughout the Web 2.0 era. Piracy has existed in the film industry since the start, with film reels being stolen and played in theatres in which they weren’t permitted or taken home by dishonest projectionists (Segrave, 2003). Piracy represents the breakdown between distinctions of the commercial and the private (Karaganis, 2012). People are sharing copyrighted content that they have bought or not bought with others who have not paid for that content. It’s an ethically contested activity that as a result of its ease and moral justifications like ‘sharing with friends’ has become “an entirely normalised practice for 18-29 year-olds” (Karaganis, 2012).
Michel Bauwens best explains why torrenting is a difficult prospect for the publishers like movie studios to reconcile with. The market for products is based entirely on supply and demand. When something is available for free, legally (and illegally) the product is in abundance and thus becomes more difficult to sell (Bauwens, 2010). Bauwens is here referring to the creative commons and the legal distribution of content that is shared and/or copyright free, however those that partake in file sharing and torrenting subscribe to similar social beliefs regarding freedom of content and information. Websites such as TorrentFreak compile the latest news items concerning the implementation of copyright law, as well as promoting the ‘Top 10’ pirated films and television shows of the week. Sebastian Anthony wrote an opinion piece for ExtremeTech explaining an explicit view of the pirate, centring on the desire to own the content and not be dictated to by a publisher regarding how or when it is used (2012). Piracy presents to us an example of how ‘authoritative’ intermediaries are in decline because of their inability to provide a product that matches the connected consumer’s desires regarding price and availability of content.
The question remains though, is there a quantifiable amount by which the studios are losing their ‘authoritative’ status to piracy? Studios at various times have claimed that piracy has consistently cost them something. Robert Levine argues that the internet has enabled “technology companies to evade responsibility for their business models” and as a result “have created a broken market” by not protecting the content of copyright holders (2011). These comments ring hollow when Box Office analysts espouse the record breaking billion dollar grosses of Iron Man 3 and The Dark Knight Rises or the record 5 million plus viewers for the finale of Game of Thrones Series 3. Despite (or perhaps because of) these records these films and TV shows are pirated more than any other. TorrentFreak lists Game of Thrones as the most pirated television show in the world, with millions downloading via torrent. With revenue still reaching record highs, studios are in actual fact lamenting the loss of their once authoritative distribution systems, rather than the loss of power as authoritative film providers. Power over their content has shifted to the masses with piracy, the process of inter-connected sharing, regardless of its legality removes the content providers from the process, and thus changes the power-structures of who is in control of the content.
NETFLIX AND VOD
One way film production studios large, and especially small, are trying to navigate around piracy is with video-on-demand services like Netflix and iTunes. The process of video-on-demand distribution has shaken up the power structures in the film industry with the creation of new online distributers or ‘middle-men’ for content. Film publishers, by partnering with these companies have understood the potential to regain some control over the ways in which their content is provided. Independent production studios have sprung into existence because of the new environment, often sharing their films directly to on-demand services before It reaches (if it even goes to) cinemas. Danah Boyd claims that there is a misconception that the digital space has provided a sudden and equal democratisation of distribution (Guillaud, 2010). But in the case of film, it doesn’t need to be equal to be successful. Magnet Releasing for instance found great success distributing their low-budget horror film V/H/S on demand, and it was successful precisely because it was low budget and did not need a revenue stream equal to a Hollywood blockbuster to be profitable.
Power lies with the ones who can provide the content (Guillaud, 2010), and so through this system of partnership studios have created a new structure, where old forms of distribution like DVD rental and retail chains are being replaced with new kinds of digital intermediaries or “information brokers” (Guillaud, 2010). These “information brokers” are the ways in which film studios can get their content to the top of the ‘pile’ in terms of viewership in an era where attention is an increasingly difficult thing to get a hold of. Traditionally, studios would sell their films and tv shows to theatres or tv stations that had a “known destination” for their content in the form of limited theatre engagements or prime-time television slots (Guillaud, 2010). With the disappearance of the authoritative structure for distribution, prime-time becomes any time as viewers schedule their viewing habits as best suits them.
Video-on-demand services have an organisational effect on our media intake. Stowe Boyd suggests that as attention lacking audiences, technological developments are utilised by publishers to make us believe we need a better way of organising our interest and attention (2010). Despite this sort of cynical view Boyd does clarify that our negotiations with attention and the resulting technological developments make for “richer and more complex societies” (2010). This is definitely true of what the studios have done by starting to embrace video-on-demand services. By beginning to reconstruct their flow of output to one that can be influenced by our own schedules and senses of personal time studios are turning their traditional means of transmission in to something that resembles a dialogue between audience and content provider.
CROWDFUNDING AND FAN INVOLVEMENT
Legendary film director Francis Ford Coppola spoke recently of how “Cinema is escaping being controlled by the financier” and described it as a wonderful thing. While this is great news for the creative people of the industry, the studios themselves have to reconcile the fact that their systems of production and distribution are changing because of it. Using Callon and Latour’s Actor Network Theory, we can understand the production and distribution process as it is today as a series of “material–semiotic networks [that] come together to act as a whole [with] the clusters of actors involved in creating meaning are both material and semiotic” (Wikipedia, 2013). The film production, distribution and viewing process involves so many sub-networks and processes working out, and yet the viewer at the end point experiences a ‘punctualisation’ of all of these material-semiotic networks. When you’re watching a film, for instance, you’re not acutely aware you’re watching a film that has been constructed by other people; you’re usually fully immersed in the storyline (Wikipedia, 2013). Kickstarter and crowdfunded filmmaking opportunities break down the punctuality by making the film goer a part of the production process.
By putting their own money into the filmmaking process, the audience becomes part of the production and thus we see a further breaking down of the ‘authoritative’ publisher. Studios and film makers now have to answer to a wider variety of people who have a say. While technically, the producer could take the money and run, there is in actual fact tremendous social pressure to deliver on the initial promises of the production. The film production process becomes what Rusbridger described as a dialogue of communication rather than the simple transmission of the completed product (2010). But the creators don’t always have to answer their critics, or their backers. Actor Zack Braff recently funded his film under controversial circumstances with crowdfunding and studio support (Marks, 2013). The creator of the project still has the ‘authoritative’ power in the production, utilising it perhaps as a bizzare form of advertisement for their film. Danah Boyd mentions that “Advertisement is about capturing attention” (Guillaud, 2010), well perhaps the studios have discovered the best way to capture attention is to make the audience a part of the process of delivery.
The ‘authoritative’ intermediary in film is dying. With the rise of piracy, video-on-demand services and crowd funding, the idea that a major media studio or conglomerate is entirely in control of every aspect from production to distribution is absurd. People want to be more involved in aspects of production and distribution, whilst the every way in which we consume films changes as we schedule them around our availability, not that of the providers. The studios are attempting to be a part of the changes though, and as the bankrollers of the production, will never entirely shift from the top of the flow of power, film just doesn’t have the cross platform ability or ‘emulatability’ of things like journalism and music for them to ever truly lose that grasp.
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Anthony, S. 2012. ‘Why I Pirate’, ExtremeTech, Blog Post, January 18th 2012, accessed 12th June 2013. <http://www.extremetech.com/computing/114493-why-i-pirate>
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Boyd, S. 2010. ‘The False Question of Attention Economics’, Stowe Boyd, Blog Post, 10th January 2010, accessed 12th June 2013. <http://stoweboyd.com/post/764818419/the-false-question-of-attention-economics>
Guillaud, H. 2010. ‘What is implied by living in a world of flow?’, Truthout, review of a conference by Danah Boyd, 6th January 2010, accessed 12th June 2013. <http://archive.truthout.org/what-implied-living-a-world-flow56203>
Karaganis. 2012. ‘Unauthorised File Sharing: IS it Wrong?’, The American Assembly, Columbia University, 4th October 2012, accessed 12th June 2013. <http://piracy.americanassembly.org/file-sharing-is-it-wrong/>
Levine, R. 2011. ‘How the internet has all but destroyed the market for films, music and newspapers’, The Guardian, Blog Post, 14th August 2011, accessed 12th June 2013. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/aug/14/robert-levine-digital-free-ride>
Marks, L. 2013. ‘Is it OK for multimillionaires like Zack braff to panhandle for money on Kickstarter?’ The Guardian, 27th April 2013, accessed 12th June 2013. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2013/apr/26/zack-braff-panhandle-money-kickstarter>
Rusbridger, A. 2010. ‘The Splintering of the Fourth Estate’, The Guardian, 19th November 2010, accessed 11th June 2013. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/19/open-collaborative-future-journalism>
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Ernesto. 2013. ‘Game of Thrones Season Finale Sets New Piracy Record’, Torrent Freak, June 10th 2013, accessed June 12th 2013. <http://torrentfreak.com/games-of-thrones-season-finale-sets-new-piracy-record-130610/>