Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Film Distribution: Summary Notes

The section of the DVD-ROM on film distribution covers the high-budget, mass-market commercial end of the process. See the 'links' box on the left of the page for more sources of useful information - especially the ScreenOnline page which explains just exactly how expensive and time-consuming traditional film distribution is.

For the business side of the movie industry, the most compelling aspect of digital cinema is distribution. In today's system, production companies spend a lot of money producing film prints of their movies. Then, working with distribution companies, they spend even more money shipping the heavy reels of film to theaters all over the world, only to collect them again when the movie finishes its run.

Because the distribution costs are so high, production companies have to be extremely cautious about where they play their movies. Unless they have a sure-fire hit, they take a pretty big risk sending a film to a lot of theaters. If it bombs, they might not make their money back.

If you take the physical film out of the equation, things get a lot cheaper. Digital movies are basically big computer files, and just like computer files, you can write them to a DVD-ROM, send them through broadband cable or transmit them via satellite. There are virtually no shipping costs, and it doesn't cost the production company much more to show the movie in 100 theaters than in one theater. With this distribution system, production companies could easily open movies in theaters all over the world on the same day.

The digital distribution system also helps out the individual theaters. If a movie sells out, a theater could decide to show it on additional screens on the spur of the moment. They simply connect to the digital signal. Theaters could also show live sporting events and other digital programming.

However, you should not forget about the low-budget end of things.

Social networking sites such as youtube and facebook allow small, independent film-makers to find an audience, gather a following, and generate a word-of-mouth buzz about their work. In extreme cases it may even lead to interest from the mainstream industry. Just look at what happened to Fede Alvarez's homemade trailer about an alien invasion.

No, seriously. Look at it. It's completely brilliant.

There is some debate about exactly how original it is. See how many references (or rip-offs, if you prefer) you can spot to films like District 9, Independence Day and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow - and by the way, there's an instant commendation to any of my students who can spot the reference to Battleship Potemkin. But then, when has Hollywood ever been particularly bothered about originality?

The point is this: just as the proliferation of digital technology is allowing more consumers to become creators, so those creators are also becoming their own distributors, marketers and promoters. Digital technology is increasingly blurring the lines between parts of the film-making industry which were traditionally very separate.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Film production: Plenary Notes

The effects of digital technology on the process of film production:
  • as a cultural product, films are more or less unchanged since the early c20th - they are still primarily narratives running at around 100min.
  • David Puttnam's concept of the 'digital sandwich' - top layer of production: analog celluloid film + middle 'filling' of digital distribution and marketing + bottom layer of still mostly analog projection equipment in cinemas (athough this is now changing as more and more film-makers use digital cameras as a matter of course and more cinemas invest in digital projectors)
  • At the low-budget end of things, cheap technology allows for 'guerilla' film-making. These have tiny distribution compared to mainstream industry and so probably a minimal impact, except that there may be a growing 'long tail' effect. See 'Sweding'.
  • Low-budget fan movies, e.g. Troops and Browncoats: Redemption. Yes, these are geeky, but that's one of the defining features of 'We-Think'.
  • At the expensive mainstream end of things, mostly the effect of digital technology has been to drive up costs. CGI, for example, demands a highly skilled workforce (an experienced digital compositor's salary can be £50k - £60k). Look at how much 'Avatar' cost to make.
  • For big budget films the cost of film stock and processing is a marginal percentage of the overall costs, which are mostly made up of 'above-the-line' wages.
  • Some advantages are that while on set a monitor can allow the director to see the actual footage which has been captured, rather than having to wait for it to be developed. Digital technology tends, on the whole, to be smaller and more portable. There is no need to change reels of film so actual 'filming' can be faster, and back-ups can be saved for security against loss or damage. Footage can be uploaded to post-production facilities (editing, VFX, sound etc) while principal shooting is underway, which means that production and post-production may actually be happening at the same time rather than one after the other.

Monday, 15 March 2010

The Digital Sandwich

Very useful notes on a lecture given by David Puttnam (director of Chariots of Fire) on the effects of digital technology on film production, distribution and exhibition. It's a few years old now, but well worth the read.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Essential Reading 1: "The Long Tail", by Chris Anderson

“The Long Tail” is a theory created by Chris Anderson (editor of 'Wired' magazine) about how the Web has opened up difficult-to-reach markets in the media and entertainment industry. Anderson observed that, before the Web, media companies’ primary model for making money was to focus on producing and selling “megahits” – the small number of songs, films, books and other products that deliver the highest sales volume (the dark blue region of the chart below). High costs have traditionally made producing, promoting and delivering the thousands and thousands of low-grossing, niche offerings (the light blue region) financially unattractive, or even prohibitive.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Starting to Look at the Film Industry

Your understanding needs to be only of the modern British cinema industry; you don't need a detailed knowledge of its history. But the emphasis of the examination is very much on the impact of digital technology, and so you do need to have some appreciation of the role technology has played generally in the ups and downs of British cinema.

The first few tasks you do in class will be to give you a basic grasp of how things have changed - very broadly - from the 1930's until now.


Section B of the Key Concepts examination requires you to write an essay about the relationship between media institutions and audiences, focussing on one particular area of the media. In your case, this will be the British Film Industry. After you have answered the question on the TV Drama extract, you should have 45 minutes to answer this question.

The OCR Media Studies Syllabus says:
You should be prepared to understand and discuss the processes of production, distribution, marketing and exchange as they relate to contemporary media institutions, as well as the nature of audience consumption and the relationships between audiences and institutions. In addition, you should be familiar with:

  • the issues raised by media ownership in contemporary media practice;
  • the importance of cross media convergence and synergy in production, distribution and marketing;
  • the technologies that have been introduced in recent years at the levels of production, distribution, marketing and exchange;
  • the significance of proliferation in hardware and content for institutions and audiences;
  • the importance of technological convergence for institutions and audiences;
  • the issues raised in the targeting of national and local audiences (specifically, British) by international or global institutions;
  • the ways in which your own experiences of media consumption illustrate wider patterns and trends of audience behaviour.