How the world fell to the titans of Tinseltown

Screen Traffic
July 2, 2004

Even in these days of multichannel television and DVDs, most of a film's revenue is still collected within the first few weeks of its release. In the past decade, more than half of that revenue has come from overseas sales as the megaplex has proliferated across the world.

Charles Acland sets himself two projects in this ambitious study. The first is to map the changing fortunes of the movie business by relating the chain of production and distribution to the impact of globalisation and the transformation of the cinemas. The second is to apply his discoveries to audiences themselves and how they choose and receive the products. The result is two books in one.

The dominant approach is a straightforward analysis of facts and figures.

Acland's authoritative presentation of box-office data, the processes of film distribution and the economic principles that determine success is closely researched and revealing. The growth of the megaplex, for example, can be traced to what he describes as the "percolation" between distributors and exhibitors whereby distributors, increasingly frustrated by the poor service they received from the movie theatres, overturned a 50-year-old ban and began to take them over. The result was an exponential growth in the number of cinemas, screens, print runs and the global reach of Hollywood. This resulted in soaring primary sales that then determine the whole plethora of secondary profits.

Equally fascinating is Acland's analysis of "cultural discount" whereby a film is assessed by producers and distributors for its ability to transcend national barriers. Release will be limited if a theme is too culturally specific, though international reactions can be unpredictable - the global appeal of Titanic , for example, or of particular stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The multinational entertainment corporation is revealingly dissected as a model of globalisation. It exemplifies America's economic and cultural dominance while also allowing a level of participation in transnational economies whereby local interests interweave with global ones.

The book is most successful when it stays with the movie business and its operations. But when Acland introduces notions of audience, and shifts from an economic model to one of cultural studies, he appears less at ease.

This may be why he feels he must gallop us through the canon of film studies, drawing heavily on the main theories and theorists to support his own insights. In doing so, he adopts a far more self-conscious language and style, invoking terms such as "consumption zones" and "mobilised visuality", the "challenge of post-celluloid culture" and the need to "negotiate intermedia dimensions". The rarefied vocabulary seems designed to obscure the simplicity of his main assertion: the environment in which a film is viewed has a crucial impact on how it is received.

Acland's call for a reconsideration of the film experience or, as he would prefer to put it, "for re-emphasising the site of film as a spatial issue", is overreliant on analysis of everyday habits. Reminding us that film viewing is "a highly visible manifestation of participation in a rich consumer environment", Acland lists all the other things we do at the cinema: consuming overpriced snacks and drinks, socialising, flirting, gossiping, choosing seats, threatening noisy spectators. "Cinema-going is banal, it is erotic, it is civil, it is unruly; it is an everyday site of regulated and unregulated possibility."

Too often in this book, the obvious is elevated to the status of discovery and modest perceptions are overblown into high theory. This is a pity, for overall this is a worthwhile and, in many ways, ground-breaking study.

Acland would have done better to stick to the informative and direct style he uses when presenting facts and original research and to leave the more pretentious angles to those who are still guessing.

Sally Feldman is head, School of Media, Arts and Design, Westminster University.

Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes and Global Culture

Author - Charles R. Acland
Publisher - Duke University Press
Pages - 337
Price - £69.00 and £17.50
ISBN - 0 8223 3175 6 and 3163 2

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