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Day 3 Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference LA 2010

The first panel I sit in on is called “Pipecleaners: Current Issues in Media Distribution.”  I arrive a little late due to parking garages suddenly being closed (due to the total desertification of downtown LA on weekends- yes it does become a kind of desert, or at least a deserted wasteland of concrete and skyscrapers) on weekends, so I arrive halfway through Aswin Punathambekar’s talk, “Bollywood in the World: Diasporic Entrepreneurs and the Promise of Digital Media,” in which he talked about the changes that digital distribution has brought to the ways people outside of India experience Bollywood films.  Daniel Herbert (who was my TA at film school at USC!) then spoke about “Boutique Video Distributors and Their Challenges.”  For instance, one of the case studies Dan focused on was Criterion, and their expanding art-house film collection.  For those of you familiar with Criterion DVD’s at home, you know these are quite excellent versions of these often hard-to-find films, and many of them include expansive extras- interviews, documentaries, photos etc.  But they’re also very uneven- as Dan joked, Armageddon has a Criterion Collection edition.  Michael Bay next to Bergman and Bunuel!?  Dan argued that these are put together based on the eclectic tastes of the “editors” or “archivists” at Criterion, who base the work that they do often on no more than just what they like.  This produces an interesting channel through which consumers can have access to art-house films, especially when art-house theaters are increasingly fewer and far between (trust me, I know, having lived in L.A. for so long, a mecca for art-house film fans, and now living in Santa Barbara- it can be very difficult to see anything besides “Hot Tub Time Machine”- not that I’m complaining about that).  Dan also spoke of some other companies that worked on creating these editions of DVDs, as well as, of course, the dwindling DVD market and the expanding online, or streaming video market.  In the next talk, the incredible Jeff Scheible (sorry, he’s a local) spoke about the death of video stores in a talk subtitled “Field Notes on the Death of Cinema.”  Jeff had many interesting case studies based on research he had done on video stores in and around LA- particularly in his new neighborhood of Silverlake (Jeff moved from SB for precisely the reasons I noted above).  Perhaps one of the most interesting, and important questions he raises is, what happens to this residual media?  Being digital users, we’re all well aware of the massive dumps of e-waste shipped all over the world, but what happens to videos cassettes?  In a very interesting, and special case, Jeff found that one video store chain owner made specific demands on the collection of thousands of cassettes he was giving away.  Basically, in order to insure that these (for video connoisseurs) works of art don’t end up in the trash- just because people follow the logic of structured obsolescence and get rid of their VCR’s- he set up a list of requirements that a person or company must meet in order for them to receive this donation.  Guess where they wound up?  A small town in Italy that, due to a major earthquake in the ‘90’s, is trying to find ways to attract tourism in an effort to rebuild, and is therefore using the videos in a constant film festival of back to back screenings of videos.  Even more, patrons of the old video store, or members who had their memberships cancelled due to the store closing, can stay for free in the town if they want to visit.  An interesting form of curatorship and transnational distribution to say the least… Jeff is currently working on getting funds together to shoot a documentary about a member who goes to the town!  In the last paper, Jennifer Holt (also from UCSB), presented “Which Way Is the Mothership? New Directions in Digital Distribution.”  Here she talked most specifically about the recent war between Fox and Time Warner, about who provides cable services.  Basically, the major Channels, ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC, are being supplanted by a different kind of system (individualized pay packages), and this fight is just one effect in that shift.

For the next panel, a special session lead by Henry Jenkins and Denise Mann, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof of Lost, Tim Kring of Heroes, and Javier Marxauch, Kim Moses, and Mark Warshaw (other TV shows) came together to talk about “Transmedia” in television studies.  Besides the obvious geek appeal (I’m a huge fan of Lost), I was amazed at how articulate many of these people were.  Though a lot of their comments ran through the business and marketing aspects of television, they actually made some insightful remarks that fit right into an academic conference.  Some major questions were related to the “future of television,” especially considering transmedia outlets.  The Lost guys spoke about putting together the Lost game in addition to planning the show, and some of the other creators spoke about how show extras, like webisodes were planned strictly to appeal to hardcore fans.  One persistent question or issue came up and seemed to put people into two camps.  On the one hand, the TV creators insisted that the “Mothership” was the most important part of the show, and the transmedia extras were secondary.  As one example, Javier Marxauch said that if viewers were required to see something online before going to see a movie like “The Dark Knight,” they wouldn’t have gone- they want everything encapsulated in the one “Mothership” movie.  Extras are only for hardcore fans, and the mainstream fans are the ones really being catered to.  On the other hand, many questioners critiqued this idea as slowly becoming outmoded.  Perhaps transmedia is slowly dispersing the absolute control that the Mothership (the central TV episodes or mythology of Lost for example, as opposed to the extra material online, or webisodes etc.) has.  The creators defended the central “story” that they wanted to tell as being the most important part of the show, and claimed that that is what sold, that that is what fans want, but I don’t know if this is true.  In my opinion, fans fell in love with the “world” of Lost as opposed to its central storyline- I foresee many Lost fans being sorely let down by the series finale next month, precisely because they don’t want that “world” to come to an end, and I think that they’ll be able to keep it alive through transmedia outlets- I imagine Disney, who owns the property, even if they don’t create a TV spin-off, could create a myriad of other platforms that could still make use of the “world,” whether they be webisodes, video games, comics etc.  I think that many people felt that the idea of the “Mothership,” or as one central part of that “world” holding everything together was a kind of dinosaur, in that media is being distributed increasingly to niche markets, rather than to wide audiences.  Anyway, very interesting comments- the Lost creators also said Lost was a dinosaur that would die in May, and nothing like it would ever exist or come to be afterwards. 

For the next panel, I also sat in on a special session, this one titled “Aesthetics Now: Art History and Film Studies.”  The speaker I came to see, Tom Gunning, spoke very broadly about the next book he was writing, which will primarily be about aesthetics.  He critiqued the move towards narratology in film studies, and offered a renewed approach to aesthetics, rather than narrative studies.  The next two speakers, Rosalind Galt and George Baker also presented interesting ideas about aesthetics in the same vein.  In particular, Baker, an art historian from UCLA, showed clips of films that imitated earlier silent films, one of them being the famous “Workers Leaving the Factory” by the Lumiere Brothers.  By this point, as is probably pretty obvious, I had begun to lose my focus daydreamed of escaping the magnetic pull of L.A. for the cozier Santa Barbara.  Overall, the SCMS experience was excellent and I’m looking forward to next year!

 

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