Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture / Edition 1

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In Screen Traffic, Charles R. Acland examines how, since the mid-1980s, the U.S. commercial movie business has altered conceptions of moviegoing both within the industry and among audiences. He shows how studios, in their increasing reliance on revenues from international audiences and from the ancillary markets of television, videotape, DVD, and pay-per-view, have cultivated an understanding of their commodities as mutating global products. Consequently, the cultural practice of moviegoing has changed significantly, as has the place of the cinema in relation to other sites of leisure.

Integrating film and cultural theory with close analysis of promotional materials, entertainment news, trade publications, and economic reports, Acland presents an array of evidence for the new understanding of movies and moviegoing that has developed within popular culture and the entertainment industry. In particular, he dissects a key development: the rise of the megaplex, characterized by large auditoriums, plentiful screens, and consumer activities other than film viewing. He traces its genesis from the re-entry of studios into the movie exhibition business in 1986 through 1998, when reports of the economic destabilization of exhibition began to surface, just as the rise of so-called e-cinema signaled another wave of change. Documenting the current tendency toward an accelerated cinema culture, one that appears to arrive simultaneously for everyone, everywhere, Screen Traffic unearths and critiques the corporate and cultural forces contributing to the “felt internationalism” of our global era.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Drawing upon economic data, promotional material, fandom, and the trade press, Charles R. Acland takes his study of contemporary cinema culture into the busy intersection of debates about post-national and post-cinematic audiences. Acland assesses the cross-marketed media landscape—megaplexes, television, videotapes, DVDs, fast-food, music, and the web—and deftly maps the global consequences of traffic across these new forms of mobilized visuality.”—Anne Friedberg, University of Southern California

“We need a book about global audiences that is smart about theory and chock-full of facts. Charles R. Acland has delivered one, an incisive blend of cultural and cinema studies. Buy it, get it, plunder it!”—Toby Miller, coauthor of Global Hollywood

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822331636
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 9/1/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles R. Acland is Associate Professor of Communications Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He is the author of Youth, Murder, Spectacle: The Cultural Politics of “Youth in Crisis” and coeditor of Harold Innis in the New Century: Reflections and Refractions.

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Read an Excerpt

Screen traffic

Movies, multiplexes, and global actor
By Charles R. Acland

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3163-2

Chapter One

Global Audiences and the Current Cinema

At the ceremony for the 1996 Academy Awards, on Monday, March 24, 1997, Canadian comic Jim Carrey took the stage to present the Oscar for Special Effects. When he reached the podium, he stopped, gave a broad smarmy grin, and shouted, "And how was your weekend? Mine was good!" He then stood back from the microphone with his arms outstretched triumphantly while the crowd erupted with laughter. As oblique as the comment may now appear, the background information necessary to the humor was readily available. Carrey was referring to the opening of his new movie, Liar Liar (Tom Shadyac 1997), the highest-grossing domestic release that past weekend, March 21-23. The film opened wide, which means prints were sent out to thousands of cinemas so they could premiere on the same day across the United States and Canada. Over its first weekend, it took in $31,423,025 at 2,845 theaters. Liar Liar received middling reviews in weekend papers, so no stunning cinematic achievement explains this resounding success. Instead, audience expectations based on the film's ample marketing, the genre of American humanist comedy, and Carrey's own star persona provide reasonable explanations for a box office smash hit like this one. On the evidence of box office revenue alone one canconclude that in early spring of that year audiences took Liar Liar as an appropriate weekend leisure option, and that its availability not only in large urban centers but in multiplexes throughout the United States and Canada meant that this assumption could be acted on. And with equal certainty, these box office receipts tell us nothing of how the film was enjoyed, ridiculed, or made sense of in any manner.

What was striking about the "How was your weekend?" comic bit was Carrey's confidence that it would work, not only for the industry audience present at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles but for a wider viewing audience. One can only speculate on reception, here. It is not as though some laugh meter might have measured what instance of levity ran through the millions of homes watching the event, as the absurd dreams of some quantitative researchers would have it. I am willing to trust Carrey's instincts as a popular comic whose work does not rest on the intellectual alienation of his fans, to put it mildly. In fact, Carrey's star persona has been in equal parts about his exaggeratedly lowbrow antics and his career, his rise to fame, and his increasing paycheck. In a sense, between his wild-eyed craziness and his puppy dog sentimentality, Carrey has been letting people in on the joke of the entertainment racket. Carrey is a self-reflexive star performer in that he announces the machinations that have produced him, as in the outtakes accompanying the end credits of Liar Liar in which he quips that overacting has been the secret to his success. Displaying points of continuity between his television work on In Living Color, his talk show appearances, and his popular films, Carrey has been able to meld facial contortions with an expose of the workings of the film industry.

Regardless of the number of those left out of the joke-and I'm sure there were many, for the film would only open in subsequent weeks elsewhere in the world-Carrey's bit that evening presumed familiarity with an important industrial measure, one that has become a solid component of cinema culture. For movie fans, awareness of box office winners has now joined star biographies and genre identification as a fundamental component of film knowledge. The ability to roughly estimate film budgets is a corollary of the ability to name a director's oeuvre. The publication in Monday's newspapers of the weekend's top-grossing films is likewise a corollary of the reviews clustered in the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday papers.

This expanded circulation and salience of industry information has been matched by a newly invigorated industry of film-consumption statistics, whose dramatically expanded professionalization and standardization are a product of the 1980s. At that time, National Research Group, a prominent firm that tracks films' success, faced growing competition for its services, which focus on the methods of test screenings and telephone polling. In contrast, another firm, Market Cast, relies on information from exhibitors. Lieberman Research and Gallup are also recently arriving participants in the testing and market research for films. Others include MovieFone, which produces CompetitorReport, and Entertainment Data, Inc. (EDI), founded in 1976 and bought by AC Nielson in 1998. EDI, whose regular column analyzing the performance of movies appears in Variety, among other publications, collects its box office data by daily phone calls to thousands of theaters and provides other forms of industry tracking, including distributors' release schedules. In addition to the increased availability of statistical portraits of the movie business and its audiences, the broad newsworthiness of the workings of the film industry expanded in the 1980s, a symptom of which was the explosion of entertainment journalism as typified by syndicated programs like Entertainment Tonight, first broadcast in 1981, and the magazines like Entertainment Weekly, launched in 1990. To be sure, something transpired to propel this organization of the gathering and packaging of industry data and analysis, as well as its growing significance for larger numbers of people. Though often blended with celebrity gossip virtually indistinguishable from that of earlier decades, a new phase has been reached in the everyday popular knowledge of entertainment.

The presumption of audience involvement with what are ostensibly industry measurements of performance equally alters the way film distributors and exhibitors conduct their operations. Variety editor Peter Bart offers this characterization of the use of weekend box office:

By Sunday morning the distribution chiefs, having filled in their colleagues, start calling key members of the press to spread the word. Often the process of achieving the number one position becomes a test of gamesmanship. A distribution chief, for example, may call Variety's box office reporter, Andrew Hindes, and inquire what his rivals at other studios have reported. If his film is running neck-and-neck with a competitor, he will over a higher number. Not until Tuesday morning were the official numbers announced by a company called Entertainment Data, Inc., which based its estimates on hundreds [sic] of phone calls made by its employees directly to theaters. By that time the ads would already be in the newspapers claiming that the film in question is "the number one movie in America." Given the herd instincts of the moviegoing public, this information helps build momentum, even if the basic data itself may be exaggerated. The machinery of hit-making had been set in motion.

Bart's low opinion of cinemagoing audiences and underestimation of the extent of EDI's survey methods notwithstanding, his insights into the procedures of data collection and the jostling for position among distributors reveal an internal culture that actively produces the "truth" of a film's popularity. This "truth" is predicated on the availability and legibility of such measures.

Thus there is a visible, and provisionally accurate, financial dimension to contemporary commercial cinema that contributes to a routine knowledge of cinema culture. "How was your weekend?" relies on a popular recognition of box office revenue as a gauge of success and currency. It also reveals not only the role of opening weekends in the release strategy of films but a general appreciation of that role by film audiences. And popular appreciation of economic forces is a salient dimension here, showing that these measures of product activity and revenue generation are no longer strictly the purview of industry analysts. Carrey's reference marks a brand of popular "insiderism" where it is entirely likely that a wide audience did follow his self-conscious boasting. In this way, his brief performance is emblematic of the formation of a popular knowledge about the business of entertainment.

For Canadian audiences there was the added delight-or embarrassment, depending on one's predilections-in seeing a local hero circulating among the highest ranks of the international film world. By the end of 1997 Liar Liar made $181,410,615 in domestic box office revenue, making it the third or fourth highest grossing film of that year (depending on the source), then the biggest box office year of all time. The standard measures of Hollywood's domestic box office include both Canada and the United States, so even at the level of industry economics there is confusion in the distinction between foreign and domestic. Treated on its own, Canada has represented the second largest export market for U.S. theatrical releases. Taking 1989 figures for illustration purposes, only Japan's 15 percent export market share for U.S. majors exceeded Canada's 11.3 percent. The next three were France (9.5 percent), West Germany (8.7 percent) and UK/Ireland (8.6 percent). Canada's long-standing and substantial share of the U.S. film market frequently goes unnoticed, leaving it a surreptitious presence in industry data. The conflation of U.S. and Canadian figures is a sign of the close historical connections between the two countries' respective film cultures. Here is how Playback, a Canadian film and television trade publication, puts it:

How does the Canadian market compare? Answer: splintering the Canadian market out of the North American equation is about as easy as separating the yolk from the white after the egg has been baked into a Felix & Norton chocolate macadamia. Old news: the Canadian theater scene is essentially the northern piece of a North American marketplace, and attempting to drag box office numbers specific to the Canadian marketplace is usually an exercise in futility.

This entwinement, whose impossible separation the quotation metaphorically compares to the un-baking of cookies, is one of the historically stable qualities of these two national cinemas. Developing unevenly but in tandem, Canadian and American cinemas have actively hidden away their interrelationship, which has included the migration of talent and film shoots in addition to market access. The dynamic of unequal association should be highlighted as a defining feature of both U.S. and Canadian cinematic life. Virtually every time a U.S. newspaper cites the domestic box office for an opening weekend, buried in this figure are the Canadian box office returns for U.S. distributors. Researchers who talk about U.S. distribution and exhibition, yet do not acknowledge that another country is included in those figures, are misinterpreting their data or at worst performing a brand of imperialism by neglect.

However, rather than making claims about the impossibility of absolute accuracy, box office numbers are best understood as one terrain on which industry, policy, scholarly, and popular practice takes place. They serve many functions, many arguments, and they mean different things for producers, policymakers, and audiences. For instance, these figures act as a currency among cinemagoers for being up-to-date with respect to popular cinema. For Canadian fans, watching Jim Carrey, then, might extend the pleasure of confirming a secret understanding and call up narratives of career achievement that "winning" box office figures represent. His success is a minor, and sanctioned, form of Canadian participation in U.S. culture, however cynical and trivial that incursion may be. Some may not see this as a source of pride but rather as evidence of the complete hegemony of the U.S. industrial structure, whose very terms of operation are collapsed into the everyday popular pleasures of Canadians. In any case, both the measure itself and familiarity with the weekly rankings are examples of the blurred borders between national and international film worlds. In light of abundant discussion about the globalization of culture, it is worth remembering that the U.S. domestic industry, for all intents and purposes, encompasses two national cinema cultures and has in this respect always already been transnational.

Even the Academy Awards ceremony offers a study of the state of international film and the popular circulation of a business's image. It is a televised window on an industry event, garnering audiences in the billions, as the on-air commentators frequently remind us. Some in this audience conduct their own miniceremonies at home in conjunction with the official broadcast, fashioning a sort of virtual participation in the glamorous proceedings. The 62nd Annual Academy Awards, presented on March 26, 1990, acknowledged an emerging logic in Hollywood by "going global." The theme of the show was the international impact of film. Satellite feeds allowed awards to be presented live from various locations, including Sydney, London, Moscow, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo. An honorary award went to Akira Kurosawa, who accepted via a satellite appearance. The resulting image was of a worldwide business effortlessly touching ground in diverse and distant locations.

The global reach of cinema is not new. From the earliest moments of the initial settlement of a cinematic apparatus over a century ago, film's role in international commerical and cultural exchange was set for exploitation. But the sense that a new phase of globalization was upon us is such that, in early 1996, Boxoffice, an exhibitor's publication that began as The Reel Journal in 1920 and adopted its current name in 1931, went from referring to itself as "the business magazine of the motion picture industry" to "the business magazine of the global motion picture industry" (my emphasis). Globalizing efforts have become a more complete and relied on dimension of conventional practice over the last decade for essentially all facets and locations of the audiovisual industries, in varying degrees. So totalizing has this been that audiences-and scholars, for that matter-have had to recalibrate their understanding of relations between local and global film cultures.

This book explores the industrial and popular discourses about contemporary commercial cinema and its patrons that have become common sense. The term "discourse" refers to language in action and in performance that circulates to produce understandings about phenomena. The relationship between those two particular sets of discourses-the industrial and the popular-is such that in recent years we have seen the adoption of the language of the film business by popular film culture. This gesture of "being in the know" has coincided with changes in the film business itself, as it has been reinvented-yet again, as any glancing encounter with film history would confirm-as a global industry. These changes include the movement of sites of production and the seeking out of markets further afield. So highly developed are the changes that they challenge the very "Americanness" of Hollywood, a fact brought home more completely in light of the international ownership of several of the major studios, as with the Australian holdings in Twentieth Century-Fox and MCA/Universal's successive Japanese, Canadian, and French ownership. One could continue by noting the presence in the United States of powerful stars, directors, and producers from around the world who alternately accelerate, steer, or halt a film's production. This behavior announces that Hollywood is part of a transnational idea of a talented individual's rising value and influence. We might ask, to what extent has the "dream" of Hollywood been deracinated from the United States?


Excerpted from Screen traffic by Charles R. Acland Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Tables and Figures
I Theorizing Contemporary Cinemagoing
1 Global Audiences and the Current Cinema 3
2 Traveling Cultures, Mutating Commodities 23
3 Matinees, Summers, and the Practice of Cinemagoing 45
II Structures of Cinematic Experience
4 Crisis and Settlement in Exhibition and Distribution 85
5 "Here Come the Megaplexes" 107
6 Zones and Speeds of International Cinematic Life 130
7 Northern Screens 163
8 The Miniaturization of the Theme Park, or After the "Death" of Cinema 196
9 Cinemagoing as "Felt Internationalism" 229
App. 1 Screens per Million Population 247
App. 2 World Screen Count 250
App. 3 National Average Cinema Admissions per Person (annual) 253
App. 4 Multiplexing in Europe 256
App. 5 MPAA's Goals for Digital Cinema 257
App. 6 Existing Digital Cinemas, 2000 259
App. 7 Digital Movies Released for DLP Projectors 261
Notes 263
Bibliography 299
Index 325
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