Tuesday, 28 June 2011

[476] Online Convergence and East Asian Film Distribution

Here is part two of my essay, 'Online Worlds and Grassroots Activity in UK World Cinema Distribution'. You can read the first part here.

Since the popularisation on online cultures, created by widespread Internet access and the flocking of fans to the web, academics such as Henry Jenkins have described this new context as significantly altering the traditional, old media lines of production, distribution and consumption. For example, specialist blogs and other amateur online outlets challenge the authority of older, respected sources, providing depth, passion and expertise in exchange for breadth and professional training.

The opportunities inherent in the Internet for the consumers themselves to make their voices heard - through not only blogs, but new media avenues such as podcasts, Youtube videos, and social networks - also see the formalisation and popularisation of what has been termed 'participatory culture', which in the past was restricted to hardcore fan communities, who through fanzines, conventions and societies shaped their media in their own image. Now, with the Internet as an enabling force, Jenkins sees this subcultural world colliding with old media, describing this current media landscape as a culture of convergence - a term which formed the title of one of his book-length studies. In his 2006 compilation of essays and columns, titled Fans Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture, Jenkins elaborates on this new context, saying:

'Imagine a world where there are two kinds of media power: one comes through media concentration, where any message gains authority simply by being broadcast on network television, the other comes through grassroots intermediaries, where a message gains visibility only is it is deemed relevant to a loose network of diverse publics' (2006b, 180)

The online world of film criticism and discussion is one of the best examples of such a loose network. Unlike mainstream print media, with its competing newspapers and magazines that cater for broad tastes, film websites and blogs often indulge in narrow-casting, satisfying specific tastes, communities and audiences which, thanks to the global scope of the web, can find its healthy niche. Twitchfilm.com, one such website, was founded in late 2004 with the express purpose of getting beyond the strict boundaries that defined cult and arthouse cinema, and writing about films that were 'largely neglected by the online film community of the time' ('About Twitchfilm').

Fortunately for Third Window and Terracotta, their niche of East Asian cinema comes under Twitch's remit, but it is in their collaboration with the website where Jenkins' convergence culture becomes most evident. For example, Terracotta announced their acquisition of Big Tits Zombie via the website exclusively ('Big Tits Zombie Goes To Terracotta In The UK', 2010), as did Third Window with their purchase of Sion Sono's Cold Fish (Tsumetai nettaigyo, 2010; 'Third Window Films Acquires UK Rights To Cold Fish'). Terracotta's Joey Leung sees this as being part of a targeted media strategy, where they must focus on 'tailor-making messages for each film for each audience' (2010).

That said, sites like Twitch do not simply represent a handy outlet for press releases, they are indicative of the online community's willingness to pick over, analyse and discuss niche cinema releases in a depth that print word limits don't allow. This has been most recently seen in the ongoing 'Video Home Invasion' column series, written by critic J Hurtado, which is currently dedicating a number of articles to Third Window's releases (Hurtado, 2010a). The foundation for these articles comes from an in-depth interview with Adam Torel himself, which stretches to thousands of words, and covers not only the individual films in the catalogue, but also offers a behind-the-scenes look into both the running of the label and the process of acquiring new titles. Alongside generating interest for the film releases, it also serves the purpose of cementing the Third Window brand, with Torel as a combination of spokesperson, commentator and fan.

Similarly, his appearance on the VCinema podcast, which focuses on Asian cinema, also promoted this transparency, which, by explaining to listeners the conflicts and difficult judgements that come with running a distribution label, invites consumers to become more invested in the process. That these platforms are maintained by fans themselves provides further evidence for Jenkins' convergence culture, which 'depends heavily on consumers' active participation' (2006a, 3). Torel describes this engagement with the online audience as being imperative for companies like Third Window:

'If you've got genre action/horror etc titles, then traditional media sources are good to reach your mass audience who like such titles and will easily buy them, but for more arthouse or niche films then it's very important to stay close and well connected to the pretty small (but enthusiastic) audience we've got. These people tend to, as we do, constantly check out such sites as Twitch, Wild Grounds, VCinema, so it's good to work closely with them as its a good way of being close to the audience.' (2011)

This alternative to mass marketing has a number of benefits, not just the ability to speak directly to - and develop a dialogue with - switched-on audiences and create a brand image; it is also cheap, and allows both Leung and Torel to take charge of their marketing strategies. While they both use the same London-based publicity agency - The Associates - on a commission basis for their DVD releases, a significant amount of business can be handled by themselves. Through social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, which Leung succinctly describes as now being 'part of everyday life', the companies can attract audience members from around the world, and provide them with release information directly (2010).

Likewise, it allows both Leung and Torel to develop an awareness of their audience, and to react accordingly in their ongoing plans. This hands-on strategy is not only a defining feature for both labels, it also helps to shape the companies moving forward, giving them a dynamic, unique relationship with the audience. Torel, for example, is proud to reply to company emails personally, explaining that it is not 'something... you'll find from the heads of most other companies' (2011).

When coupled with links to Amazon.co.uk, now one of the primary outlets for UK DVD sales, much of the business involved in promoting, marketing and selling Third Window and Terracotta releases can be achieved online, with low overheads. However, this does not signal a complete retreat into the corners of the Internet. In fact, this personal relationship with community websites and consumers themselves becomes particularly useful for the companies in a second capacity, when it comes to planning their excursions into the outside world - or, in Internet parlance IRL, in real life - and fostering a tangible, sociable community around their film releases.

Read the next chapter here. You can go back to the beginning here.

No comments: