Wednesday, 29 June 2011

[477] Participatory Cults IRL: Societies, Festivals and Cons

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

Many of the hallmarks of participatory culture that Jenkins has documented can be traced back to a pre-Internet age. Indeed, the blogs and online discussion forums so popular today are clearly evolved from localised, smaller scale fan-clubs and 'zine publishers in the decades before the computer took over our homes. Therefore, despite the exponential development of digital culture, there is still something resilient that resides in old-school forms of promotion, exhibition, and engagement, allowing both Terracotta and Third Window to not only dial into already vibrant fan subcultures, but also reach out to new audiences.

The Terracotta Far East Film Festival, for example, aims to provide a platform for a mix of Asian films, from a variety of genres, in the process serving a number of disparate tastes and audiences - from anime and manga enthusiasts to hardened cinephiles. Furthermore, the choice of venue also supports such a diversity of audience. The Prince Charles Cinema - situated just off Leicester Square, the heart of London's cinema community and the location of dozens of red carpet premieres throughout the year - is an independent alternative to the larger Odeon, Cineworld and Vue cinema experiences. With its eclectic programme of recent releases, classics, and themed events, the Prince Charles is supported by a varied community of cinemagoers, many of which are part of their membership scheme.

For Terracotta to find its home at the Prince Charles Cinema, is for it to align itself with a lifestyle of film consumption that lies outside of the mainstream, in many ways feeding off the venue's roots and continued relevance as a hub of 'cult' cinema. Indeed, while containing many of the similar qualities of Jenkins' participatory culture, the studies of cult fandom and its approach to film consumption focuses on the physical aspect of community, where the shared experience of communal viewing plays an integral role. In the introduction to their Cult Film Reader, Mathijs and Mendik look at cult films as fundamentally opposed to the mainstream, especially in terms of how they do not always rely on box office success or critical canonisation, stating:

'Their reception does not typically end at the vaults of a bank or the archives of a museum of heritage. Instead, the consumption of cult cinema relies on continuous, intense participation and persistence, on the commitment of an active audience that celebrates films they see as standing out from the mainstream' (2008, 4)

Indeed, Mathijs and Mendik liken this celebration to 'organised forms of religious or spiritual worshipping', highlighting the festival experience, of special programmes, double bills and post-film Q&As as all being part of the cult film lifestyle (2008, 4).

This is mirrored in Terracotta's other collaborations with the Prince Charles, such as the regular themed screenings of Big Tits Zombie during the latter half of 2010, which slotted in with the cinema's tradition of niche-appeal events, from sing-along screenings of The Sound of Music, to movie marathons covering the entire Star Trek film franchise. For the Big Tits Zombie events, which were presented in 'retro' anaglyph 3D, audience members were encouraged to attend in costume, with free entry and prizes offered as incentive, which resulted in coverage from a number of film websites, such as and, and inspired audience members to, afterwards, upload photographs from the event to social media networks like Flickr.

Such a mixture of cult-style event management and online 'viral' marketing worked well, as the first screening of Big Tits Zombie filled the Prince Charles, with many punters being turned away at the door. In lieu of a wide theatrical release, such targeted screenings seem to be a useful way for distributors like Terracotta to build hype without resorting to playing the exhibition game, or investing in mass marketing. As a contrast to the Prince Charles screenings, Big Tits Zombie was also shown at the Barbican arts centre, as part of a special Halloween double bill in the Aspects of Japanese Cinema programme, organised in conjunction with Zipangu Fest, a new festival curated by critic Jasper Sharp. While still maintaining a similar tone to the Prince Charles screenings by being listed as a 'schlockfest', the Barbican's reputation as a centre for the appreciation of international culture, not to mention the addition of an introductory talk from Sharp, gives the film a slightly different context - one that's more studied, if no less entertaining - that would serve an audience perhaps less interested in the extroverted, dress-up side of cult cinema.

In a similar vein, Terracotta and Third Window share a stall at the MCM Expo, a biannual fan convention that covers film, video games and comics, but with a strong representation from the anime and manga communities, who flood the Excel Centre with mass 'cosplay' gatherings. The most recent iteration of the Expo, held at the end of October 2010, welcomed close to 47,000 visitors, and the attendance of distributors was evident, with representatives from Manga Entertainment, 4Digital Asia, Beez Entertainment, Optimum Releasing and MVM films also filling out the floor space. Alongside such specialists in anime and explicit genre films that would fit under the 'Asia Extreme' banner, the majority of Terracotta and Third Window's catalogues may seem out of place, but Leung sees it as part of the marketing strategy: the goal is simply to be seen, to engage with this niche audience and to promote the festival as well as the DVDs. In his words, 'if we sell anything, then that's a bonus' (2010). Torel agrees, explaining that:

'As long as I break even with my table costs then I don't mind being there for as ever long as it takes as it's just my time and it's more important to be able to connect to your audience directly and find out what they're interested in. At these events we tend to do okay through titles like Kamikaze Girls and the such which usually sell very well, but as long as we have such titles bringing people in, then we can personally recommend other titles to people. Even if I only sell to 50 people over the whole weekend, that's 50 more people who are into the cause and who could continue to get into our releases.' (2011)

This approach to using events, screenings and festivals as promotional tools, to engage with specific audiences and build up brand awareness, is also seen in how Third Window and Terracotta court the community of up-and-coming academics at university level, through their sponsorship of the Coventry University East Asian Film Society. Besides providing the society with prints of their films for exhibition, in 2010 Torel delivered an introduction before the screening of Kakera, and also answered questions from the organisers Michelle Bailey and Spencer Murphy on the state of East Asian cinema in the UK. Once more, this offline side of promotion leaks into the online world, as CUEAFS has since uploaded interviews with both Torel and Leung, as well as footage and photographs from their own screenings (including a Big Tits Zombie Halloween party) onto their own website.

(Photograph from a CUEAFS screening, taken from their Facebook group)

Even though this work is not immediately profitable, it is beneficial for companies such as Third Window and Terracotta to foster a varied community around East Asian cinema, and by extension their own films. Torel explains it as being indicative of an almost 'punk-rock' attitude, telling VCinema:

'I'm a bit too generous with stuff. Whenever a cinema asks if they could show my film, I say 'go ahead.' Especially film clubs, if any film clubs or small places ask to show my films, I never charge them. I do like helping out anybody that I can. Everyone's got to help each other out if you're small. And it's really nice to form these sorts of relationships.' ('‘VCinema Episode 14: Zero Woman Red Handcuffs’, 2010)

This is part of the reasoning behind Torel's further collaboration with CUEAFS, namely the Third Window Film Festival, the first iteration of which is scheduled for February 2011. By moving away from London, and using the Warwick Arts Centre as a venue, Torel says he is looking to 'try and attract a crowd who [have] very little chance or even willingness to get involved with such a thing', who 'have not much idea about contemporary Asian cinema and don't have the chance to experience a film festival atmosphere' (2011). With a varied programme of films and appearances from actors and directors, coupled with a low entry fee for students, Torel hopes that students will 'jump at the chance' to experience the festival, and might, afterwards, develop an interest in Asian cinema (2011).

There's also the hope that the enthusiasm seen in Coventry will spread, and inspire a network of film societies that will, slowly, develop into a wider audience in the country as a whole. On a local level, Leung and Torel host free, monthly screenings in London that showcase not only the labels' own films, but other selections from East Asia. A series of screenings at the beginning of 2011, for example, has been programmed by Torel, and consists of previously unreleased films such as Adrift In Tokyo (Tenten, 2007), from writer-director Satoshi Miki, whose Turtles are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers (Kame wa igai to hayaku oyogu, 2005) and Instant Swamp (Insutanto numa, 2009) have been distributed by Third Window.

In a similar vein to the Terracotta Festival, these screenings serve to provide a platform for East Asian films that the distributors wish to bring to a wider audience, without needing to invest in a DVD release. Furthermore, it also both harnesses the social aspect of watching films, offering an alternative to the experiences peddled by mainstream cinema chains, with screenings hosted at the Japan-themed Life Bar, and formalises the 'cult' tendencies of consuming international cinema, allowing attendees to become members of a community - not least because the information for these events is disseminated through social networking sites like Facebook and

These special events all provide an alternative to the wide theatrical release practised by major distributors, but Torel is cautious to reject the conventional modes of exhibition, due to the promotional benefits that come with even a limited run. He explains

'In the UK, whether you release a title on 1 or 100 screens, if it plays for at least a week the film is applicable to be included in the Film Distributors Association's press release database. This means that the film will get a National Press Show in which critics must come and watch the film for review.' (2011)

For a company the size of Third Window, theatrical releases are expensive, but the fact that the film in question would be listed alongside more mainstream movies 'makes [it] seem a lot larger than it is', with the reviews and coverage giving it a serious promotional push in anticipation of its eventual home video release (2011). Torel does not expect these films to take much money from the limited release, but he is certain the extra promotion will help it to recoup its losses on DVD.

By using this quirk in the UK's system of distribution, Third Window can grant their releases a wide awareness without the need for broad marketing. It is useful to look at this as a sort of loss leader, with the expensive process of preparing a film for theatrical release paying back further down the line. Indeed, few of these IRL activities, from the free screenings to the film societies, are designed to pay immediate dividends. Instead, Torel and Leung are playing the long game, patiently building their audience as they go along, often in direct opposition to the realities of the market at large.

Read the next chapter here, or go back to the start of the essay here.

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