Wednesday, 29 June 2011

[478] Market Realities, Patience, and Playing The Long Game

Phew, here is the final part of my mammoth essay, 'Online Worlds and Grassroots Activity in UK World Cinema Distribution'. Make sure to read the first, second and third parts. Thanks for reading!

Through both their online and offline initiatives, Third Window and Terracotta are pursuing a very different approach to Tartan's 'Asia Extreme' imprint. Instead of broad, boisterous hype, which aggressively marketed a number of films with a bluntness befitting of the genre name - indeed, Tony Borg, president of American counterpart Tartan Video, referred to the label's films as 'cultural hand grenades' (Hahn, 2005) - the two companies focus on community, fan culture and promotion that looks outside of genre boundaries, simultaneously fostering interest in East Asian cinema as a whole, alongside specific identification with their individual brands.

However, even though such grassroots evangelism gives a positive impression of the business, the immediate realities of the market cannot be avoided. For example, in a traditional retail context, Third Window and Terracotta are beholden to the HMV chain of media megastores, which currently holds a monopoly on DVD sales on the high-street. Torel explains that

'Unfortunately since Virgin/Zavvi and other similar stores went under there's just HMV left which means that they're a lot less receptive to foreign films. HMV are doing especially poorly recently, so even if you've got a critically acclaimed film on your hand, they won't take many units unless you've spent a load on advertising, and even then they may not. They also work on the terms that if it doesn't sell so many units in the first week then they'll return the product, so it's very risky.' (2011)

Furthermore, as the DVD market is experiencing a period of contraction - with HMV experiencing a 13.6% reduction in sales over the Christmas 2010 period - it seems less viable for smaller distribution companies to pursue this outlet ('HMV to close 60 stores as sales and shares slump', 2011).

Indeed, even when DVDs are stocked in HMV, the experience can be unpredictable. When talking on the VCinema podcast about his 2010 releases, Kakera and Fish Story (2009), Torel explained that he 'expected a lot more from them', especially considering the comparatively expensive advertising campaigns invested in each ($25,000 for Kakera, $18,000 for Fish Story), but problems with HMV stock over a summer of low sales resulted in slow business:

'During the World Cup here, and Wimbledon, and the abnormally hot weather we had for a month and a half or so, people stopped buying DVDs and HMV stopped buying stock. So there's been no stock in this store, and considering that HMV's the only major retailer throughout the country, not having stock in this store is hurting us a lot.' (2010)

Luckily, these companies find more success through, but it is in these pre-Internet contexts that business seems more complicated. For example, Terracotta's release of Breathless in 2009 was heralded by Sight & Sound as both film of the month and a film of the year, but even this prestige did not translate into larger sales figures (Rayns, 2010; 'Films of 2009: The Complete Poll'). Likewise, despite Kakera's strong international reception on the festival circuit, Torel is certain that this audience is not large enough to support a wide-scale release. He told VCinema: 'If I just sell to every person who'd heard about it from a film festival or something, I won't make money' (2010).

Therefore, there is pressure for companies like Terracotta and Third Window to suppress their instincts, and to instead look for easier sells, perhaps to bankroll further releases. When speaking to VCinema, Torel was asked if there was a film in his catalogue of which he was ashamed. He quickly responded with the Korean film Teenage Hooker Became A Killing Machine (Daehakno-yeseo maechoon-hadaka tomaksalhae danghan yeogosaeng ajik Daehakno-ye Issda, 2000). He explained that, at the time, he needed money to fund the purchase of several titles directed by Korean filmmaker Lee Chang Dong, but elaborated on the predictable nature of the general audience that, as a label boss, is sometimes too tempting to exploit:

'It's not terribly good, to say the least. But, you have to understand how these people are in England. Not just England, but, generally, people. Average Joe. It could be a blank disc, for Christ's sake: you have a title like that, you have a cover like that, and it will sell like hotcakes!' (2010)

However, Torel considers Third Window's reputation, as reflected in the integrity of its catalogue, to be more important than immediate financial gain, saying that 'long-term label building and gaining trust from consumers is important, not short-term money making through exploitation of the audience, which is the path most travelled' (2011). Indeed, it is this quality that has contributed to an international awareness of the label's releases, allowing as a by-product of the borderless Internet culture the rise of an import market, with international fans ordering films unreleased in their region from Despite their global scope, both Twitch and VCinema are based in North America, and it is this catalogue of acquisitions - which J Hurtado describes in his profile of the label as 'finely curated' - that has brought Third Window to their attention (2010a).

For Third Window and Terracotta, the strategies are long-term. Torel in particular considers time to be the major resource in the development of his company - one, he says, he has plenty of which to invest. When talking about the variegated jobs he undertakes in order to promote Third Window - attending conventions, organising screenings and engaging with online communities - he describes it as a top priority, saying that 'nothing beats personal interaction, and if the audience appreciate that, which they do, then you've built a trusting audience who will buy into your brand' (2011).

By focusing on reputation, reception and the relationship with both new and old communities, Third Window and Terracotta are succeeding in the 'paradoxical times' for world cinema distribution described by Macnab, and challenges his ominous predictions for the industry (2008). Their use of both on- and offline strategies, and the dialogue with their audience, is firmly in line with Jenkins 'new set of rules' for a convergent culture, which renegotiates the relationship between producer and consumer, and adopts the inter-personal, word-of-mouth experience of cult cinema for wider purposes (2006a, 3).

This new type of distributor, in contrast to MacAlpine and Tartan's ambitious, militaristic march towards domination, commits to their business with the patience and resilience of fans, suggesting that Jenkins' convergence has, in this case, resulted in an intertwining of producer and consumer that is starting to change the industry itself. The discourse from Torel and Leung, for example, closely mirrors that of the cult cinema anecdotes highlighted by Mathijs and Mendik, which mythologise the act of communication between consumers:

'Still, if one of us hadn't accepted the video-tape of “that movie” from that wild-eyed, tense shop clerk, we would never have become soul-mates, and a world of cult cinema would never have opened. Every story about a cult favourite begins with such humble, local details - therefore, global cults never exist without local ones.' (2008, 280)

Against the bombastic, polysemic example of Asia Extreme, Third Window and Terracotta seem unassuming, but welcoming - more like 'wild-eyed shop clerks' than grenade-wielding agents provocateurs. Time will tell if their grassroots efforts will translate into global cults.

Thanks again for reading, and thanks to Adam Torel and Joey Leung for allowing me to interview them for this essay. If you're not watching the films they're releasing, you're doing yourself a disservice. You can go back to the beginning of the essay here.


logboy said...

one small correction : twitch is canadian not american.

not that borders need to be defined in that way, but it's a subtle difference which is one of many examples as to how they've merged & simultaneously highlighted the differences & similarities in how films are treated internationally.

that is, american culture has the dominant effect upon these films as it's the biggest country outside of England that widely speaks english, with a longer history of releases too, and can support a greater quantity & diversity of material from across the globe.

third window's realistic choices, frequently with reasonable crossover potential, make something of a mockery of many usa labels work in the last decade, but as most don't specialise, and since many have collapsed, it looks like a distortion of the value in what the USA does now (or did in the past) which is an ongoing shift or change of circumstances more than it's an issue of how good the UK's role might seem to be beyond it's recent success & americas recent faltering.

Michael Leader said...

Thanks for the comment, and the correction! Have changed it to North American. Must have just clocked that Hurtado is from Dallas and assumed from thereon out.