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Rethinking Distribution for the Future of Media Industry Studies

From: Cinema Journal
Volume 52, Number 3, Spring 2013
pp. 165-171 | 10.1353/cj.2013.0017

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A cursory survey of the recent academic literature on media distribution might lead one to see little thematic consistency. Nonetheless, there are two points about which those writing on distribution seem to agree: first, scholars have examined distribution far less frequently than either production or consumption; and second, the digital age has fueled dramatic changes in distribution processes and practices that necessitate greater interrogation. In this essay, I argue that although it is true that distribution has been less extensively examined than many other aspects of the media industries, there is more work being undertaken than one might suspect. In fact, the sense that there is a paucity of literature on distribution is primarily the result of definitional inconsistencies and the absence of a conversation across various areas of Media Studies. By arguing for a reconceptualization of distribution that integrates existing work from such areas as television studies, film history, political economy of communication, moving-image archiving, and global media studies, we can expand how we think about this subject. In placing discussions about distribution in dialogue, and by pointing to some emergent themes in the scholarship on the topic, it is possible to enable Media Industry Studies to imagine new ways of researching, teaching, and writing about the crucial “space in between” production and consumption.

What Do We Mean by “Distribution”? And How Has It Been Studied?

Distribution companies have been labeled as “middlemen” and their employees as “intermediaries” responsible for ensuring that media find an audience. Yet distributors handle a large variety of different tasks. Overviews of the media industries typically identify the following as the primary emphases of distributors: assembling financing, procuring and/or licensing rights for projects for various platforms (e.g., iTunes, Netflix) or markets (e.g., Japanese theatrical, Latin American satellite television), managing the inflow and outflow of income from various corporate partners, designing release schedules and marketing strategies to establish and sustain audience awareness, and building and managing libraries.

A wide range of theoretical and methodological frameworks have been used to explore these types of distribution activities. Film scholars employing a political-economic approach, such as Philip Drake and Thomas Schatz, have examined how a handful of major conglomerates have dominated the global media business through rights management and exploitation. Their top-down examinations of corporate power and control employ trade and journalistic publications, along with corporate reports, as primary sources for research. Television Studies scholars coming from a cultural studies perspective, such as Timothy Havens and Derek Kompare, have taken more of a bottom-up approach, considering the cultural dimensions of distribution decisions. Havens attended trade shows and interviewed those involved in making acquisitions decisions; Kompare dug into archival sources and scoured research databases to learn how companies’ distribution decisions shape our understanding of television history. Global media studies scholars such as Michael Curtin, Jade Miller, and Juan Piñon have blended interviews, on-site visits, and analysis of selected media texts to explore how local, regional, and global distribution networks are structured and how content flows through various regions.

Meanwhile, media historians such as Caroline Frick, Jennifer Horne, and Haidee Wasson have shown how archives, libraries, and museums have long cultivated alternative distribution networks and functioned as redistributors. These scholars depict the ongoing tensions that exist between professionals and practitioners who seek to preserve moving-image artifacts and those who wish to provide widespread access to those images to the public. Such studies are potent interventions in the era of convergence, effectively reinforcing that distribution can be conceived of as an activity taken on by those outside of major for-profit corporations. As one example, Frick’s book Saving Cinema highlights how institutions (e.g., the Museum of Modern Art), government agencies (e.g., the Library of Congress), and international associations (e.g., the International Federation of Film Archives, UNESCO) have engaged with and participated in the business practices of corporations while also modeling alternative modes of distribution.

Across these areas, much of the recent discussion has been on the likely impact of new technologies on the circulation of content. Members of the industry and press have also chimed in regularly on this topic. For example, journalist Scott Kirsner and media...



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