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  • Film in Air: Airspace, In-Flight Entertainment, and Nontheatrical Distribution
  • Stephen Groening

On 21 May 1932 Los Angeles radio station KHJ transmitted a segment of a motion picture as a television signal for five minutes to a Western Air Express transport plane nearly ten miles away. The experiment was part of a proposed plan to transmit weather information to planes using the emergent technology of television. In this early application of in-flight screened entertainment, the visual communication technology was intended to further the efficiency of transportation technologies. Without accurate weather reports, goods (including human labor) could not be delivered safely and in a timely manner. However, if the experiment was simply to be used as a weather information system, it is unclear why Western Air Express and KHJ broadcast a feature-length film to test the technology. This convergence of entertainment and aviation technologies was a telling indication of a growing alliance between Hollywood and commercial air travel. Although the film (starring Loretta Young) was broadcast without sound, the engineers told reporters, who constituted the majority of those on the plane, that it would require only a small adjustment to also transmit sound, pointing toward the possibility of entertainment applications.1

The experiment demonstrated American technical prowess within the ongoing modern project: to eliminate barriers of physical distance and lay claim to the new kinds of spaces created by this project. The television signals were received on a moving vehicle, occupying the relatively new spatial category of “airspace” (a term barely twenty years old). As the plane itself defied the normal rules of territorial contiguity, flying over Los Angeles but not being in Los Angeles, the transnational communication apparatus of Hollywood became seemingly ethereal. Hollywood, ever ready to take the spotlight for new advancements in entertainment, now took flight to ensure its dominance over the dispersal of cultural content across new spatial categories—the airspace above the world stage.

The introduction of new screen technologies, such as seatback screens on airplanes, has allowed Hollywood to multiply its exhibition sites and circulate its product into places and spaces it could not previously access. Film’s standing as an essential part of contemporary culture depends on the ability of film exhibition technologies to transform places into movie theaters (or approximations thereof). Furthermore, the introduction of these new exhibition technologies opens up additional sources for the film industry’s revenue stream. In-flight entertainment exemplifies the film industry’s intent to create and reach audiences rather than waiting for audiences to find the industry’s product. The film industry uses these new exhibition spaces (from which persons often find themselves unable to exit) to promote, market, and sell product. Film is thus no longer part of a menu of entertainment and leisure but a constant, sometimes distracting background. On many airplanes films appear on screens unbidden, ready to become the central focus of attention if a passenger chooses to listen in via headphones.

Changes in the field of film studies indicate a growing concern and awareness of this multiplicity of new cinematic spaces: movies on television, films on computers, portable DVD players, seatback screens in minivans, and handheld digital media players. From the millennium issue of the journal Screen to the adoption of the initial “M” by the Society for Cinema Studies in 2002, the discipline has increasingly recognized that moving image culture is no longer locatable in the movie theater or on the silver screen. This can also be seen in the emergence of PhD programs, such as Moving Image Studies (Georgia State University) and Screen Cultures (Northwestern University), that by their very names proclaim “film” to be a limited and perhaps obsolete demarcation of the presence [End Page 4] of moving pictures in contemporary culture. Alongside this effort to find motion pictures in myriad nontheatrical places (a kind of “ambient cinema,” to paraphrase Anna McCarthy) is a turn toward “convergence culture” (to borrow from Henry Jenkins), in which motion pictures are seen as but one choice in a menu of digital entertainment options, a single facet of a franchised and remediated property—or merely a piece of intellectual property that converges with other cultural commodities in a single piece of...


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