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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 26.2 (2004) 26-39

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Ain't No Sunshine the Cinema in 2003

Larry Qualls and Daryl Chin

As 2003 came to a close, the usual plethora of critics' awards found themselves usurped by the decision of the Motion Picture Producers Association of America to disallow the distribution of screeners to its members, and to any organization which adheres to MPAA guidelines (which includes the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences). This became the rallying cry of the Independent Feature Project, as those producers who had created some of the most notable "independent" films of the year tried to find a way to guarantee visibility during award season. This issue soon swamped all discussions of year-end appraisals, as everyone, from critics to filmmakers to studio executives, seemed to weigh in with an opinion on the matter of screeners.

Yet, despite this media tempest, the actual situation of film continues to be precarious. As an example, in the summer of 2003 the distribution of films proved even more restrictive, as theatres throughout the United States were block-booked with the endless cycle of sequels that came from the studios (Legally Blonde 2, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Terminator 3, The Matrix Revolutions, X-2: X-Men United, etc.). A number of smaller films, such as the nature documentary Winged Migration and the New Zealand coming-of-age saga Whale Rider, managed to infiltrate the summer doldrums, but the continued conglomeration of distribution and exhibition has brought the motion picture industry to a stultifying crisis. And the issue of the screeners was the rallying cry for those working on the fringes of the industry, the "independent" producers and directors and small distributors. Of course, it helped that the issue became a point of contention that was able to unify many disparate groups, from Miramax on down to the Independent Feature Project [see PAJ 76]. But for those filmmakers who were making truly independent films, the issue of whether or not their films would get any sort of notice from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences was moot, almost a diversionary tactic to wrest attention from issues of quality, merit, value.

By the end of the year, after all the dust had settled on the terrain of the past year, most critics agreed that 2003 hadn't been such a bad year after all. The usual critics' awards were announced, the annual ten-best lists were published, and the consensus was that the movies had been able to find ways for talent to flourish. In a matter of [End Page 26] a few weeks, the crisis regarding screeners, the industry's fears regarding piracy, the outcry from independent producers and small distributors, had abated almost as quickly as it had erupted, as if a terrible calm had ensued after a natural disaster. A serious examination of the situation of the movies, however, reveals that there is a fundamental transformation occurring, not just in terms of the actual medium, but in terms of how movies are seen and experienced.

Obviously, the transformation of digital media has had enormous impact. One change which has not been much discussed has been the shift in the idea of theatrical presentation. Just as live theatre was altered in the last century, as the arena for drama contracted because of its increasing marginalization as a primary public forum, theatres became smaller, acting concentrated on interior process rather than exterior projection, and playwrights focused on psychological rather than social concerns, so cinema has found itself similarly transformed, only what had taken a gradual evolution in at least half a century has been speeded up to less than a decade. The ubiquity of the home video market, first with VHS tapes and now with DVDs, has brought about a collapse of distinction, so that a large part of the audience does not see the difference between watching a movie as a social event, where one attends with others in a theatrical setting, and watching...


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