Extremely Planned, Highly Calculated Experiments
In 2012, Intel and Toshiba repeated this production process with The Beauty Inside. However, there are a few differences between the two Intel and Toshiba films that are worth mentioning. For one, The Beauty Inside is led by a different creative team, with Drake Doremus directing and Topher Grace and Mary Elizabeth Winstead starring. In addition, The Beauty Inside is described as a softer, more romantic film that tells the story of Alex, a 20-something male who wakes up every day with a new physical appearance.
To pull this narrative concept off, the producers allowed audience members to use their webcams to make appearances in the film, starring as physical versions of Alex as he records his web diary, a form of interaction that wasn’t offered with Inside. Although every recording wasn’t selected to appear in the final version of the film, the selection process was determined by the number of users who participated, which altered the direction the film could have taken. Still, as with Inside, audience members contributed to the production process each week, and the best results were then edited into a cohesive stand-alone film that was released to the internet weeks later.
If we allocate the two films from Intel and Toshia for critical reflection, we can begin to understand how social media can alter industry practices. Although it’s fair to say that these social films are experiments, they are extremely planned and highly calculated experiments, and we can see the advertising and film industries merge for the sake of business. That is, Intel, Toshiba, and Hollywood combine to make films that engage with the social media generation in an attempt to market their brand to connected young adult audiences. Whereas Intel and Toshiba are marketing their electronic products by physically placing them within the films, Hollywood markets its brand by participating in the production, distribution, and exhibition of these films. Thus, Hollywood sends a message to the world that it can remain relevant in the digital age by utilizing the latest social media technologies in an innovative way.
Inside and The Beauty Inside don’t necessarily anticipate a dominant Hollywood business practice, as David Bordwell reminds us in Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies that the majority of films produced by Hollywood still adhere to traditional filmmaking practices and don’t allow social media users to interact with the production process, even if most films today are shot and projected digitally. However, the social film offers an alternative business practice of which Hollywood can take advantage if it chooses, thereby reinforcing Hollywood’s domination as an entertainment industry. In addition, the social film has the potential to transform the way Hollywood makes films and the way audiences receive them.
For example, the social films by Intel and Toshiba complicate traditional ideas of film authorship as they make room for audience co-authorship. Traditionally, the auteur theory has been the dominant view within film studies, which places an emphasis on the director as the single author of the film, and can be attributed to Andrew Sarris, but has been more prominently appropriated within the field by Robin Wood, Peter Wollen, and V.F. Perkins. However, I want to follow in Berys Gaut’s path and argue that a multiple authorship view is more theoretically sound and critically fruitful.
According to Gaut in A Philosophy of Cinematic Art, a film that has at least two people in key production roles that contribute to the artistic properties of the film is the product of multiple authors. This means that a film like Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963) is the work of a single author because Brakhage occupies all key production roles including director, editor, screenwriter, cinematographer, camera operator, etc., whereas a film like Psycho (1960) is the work of multiple authors, with director Alfred Hitchcock, screenwriter Joseph Stefano, actors Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins, and other artistic contributors sharing co-authorship. This is a logical, necessary intervention, and Gaut’s revision correctly addresses traditional filmmaking practices and the limitations of various single authorship theories.
However, Gaut does not anticipate the ways that the social film genre offers new production practices that can allow for audience co-authorship. For the first time in cinema history, Hollywood enables social media users to contribute to the artistic properties of films like Inside and The Beauty Inside as they watch the film unfold narratively and creatively before their eyes, thereby earning them co-authorship.
As a genre, the social film appeals to a niche market that is able and willing to contribute to the production of films via social media. Not everyone has the technological means to do this, and not everyone wants to (especially those within the film industry). It’s appropriate to assume that most moviegoers still want to be entertained by a grand Hollywood spectacle, whether they watch it on a big screen in multiplexes across the globe or on their iPads from the comfort of their homes. It’s doubtful that the majority of consumers will suddenly change from viewing content to wanting to contribute to the production of content. For some, this is a waste of time, and for others, the magic of Hollywood cinema is ruined by adding to its artifice.
Nevertheless, there exists a small amount of amateur artists that desire to be a part of something larger than their rarely viewed uploaded YouTube videos. Hollywood, by forming partnerships with social media institutions, gives these unknown artists the opportunity to present their work to a mass audience by incorporating it into a social film. The incentive is clear: Social media offers the technological platform, users provide the content, Hollywood professionals elevate the content into something worthy for audiences to see, and Hollywood and its partners pay the bill to make a profit. (Life in a Day (2011) and Springsteen & I (2013) are more recent examples of the social film, but they differ from Inside and The Beauty Inside because they combine user generated video clips from various social media contributors into a cohesive final product, and Hollywood produced video content is absent from these films.)
It’s imperative to keep in mind that social media users don’t make money from these films, and many of them can only take away the experience of working on the production in the hope that someone in Hollywood might recognize or remember their work within the larger film, track them down, and give them a movie deal. However, the reality is that user generated content, like most contemporary film productions, still needs to be attached to a Hollywood name in order to appeal to a mass audience.
Therefore, we must consider the extent to which the social film really changes anything about Hollywood. It certainly alters the way Hollywood films can be made and received, and it also provides Hollywood with yet another opportunity to make money (although, to be clear, Hollywood still makes more money the old fashioned way). However, the social film also reinforces many things we already knew about Hollywood. As Richard Maltby reminds us in his book Hollywood Cinema, “beyond its technological, organizational, or stylistic changes, Hollywood’s essential business has remained the same: to entertain its audience and make a profit.” Thomas Schatz describes this as “the genius of the system” and although he refers to the Golden Age from the ‘20s until the late ‘40s, the social film proves that Hollywood’s genius remains intact.
This is why it’s crucial to explore social media’s impact on the film industry, and one of the ways we can do this is by studying the social film genre. An investigation of user generated content can only take us so far, whereas the social film shows how meaningful the content actually becomes when it’s used for Hollywood’s purposes: to entertain and to make a profit. By opening up to social media, Hollywood has proved that it can do things with the latest technologies that “ordinary” users cannot. The social film indeed gives users an unprecedented amount of interaction with the Hollywood production process, but Hollywood still calls the shots. And we must remember most of all that Hollywood wouldn’t be calling the shots, which is to say that it wouldn’t bother with social media and the creation of social films, if it didn’t think it could generate a profit from them in the first place.
Finally, it should be noted that although this essay is an early exploration of the social film genre (and the basis for my current scholarly interest), I am not responsible for coining the term. As the press releases of both Inside and The Beauty Inside demonstrate, Hollywood markets these productions as “social films”, most likely in an attempt to separate them from other Hollywood productions, as well as to excite the computer-savvy audience to which these films are marketed.
Moreover, journalists and fans have since used the term to describe the films, and the new genre even has its own Wikipedia page. My intention is not to correct this or to dismiss it entirely, as if to imply that my understanding of the social film is more accurate. As Christine Gledhill argues, “genre analysis tells us not just about kinds of films, but about the cultural work of producing and knowing them.” (“Rethinking Genre” in Reinventing Film Studies, 2000) However, I have gone more in-depth to place the social film in a historical, cultural, and industrial context, as well as to place it within film, media, and cultural studies as an overlooked Hollywood practice that demands more critical investigation.