[25 August 2013]
Social media has been debated by political policy makers and social commentators in terms of its potential to educate, unify, and mobilize the masses. In addition, sociological, cultural, and media studies scholars like Douglas Rushkoff, Henry Jenkins, and Dhiraj Murthy have made it clear that social media has altered communication habits. What isn’t as clear, and what hasn’t been adequately investigated by researchers, however, is how this transformation has affected social and cultural institutions. That is, there haven’t been many serious discussions about social media’s impact on business and industry practices, including but not limited to the American film industry.
Those who have explored social media’s impact on Hollywood, such as Tino Balio in Hollywood in the New Millennium, Robert Marich in the third edition of Marketing to Moviegoers: A Handbook of Strategies and Tactics, Wheeler Winston Dixon in Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access, and Chuck Tryon in On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies, devote about two pages of a chapter to it before moving to other topics like digital projection or global expansion, and the remaining commentators focus on the ways consumers make use of social media, thereby ignoring institutional uses.
For example, Kimberly Owczarski in “From Austin’s Basement to Hollywood’s Back Door: The Rise of Ain’t It Cool News and Convergence Culture”, argues that “Hollywood has faced substantial challenges as a result of new media technologies and how consumers are making use of them.” (Journal of Film and Video, 2012) What Owczarski doesn’t explore, however, is the way Hollywood makes use of these technologies. Similarly, Jean Burgess and Joshua Green explain in great detail the YouTube phenomenon in their book YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture, but their study is largely indicative of a current trend in media studies that ignores the way new media technologies impact industries and institutions in favor its influence on media consumers.
It’s clear that social media has caused more democratization and openness, which inevitably leads to the creation and circulation of user generated content, but it’s not unreasonable to propose that social media has also solidified the dominant status of various professional entertainment industries that have been producing, distributing, and exhibiting media content for decades. As a result, more substantial work needs to be done on this subject.
To fill in this gap, let’s consider an important and interesting new genre of filmmaking that can be located within the much debated arena of social media. This genre, which can be classified as the social film, offers new Hollywood production practices as a result of social media technologies. I use Inside (2011) and The Beauty Inside (2012) as case studies to demonstrate how the social film can alter the way films are made and received in contemporary culture and society. In addition, social films can complicate theoretical conceptions of film authorship, and I argue that they can allow for audience co-authorship.
So what, then, is the social film? Different from the Hollywood social problem films of the ‘40s that Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy have written about in The Hollywood Social Problem Film: Madness, Despair, and Politics from the Depression to the Fifties, the social film can be understood as a genre of filmmaking that enables individuals to interact with and contribute to the production of films via social media. Since individuals can interact in different ways depending on the particular social film, and since the social media platform upon which individuals interact varies with each social film, it’s important to view the social film genre as an evolving practice and process. We must make room for contest and change, and we must remember that a definitive approach to genre runs the risk of imposing boundaries, and it’s this kind of ahistorical perspective that I hope to avoid.
However, it’s necessary to briefly explain what the social film is not. For example, the YouTube videos that Burgess and Green explore are not necessarily social films, as they are video clips uploaded onto a video-sharing website for users to interact with by commenting, ranking, and reposting, but rarely do users contribute to the production of these videos. In other words, the difference between a social film and an uploaded video on YouTube, Vimeo, Twitter, or Vine is that users collaborate with Hollywood to contribute to the actual construction of social films via social media.
My purpose, then, is not to illustrate how social media has given rise to a plethora of video content that media scholars have called amateur media or user generated content, for this has already been discussed ad nauseam. Rather, I’m interested in the ways Hollywood combines this user generated content with its own production practices to create the social film, and what this can tell us about the American film industry today.
Two of the most innovative and successful social films are Inside and The Beauty Inside. Since 2011, Intel and Toshiba have used social media to market their latest product to a young, tech-savvy audience, and one of the creative ways they do this is by having social media users contribute to the production of short films in which their products will be placed.
Their first collaboration is Inside, which is the first Hollywood film to include the audience in the production process, allowing them to significantly contribute to the artistic properties of the film via social media. Not only is Inside directed by D.J. Caruso of Disturbia (2007) and I Am Number Four (2011) fame, but prominent actress Emmy Rossum stars as Christina, the film’s female protagonist. The film tells the story of a woman trapped inside of a confinement chamber with her laptop, and she uses social media to converse with online participants to help her escape. One of the press releases acknowledges the ways by which the audience can contribute to the project:
Unlike most static productions, Inside engages the audience by enlisting them to be a part of the film through social media. Viewers are encouraged to connect with Christina, tweet clues and post advice to her Facebook wall. The film will air in short episodes starting on July 25. During this time, viewers will be invited to activate their social channels and help decode Christina’s dilemma by posting tips, insights, ideas and clues. The editing team, led by Emmy-winning editor Josh Bodnar, will incorporate posts that best fit the storyline into the episodes.” (“Intel and Toshiba Launch Social Media Film Project – Inside”,11 July 2011)
According to one of the film’s press releases, major players are involved in this production, from Intel and Toshiba as financers, RSA Films and B-Reel as production companies, and the A-list, Hollywood talent responsible for the creative aspects. (ibid) Although there might be some debate as to what Inside really is, considering that it’s an advertisement within a narrative horror film that is partly made on and ultimately released to social media. Given that it comes from Hollywood and that it’s produced and advertised as a film, it’s appropriate to view Inside as a new work of cinema in the digital age that exemplifies the social film genre. As director Caruso explains in an interview:
Inside is unique because it allows me as the director to direct not just the actors but the audience as well. Social film is still in an experimental phase and collaborations like this one will help bring new concepts, opportunities and ideas to the world of entertainment. We had to approach the film differently because there are blanks that need to be filled in by the social media audience, but that is what makes it an exciting new experience for the viewer: the opportunity to participate in the film itself. (ibid)
So how, exactly, is Inside made, and what makes it so revolutionary? For one, it combines traditional Hollywood filmmaking with user-generated content. First, Caruso and his team shot the professional looking footage that serves as the basis for the film, or the footage that audience members must interact with and contribute to. Then, the footage was presented to social media users in short episodes beginning on 25 July 2011, and during this time, viewers used social media to virtually interact with the film’s production. Those who interacted with the film helped Christina escape by posting tips, insights, ideas, and clues to her Facebook page and Twitter account, and it’s imperative to keep in mind that the final product was entirely dependent upon the level of interaction. Finally, after weeks of audience interaction, a final version of the piece in edited form was released to the internet as a stand-alone film on 6 September.
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.
Jon Lisi has an MA in Cinema Studies from New York University. His research explores Hollywood cinema and the American film industry. Currently, he is interested in the impact social media has had on filmmaking and industry practices. He also investigates social media's broader influence on various cultures and societies in this globalized digital age. In addition to his monthly column here at PopMatters, he has written for the International Journal of Communication, Hollywood.com, therichest.com, and the-artifice.com. You can follow his work here: http://jonlisi.pressfolios.com/