What Happens When Hollywood Film Production Meets Social Media?

For the first time in cinema history, Hollywood has enabled social media users to contribute to the artistic properties of films, thereby earning them co-authorship… of sorts.

The Beauty Inside

Cast: Topher Grace, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Robert Adler
Network: YouTube


Director: D.J. Caruso
Cast: Emmy Rossum, Cooper Thorton, Molly Hagan

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.

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