The Political Economy of Film

Tom O’Regan. Handbook of Film Studies. Editor: James Donald & Michael Renov. 2008. Sage Publication.

The rubric of a ‘political economy of cinema’ has proved attractive to generations of film scholars. Few writers on cinema or its close relations of television and new media have not at one time or another turned their attention to the way that politics and economics, whether separately or together, have shaped the production, circulation and social uptake of film. It is not hard to see why. By virtue of its public visibility and industrial character, politics and government tend to exercise a defining influence upon filmmaking by helping to establish the formal and informal ‘rules of the game’ under which cinema operates.

Equally, the changing structures of the industry both globally and nationally have been determined in large part by film production costs, the complex infrastructures required for both production and screening, the ongoing reliance upon technology and innovation, and the sheer scale of the finance involved at all stages of the cycle from production to exhibition. Furthermore, the interaction of political and economic consid­erations are pivotal not only in giving cultural and economic regulation of the cinema its characteristic shape in film classification and urban zoning of cinemas, but also in informing cultural and industry policies such as incen­tives for the production of films and even the building of cinemas. The combination of politics and economics is also writ large in the actions of media corporations and industry associations and agencies—especially the Hollywood majors and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)—in securing friendly operating conditions both at home and abroad for their operations (Guback, 1969; Miller et al., 2005; Pendakur, 1990; Thompson, 1985).

Cinema, then, is at one and the same time a textual and aesthetic system, an economic institution, an object of government and a social institution. Having recognized the institution’s multiple dimensions, it is a small step to conclude with Graham Murdock that our ways of organizing and financing cultural production have ‘traceable consequences for the range of discourses and representations in the public domain and accessibility to audiences’ (1989: 46), or, to put this more precisely, the way that films are conceived, planned, produced, funded and circulated ‘leave their marks upon the films—not only directly, in telltale details, but structurally as well’ (Bordwell et al., 1985: xiv). Film Studies is therefore full of examples like Kevin Heffernan’s study of Hollywood’s 1950s horror cycle, which demonstrates the relation between, on the one hand, form and content and, on the other, the changing industrial circumstances associated with exhibition, distribution and production (2004). For Heffernan this horror cycle stemmed from the economic impera­tives of the cinema industry faced with the ‘double whammy’ of the advent of television and the break-up of the vertical integra­tion that had placed not only production but also cinema exhibition and distribution under the control of the big studios. These provided the conditions for the emergence of the horror movie screened at drive-ins aimed at youth audiences escaping the strictures of family life and television’s family orientation.

These varying specifications of the cinema—as a textual and aesthetic system, an economic institution, an object of government and a social institution—help to explain the organization of the field of scholarship surrounding film and television. We have, first, approaches which seek to stitch these various ‘orders’ together into multifaceted accounts of the cinema institution—whether it be the Classical Hollywood style, the studio system in the classical period (Schatz, 1988; 1996), Hollywood in the information age (Wasko, 1994), the French New Wave of the 1950s and 1960s (Marie, 2003) or the New German cinema of the 1960s and 1970s (Elsaesser, 1989). Within this body of scholarship we can distinguish between weaker and stronger versions of political economy, depending on the accent given and purpose behind the explanations. Film historians and cultural analysts usually undertake weaker versions. Typically, they investigate particular political and economic aspects of the film phenomenon being studied in order to explain the impacts of government policy, the interaction of style and mode of production, and the shaping influence of consumption upon the production, circulation and uptake of particular kinds of films and filmmaking. Stronger versions of political economy are generally undertaken within communication or related social science disciplines. Here the emphasis is more likely to be on political economy, using the approach to insist upon the genesis of the system (cinema) or object (films) in the capitalist mode of production and in the institutions and circuits of commodified production, distribution and consumption (see Garnham, 2000; Hesmondhalgh, 2002). What both the weaker and stronger variants have in common is the attempt to integrate political and economic aspects of the cinema into broad explanations about the nature and character of the cinema, its films, its institutions, its politics and its markets.

Besides the weaker and stronger versions of political economy we have an increas­ing number of approaches which tend to concentrate on one of these dimensions, typically relegating consideration of others to a more incidental basis. Some per­spectives, dealt with extensively elsewhere in this Handbook, concentrate upon either textual or aesthetic dimensions of the cinema or upon cinema as a social and cultural institution. Of particular interest at this moment, however, is the growing number of approaches which foreground political, economic and geographical explanations in their examination of the film and media industries. This emerging focus has been prompted in large part by significant changes both within the media industries and in governmental priorities for those industries. It is in this new context that film has become an object of government in new ways and so increasingly an object of study for policy and political studies (Cunningham, 2002; Dyson and Humphreys, 1990; Venturelli, 1998). In this emerging perspective, film becomes one facet of broader audio-visual indus­tries, including the broadcasting, information and creative industries. At the same time, media and cultural economists concerned with the formation of audio-visual markets, and within these the economics of the film and television industries, have variously sought to understand these industries and to frame, query or legitimate existing political interventions and cultural support systems (Noam, 1985; Siwek and Wildman, 1988; Throsby, 2001). For their part, economic and cultural geographers in an era with increased focus and policy attention towards regional economic development have been exploring the formation of film and television industries focusing upon their local and extra­local networks, the formation of particular industrial districts and the development of cities (see notably Christopherson, 2003; 2006; Coe, 2000; Coe and Johns, 2004; Scott, 2000; Scott and Storper, 2003). These developments ensure that overviews of the political economy of film need to increasingly consider perspectives developed out of a variety of disciplinary domains which are less oriented to film in itself than to broader processes and larger concerns.

This chapter is organized as follows. It examines weaker and stronger versions of political economy, first separately and then together, before turning to accounts of the political and economic aspects of the cinema being developed outside the disciplinary nexus of these familiar film, media and communication approaches. The chapter ends with a brief consideration of the interaction and significance of this field for future research and scholarship.

The Weak Version of Political Economy: Film Studies

Despite the widely recognized importance of political economic aspects of production and circulation to the cinema and to film scholarship, there are comparatively few Film Studies scholars who would describe themselves first and foremost as political economists. Eileen Bowser (1990) is typical of a tendency—particularly evident among film historians, national cinema analysts and cultural studies practitioners—to inte­grate political and economic perspectives with other kinds of explanation in order to produce multiple and intersecting per­spectives on film. Film and the cinema necessarily emerge from such studies as complex sociocultural, aesthetic and eco­nomic phenomena. In The Transformation of Cinema: 1907-1915, for example, Bowser writes:

This volume is an effort to understand, through a better knowledge of how films were seen and experienced at the time they first appeared to their audiences and of the surrounding circumstances of their production, distribution, and exhibition, and the prevalent cultural and social ideas at the time, just how it was films and filmmaking were transformed in this period. (1990: xi)

In such an analysis both political and economic perspectives on the circumstances of production, distribution and exhibition are present. They exist, however, only alongside other perspectives drawn from social, cultural and intellectual history, textual analysis, histories of acting, performance and staging and so on. A focus on the political economy of film is here one component among several components needing to be mobilized by the researcher as historian and analyst of a complex, multifaceted cultural institution.

Such a mixing of elements characterizes much of the analysis of national cinemas and many analyses seeking to illuminate the intersecting and diverse aspects of the cinema—whether to explain the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s and 1940s (Schatz, 1996) or the Australian cinema after 1960 (O’Regan, 1996). Such scholars are animated by the multiple and diverse points of view required to reconstruct and explain particular film milieu, filmmaking trajectories or aspects thereof. Typically, they are concerned with how and why particular films came to be made, why these films looked the way they did, and why they mattered to historical audiences and critics. The object of analysis here is the history and disposition of an art and/or cultural form. Their collective concern is for the ‘cultural politics’ of cinema—with cinema as a cultural institution. Often, work in this tradition sees film as a combination of cultural-aesthetic meanings and/or politics that, to an extent, confers its own end and set of interests.

This is an inevitably ‘messy’ approach (O’Regan, 1996). Varying factors are seen as influencing film production. These can range from a particular mode of production with specific stylistic entailments (Bordwell et al., 1985) to the structuring influence of marketing upon the selection and investment in the contemporary high-budget block­buster (Wyatt, 1994), from the centrality of film and television policy to European film production (Elsaesser, 2005; Nowell-Smith and Ricci, 1998) to the role of key creative personnel in constructing a studio and its slate of films (Balio, 1987; Schatz, 1996). As John Downing, whose work has always combined film with wider media deliberations, observed, ‘for many purposes political economy is more a question of insistence on the impact of economic vectors as a matter of empirical observation than of having a developed … acknowledged theory which illuminates their interaction with other sets of factors’ (1996: 27). For Downing, the selection of determinations is made on a case-by-case basis and is usually based upon what the empirical record reveals. Writers within this tradition tend to worry away at creating a ‘monolithic determining status’ (Bordwell et al., 1985: xv) for any explanatory grid and particularly political economic notions such as mode of production or capitalism in its varying guises (mercantile, monopoly or information). David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson are typical in arguing in their landmark study, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, that ‘film style and mode of production are. reciprocal and mutually influencing’, rather than one creating the other (1985: xiv). This characteristic reluctance to accord the political and economic privileged status distinguishes these scholars from avowed political economists of film who place these economic systems at the centre of their anal­ysis (Garnham, 2000; Hozic, 2001; Wasko, 1994).

The Strong Version of Political Economy: A Critical Political Economy

The familiar complaint of our next group, the critical political economists, against the first group is that this kind of piecemeal approach is only ever designed to answer particular and limited mid-range questions. It lacks the holistic view political economy perspectives purport to provide. As David Hesmondhalgh puts it, it is only when such studies are ‘syn­thesized into a more comprehensive vision of how cultural production and consumption fit into wider, economic, political and cultural contexts that an analysis of specific conditions of cultural production really produces its explanatory pay-off’ (2002: 36). Political economy is here a theory and a perspective upon how these various messy bits might be (permanently) arranged into a coherent pattern of analysis persisting across multiple studies and suited to a variety of different contexts.

Political economy claims, first, to answer how the various aspects and circumstances of production and circulation may be optimally arranged. Secondly, it claims to recognize in diverse phenomena so many shared generat­ing mechanisms and determinants organizing the conditions and circumstances under study. It finds a stabilizing and common set of fea­tures organizing production and its circulation in capitalism and its modes of production. For Nicholas Garnham, the capitalist mode of production brings ‘into a specific historically constructed set of relations the means and forces of production, capital and labour to produce and exchange commodities (whether goods or services) on competitive markets’ (2000: 41).

According to critical political economists, the problem with our first group of scholars is that they fail to attend systemically to the determining consequences of commodified production. For Garnham:

Political economists find it hard to understand how, within a capitalist social formation, one can study cultural practices and their political effectivity—the ways in which people make sense of their lives and then act in the light of that understanding—without focusing attention on how the resources for cultural practice, both material and symbolic … are made available in structurally determined ways through the institutions and circuits of commodified cultural production, distribution and consumption. (1990: 72)

They therefore tend to treat the cultural object—here the filmic object—as ‘iso­lated systems cut off from political and socio-economic conflict’, and so sideline ‘issues of power and domination’ stemming from the circumstances of the capitalist mode of production itself (Hesmondhalgh, 2002: 36).

The defining characteristics of the capitalist mode of production are, first, the evident ‘competition between capitals in search of accumulation which drives innovation and the search for efficiency and thus growth in productivity for the system as a whole’. Second, there is the ‘separation of labour from the means of production’, which produces an ‘increasingly deep division of labour, and thus the provision and allocation of labour through a labour market based on wages’ (Hesmondhalgh, 2002: 41). And, third, it has an inescapable character in that ‘[n]either individual capitals nor workers have any choice but to participate in the system’ (Hesmondhalgh, 2002: 42).

Given this focus, the central preoccupation of this ‘strong’ approach is to uncover ‘the dynamics of capitalism’ (Wasko, 1999: 222). The political economist focuses upon the study of ‘the relationships among com­modities, institutions, social relations and hegemony’. They want to discuss ‘the policy problems and moral issues which arise’. And they want to ‘transcend the distinction between research and policy’ and instead to orient ‘work towards actual social change’ (Wasko, 1999: 222-223). To Janet Wasko’s list we can add the concern of Garnham (2001) andToby Miller etal. (2005) tochartthe ‘deep’ division of labour within film production itself. For Miller et al. this is the distinction between above-the-line and below-the-line film workers in a new cultural division of labour within Hollywood and now extending beyond the US to a global scale with the advent of geographically dispersed film and television production in so-called ‘runaway’ productions. This work shares a concern for cultural workers including film workers not in the elite and highly paid zones having greater access to the means of production and control over their often exploitative labour conditions.

Connecting and Distinguishing Weak and Strong Versions of Political Economy

What fundamentally distinguishes those approaches that avowedly, and centrally, focus on political economy from those that to varying degrees investigate political and eco­nomic aspects of the film phenomenon being investigated? The first point of difference turns on critical political economy’s insistence upon the genesis of the system or object in the capitalist mode of production and the institutions and circuits of commodified production, distribution and consumption. By contrast, much more diverse purposes are associated with the weaker versions of political economy evident in the work of the film historian and cultural analysts who variously emphasize the influence of government policy, the interaction of style and mode of production, and the shaping influence of consumption.

A second major point of distinction is that critical political economists do not as a rule see themselves as primarily concerned with the political economy of films and filmmaking. For such scholars a critical political economy of communication is at the centre of their work, superintending both their own methods of research and any other perspectives they may incorporate. Wasko is typical here. In a series of books on Hollywood and its corporations, beginning with Movies and Money in 1982 and including Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy (2001), Hollywood in the Age of Information (1994) and more recently How Hollywood Works (2003), she has situated her work as part of a broader contribution, not so much to Cinema and Film Studies, but to, as her website puts it, ‘the political economy of communications, its structure and policies’. Her focus on the ‘United States film industry’ provides a good vantage-point from which to observe the operations of the contemporary globalizing and diversified media corporation operating across multiple media and with interests in production, exhibition, distribution and exhibition in cinema, pay-TV and television. By contrast, our Film Studies theorist and historian concerned with the interplay of the films, their circumstances of production and circulation and their uptake by audiences is likely to take the cinema, and therefore Film Studies including film history, as their principal disciplinary domain.

But while positioning themselves within critical political economy, the actual studies undertaken routinely intersect with other work. Understanding Disney and Miller et al.’s Global Hollywood (2001, 2005) draw on more than political economy to explore cinema and filmmaking’s work as an economic and ideological institution suggesting significant points of continuity between these two approaches. As Wasko observes:

Political economy draws upon several disciplines—specifically history, economics, sociology and polit­ical science … [It] draws on a wide variety of techniques and methods, including not only Marxist economics, but methods used in history and sociology, especially power-structure research and institutional analysis. (1999: 224)

The adoption of multiple perspectives here is seen as being ordered and coherent in that, as with Wasko’s analysis of the continued expansion and popularity of the Disney group, her object of study calls ‘for the deliberate integration of political economic analysis with insights drawn from cultural analysis and audience studies or reception analysis, or, in other words, analysis emphasizing the economic as well as the ideological, or production as well as consumption’ (2001: 5). Miller et al. explicitly draw upon cultural studies and cultural policy analysis to bol­ster political economy in their attempt to explain Hollywood’s continuing hegemony in a globalizing era. This disciplinary spread is similarly justified as a means of throwing explanatory light onto the material factors underlining Hollywood’s global success.

Characteristically, both approaches are connected in that they recognize the impor­tance of thinking through possible ways of incorporating economic and political forces and processes into social analysis—(to paraphrase Downing (1996:27). They are also drawn from a family of related disciplines—the Media/Communication and Film/Cultural Studies nexus—which are dedicated to analyzing cultural and media production and associated cultural meanings through a mix of film and media history, sociology and political economy. Where they differ lies in the attention critical political economists give to the determining impact of the economic in capitalism recognized predominantly through a Marxist lens, and its associated ownership and control features over and against the more fragmented and diverse perspectives adapted by the weaker versions of political economy found in Film Studies traditions.

The film scholar Kristin Thompson’s book Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market, 1907-1934 (1985) can be taken as one index of this difference. At one level this study is almost exclusively concerned with political and economic devel­opments. She shows how America achieved hegemony in international film markets through a combination of innovations in film distribution, opportunities the First WorldWar presented for Hollywood export with weak­ened European competitors, and a concerted business strategy of ‘eroding’ the base of support for the European film industry abroad by targeting key international territories in Australia and South America (1985: x). But her purpose in doing so is not to uncover an underlying dynamic of monopoly capi­talism and trends towards concentration of ownerships and increasing divisions of labour (critical political economist ends)—although she certainly shows these things in action. Rather, it is to help the ‘historian of style’ establish ‘the norms of cinematic practice to which audiences (including filmmakers) would have been accustomed’ (1985: xi).That is, she is drawn to establish the dynamics of filmmaking so as to establish what it is that audiences were watching and how this product was being distributed. She wanted to use this to understand better the practice and options of European filmmakers in the inter-war period. This different agenda no doubts accounts for the way that Miller et al. (2001) dismiss Thompson’s study as ‘archival empiricism’, drawing attention to its failure to draw out the larger significance and implications of its research.

What is loosely being played out here is a broader distinction between two approaches. One tends to see ‘culture’ and its distinctive forms of media, such as the cinema, as an unusual domain of social, institutional and public life and government worthy of attention in its own right. The other perspective recognizes in such media just another institutional, public and governmental domain. The first, more humanities-oriented version of Film Studies grows out of a longer history of the aesthetic consideration of culture and individual art forms. It reflexively sees cultural institutions and forms as having developed in their own, suigeneris, fashion with their own sense of themselves, their own particular domain of interventions, their own rules and procedures, their protocols of public commentary and interpretation, their own policy processes that have made the cultural domain quite unlike other domains of social, public and economic life and from each other. This research tradition takes its cue from what immediately relates to the filmic object being examined for the analysis undertaken—whether the study of filmmakers and their careers, film move­ments, or particular national cinemas. This humanities orientation licences attention to the media form and makes this attention in turn a self-justifying end in itself authorizing attention to film and the cinema as a pre­eminently cultural institution with economic and political aspects.

On the other hand, for the critical political economist the cinema is self-evidently and increasingly part of broader capital formations and policy networks which are so insis­tent in their impact as to warrant greater attention to them. Film is connected here with other national governmental programs, wider projects of state and inexorable market forces. Critical political economy is therefore strongly associated with media communication scholarship and stresses the cinema as part of, rather than apart from, other, larger communications, cultural, creative or copyright industries. It further stresses the communication industries’ relation with larger dynamics of capitalism, its strategies and its facilitatory and regulatory orientations. This perspective tends to turn Hollywood film and television industries into a case study of, in Garnham’s words, ‘key problems within the general project of the social sciences’, and as exemplary vantage-points from which to witness the dynamics of capitalism in operation (1990: 3).

Such a division of scholarly labour would certainly appear to hold true if one were to take Herb Schiller’s 1969 Mass Communication and the American Empire as the point of departure for the development of a critical political economy. Schiller’s influential thesis was that a project of American cultural impe­rialism was forged from connections between the US military industrial complex and US media industries, including Hollywood. In a European counterpart to Schiller’s approach, Armand Mattelart’s early work elaborated an explanation of ‘international image markets’ (1979; Mattelart et al., 1984). This critical perspective still broadly informs the work of Garnham (1990), Peter Golding and Murdock (1997) on media concentration and control, and much of Wasko’s work. And, if one set against this body of work studies of French (Hayward, 1993), Italian (Sorlin, 1996) or Australian national cinemas (O’Regan, 1996), studies of the studio system incorporating diverse aspects including but not privileging the economic and political (Schatz, 1988; Staiger, 1995), and studies of individual production-distribution companies such as the ‘artist’s studio’, Universal Studios (Balio, 1987), then it would be easy enough to support the characteristic patterns of perspective and orientation that differentiate weaker versions of political economy from the stronger.

There are immediate problems with doing so, however. After all, one of the sem­inal works in the political economy of communications is Thomas Guback’s The International Film Industry (1969), which was concerned with the nexus of politics and economics as it related to Western European film policy, domestic production industries and Hollywood’s intersection and strategic shaping of these in the immediate post-war period as it sought to (re)gain market entry and assert a degree of control. Part political science and policy studies, part economic analysis and part assessment of the impact of these conditions on both Hollywood and European films, Guback’s book helped frame later trajectories of film scholarship—and indeed film activism outside the US. I was first lent the book to read by Australian film activist Sylvia Lawson in the 1970s. I noticed it had the Australian film director, producer and fellow activist Ken Quinnell’s name inside its front cover. Lawson and Quinnell were using Guback to help them understand their own Australian predicament and think through how they could use cultural arguments to lobby (ultimately successfully) for state support for a local film industry whose products would be insulated, to some extent, from the full pressure of the market through subsidy mechanisms analogous to those beginning to be available in the performing arts.

The International Film Industry is notable for its attention to the specific characteristics of each of the major Western European cinemas. Here two major traditions of filmmaking—Hollywood and European art cinema—were thought together in an inte­grated analysis with political and economic imperatives given due weight. Guback’s subsequent work could have gone in two directions. He could have become a specialist on the European film industries or he could have focused on international (now named ‘global’) Hollywood. He chose the latter path, situating this work variously within critical political economy traditions, and towards the end of his career with ‘institutional analysis’ (Wasko, 1999: 221). His attention became less focused on European film policy development then on the changing dimensions of Hollywood’s international market and its control of international territories, including its capacity to get governments to do its bidding (Guback, 1985a; 1985b).

If Guback had chosen the European film policy path, he probably would not have been so closely identified with critical political economy. This is because the close relation of the state to domestic film production in Western Europe and beyond would have likely required some moderation of the straightforward calculus of concentration and control by transnational Hollywood majors that is obtained when considering the activity of Hollywood corporations. Indeed, when we compare the role of the nation state in the US to its international counterparts, we see a different, more defensive, role being assumed by other nation states. In Europe, Canada and Australia, for instance, the state acts as facilitator, creating favourable investment conditions for private investment in film. It often acts as a patron by selectively funding film projects through arm’s-length decision­making processes in various film commis­sions and other bodies like the Australian Film Finance Corporation (FFC) modelled initially on arts funding bodies (see Craik, 1996). These measures ensure the underwriting of production levels beyond a minimal level and ensure a national presence to ‘dream our own dreams and tell our own stories’, just as they also introduce the possibility of producers being more interested in ‘obtaining financial subsidies than they are with actually attracting audiences’ (Scott, 2000: 110). The nation state is typically dealing here with a considerably weaker, more disorganized and fragmented production sector—something of a cottage industry with undeveloped links with distribution and exhibition. By contrast, Hollywood’s relation with the American state is that of a co-participant. The state is dealing here with one of its major economic institutions—and one that brings together production, distribution and, increasingly, exhibition interests and has important export markets and operations abroad to protect (Siwek, 2002). This is, crudely, the difference between two types of film policy. One sees cinema as an issue primarily for cultural policy and therefore focuses on providing support for local film production and local filmmakers and relies on subsidy as the policy instrument to provide that support. The other sees cinema as an industry, incor­porating the mix of filmmaking, distribution and exhibition, and therefore sees it as an issue for economic and international trade policy.

From the perspective of the researcher, these structural differences largely determine the relationship between film scholarship and the film industry. People working on non- Hollywood film making often find it easier to get close to the local film industry, as it is more socially accessible and practitioners are often ready to talk. Indeed, the close proximity of the state means that there is another public rea­son—a sense of public entitlement, obligation and ownership stemming from governmental largesse—to grease the wheels of conversation and controversy. For such scholars there is also a David-versus-Goliath factor. ‘Our’ smaller, locally accented, independent, more ‘cottage industry’-like and, above all, non- Hollywood producers and filmmakers can be seen as taking on the corporate and soulless Hollywood Goliath. Undeniably, the prospect of scholarship mattering not just to govern­ment but also to the film industry has coloured the cultural and critical presuppositions of many national cinema scholars and influenced the type of research questions they ask. Unsurprisingly, they often register notions of cultural imperialism, cultural erosion and loss of cultural diversity in their scholarship (see O’Regan, 1996: 115-21).

Michael Dorland’s study of the emergence of Canadian feature film policy, So Close to the State/s (1998), hints at the particular dynamic in operation outside the US in its very title, with its ambiguous play on the Canadian state and the US stressing the inter-relation between them. Dorland is concerned with the story of how it became in the (Canadian) national interest to fund Canadian feature films. He emphasizes the ‘decisive role’ of what he calls ‘state knowledge or governmentality’ in the emergence of Canadian feature film (1998: 148). Operating within a ‘national cinemas’ rubric there is a strong sense that economic and political considerations are simply one among a number of conditions under which a filmmaking milieu emerges and is sustained. This recognizes the fact that the market for domestic production in national cinemas is informed—even generated—by dynamics that are not ruled by simple eco­nomic supply-and-demand equations. Indeed, sometimes the opposite is the case. Film pro­duction support mechanisms can be explicitly designed to cushion local production from the full operation of the market. Such considerations can, at times, partially suspend supply-and-demand dynamics, leading to the overproduction and supply of films and to levels of filmmaking greater than the trivial levels on its own would support the ‘market’. The taxation incentives period in Australian cinema of the 1980s and the ‘quota quickies’ of British and Canadian cinema in the 1930s spring to mind. Film support mechanisms can also, as Allen J. Scott observes for the contemporary French film industry, lead to ‘propping up domestic market share by dramatically reducing entrepreneurial risk’, with the consequence that ‘new competitive strategies’ or ‘new synergies of a type that might promote superior levels of economic performance’ have not emerged (2000: 107). The close involvement of the state in its film policy for the film production sector ensures a role for the film scholar as a public intellectual, industry analyst and commentator—and even, on occasion, policy advisor.

By contrast, the researcher of mainstream Hollywood will usually experience the film industry as being both more distant and also far less dependent upon film schol­arship to provide it with needed cultural and social capital or political and cultural ballast. Hollywood can be in a corporate sense unreachable. It exists as its own world—impervious, even imperious, with regard to criticism and research. Here corporate economic orientations towards profits and returns dominate with supply closely related to demand. Corporate economic interests that drive political agendas and concerns dominate interaction between the economic and the political and governmental. There is no ‘cottage industry’ with fraught relations to exhibition and distribution for the researcher to identify with and no situation of film as an integral part of a nation’s cultural policy. Rather, there is a complex and integrated machinery directly and seamlessly connecting production to distribution and exhibition. The resulting distance between the film and media scholar and a Hollywood corporate machine helps explain two distinct aspects of scholarship on Hollywood. For scholars of contemporary Hollywood, their information and data archive will be largely made up of ‘outsider’, publicly-available sources of information in the form of newspaper and magazine journals, annual company reports and occasional business and industry reports—theirs is a relationship marked by distance. Whereas for the historical scholar with access to company archives and personal papers of significant individuals, Hollywood strategy and practice can be readily accessed allowing for a greater ‘insider’ contribution to the understanding of developments in the film industry, its circulation and uptake. This creates a significant mismatch between historical and contemporary accounts of Hollywood, and suggests that the generalist and generalizing orientation of the political economist may stem in part from the lack of meaningful dialogue between scholar and industry. By contrast, national cinema and historical analyses of Hollywood tend to be under pressure to pull together the textual and the economic, the sociocultural and the organizational into an explanatory framework which is unlikely to privilege, save on a case-by-case basis, the eco­nomic determinants of the film and related sectors.

Having made this point, it is important to register that Miller et al.’s Global Hollywood books are not just an important restatement of critical political economy, but are also in their own ways instances of a rapprochement between political economy and other per­spectives, particularly cultural policy studies. Many aspects of Global Hollywood echo Guback’s earlier study, including its fine­grained concern for the particular countries participating in Hollywood film and television production. Furthermore, the very domain which, on my line of argument above, would be least susceptible to a rigorous political economy—the analysis of a national cinema—has been the subject of sustained and rigorous political economy scrutiny. Manjuneth Pendakur’s Canadian Dreams and American Control: The Political Economy of the Canadian Film Industry (1990) explains how other cinemas (mainly the US but also Britain) have maintained their dominance of the Canadian film industry, principally through their long-term stranglehold of local distribution and exhibition and their capacity to shape successive Canadian government policies seeking to aid the Canadian industry into supporting continuing US control. The study is notable for its consideration of films not in cultural and aesthetic terms but as ‘little more than commodities’ (Straw, 1993). Pendakur’s analysis is centred on the terms and conditions required for a national film industry to generate and reinvest the revenues upon which its film production depends. The focus is therefore upon distribution and exhibition—a focus often neglected in production studies (Thompson, 1992: 152). Characteristically, what unites the weaker and stronger versions of political econ­omy is a movement towards integration and holistic analysis, but achieved through different points of intersection and identifiably distinct though overlapping orienta­tions.

The continuing practice of both versions of political economy is anchored in the very circumstances of the film and media industries themselves. As a result, which perspective is adopted turns significantly on which aspects of cinema and the film industry are being investigated. This is not only a question of the nature and character of the object, but also a matter of what questions we are asking of the object. Our variants of political economy might best be seen as responses to changes over time in the audience, the industry, and filmmaker’s intelligence and knowledge of these. For instance, the high concept blockbuster that is the subject of Justin Wyatt’s analysis (1994) is unthinkable without more extended and systematized pre-testing regimes and the widespread acceptance in business and academic circles of marketing as not only both selling a finished product but as shaping its very construction (Levitt, 1986). In Wyatt’s analysis the demands of marketing are, in an unprecedented fashion, superintending and informing the kind of films that get made.

Similarly, Hesmondhalgh’s analysis of the cultural industries and film and cinema’s place within them is anchored in moves in the film and broader cultural industries from the 1950s towards

…a labour market in which some creative workers are vastly rewarded but most are underemployed and underpaid, the increasing presence of large corporations, often in the form of vertically integrated conglomerates; significant international­ization, dominated by the US cultural industries; and associated regimes of technology, consumption and policy. (2002: 256)

In the 1980s and 1990s these developments have been accompanied by the ‘marketization’ of government communication policies with the consequence that ‘the view that the pro­duction and exchange of cultural goods and services for profit is the best way to achieve efficiency and fairness in the production and consumption of texts’ (2002: 257). This not only led to the attack on ‘various rationales for high degrees of state intervention’, but also had the consequence of privatizing ‘public telecommunications organizations and some public broadcasting institutions; the opening up of television systems to other terrestrial, commercial broadcasters and to cable and satellite companies; the watering down of regulatory walls between different industries; plus significant changes in laws and rules on content, media ownership and subsidies’ (2002: 257). Hesmondhalgh calls this a move towards ‘neoliberalism’.

Concentrating on Politics, Economy and Their Geographical Entailments

This same mix of developments, which not only includes the transformation and growth of audio-visual media but also the transformation of instruments for regulating and facilitating its production and circulation, helps explain the growing attention to the cinema and the film and media industry more generally by a range of both disci­plinary perspectives and governmental and private sector agencies. Their interest in the intersection of politics and economics in the film and media industries is not based so much on a sudden interest in political and economic aspects of film, but is instead a consequence of broader policy, analytical and industrial attentions which include, but are not limited to, film production, circulation and consumption.

Most immediately, wider attention has been pulled towards the film and film-related industries by their evident transformation. Previous settlements between cinema and television, between media and telecommuni­cations have become unsettled and blurred. Privatization, the entry of new players, regula­tion for competition and technological change associated with digitization and convergence have all altered the relationships between different media and between media and telecommunications. In a more fragmented, diverse and internationalized film milieu, problems are posed for ‘business as usual’ in both national cinemas and Hollywood alike. Time-honoured private-sector strate­gies and public policy choices seem to be creaking under the strain of change and require adjustment. Additionally, new forms of audio-visual entertainment, particularly, computer games, are emerging to challenge film and television’s dominance of the audio­visual economy and the thinking about it.

Such circumstances have made film and media policy-making a much more challenging (and interesting) area for political scientists, economists and geographers, just as they have generated new strategic issues for film producers, media and telecommunica­tions companies, industry associations and for international, national, state and city governments.

Film as a domain of government initially came onto the horizon of policy and political studies in the late 1980s as a by-product of broader attentions to the media industries—particularly the television industries—in the context of the opening up of broadcasting to new commercial television operators beyond public broadcasters in Europe, the emergence of pay and subscription television and cross­border satellite and cable television systems globally, and the increasing policy reach of the European Union in this area (Collins and Murroni, 1996). While primarily affecting television, its regulations and its place on governmental horizons, these developments also materially affected the film industry and the policy horizons within which it operated. As convergence between telecommunications and broadcasting developed with the rolling out of fixed and wireless broadband networks from the 1990s, attention to the film industry became more direct as it was increasingly seen as a prime instance of an industry and production system being reshaped by convergence and digitization. It was a sector strategically needing to adopt new horizons and exploit new opportunities for ‘content creation’. Both developments encouraged scholarship to make sensible these new orderings and offer policy and regulatory solutions and diagnosis.

In these circumstances, film production and film policy became part of the tapestry of a desired ‘efficient communication system’ (Collins and Murroni, 1996: 2), of a coher­ent information policy covering information technology and communications (Venturelli, 1998), of the copyright (Siwek, 2002) and cre­ative industries which share critical features and scope for development (Caves, 2000; Cunningham, 2004). The resulting policy studies have allowed us, in an unprecedented fashion, to think about film policy in its continuities and commonalities with other sectors and as an integral component in policy-making and development, as they relate to cultural industries more broadly. On an international level there is the political statecraft of national governments, as they use their film and media policies to order their relations among each other, whether to seek national competitive advantage (Dyson, 1988) or to protect their perceived cultural patrimony, particularly through the use of ‘cultural exceptions’ in international trade agreements and the development of a Con­vention on Cultural Diversity to safeguard their film and television industries (Grantham 2000; Smiers, 2004). When combined with cultural policy studies, orientations towards film policy in the vein of Albert Moran and his collaborators (1996) have ensured a wide variety of approaches towards film policy­making which are cross-fertilizing each other.

These attentions also signal the perceived importance to national, regional and even city competitiveness of the ‘new economy’ and its industries—variously the ‘copyright’, ‘creative’ or ‘information’ industries. Charac­terized by and important for their networks, dependence upon information and trajectories of globalization (Castells, 1996; Caves, 2000; Cunningham, 2004), these industries include film, but film neither dominates nor is it important in itself. Rather, film production is significant for component parts like digital postproduction which have the capacity to contribute to broader economic and industrial transformations. For policy makers, politicians, analysts and lobbyists, new analysis and research into production systems are required to fill out the new opportunities and problems that the ‘cultural economy’ and ‘knowledge society’ create. This need has provided the impetus to consider the diverse sectors, companies and infrastructures making up and providing inputs into the film and television industries and to ascertain how these relate to each other and to other industries. In the process the lines between industries have become blurred and the synergies and connections between them have been emphasized. This policy and research orientation has led to more place-based considerations of film industry development and its relation to other cognate industries. Proactive strategies such as ‘cluster development’ (that is, the benefits of industrial co-location) have become as a consequence increasingly important means to facilitate industry growth (Pratt, 2004). There have been a variety of initiatives mapping the location and distribution of creative and digital-content industries (DCITA and NOIE, 2002; DCMS, 1998; 2001; Jeffcutt, 2004) and these in turn have led to a sustained engagement with economic and cultural geography both as a discipline and in terms of the perspectives and orientations being developed. Useful research has also been done on media cities (Curtin, 2004; Scott, 2005) and the spread of globally dispersed infrastructures for, and involvements in, film and television production (Elmer and Gasher, 2005; Gasher, 2002; Goldsmith and O’Regan, 2004; 2005; Tinic, 2005).

Economic and cultural geographers are particularly suited to these tasks (see notably Christopherson, 2003 and 2006; Coe, 2000; Coe and Johns, 2004; Scott, 2000 and 2005). They now regularly explore the formation of film and television industries focusing upon their spatial logics—their local and extra-local networks, their forms of locational concentration in particular industrial districts and urban conurbations and their labour dynamics. Importantly, place enters into consideration not only because cities owe ‘their genesis to basic economic processes’, but also because ‘they play a critical role in the social reproduction of economic systems and are an essential element in the formation of competitive advantage’ (Scott, 2005: xi). While it is still unexceptionable to show how ‘the cultural is embedded in the economic’, the pay-off comes with the attention to the ‘spatial logic of the cultural economy’ and the ways in which ‘locational concentration enhances both its competitive performance and its creative potentials’ (Scott, 2000: ix). The impacts of these developments are ‘especially evident in a number of giant cities representing the flagships of a new global capitalist cultural economy’ (Scott, 2000: 3).

Allen J. Scott sees a trend for the production of culture to ‘become more and more concentrated in a privileged set of localized clusters of firms and workers’ in global media cities. Yet the cultural products are now ‘channeled into ever more spatially extended networks of consumption’ (Scott, 2000: 4). Such globalizing dynamics clearly have an impact upon regional economic development and upon the structure of a variety of industries. While Scott (2000; 2005) and Susan Christopherson (2003; 2006) cover the global media cities of Los Angeles, Paris and New York respectively, Neil Coe (2000; Coe and Johns, 2004) has looked at ‘satellite’ production centres such as Vancouver and Manchester. The result is a fine-grained analysis of film production industries, the industry clusters and networks involved in creating production and the linkages to the broader urban environment in which they are produced. In On Hollywood: The Place, The Industry (2005), Scott offers perhaps the most powerful contemporary re-description of Hollywood and its history. Hollywood is seen as ‘a dense, multifaceted agglomeration of capital and labour whose organizational dynamics and socially constructed competi­tive advantages, in combination with massive capabilities in distribution and marketing, have enabled it to rise to virtually absolute mastery of global film and television markets’ (2005: 159).

Media and cultural economists are also concerned with the formation of audio-visual markets and within these the economics of the film and television industries (see Picard, 1989; 2003; Siwek and Wildman, 1988; Throsby, 2001). This set of approaches is likely to understand and frame political interventions and cultural aspects of film and television as either remedying market failure and seeking sustainability (Throsby, 2001)—or as performing market-forming or distorting functions (see Noam, 1985; Siwek and Wildman, 1988). The same elements, which Hesmondhalgh lamented as ‘marketization’, are regarded neutrally and even positively by economists such as Robert Picard. They diagnose the ‘worldwide realignment and expansion of existing markets and the break­down of traditional national markets’ as leading to the increasing ‘establishment of natural markets based on regional, con­tinental and global communications, with less emphasis on the role of the nation­state in markets’ (Picard, 2003: 303, my italics). Indeed, the resulting disturbance to ‘traditional public policy approaches’ and ‘traditional organizational analysis’ are seen as an opportunity for economists to participate in the development of appro­priate responses and strategies for firms and governments ‘to use in controlling or responding to the changes in the economy and consumer behaviour’ (Picard, 2003: 302-3). In these circumstances the ‘need to understand media economics is growing rapidly’ (Picard, 2003: 304).

Picard goes on to make a useful distinc­tion between cultural economic and media economic perspectives as they overlap in the area of film production and circulation. He suggests that media economics is more ‘content-neutral’ and ‘less normative on issues of culture and the role of media in cultural development and maintenance’ than is cultural economics (2003: 301). Cultural economics’ normative orientation may have to do with its close relation to the not-for- profit sector and with arts-based funding and policy regimes. In an era when arts funding, including funding made available for feature filmmaking and for public broadcasters, needs to be justified, economic notions of value, market failure, public and merit goods and cost-benefit and economic impact have been enlisted to argue for continued public support for culture including film (Throsby, 2001). We can see something of this impetus to shore up a case, for instance, with the commissioning of Simon Molloy and Barry Burgan in 1993 to survey The Economics of Film and Television in Australia. The resulting analysis helped the sector answer trenchant criticisms by economic commenta­tors of continued support for Australian film and television production both through film production support mechanisms and content quotas.

Mainstream media economics, by contrast, has tended to take its cue from the study of newspapers, commercial broadcasting and telecommunication systems. This has resulted in the ‘study of the way economic and financial pressures affect a variety of com­munications activities, systems, and orga­nizations and enterprises, including media and telecommunications’. Such financial and economic concerns are not only central to understanding media systems and firms operating within media markets, but are also important to the ‘formulation of public policies regarding communications’ (Picard, 2003: 301). This last aspect helps explain the role that economists have played in the ‘forecast’ industry of industry policy-making, stock market broker analysis (Vogel, 1990; 2004), and the debate over the direction of regulatory settings for the media indus­tries including film. The aim here is often ‘to theoretically identify optimal choices’ for businesses operating in a sector or to explore ‘optimal outcomes for policy choices’ (Picard, 2003: 302). Picard cites Bruce Owen and Steven Wildman’s Video Economics (1992) as an important contribution in this vein; while Colin Hoskins et al.’s Global Television and Film explicitly provides a ‘mainstream microeconomic perspective on a subject area which has long been dom­inated by academics of other disciplines’ (1997: vi).

These disciplinary perspectives on the political economy of film and of the audio­visual media more generally have devel­oped without any significant connection to the media and communication, and film and cultural studies nexus examined earlier. Scholars here do not see themselves as carrying out a political economy of film—instead they may be economists, cultural and economic geographers, urban studies and regional development specialists, and political scientists—drawn to the film and film-related industries for a wide variety of disciplinary purposes.


The range of perspectives dealing with what we might call ‘political economy’ matters are likely to increase further as media markets become more internationalized, as fragmentation increases, and as digitization, broadband and DVD reshapes the cinema, the film industry and audio-visual markets more generally, leading to new forms of production, delivery, consumption and mar­keting—and the decline of older forms. This suggests that our weaker and stronger versions of the political economy of film are likely to be increasingly inflected by, and interested in, the considerations of film and television generated within economics, politics and policy studies and geography. It also suggests that we shall see the continuing proliferation of forms of analysis which conceptulize the ‘film industry’ as a compo­nent of larger ‘industry’ agglomerations. This combination of developments suggests that future overviews of the political economy of film will need both to consider perspectives developed across a variety of disciplinary domains and to integrate perspectives in which film exists less and less seen as a discrete domain.

This then is the force field within which a contemporary political economy of cinema is operating. One group uses the perspectives but not all its entailments, preferring a ‘messy’ approach. Another situates its work explicitly within a critical political economy perspec­tive. A third, diverse, group produces analyses which centrally address the conjunction of culture, politics and economics but from different disciplinary angles. The political economy of film emerges here as fundamen­tally fragmented. For the Film scholar and Cultural Studies practitioner it is a label to illuminate the interface between industry and policy, market and government, organization and film meaning from Film, Media and Cultural Studies perspectives. For the critical political economists, it is a tradition of scholarship, a scholarly project with its roots in the emergence of economics and Marxism. Finally, for the economist, political scientist or economic geographer, it is an analysis of the conjunction of politics and economics in the film and television industries, but undertaken from the disciplinary perspectives of each.

This chapter has been concerned with each perspective and their intersections. Each has its value, although none seems satisfactory for all circumstances. Driven by dramatic growth in media industries including filmmaking and even a resurgent cinema, governments are attending to media as ‘just another industry’ over which the slide-rule of competition policy, industry development, economic analyses and the needs of the new economy may be placed; and a still special area of government given their connections to the state, identity and a reflexive sense that works of culture need to be treated differently, as in the new impetus to preserve and promote cultural diversity internationally in a knowledge society. There is a mix of policy-making here which looks like business as usual in film policy; and another mix which might suggest its significant reshaping. Within each discipline, moreover, our understanding of the film industry and the cinema are being reshaped in light of these changing industry and governmental emphases. This makes the political economy of film a continually fasci­nating and permanently unfinished business.