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Lobato, Ramon – Shadow Economics of Cinema:

Mapping Informal Film Distribution. London: BFI/Palgrave MacMillan, 2012

Mapping unexplored territory in the realm of the circulation of films

The Australian media researcher Ramon Lobato argues that academic attention should paid for the film trade which exists outside of institutional channels of governments and independently of the international media corporations. This subject is still a largely uncharted territory for existing research programs of media and film studies.

In his book, Lobato offers a mild polemic against the output of his peers, including Cones (2002), Acland (2003) and Iordonava (2008), who investigate the intricate procedures of the international mainstream film trade. Lobato offered a complement to this chain of thought during some years already.

He has generously made his publications available on his personal website and in doing so joins the growing practice of open source accessibility in the academic world. In his newest book, Lobato summarizes and reworks his findings which he shared with us earlier in various published articles as well as his Phd-research (2009). Naturally, his subject of research is particularly suitable for a distribution outside the established academic channels as it focuses on an international inventory and analysis of the contemporary informal and nontheatrical distribution of films.

Access to film culture

Lobato indicates a fundamental problem for the researcher: informal film distribution is a form of business which is by definition not documented and therefore difficult to collect data about. Its exact turnover is difficult to measure and even the most elementary details of this shadow economy are not available. Still, he argues that informal film distribution should be put on the research agenda. Firstly, because it represents a large proportion of the film trade. Secondly because it has a significant cultural impact.

One of the most basic and general questions in film studies is to make an inventory of the different manners of access to film culture: which films are being watched by which audience, with what kind of consequences?

Contexts of distribution – where, how and when people encounter movies – frame the perceived meaning of texts and the way we incorporate them into our symbolic lives” (Lobato 2012, 17-18).

In the search for an answer on this matter one cannot ignore informal film distribution. Indeed, a large and still growing number of film consumers watch films intensively, but never visit a film theatre or film festival. Viewing habits such as these are generally declared illegal by the established powers, because it amounts to copyright infringement. In his essay “Six Faces of Piracy” Lobato draws a more nuanced image of this phenomenon. According to him, you could describe piracy as theft, but also as innovative entrepreneurship and co-creation, as an increase in access, as the free exchange of ideas, or as resistance to the power of the big media conglomerates.

An elusive phenomenon

Informal film distribution is a form of trade which is fragmented and geographically sparse. Lobato underpins his argument for redefinition of this issue with many examples and a few more detailed case studies, such as the distribution in Brazil of Tropa de Elite(2007). Illegal DVD versions of this popular feature film were available even before its official premiere, but this did not affect the success of the theatrical release, and perhaps increased the number of viewers. Lobato also writes a nuanced report of the trade in illegal DVDs at a market in the Tepito-district of Mexico City which he visited recently.

Informal distribution is sometimes closely intertwined with informal film production, as is the case in Nigeria, where the flow of cheaply made video films has given rise to the term ‘Nollywood’. This is an autonomous circuit of media circulation, that only rarely receives attention outside the borders of the country (one such exception was the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2004).

Informal film production also exists in the Western world, in the form of genre films which are produced in series and made according to fixed formulas. This is the domain labeled infamously as ‘straight to video’. Lobato signals cheerfully that these films are indeed utterly predictable and mediocre, but this should be valued as a positive quality. It is a shadow economy and a subculture which he believes should be considered as a central part of global film culture. He compares it with the characteristics of the output of the ‘Poverty Row’ producers during the golden decades of the Hollywood studio system.

In his view, the majority of film researchers target their investigations too much on canonized films and limit themselves to analyse topics such as text structures, narrative strategies or personal style. Also, the current research of the film industry focuses mainly on the historical economic background of this generally recognized corpus of films. He acknowledges that over the years the film canon has become more diverse and several academics are paying more attention to a variety of niche markets of cult movies and the history of various cinema subcultures, but according to Lobato the aim of this kind of research remains restricted to the ambition to disclose the hidden quality and cultural value of the films scrutinized.

Lobato observes that informal film distribution is difficult to grasp within this traditional point of view and advocates a broadening of the theoretical framework in the direction of the paradigms of social geography, urban studies, cultural economics and media anthropology. He mentions the work of anthropologist Jeffrey Himpele as example (p. 16), and the publications of political theorist Jodi Dean (p.115). So, once again we face an urgent plea to revise film historiography and redefine existing methods. His alternative, the ambition to analyse film distribution in the wider perspective of cultural circulation in general, needs certainly further elaboration. Lobato presents his research modestly as a minor case study fitting in a larger project of investigating social and cultural practice.

Get going

Future film historians might be curious what kind of developments in media practice took place in the first decade of the 21st century and how the contemporary academia reflected on all these changes happening around them. Lobato offers a solid starting point for charting this kind of investigation. In the last few years, the Internet has rapidly become the main transit zone for the circulation of films. The online film distribution is a dynamic and complex area, filled with a massive amount of ‘linking sites’, ‘video hosting sites’ and ‘cyber lockers’ (for more details and comments see also the recently published compilation of essays: Iordanova & Cunningham, 2012).

In his last chapter, Lobato makes a clear inventory of the different forms of this grey area of digital traffic and communication. This most inspiring chapter deals with the very recent conditions of digital interaction and advocates an active attitude. If we want, we can be more than just passive observers and can instead acquire the position of focused and well-grounded commentators. In my view, he sketches a new perspective which could be taken as an extended call for papers. “Much remains to be done” Lobato remarks in his closing lines.

The ambitious reader can get going immediately, because the book provides an appendix with a thorough research guide, filled with a careful selection of recommended readings (industry resources and academic sources) and useful advice where to begin.

Further Reading
The personal webpage of Ramon Lobato:
  • Acland, Charles R. (2003) Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes and Global Culture, Durham: Duke UP.
  • Crofts, ‘Cinema Distribution in the Age of Digital Projection’, in: Post Script2 (Winter/Spring 2011) pp. 82-98.
  • Cones, J.W. (2002) The Feature Film Distribution Deal: A Critical Analysis of the Single Most Important Film Industry Agreement and How the Motion Picture Industry Operates, Carbondale/Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP.
  • Crisp, V. (2015). Film distribution in the digital age: Pirates and professionals. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Iordanova, Dana (2008) Budding Channels of Peripheral Cinema: The Long Tail of Global Film Circulation, San Francisco: Blurb.
  • Iordanova, Dana & Stuart Cunningham (eds. 2012) Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves On-line, St. Andrews: St. Andrews Film Studies.
  • Lobato, Ramon (2012) ‘A sideways view of the film economy in an age of digital piracy’, in: NECSUS European Journal of Media Studies1 (Spring 2012), URL:
  • Reis, Jon (2011) Think Outside the Boxoffice, the Ultimate Guide to Film Distribution and Marketing in the Digital Age, Hybrid Cinema, 2011. URL: