Working Paper No. 2014/01
James McMahon, “Capitalist Power, Distribution and the Order of Cinema”

In this paper, the structure of Hollywood film distribution will be analyzed through the lens of risk. In both its technical and conceptual senses, risk is relevant to the study of Hollywood’s dominant firms. In the interest of lowering risk, the business interests of Hollywood look to predetermine how new films will function in an already instituted order of cinema, which includes the creativity of filmmakers and the habits of moviegoers.

The first part of this paper will offer conceptual tools to analyze the contemporary Hollywood film business and its mechanisms of distribution. Concepts from the capital-as-power approach will be used to study the major Hollywood distributors as a group, which I will be calling “major filmed entertainment.”

The second part will focus on risk, which is an important component of the logic of capitalization. This presentation of risk will explain why, to major filmed entertainment, the social world of cinema is an instrumental order. While risk is specifically about the size and pattern of future earnings, it is also an indirect prediction about the stability of the social conditions that would help translate potential earnings into an actual stream. The social world of cinema has a bearing on major filmed entertainment’s degree of confidence, which refers to the ability for capitalists to make predictions about future earnings.

The third part will argue that the repetitive, habitual qualities of Hollywood cinema are a defense against the possibility of aesthetic overproduction, which is understood in the language of business, not art. Aesthetic overproduction occurs when aesthetic decisions undermine the price of a film, regardless of how they shine in the light of aesthetic, cultural and political judgment.

The fourth part of this paper will offer an empirical example of how risk perceptions would determine the strategy of film distribution. In a recent dispute over the theatrical revenues of Iron Man 3 we saw Disney fight to increase the share of gross revenues that goes to the major film distributor. The timing of Disney’s strategy to push for a greater share is consistent with the historical development of risk in Hollywood film distribution.

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