Complexity and Digital Distribution

Although I was critical of Edward Jay Epstein’s most recent book, The Hollywood Economist, one of the book’s undeniable strengths is its description of the complex, even labyrinthine, financing models that have evolved around the production of movies. From completion bonds and pre-sales agreements to movies as “off-the-books corporations,” Epstein is attentive to the ways in which the ticket sales reported on sites like Box Office Mojo are only a small part of the story when it comes to Hollywood accounting.  And, as Epstein’s book carefully documents, there are a number of winners and losers in this system.  The big media players can usually leverage this complexity to their advantage, while in recent years at least, independent filmmakers–at least in Epstein’s definition of them–have struggled.

After reading Epstein, I finally took some to sit down and read Clay Shirky’s widely forwarded lecture, “The Collapse of Complex Business Models,” in which he argues that complex business models eventually collapse under the weight of their own massive bureaucratic structure.  Drawing from Joseph Tainter’s 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Shirky concludes that the democratization of content production and distribution has unsettled traditional models, unsettling “media’s supply-and-demand curve,” as well as the prices for obtaining media content.  For Shirky, this means that cheaply made videos without any professional backing can capture a massive audience.  The example he cites, the YouTube video of young Charlie biting his older brother’s finger, has been viewed hundreds of millions of times, numbers that rival any event television broadcast and likely surpass (significantly) the tickets sold to any Hollywood blockbuster.

Shirky goes on to acknowledge that many within media industries will continue to adhere to “the old complexity” in order to protect the interests of media executives, in order to protect profits and add value to the media they produce.  the move toward 3-D and the restructuring of the theatrical-to-DVD window to emphasize retail are a couple of examples of that in the film industry.  And it’s worth noting that the “Charlie” video is an exception rather than the rule.  For every viral hit, there are thousands of videos that remain unseen outside of a small number of people.  Still, Shirky’s argument is an intriguing, if slightly utopic, reflection on the potential for using the relatively inexpensive (online) distribution channels in simple ways.

Shirky’s argument seems to have appeared at a moment when many of these ideas are circulating throughout the blogosphere.  Bob, at the Indiepix blog, reports from The Conversation, a conference organized by CinemaTech blogger Scott Kirsner, where Nina Paley and others urged filmmakers to “make everything as simple as possible,” while Ted Hope’s keynote at the DIY Days conference expressed confidence in a distribution model “that is artist and audience centric that can usher in a true middle class of artist entrepreneurs.”

Finally, both Alex Juhasz and The Film Doctor point to David Shields’ aphoristic, manifesto-like new book, Reality Hunger, a book that also seems to be imagining the reformulation of media content (Alex is somewhat skeptical of Shields’ approach to the issue, though, and with good reason).  Like Walter Benjamin, whose modernist/montagist Arcades Project featured quotations from a wide range of texts and media, Shields mixes borrowed passages from other writers and thinkers with his own reflections on writing and production.   Key quote from Shields (borrowed, apparently from William Gibson): “Copies have been dethroned; the economic model built on them is collapsing. In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer, and engage a work. Art is a conversation, not a patent office.”

Update: Just wanted to add quickly that I like David Weinberger’s characterization of Shirky’s argument about complexity as a “myth,” not in the sense of a fiction, but in the sense that his narratives offer “broad, illuminating ways of making sense of what’s going on.”


  1. Derek Kompare Said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    The Shirky piece is (typically) challenging if a bit utopian. But that’s OK; all our iconic thinkers have pushed us with similar MOs. I really like the connection back to Tainter, and the whole idea of “collapse,” of which see also Jared Diamond’s 2005 book and the 2009 Chris Smith documentary.

    We live and breathe and write and teach all these debates constantly. And yet I get the feeling that we’re like medieval flat-world geographers, 18th century naturalists or 19th century physicists: unable to even conceptualize the coming epistemological shift. Something is coming, it’s right there in front of us, yet we can’t quite see it square on.

  2. Chuck Said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 11:43 am

    Good connections to Diamond and Smith. I’ve been meaning to watch Smith’s documentary for a while. In terms of the future of entertainment, I think that’s why I generally resist trying to predict anything without a great deal of hedging. That being said, some of these predictions have a great deal of power.

  3. filmdr Said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 1:36 pm


    Thanks for the link.

    I found Shields’ Reality Hunger uneven, but worth reading overall. He writes of nonfiction as being superior to the novel, but his impulse to bash Franzen’s The Corrections overstates the case. He claims that Fitzgerald’s The Crack Up is his best work?!? His montage technique (blending initially uncited quotes from Thoreau, Nabokov, Godard, Gibson, Saul Steinberg, Dickinson, Lowell, etc.) can be thought-provoking, but it also turns into a game of spot that author’s quote), and the aphoristic bent of the book becomes grating after awhile. There’s a reason why Kafka’s and Stevens’ collections of aphorisms don’t go on too long. Too many of them in one volume can begin to sound like pretentious oracular hooey. Here’s the Thomas Mann aphorism that took it too far for me:

    There he stood, suffering embarrassment for the mistake of thinking that one may pluck a single lead from the laurel tree of art without paying for it with his life.

    I also found it interesting to learn that the authors who praise Reality Hunger so lavishly (Lethem, Frederick Barthelme) also get quoted in the book. The cuisinart quoting technique also works well for logrolling.

  4. Chuck Said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    Yeah, it didn’t take long for me to see Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle as “pretentious oracular hooey.” There’s also the potential for self-congratulation (logrolling), as you point out. I’ve only read sections of Shields’ book (which I tried to emphasize), but I found that particular point about textual circulation to be a compelling one (even if it was lifted from William Gibson).

  5. Irotama Said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 3:13 pm The recent International Consumer Electronics Show was a showcase for how the media industry today is being completely transformed by new digital production technology and hybrid distribution models. Consumers now have many new ways to access video using the Internet – from Hulu and Fancast Xfinity on PCs, to Netflix Watch Instantly through Blu-Ray players, digital TVs, Xbox and other game consoles.

    But all these new options are not trouble free. While any DVD will play back on any DVD player, each of the new digital delivery systems has tended to use its own special format, which means that a file prepared for one system doesn’t work with another. This has created confusion in the marketplace and raised the cost and complexity of digital distribution.

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