This year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in New Orleans (note: some links may be accessible only by SCMS members) felt like a whirlwind of conversation, activity, and intellectual engagement, one that I’m still recovering from a day after the conference, and not only because I was forced to get up at 4 AM—the equivalent of 3 AM, given the shift to Daylight Savings Time—to catch an airport shuttle Sunday morning. During several of the panels this week, I found myself nodding in agreement with colleagues and friends from other universities as we discussed the richness and diversity of panels that seemed to reflect the Society’s commitment to a focus on media studies, and media industry studies in particular. At the same time, thanks to a fully engaged Twitter backchannel, as well as an effort to document the conference through SCMS-sponsored blogs, many of the conferences ongoing intellectual themes seemed to resonate more deeply for me than ever before. It also made aspects of the conference feel as if they have been archived in a potentially more systematic way.
The focus on media industries was most deeply felt when the announcement came through from Paul McDonald that a proposal for a Media Industries Scholarly Interest Group had been accepted, helping to bring together in a more systematic way a wide range of media scholars whose work speaks across disciplinary and media boundaries, something I’ve been discovering in writing toward my second book, which looks primarily at issues pertaining to the digital distribution of movies. As a number of scholars have reminded me, the issues in place with regard to the film industry are similar to those in music (Spotify vs. iTunes) and certainly in television. As a result, I’m very much looking forward to see how we can synergize—to use an industry buzzword—our various scholarly pursuits.
It would be incredibly difficult to summarize my conference experience in a single blog post; however, most of the panels I attended ended up focusing in some way on providing more finely-grained analyses of media industry practices, while some of the panels I most regretted missing looked at specific regional production practices and cultures, whether the shooting on HBO’s Treme in New Orleans or, from Alisa Perren, a discussion of the comic book community in Atlanta. As Miranda Banks noted in her response to a panel on European production industries, we need more microstudies of local practices that are embedded within a macro-framework.
Other scholars offered compelling industrial analyses, whether at the very local or DIY levels, such as Steven Rawle’s discussion of digital independent cinema through the lens of Hal Hartley’s move toward self-distribution, Benjamin Sampson’s discussion of Christian distribution networks, or larger industrial practices, such as Bryan Sebok’s detailed engagement with the political economy of 3-D distribution or Tom Schatz’s discussion of what he called “post-theatrical culture.” Both Sebok and Schatz underscored—from slightly different perspectives—an idea that I have been exploring in some of my own recent work that Avatar serves as one of the most influential films in recent memory, not so much at a narrative level as a distributional one. Finally, other industrial practices, such as the rise of theatrical advertising, carefully traced out by Kimberly Owczarski, can tell us quite a bit not only about the political economy of film distribution and exhibition but also about how we consume movies.
Sebok’s paper was part of a larger panel on 3-D, one that helped to expand some of my own current research on the increasingly common use of it in blockbusters (given that blockbusters now seem to appear year-round, it seems pointless to append the word “summer” to that particular distribution strategy). In addition to thinking about it at an industrial level, historical papers by Allison Whitney and Melanie Brunell reminded me that 3-D is also rooted in ideological, even nationalistic traditions—especially for the IMAX format, while Bret Vukoder’s paper on the narrative genres most commonly associated with 3-D helped to deepen some of my own recent attempts to trace a taxonomy of 3-D movies (which I’m hoping to do in detail in a forthcoming blog post).
Amazingly, I had what can only be described as an epiphany of sorts during the last panel of the conference that I was able to attend on Saturday. The panel, “Digital Television, Analog Memories” helped to crystallize something I’d been struggling to articulate for a while, especially when Karen Lury offered what can best be described as a mini-ethnography of digital media consumption, one that looked at a narrow group of media consumers (approximately six or so families) in order to remind us—powerfully—of the importance of considering “the everyday mess of living” when we begin talking about all of the utopian narratives about digital transmission. Max Dawson’s discussion of the shift from CRT television sets to LCD sets also grounded media consumption in an everyday by reminding us of the profound environmental waste associated with planned obsolescence (and the often related wanton destruction of these tools), one that encourages us to replace our cell phones every two years, our laptops every three years, and our TV sets in less than a decade. It’s often quite easy to accept the prescribed uses of new media tools as they are spelled out in the (web) pages of magazines like Wired and the countless tech blogs, but as Lury astutely observes, things aren’t quite that simple. Lury’s paper created quite a stir—Twitter was positively buzzing during her talk—and it helped me to see my on project in a slightly different light.
Ultimately, conference reports like this are grounded in the personal. Although I attended at least part of a panel during pretty much every session from Thursday through Saturday, given that there were usually 20-25 concurrent panels, others saw a much different conference. And yet, thanks in part to Twitter and blogs, I do feel more connected to the conference than ever before. This year’s SCMS coincided with the eighth anniversary of my blog, The Chutry Experiment. Something that began very much as an experiment in spring 2003 now serves as a crucial means for me to engage with the profession, one that has followed me from Georgia Tech to Catholic University and, for the last few years here at Fayetteville State. Blogging is often a frustrating practice for me. On occasions it feels obligatory, and yet it also has served as a crucial mechanism for allowing me to cultivate relationships and to engage in broader conversations. This role of sharing and discussing was neatly spelled out by Jason Mittell who, in the spirit of conversation, has posted his conference paper (on series finales) on his blog. To say that I’ve been challenged and inspired by the papers presented by my colleagues this year at SCMS is an understatement. As I sat on my hotel’s curb at 4:40 AM, waiting for the airport shuttle and watching drunk revelers stumble away from Bourbon Street to their hotels and cars (!), I found myself already anticipating next year’s conference in Boston and regretting the fact that I wouldn’t be hearing more papers this year, but I am looking forward to keeping the conversation going through all of our online channels.