Category: Book Reviews

Book Review: Delivering Dreams: A Century of British Film Distribution


Delivering Dreams: A Century of British Film Distribution, Geoffrey Macnab, I.B. Tauris 2015, £16.99, 272pp, ISBN 9781784534899

Distribution is the sector of the film industry that remains mysterious to many film and media students – and many teachers. There are very few books or other resources that properly explain and analyse the film distribution business. Geoffrey Macnab is a highly respected film journalist and critic. He isn’t a film scholar as such but he has written very useful industry studies such as J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry (Routledge 1993) as well as works on directors and individual films. He’s well placed to write about distribution and this paperback is certainly a valuable resource that every film/media library or staffroom bookshelf should acquire. It’s not without weaknesses, however. Some derive from the book’s publishing context and some from the difficulties inherent in a pioneering project.

The book has been published partly to celebrate the 100th anniversary of what was first known as the Kinematograph Renters’ Society Ltd. and which now calls itself the Film Distributors’ Association (FDA) – the trade association for the film distribution sector in the UK. The book opens with a preface by David Puttnam, the current president of the FDA and closes with a postscript by Mark Batey, the FDA Chief Executive. In between Macnab offers eleven chapters covering the main issues in UK film distribution during the century of KRS/FDA operation from 1915-2015.

Each chapter is given an important film title as its heading. Chapter 1 is Chaplin’s The Tramp (1915) and Chapter 11 is The King’s Speech (2010). Most readers will probably make a good guess at which films appear as the titles of other chapters – although you do have to understand the nature of the British rather than US business. Apart from Chapter 7 covering the 1970s and titled Star Wars (1977), each other chapter carries the title of a successful British film – and Star Wars was indeed made at Elstree and represents one of the ‘Hollywood UK’ titles that have done so much to characterise UK production and exhibition ever since.

Each chapter is not solely focused on a single film, but it is significant that, as a good journalist, Macnab knows how to structure a story to bring out the highlights of the history of UK distribution in an entertaining read. Important issues such as the changing policies of the British Board of Film Censors (which since 1985 has changed ‘Censors’ to ‘Classification’) crop up alongside other institutional changes (e.g. the coming of sound and the competition from television in the early 1950s). Macnab also introduces us to accounts of working in the distribution business from the 1930s through to setting up the new distribution company Optimum Releasing in 1999.

Many of these accounts are fascinating and invaluable for any kind of ‘institutional’ study of British film. They also remind us that, ultimately, distribution is all about making sure the film print gets to the cinema in time for the screening.

The endnotes reveal how much time Macnab must have spent poring over Kine Weekly and the Kinematograph Yearbook in the BFI Library to find material for the earlier chapters. He must have been able to go back to his own research for earlier publications and he has clearly got very useful contacts for his current film journalism practice. On that note, the book feels very up-to-date in its concerns. However, things are moving very quickly in film distribution and during 2016 Macnab himself has already been writing in Screendaily about the end of the VPF (Virtual Print Fee) – the mechanism which saw distributors helping to fund the digitisation of UK cinemas – and what might come next as the unwieldy business model of exclusive ‘windows’ for product on different platforms gradually disintegrates.

Because the book is for the general reader who may be a film fan or the industry professional with an interest in the history of their own business, Macnab sensibly keeps the narrative flowing rather than taking a more distanced position and trying to analyse how distribution functions as a business model in the context of the international film market. The book also lacks coverage of aspects of the distribution business like Sales Agents, Film Festivals and Film Markets – and indeed distribution practices in other territories. In terms of what it does do though, it’s generally very good – though some of the historical accounts are ‘broad brush’ and lack insights from more detailed research.

Delivering Dreams carries a ‘Select Bibliography’ of books on British Cinema and the British Film Industry and endnotes/references for each chapter. The contents page lists an index but, because I was sent a proof copy to review, the index was not yet completed. Teachers definitely need an index for this book, so check it out before you buy.

[This review first appeared in Media Education Journal No. 59, Summer 2016 and is published here with permission – see]

24 Frames: The Cinema of Scandinavia (2005)

Could this be the first book I’ve bought that I can’t review? Perhaps you, the reader, should decide. We’ve reviewed two other entries from this Wallflower series, but this collection of essays on Scandinavian films presents me with an unusual problem – I haven’t seen any of the 24 films selected as case studies. Now I admit that my specific interest in ‘Nordic Cinema’ is fairly recent but my experience of Swedish and Danish Cinema over the years is not too bad. I don’t think that it is just me – the brave editor of this collection has decided to go for a much wider perspective on regional cinema than I have seen elsewhere in the series.

The selection of 24 titles spans 1905 to 2004 and begins with ‘actualité‘  footage of the arrival of the King of Norway at Christiania (Oslo) in 1905 at the moment of Norwegian independence and the founding of the nation state. Elsewhere in the selection we find three advertising films, two of them by leading filmmakers from Sweden, Ingmar Bergman and Roy Andersson, and two of the sex films made in the 1960s, one from Sweden and one from Denmark (intriguingly categorised as a ‘happy porn’ film). There are two documentaries (one of which is the extremely successful 2001 film about a Norwegian choir, known internationally as Cool and Crazy) and a children’s film Elvis, Elvis (Sweden 1977). And would you expect The Wake (Denmark 2000) to be 462 minutes of art installation work? The selections do span 100 years but it’s noticeable that seven of the films date from the period 1945-55, more than any other ten-year period – and there are some periods that are not represented at all (e.g. 1956-68). As for the five Nordic countries, Denmark, Finland and Norway are represented roughly equally but Sweden has nearly twice as many entries. There is no selection representing Iceland. And just in case you were wondering, besides Bergman and Andersson there are films from other internationally-known auteurs such as Carl Dreyer, Aki Kaurismaki and Lars Von Trier.

The reason I bought the book was because I needed a general introduction to Nordic Cinema and there is only this or the Routledge National Cinema series entry available at the moment. When I first realised that I hadn’t seen any of the films, my first reaction was very negative, but now that I think about it, there is still plenty to learn from the guide. All the authors except one are based at universities in Sweden, Finland, Norway or Denmark and this may partly explain the selections since presumably they have better access to the older films than most audiences outside the region. I’m not sure what to make of the exclusion of Iceland. In her introduction Tytti Soila explains that Iceland produced very few films before the late 1970s and that Icelandic film culture has had a tendency to look more towards Anglo-Saxon culture. It still seems a shame though that there isn’t one entry. (The introduction also points out that as well as the similarities which help the Nordic identity to be meaningful, there are also significant differences between each of the five countries.)

Soila’s introduction sets out the reasons for the approach to selection and the conscious attempt to avoid the “list of canonised feature films that the cultural industries, as well as literature abroad, usually present as ‘interesting’ or ‘culturally valuable’ or , even worse, ‘typical for Scandinavia'”. Thus the attempt to have a serious look at the porn films which helped several smaller companies stay in business at a time of crisis, at the folksy comedies and at the children’s films, advertising films and documentaries. The introduction is extremely useful and I hope that I can learn from the approach adopted in the chapters, even though I haven’t seen the film being discussed. It some cases I have seen other films by the same director or similar films by other directors. I should add that many of Roy Andersson’s other TV commercials are available on YouTube and very funny they are. I don’t think I can hold the editor of this collection responsible for the fact that most of these films are not available in the UK so having waited several months for Amazon to find me a copy I’m just going to read it and get the most from it that I can.

Westerns: A Routledge Film Guidebook

Westerns, A Routledge Film Guide Book by John White (2010), £16.99, 208pp ISBN 9780415558136

The Routledge Film Guidebooks are slim A5-sized books. The list so far includes director studies (James Cameron and Jane Campion) as well as genre guides such as Horror and Romantic Comedy. With the imminent UK release of True Grit by the Coen Bros., the appearance of John White’s guide is timely.

The first task for the reviewer in this instance is to consider exactly what can be fitted into a relatively small guidebook when dealing with a genre as extensive as the Western. Inevitably, what to leave out and what to make a focus becomes a major issue. The decision will also determine the address of the book to a particular audience. Unfortunately John White doesn’t give any direct indication of who he thinks his readers might be. Since he teaches undergraduates at Anglia Ruskin University but also writes textbooks for A Level film students in the 16-19 sector, his target presumably spans this range. The book’s blurb and the short explanation of the film guidebook project inside suggests that this will be an ‘introductory book’ and indeed all the guidebooks seem to have a similar structure: the evolution of the genre/movement/directorial career, discussion of a variety of critical approaches that could be applied to the films and then a more detailed discussion of key films.

Herein lies a problem. White argues in his opening that many books on the Western spend too much time re-telling the stories of a wide range of films. His focus instead will be on the exploration of different critical approaches, so he tells us that his outlines will be kept to the minimum and he will assume that “readers are already familiar with the basic plot”. Well, he may well be right since the repertoire of elements of the Western has permeated not just American but global culture over a long period. On the other hand it seems to me that younger audiences viewing one of the relatively rare Westerns in contemporary cinema (such as Brokeback Mountain or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, two of his key films) are coming to the Western in quite different ways than similar-aged audiences in the 1950-70s. Apart from any other contextual/conjunctural factors, audiences now are not being exposed to Westerns as ‘genre texts’, available everywhere in a more or less constant stream (during the 1950s literally dozens of different Western TV series played on American television every week). Instead, a Western is now a ‘one-off’ (unlike horror films which do still appear in a constant stream, even if some of them are marketed heavily as single titles).

But perhaps I am being unreasonable? John White lays out his aim and pursues it. The chapter on ‘the evolution of the Western’ manages to cram a great deal into under 30 pages and I found the material on ‘silent Westerns’ in particular informative and helpful. For students without detailed knowledge of the genre, this short section will provide a useful primer. White references key films and important scholarly work – and at the end of the book he provides a timeline of important historical events that inform the narratives of many Westerns set in the nineteenth century. He then continues the timeline to include the release dates of key films and the events in later American history that help to contextualise production and reception of the films. The guide overall is well served by its bibliographies, index and endnotes.

The second part of the book offers 5-6 pages on each of a range of critical approaches: genre, semiotic analysis, representation, ideology, discourse analysis, narrative structure, realism, auteur theory, star theory, psychoanalytical theory, postmodernism and audience response. In each case, two or three films are used as case studies. The film choices seem to me to be pretty sound, but the brevity of each analysis means that students will probably need supplementary material to get the most from them.

The third section then applies combinations of the critical approaches from section two to eight key films: Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Shane (1953), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), Unforgiven (1992), Brokeback Mountain (2005) and The Assassination of Jesse James (2007). Again, this seems a good selection and offers a film from virtually each decade from the 1930s onwards. All the films are easily available and many of them are accompanied by extensive online critical commentaries. I do wonder if some films/directors could have overlapped a little more – enabling more depth at the expense of more examples. For instance, the critical approaches section references another two John Ford films, plus John Wayne and Clint Eastwood as actors and directors. But suggesting other ways of organising the material is not particularly helpful – we will all have our own preferences.

This little book does what it sets out to do. It’s well-referenced and will provide a good introduction. You can’t ask for too much more.

Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy

Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy, Matthew Alford (2010), London: Pluto Press, £13.00, 232pp, ISBN 9780745329826

I was attracted to this book because I thought it might be useful in my study of global film. I started reading the preface and thought “this doesn’t feel like an academic film studies book”. There was nothing to tell me about Michael Parenti, the writer of the preface, so I looked him up. I now know that he is a highly-respected writer on American politics. So perhaps this is a politics book? When I look at the back cover I find an endorsement from Ken Loach urging me to read the book before seeing another Hollywood blockbuster. The other endorsements seem to be from political journalists, but Pluto’s cataloguing information suggests that this book should be filed under ‘Film/Media Studies’. The author Matthew Alford is described as a journalist and a broadcaster who has taught in the university sector. But it doesn’t tell us what he has taught. I Googled him and found out more, but let me just outline the book first.

Reel Power comprises three parts with a total of nine chapters. Part 1 offers a brief analysis of the structure of Hollywood as an industrial institution, including the role of product placement and how it has been acquiescent towards the US military, security agencies etc. There are discussions about the power of individual producers, directors and stars within the system and how the potential leftist tendencies of some individuals are squashed, marginalised, recuperated etc. Part 2 discusses major Hollywood films since 1990 classified according to genre and budget. The main focus is on films with production budgets over  $30 million that deal with American foreign policy and overseas adventures. The genres considered are War, Comedy (i.e. military/political comedy), Action Adventure, Science Fiction and Political Drama plus a catch-all ‘low budget’ chapter. Part 3 comprises the conclusion.

I’d argue that the analysis here is primarily journalistic in terms of plot descriptions and attempts to relate these to US government and military policies. There is no discernible exploration of theoretical ideas that would be recognised by a scholar from film, media or cultural studies. The discussion is referenced in detail via endnotes for each chapter. However, these references are usually to online and print journals, mostly of a general rather than academic nature. There is no Bibliography – only a Filmography. Look in the index and there are no theorists mentioned – not even Noam Chomsky who is clearly an important figure in the development of Alford’s approach (see below).  This isn’t really a book for academic film studies, so what is its purpose?

When I looked up Matthew Alford I discovered that he has a doctorate in ‘US Cinema and Politics’ and has been writing on this subject for several years in the New Statesman and various websites as well as presenting papers on ‘Hollywood and the Propaganda Model’. Many of these are online and I think it’s worth looking at a couple of these first if you want to decide whether Alford’s ideas are of interest. For instance, in this interview on the ‘New Left Project’ website, Alford offers a more succinct and effective explanation of his ideas than I think he does in the book. Also interesting is this recent conference on Post 9/11 Representations of Terrorism – where Alford’s paper sits alongside others with a more recognisable position. But to get to the academic basis of Alford’s work, you need read to his paper published by the University of Westminster in 2009 and available as a pdf for download. Here Alford explains his position as applying the Propaganda Model formulated by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky to Hollywood – something Chomsky felt was difficult as he “didn’t know enough about movies” and possibly because movies aren’t susceptible to an approach which requires “easily verifiable, quantifiable empirical evidence”. Alford has less qualms and argues that the model can be used. The results confirm what most of us believe about Hollywood as generally supportive of American capitalism and American foreign policy. The political value of the argument is two-fold. First it should be a warning that what is already visible in news media via Fox News may become more evident in relation to studio feature film output. Second, it acts as a counterweight to the claims that recent Hollywood has shown a tendency towards ‘liberal attitudes’. The arguments are supported by academic references and Alford positions himself as part of the ‘Political Economy’ wing of media studies. Reel Power thus becomes Alford’s means of popularising his argument – and he has supported the book’s publication with an energetic promotional campaign that is most impressive.

I confess that I haven’t seen most of the films Alford discusses (I already know that most of them I’ll hate them for their politics and others for tedious action sequences). Of the ones that I do know, he seems to make cogent comments about them in terms of how they might be read in what used to be called a ‘vulgar Marxist’ way – simply reading off meanings from the plot, irrespective of how the narrative is presented. For instance, he recognises that Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is actually a satire of fascism and that some of the knee-jerk American press reactions to the film were way off-beam. But he also links the film to Total Recall as another Verhoeven film – without mentioning either the writer of the original story, Phil K. Dick or the star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. These two creative voices are surely as important to (different) audiences as Verhoeven in this case? Dick became almost deranged because of his paranoid fear of surveillance by the American state and Arnie was at best a hugely ironic piece of casting for a Dickian leading man. It would be quite interesting to explore how Hollywood has trounced Dick’s anarchic populism in some terrible movies (Next?, Paycheck?), only to be trumped by smaller independents like A Scanner Darkly or Screamers.

In a way, this book is deeply dispiriting, if only because it renders much that film studies has tried to do over the last fifty years in exploring concepts of representation, genre and narrative, audience behaviour etc. as effectively wasted effort. On the other hand, as a piece of journalism about Hollywood, the institution, and American politics (which by extension involves us all) it offers a solid introduction. It might be helpful for students and teachers if they would like detailed knowledge of how celebrities have or have not protested about going to war in Iraq or of individual case studies of films that were not greenlit or which were censored. On the other hand, there is no consideration of audience readings of the films, no discussion of ideology, questions of identity etc. Bizarrely, there is no real discussion of Hollywood’s overseas markets which now provide more than 50% of the revenue for the studios. Alford does mention China at one point, but he doesn’t discuss the studios’ attempts to work with Chinese partners or the Chinese government’s policies for controlling the import of Hollywood product. Even more germane might be analysis of Indian investment in Hollywood. Indian producers are caught between the nationalism seemingly demanded by audiences at home and the embrace of American values by Indians in North America and the new middle-class at home. Once famously ‘non-aligned’, India is in danger of being seen as ‘pro-American’. How Hollywood responds to that issue promises to be interesting (imagine a Hollywood-backed film, made in India about the brief war with China in 1962 – but then we’ve already had Kundun (US 1997) and no, it isn’t mentioned in the book).