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Researching the Role of Gatekeepers in the Film Business

Roderik Smits outlines his PhD research on the ‘gatekeeping’ roles of acquisition scouts, sales agents and distributors within the film distribution business.
Gatekeeping roles

Gatekeeping roles of acquisition scouts, sales agents and distributors in the film distribution business

There has been much discussion in film and media studies recently about how to research industry. Here I want to offer my own insights on investigating ‘gatekeepers’ – e.g. acquisition scouts, sales agents and distributors – within the film distribution business. I want to argue that researchers first need to familiarise themselves with industry discourse before they develop a detailed understanding of the role of such gatekeepers.

My own methodological approach follows that proposed by Amanda Lotz (2009) in her work on the American television industry, which itself draws on Tod Gitlin’s 1983 book Inside Prime Time. Lotz argues that a sense of industry discourse is essential for anyone involved in industry research in order to understand “the history, norms of practice, and text of the medium” (Lotz, 2009:34).

Before Lotz developed her own theories of the television industry, she read trade publications such as Television Week and Broadcasting and Cable for years. “Part of my training included constant reading of trade press to maintain familiarity with the nuances of industrial practice”, she writes.

Amanda Lotz

Amanda Lotz, The television will be revolutionized (New York University Press, 2007)

Building on Lotz’s approach for my own research on the role of gatekeepers within the film distribution business, I want to stress the importance of three sources of knowledge about industry discourse. The first is books written about the film business by experienced film professionals. Although such contributions are written from the view of industry professionals and can be somewhat subjective, they can still provide us with understandings of operations and practices. For example, My Indecision is Final (1990), by film financier Jake Eberts and journalist Terry Ilott, provides detailed understandings of distribution arrangements in the 1970s and 1980s. Equally, Hollywood A Go-Go (1987) or The Movie Game (1997) provide valuable information about the film industry.

A second source of information is trade journalism. As perennial industry watchers, journalists routinely discuss developments in the industry. I especially consult trade papers such as Variety and Screen International. Examining such sources reveals the role of specialist journalists, such as Dave McNary, who specializes in the coverage of new projects in development and distribution deals for Variety. Such articles are very useful because they include information about the involvement of sales agents and distributors in the distribution process of films.

Finally, interviews with industry insiders can help us further understand industry discourse. It is important to note these are often general conversations about the industry. The goal is to discuss the business environment, the distribution of films and the position of national film industries in the international marketplace rather than more focussed discussions of specific issues or topics. In the six months since I started my PhD research, I have interviewed seven industry professionals, each of which fulfils a different role in the industry, from creative and financial producers to scouts, distributors and journalists.

An understanding of industry discourse is essential before establishing theories of industry operations. By combining insights gleaned from secondary works by film professionals, the trade press and interviews with industry insiders, I have been able to piece together a preliminary sketch of operations and practices. My next stage is to expand these insights by conducting interviews about particular issues in the film distribution process combined with a close observation of gatekeeping arrangements at film festival markets.

Roderik Smits is a PhD research student at the University of York. His current research, which is affiliated to the MeCETES project, examines the gatekeeping roles of acquisition scouts, sales agents and distributors, and their transnational gatekeeping and networking arrangements. This presentation was first delivered at the Industrial Approaches to Media conference organised by the Institute for Screen Industries Research at the University of Nottingham on June 5, 2014.
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