In this installment of our continuing series of conversations with authors of new books on cities and global cities, reviews editor Noelle Griffis talks with Nolwenn Mingant, who co-authored and edited Reconceptualising Film Policies (Routledge, 2017) with Cecilia Tirtaine.
Noelle Griffis: First, I’d like to thank you and Cecilia for your contribution. I haven’t seen a volume quite like this one, which includes short scholarly pieces paired with interviews and articles from industry professionals to provide a sense of the international scope of contemporary film policies.
How did you and Cecilia begin collaborating on the book and how did it begin to take shape around the concept of “reconceptualising” film policies? What was your process in terms of selecting and inviting contributors in a way that would ensure the range of expertise and perspectives that your volume provides?
Nolwenn Mingant: Cecilia and I have been working together for about 10 years now with our research group, CinEcoSA. The group is dedicated to developing film industry studies that include a cultural dimension. CinEcoSA’s first research cycle was dedicated to film marketing, as a cultural meeting point between films and spectators, through the agency of marketers. By including the cultural angle, you automatically find yourself addressing issues encompassing politics, sociology as well as the digital revolution. So, from the start, the approach was interdisciplinary. Although at first, we concentrated only on the English-speaking world (the full name of the group is Cinema, Economy in English-Speaking Countries), we soon realized that it was more fruitful to adopt an internationally open scope. The edited volume Film Marketing into the Twentieth Century (BFI), published at the end of that first cycle in 2015, included articles about and from Europe and the US, but also Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The comparative approach made the book stronger. Also in that first cycle, we felt it was important to create a close link with film professionals. So, we organized roundtables with film distributors, thus opening a discussion between the world of academia and the film world.
This first cycle created a framework, which worked very well. Looking for a topic for a second research cycle, Cecilia, Joël Augros and I noticed that film policy issues kept appearing in our personal research. But the seminal volume on film policy, Moran’s Film Policy: International, National and Regional Perspectives, dated from the mid-1990s. It was time to ‘update’ it. The first challenge was to identify academics working in this field around the world, to map out state-of-the-art research. For three years, we worked on constituting a community, through two conference organized in Paris, as well as panels at the NECS and SCMS conferences.
From all the formal and informal discussions, we felt that while the motivations behind film policy had remained the same, the digital revolution was leading to evolutions that were implemented by film policy professionals, but not fully conceptualized by academics. So, what we were witnessing was a need to re-think what the term ‘film policy’ meant in this new context, hence the title of the book. In order to explore that, Cecilia and I took great pains to include academics from diverse disciplines, to select confirmed but also promising academics. We were also adamant about the need to cover issues from all around the world, as countries often get their inspiration from the models—or counter-models—of other countries. And, of course, we felt it was important to include conversations with professionals, both film policy creators and users.
In the end, we did find so much valuable material that the big challenge became to organize the book in a way that would give the reader—whether he or she was versed into film policy or not—a clear sense of what was happening in the field at the moment. We did work to give the book a coherent structure. You’re supposed to read it in the order of the table of contents. And I must thank here the contributors who were very receptive to our remarks, as we worked on that complementarity between the articles, short case studies, and interviews. All in all, it was a very epic project!
Griffis: In regard to “reconceptualising” were you thinking more in terms of filling a gap in the scholarly conversation around film policies, or taking a different approach than what you’ve come across in your own research? In other words, what do you both feel has been missing or overlooked concerning film policy scholarship? And how would you like to see the volume used to expand or point to new directions in thinking about film policies, location production, national cinemas, transnational productions, etc.?
Mingant: A number of academics had been working on film policies for years, such as Stuart Cunningham who wrote the foreword. So, the research was out there. What we wanted to do was to gather the best of the current research, to give a view of the issues explored in the 2010s. In that sense, the title of the book is not a promise: the book does not offer a definitive, reconceptualised, type of film policy. There’s not one key to film policy. The title is more of an invitation to join the current scholarly and professional discussion, on how film policy is currently being reconceptualised or how it should be reconceptualised.
The organization of the book itself functions as an invitation, as each part offers possible avenues of exploration. The first part shows that the traditional film policy paradigm, around the defense of the national identity and economy, is still valid today. This more traditional analysis should not be discarded as a thing of the past. Part three and four insist on the two current challenges that make film policy an even more complex field: the development of policies at the local, national and supranational level: this creates a ‘film policy tangle,’ which can be hard to navigate; and the digital revolution, that leads to film policies being subsumed in the larger ‘cultural/creative industries’ debate. All of these topics deserve further exploration.
However, the area that I feel is the least explored academically is the topic of the second part: the agents of film policies, the political personnel who create the policies, the directors and workers who live with them. As you can see, the field is very open, and we hope the book will prove exciting enough that scholars who have only looked at film policy as a marginal aspect of their work decide to fully focus on its issues. Film policy is behind every aspect of the film industry, so there’s room for researchers from many backgrounds in the discussion.
Griffis: Yes, speaking of the personnel involved in the creation and enactment of film policies, I thought it was interesting the way Stephen Bender of the North-East of Paris Film Commission (at the time of writing in 2014), differentiated between film offices and film commissions. In the interview with Bender (Chapter 1), Bender describes the role of a commission as cultural as well as economic, expressing concern with the way a film represents place and local culture. He claims that a film office merely issues permits. In my own work, I’ve used the terms film office and commission somewhat interchangeably, perhaps incorrectly, and I’m wondering if there’s any consistency in terminology and expectations surrounding film offices, commissions, and bureaus that you’ve found in your own research?
Mingant: It’s a very good point. No, we haven’t found any consistency. This is why it was so important for us to include both academic and film professional discourses, as each group has their own definitions. Here, for example, the differences bring to light the fact that while academics focus on the conceptual idea of state intervention (the existence of a film office/commission/bureau as opposed to the absence of such structure), film professionals focus on the concrete action of those agencies (what kind of support can be expected from which agency). The issue of definitions was very important for us. Clarifying definitions is one of the important contributions of the volume. The use of the word ‘regional’ is a case in point. For some contributors, ‘regional’ was used to describe specific regions within a country—it is used in that sense in Moran’s volume Film Policy: International, National and Regional Perspective. For others, it was synonymous with the regional integration of several countries, for example, the European Union. We thus had to standardize the geographical description throughout the volume, asking everyone to use three terms: supra-national, national, and infra-national/local, thus enabling a comparison and dialogue between the different situations described along the book.
Griffis: In “Bridging the Gap,” Julia Hammett-Jamart presents several reasons for what she describes as the “inadequate articulation between screen policy and scholarship.” She explains that the problem is conflicting agendas: policymakers present data that supports their programs to ensure continued funding, while scholars often seek to expose dysfunction. I suspect that another reason for the “inadequate articulation” is that media researchers who work inside academia aren’t sure where to start in terms of finding accurate contact information, making introductions, and adequately explaining their projects. You and Cecelia clearly gained experience in this area through your interviews the book. Do you have additional insight or advice to offer scholars interested in taking up your call to study policy and personnel?
Mingant: I would say first that our first job as scholars is to become aware of our own agenda. Although we have the impression that we start a project in a neutral way, our approach is informed by our background, our geographical location and culture, our institution. This is what Julia Hammett-Jamart brings to light here, and it’s very important, as academic bias is usually not discussed. Once you’re aware of your preconceived ideas, you can interrogate them: you use your own preconceptions as tools to think about your object.
The emphasis Cecilia and I always put on discussions with film professionals is also precisely about that desire to be always on your toes, to avoid getting comfortable in your own certitudes. I always find interviewing film and media professionals thought-provoking, especially when the answers I get are not the ones I expected. In the book’s introduction, we outline the difficulty of relying on interviews since interviewees are under a number of constraints. We also emphasize the need for academics to think about their interview ethics. Sometimes, valuable information is given ‘off the record,’ or you realize that you need to use some elements anonymously, to avoid serious consequences for the interviewee. Respect for your interlocutor is the key to interviews. And you will find that once you have clarified these ethical points, many film and media professionals are more than happy to discuss with you. And getting access to film professionals has become easier over the past decade with the development of professional websites such as LinkedIn.
Griffis: Due to the economic, geographic, political, and industrial nature of film policy, scholarship in this area is inherently interdisciplinary. Reconceptualising Film Policies features scholars from a range of disciplines—film, communications, international studies, law, etc.—who contribute to a rich and broad-reaching survey. Where do you currently see the need for greater interdisciplinary collaboration in order to further and expand film policy scholarship? Were there perspectives (from specific disciplines or professions) that you would have like to have included in the volume but were unable due to schedule limitations or other constraints?
Mingant: Yes, the study of media industries, in general, has been very open. The volume fully confirms that the interdisciplinary dialogue is working very well today within Humanities. It would be interesting to bring in more contributions from Law as well as Computer Science, but for the moment the technicality of the discourse has been a barrier, I feel.
Griffis: For those of us in the field of film and media studies, do you think that film policy research can help us to rethink our approach to representational analysis? Brian Yecies’ chapter “Informal Collaborations and Formal Agreements” on Chinese-Korean film collaborations and adaptations, for example, raises important questions about the relationship between policy, industry, and representation. However, it’s always a challenge to integrate all three aspects into a single study.
Mingant: Yes, definitely. In line with Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson’s The Classical Hollywood Cinema, I feel that the content and style of film is deeply linked to the context of production. And film policies have always strongly determined the production, but also the distribution, of films. The issue of representation is touched upon by Brian Yecies, but also by Jamie Steele, when he shows how Olivier Masset-Depasse relocated the plot of his film Cages from Wallonia to France to obtain certain funding. Lebanese producer Sabine Sidawi also mentions the influence of funding on film content, for example with the trend of ‘women issue’ films from the Middle-East. The contributions dealing with censorship in Japan (DeWinter) and China (Li) also interrogate the type of representations that can or cannot circulate. Once you start connecting representational issues to the film policy context, you realize you’ve hit a rich academic load. The aim of the volume was to provide a larger framework that will enable others to dig into specific films.
Griffis: Yes, and although you center the book on film for manageability, the chapters quickly expand into areas of media convergence, with authors discussing issues ranging from Netflix policies in Canada to the international circulation of Japanese anime and manga through films, comics, and other popular culture texts. So we can see through these examples how the book will also provide insight into broader media industry concerns as the boundaries between media forms continue to dissolve.
Mingant: We actually did not center the book on film for manageability reasons. We feel that expressions such as ‘cultural industries’ prevent academics from comparing the current policies to policies in the past. So we deliberately chose to trace what happens to films today, so that the discussion can take place. But, of course, to understand what happens to films, you need to take into account the broader picture. So, it was really a methodological statement we were making.
Griffis: Great, thank you for clarifying. I have one final question. The volume concludes with a fascinating chapter that you wrote on Abu Dhabi’s recent efforts to build a national cinema “ex-nihilo” despite challenges including censorship and a general disinterest in working in the film industry among young people in UAE. This is such a telling example of how central media production development has become to global city branding strategies in the past decade or so. Have there been updates to Abu Dhabi’s status as a production center following the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which you note was hoped to be the “UAE’s Lord of the Rings”?
Mingant: Well, that chapter was written about a year ago, so it’s difficult to update it already, but what I’m looking at now is the fact that Saudi Arabia has authorized the opening of movie theatres in the country. Given the government’s new development strategy, it will be interesting to observe whether they decide to try and develop ‘brand Riyadh.’
Griffis: Thank you again, to both you and Cecilia, for writing and producing such a valuable collection—both a necessary guide to international film policy and an important call for new lines of inquiry. And thank you for an engaging long-distance conversation!
Noelle Griffis is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Arts at Marymount Manhattan College. Griffis received her PhD from Indiana University in 2018. Her dissertation, “Filmmaking to Save a City in Crisis: New York on Location, 1966-1973,” examines filmmaking culture during Mayor John V. Lindsay’s administration and the creation of New York’s first policy to encourage feature production on location. Noelle has published in Black Camera and her work appears in the edited volumes Hollywood on Location (Rutgers UP, 2019) and Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film (Duke UP, 2019). She is also the Reviews Editor for Mediapolis.