Chuck Tryon, On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies (Rutgers University Press, 2013)
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Chuck Tryon’s On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies is a fascinating study of the current state of film culture, which focuses largely on digital film distribution. How are we to understand what film culture is—and what film distribution is—in a situation where “films have become files”? Tryon looks to understand the current cultural context in light of the many and varied changes to how people encounter films, and with a refreshing skepticism about the importance of some of these changes. He builds the book around a central conceit: even as digital distribution offers the potential for greater access to more films, it also reinforces many traditional relationships by allowing media companies more control over both content and our relationship with our devices.
The book is broken up into an introduction, eight chapters, and a conclusion. Each of the chapters examines the implications of digital distribution on a distinct aspect of film culture. Tryon frames these chapters thematically through the concept of “platform mobility,” which he defines as the technological changes that allow for greater access to “a wide range of entertainment choices,” the social, economic, and political changes that enable and constrain this access, and “make this access more desirable,” and the central subjectivity of platform mobility, the “individualized consumer.”
Tryon uses each chapter to expound on different aspects of distribution, by focusing on distinct parts of platform mobility. Sometimes, he zeros in on where distribution takes place—as in chapter three’s focus on how digital distribution disrupts the centrality of the living room as the domestic media space, or chapter five’s focus on the Redbox DVD dispensaries and their place in retail distribution rental outlets, or chapter eight’s investigation of how film festivals are being reimagined in light of digital film. Other times, his central object is the interface, as with chapter four’s focus on the use of 3D technology to reassert the spectacle of film and television, both in theaters and on 3D television screens, or with his analysis in chapter six of “second screen” technologies and the use of Twitter as an important tool for promotional or fan-based communication about a film. Above all, however, his book is built on different examples of, to put it somewhat crudely, empowerment (a bottom-up practice) and containment, (a top-down, industry practice that constrains and monitors access). In this sense, Tryon’s book is the logical update for Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture, with a more singular focus on “film” as Tryon’s media form of choice.
So, what is “on demand” in this on-demand culture? On the surface, Tryon is talking about access to content, and to the technologies and devices that allow—and constrain—people’s ability to access that content. But the book does not simply describe how “on demand” is code for consumer choice (or even political choice through the “democratization of technology”). It also assesses what media technologies and media companies demand of people, and the ways in which those demands are structured into the devices and services that we use to purchase, store, watch, and communicate about films.
Tryon’s main move is threefold. First, he identifies the strategies used by media companies (distributors, producers, technology manufacturers, advertisers) and by consumer-users in the film ecosystem. Second, he contextualizes them by explaining why they emerge when and how they do. Finally, he situates them historically in terms of traditional forms and practices of film culture. His method is highly textual, as he mashes together succinct crystallizations of academic work on media—work from Lynn Spigel, Anne Balsamo, Vincent Mosco, and Lisa Gitelman, among many others—with close readings of advertisements, analyses of journalistic pieces on media, and critical assessments of trade publications.
One of the strengths of Tryon’s book is in documenting quite explicitly the various changes as transformations, rather than as examples of “loss.” Unlike media journalists and industry trade publications, Tryon is uninterested in questions about, for instance, how streaming has “killed” the DVD market or DVD culture. For Tryon, such statements are a starting point for cultural analysis, rather than a conclusion. He does not completely discount digital utopianism or technological determinism; instead, he paints a more nuanced and complicated picture of the cultural moment, that takes into account the social, political, and economic contexts out of which such technological shifts arise.
Where Tryon falls short, at times, is in his failure to account for the emergent parts of the media ecosystem that had previously been ignored or hidden, like the intermediaries involved in delivering movies from streaming services to consumers: content delivery networks like Akamai, and companies like YuMe and Tremor Video, not to mention the vast industries that have opened up that traffic in consumer data generated from watching movies through Netflix, Hulu or YouTube. Such companies tend to stay out of the headlines, but they are just as actively engaged in shaping film culture. Most people who access movies through these services have a relationship with these intermediaries, even if they are unaware that they do.
Overall, Tryon’s book contributes quite well to the necessary project of intervening in how history—in particular “popular culture” history—is documented. This is evident from the book’s cover, the image of which evokes the Netflix DVD mailer, even as the book looks to the future of movies, as the sub-title indicates. Tryon’s most interesting work comes when he connects different strategies for media distribution and use to the larger media ecosystem, and finally to the cultural context out of which such strategies emerge. It is not that such work offers particularly compelling conclusions about the future of movies, necessarily; rather, it contributes to an extension and deepening of our cultural memories, so that we can better understand the current film culture in the United States, and the ways that it has come to exist as such.
Ian Murphy is a PhD student in the Media and Technology Studies area of the Department of Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His dissertation looks at the content distribution systems on which contemporary media industries are economically based. He is especially interested in the strategies that underlie the creation of these systems, the relations between “producers” and “consumers” that characterize them, and the legal implications of technological changes in these sectors (including issues surrounding copyright and net neutrality).