Matinees, Summers and Opening Weekends

Cinemagoing Audiences as Institutional Subjects

How to Cite

Acland, C. (2000). Matinees, Summers and Opening Weekends: Cinemagoing Audiences as Institutional Subjects. M/C Journal, 3(1).
Vol. 3 No. 1 (2000): Audience
Published 2000-03-01

Newspapers and the 7:15 Showing

Cinemagoing involves planning. Even in the most impromptu instances, one has to consider meeting places, line-ups and competing responsibilities. One arranges child care, postpones household chores, or rushes to finish meals. One must organise transportation and think about routes, traffic, parking or public transit. And during the course of making plans for a trip to the cinema, whether alone or in the company of others, typically one turns to locate a recent newspaper. Consulting its printed page lets us ascertain locations, a selection of film titles and their corresponding show times. In preparing to feed a cinema craving, we burrow through a newspaper to an entertainment section, finding a tableau of information and promotional appeals. Such sections compile the mini-posters of movie advertisements, with their truncated credits, as well as various reviews and entertainment news. We see names of shopping malls doubling as names of theatres. We read celebrity gossip that may or may not pertain to the film selected for that occasion. We informally rank viewing priorities ranging from essential theatrical experiences to those that can wait for the videotape release. We attempt to assess our own mood and the taste of our filmgoing companions, matching up what we suppose are appropriate selections. Certainly, other media vie to supplant the newspaper's role in cinemagoing; many now access on-line sources and telephone services that offer the crucial details about start times. Nonetheless, as a campaign by the Newspaper Association of America in Variety aimed to remind film marketers, 80% of cinemagoers refer to newspaper listings for times and locations before heading out. The accuracy of that association's statistics notwithstanding, for the moment, the local daily or weekly newspaper has a secure place in the routines of cinematic life.

A basic impetus for the newspaper's role is its presentation of a schedule of show times. Whatever the venue -- published, phone or on-line -- it strikes me as especially telling that schedules are part of the ordinariness of cinemagoing. To be sure, there are those who decide what film to see on site. Anecdotally, I have had several people comment recently that they no longer decide what movie to see, but where to see a (any) movie. Regardless, the schedule, coupled with the theatre's location, figures as a point of coordination for travel through community space to a site of film consumption. The choice of show time is governed by countless demands of everyday life. How often has the timing of a film -- not the film itself, the theatre at which it's playing, nor one's financial situation --determined one's attendance? How familiar is the assessment that show times are such that one cannot make it, that the film begins a bit too earlier, that it will run too late for whatever reason, and that other tasks intervene to take precedence?

I want to make several observations related to the scheduling of film exhibition. Most generally, it makes manifest that cinemagoing involves an exercise in the application of cinema knowledge -- that is, minute, everyday facilities and familiarities that help orchestrate the ordinariness of cultural life. Such knowledge informs what Michel de Certeau characterises as "the procedures of everyday creativity" (xiv). Far from random, the unexceptional decisions and actions involved with cinemagoing bear an ordering and a predictability. Novelty in audience activity appears, but it is alongside fairly exact expectations about the event. The schedule of start times is essential to the routinisation of filmgoing. Displaying a Fordist logic of streamlining commodity distribution and the time management of consumption, audiences circulate through a machine that shapes their constituency, providing a set time for seating, departure, snack purchases and socialising. Even with the staggered times offered by multiplex cinemas, schedules still lay down a fixed template around which other activities have to be arrayed by the patron. As audiences move to and through the theatre, the schedule endeavours to regulate practice, making us the subjects of a temporal grid, a city context, a cinema space, as well as of the film itself. To be sure, one can arrive late and leave early, confounding the schedule's disciplining force. Most importantly, with or without such forms of evasion, it channels the actions of audiences in ways that consideration of the gaze cannot address. Taking account of the scheduling of cinema culture, and its implication of adjunct procedures of everyday life, points to dimensions of subjectivity neglected by dominant theories of spectatorship.

To be the subject of a cinema schedule is to understand one assemblage of the parameters of everyday creativity. It would be foolish to see cinema audiences as cattle, herded and processed alone, in some crude Gustave LeBon fashion. It would be equally foolish not to recognise the manner in which film distribution and exhibition operates precisely by constructing images of the activity of people as demographic clusters and generalised cultural consumers. The ordinary tactics of filmgoing are supplemental to, and run alongside, a set of industrial structures and practices. While there is a correlation between a culture industry's imagined audience and the life that ensues around its offerings, we cannot neglect that, as attention to film scheduling alerts us, audiences are subjects of an institutional apparatus, brought into being for the reproduction of an industrial edifice.

Streamline Audiences

In this, film is no different from any culture industry. Film exhibition and distribution relies on an understanding of both the market and the product or service being sold at any given point in time. Operations respond to economic conditions, competing companies, and alternative activities. Economic rationality in this strategic process, however, only explains so much. This is especially true for an industry that must continually predict, and arguably give shape to, the "mood" and predilections of disparate and distant audiences. Producers, distributors and exhibitors assess which films will "work", to whom they will be marketed, as well as establish the very terms of success. Without a doubt, much of the film industry's attentions act to reduce this uncertainty; here, one need only think of the various forms of textual continuity (genre films, star performances, etc.) and the economies of mass advertising as ways to ensure box office receipts. Yet, at the core of the operations of film exhibition remains a number of flexible assumptions about audience activity, taste and desire. These assumptions emerge from a variety of sources to form a brand of temporary industry "commonsense", and as such are harbingers of an industrial logic.

Ien Ang has usefully pursued this view in her comparative analysis of three national television structures and their operating assumptions about audiences. Broadcasters streamline and discipline audiences as part of their organisational procedures, with the consequence of shaping ideas about consumers as well as assuring the reproduction of the industrial structure itself. She writes, "institutional knowledge is driven toward making the audience visible in such a way that it helps the institutions to increase their power to get their relationship with the audience under control, and this can only be done by symbolically constructing 'television audience' as an objectified category of others that can be controlled, that is, contained in the interest of a predetermined institutional goal" (7). Ang demonstrates, in particular, how various industrially sanctioned programming strategies (programme strips, "hammocking" new shows between successful ones, and counter-programming to a competitor's strengths) and modes of audience measurement grow out of, and invariably support, those institutional goals. And, most crucially, her approach is not an effort to ascertain the empirical certainty of "actual" audiences; instead, it charts the discursive terrain in which the abstract concept of audience becomes material for the continuation of industry practices.

Ang's work tenders special insight to film culture. In fact, television scholarship has taken full advantage of exploring the routine nature of that medium, the best of which deploys its findings to lay bare configurations of power in domestic contexts. One aspect has been television time and schedules. For example, David Morley points to the role of television in structuring everyday life, discussing a range of research that emphasises the temporal dimension. Alerting us to the non- necessary determination of television's temporal structure, he comments that we "need to maintain a sensitivity to these micro-levels of division and differentiation while we attend to the macro-questions of the media's own role in the social structuring of time" (265). As such, the negotiation of temporal structures implies that schedules are not monolithic impositions of order. Indeed, as Morley puts it, they "must be seen as both entering into already constructed, historically specific divisions of space and time, and also as transforming those pre-existing division" (266). Television's temporal grid has been address by others as well. Paddy Scannell characterises scheduling and continuity techniques, which link programmes, as a standardisation of use, making radio and television predictable, 'user friendly' media (9). John Caughie refers to the organization of flow as a way to talk about the national particularities of British and American television (49-50). All, while making their own contributions, appeal to a detailing of viewing context as part of any study of audience, consumption or experience; uncovering the practices of television programmers as they attempt to apprehend and create viewing conditions for their audiences is a first step in this detailing.

Why has a similar conceptual framework not been applied with the same rigour to film? Certainly the history of film and television's association with different, at times divergent, disciplinary formations helps us appreciate such theoretical disparities. I would like to mention one less conspicuous explanation. It occurs to me that one frequently sees a collapse in the distinction between the everyday and the domestic; in much scholarship, the latter term appears as a powerful trope of the former. The consequence has been the absenting of a myriad of other -- if you will, non-domestic -- manifestations of everyday-ness, unfortunately encouraging a rather literal understanding of the everyday. The impression is that the abstractions of the everyday are reduced to daily occurrences.

Simply put, my minor appeal is for the extension of this vein of television scholarship to out-of-home technologies and cultural forms, that is, other sites and locations of the everyday. In so doing, we pay attention to extra-textual structures of cinematic life; other regimes of knowledge, power, subjectivity and practice appear. Film audiences require a discussion about the ordinary, the calculated and the casual practices of cinematic engagement. Such a discussion would chart institutional knowledge, identifying operating strategies and recognising the creativity and multidimensionality of cinemagoing. What are the discursive parameters in which the film industry imagines cinema audiences? What are the related implications for the structures in which the practice of cinemagoing occurs?

Vectors of Exhibition Time

One set of those structures of audience and industry practice involves the temporal dimension of film exhibition. In what follows, I want to speculate on three vectors of the temporality of cinema spaces (meaning that I will not address issues of diegetic time). Note further that my observations emerge from a close study of industrial discourse in the U.S. and Canada. I would be interested to hear how they are manifest in other continental contexts.

First, the running times of films encourage turnovers of the audience during the course of a single day at each screen. The special event of lengthy anomalies has helped mark the epic, and the historic, from standard fare. As discussed above, show times coordinate cinemagoing and regulate leisure time. Knowing the codes of screenings means participating in an extension of the industrial model of labour and service management.

Running times incorporate more texts than the feature presentation alone. Besides the history of double features, there are now advertisements, trailers for coming attractions, trailers for films now playing in neighbouring auditoriums, promotional shorts demonstrating new sound systems, public service announcements, reminders to turn off cell phones and pagers, and the exhibitor's own signature clips. A growing focal point for filmgoing, these introductory texts received a boost in 1990, when the Motion Picture Association of America changed its standards for the length of trailers, boosting it from 90 seconds to a full two minutes (Brookman).

This intertextuality needs to be supplemented by a consideration of inter- media appeals. For example, advertisements for television began appearing in theatres in the 1990s. And many lobbies of multiplex cinemas now offer a range of media forms, including video previews, magazines, arcades and virtual reality games. Implied here is that motion pictures are not the only media audiences experience in cinemas and that there is an explicit attempt to integrate a cinema's texts with those at other sites and locations.

Thus, an exhibitor's schedule accommodates an intertextual strip, offering a limited parallel to Raymond Williams's concept of "flow", which he characterised by stating -- quite erroneously -- "in all communication systems before broadcasting the essential items were discrete" (86-7). Certainly, the flow between trailers, advertisements and feature presentations is not identical to that of the endless, ongoing text of television. There are not the same possibilities for "interruption" that Williams emphasises with respect to broadcasting flow. Further, in theatrical exhibition, there is an end-time, a time at which there is a public acknowledgement of the completion of the projected performance, one that necessitates vacating the cinema. This end-time is a moment at which the "rental" of the space has come due; and it harkens a return to the street, to the negotiation of city space, to modes of public transit and the mobile privatisation of cars. Nonetheless, a schedule constructs a temporal boundary in which audiences encounter a range of texts and media in what might be seen as limited flow.

Second, the ephemerality of audiences -- moving to the cinema, consuming its texts, then passing the seat on to someone else -- is matched by the ephemerality of the features themselves. Distributors' demand for increasing numbers of screens necessary for massive, saturation openings has meant that films now replace one another more rapidly than in the past. Films that may have run for months now expect weeks, with fewer exceptions. Wider openings and shorter runs have created a cinemagoing culture characterised by flux. The acceleration of the turnover of films has been made possible by the expansion of various secondary markets for distribution, most importantly videotape, splintering where we might find audiences and multiplying viewing contexts. Speeding up the popular in this fashion means that the influence of individual texts can only be truly gauged via cross-media scrutiny.

Short theatrical runs are not axiomatically designed for cinemagoers anymore; they can also be intended to attract the attention of video renters, purchasers and retailers. Independent video distributors, especially, "view theatrical release as a marketing expense, not a profit center" (Hindes & Roman 16). In this respect, we might think of such theatrical runs as "trailers" or "loss leaders" for the video release, with selected locations for a film's release potentially providing visibility, even prestige, in certain city markets or neighbourhoods. Distributors are able to count on some promotion through popular consumer- guide reviews, usually accompanying theatrical release as opposed to the passing critical attention given to video release. Consequently, this shapes the kinds of uses an assessment of the current cinema is put to; acknowledging that new releases function as a resource for cinema knowledge highlights the way audiences choose between and determine big screen and small screen films. Taken in this manner, popular audiences see the current cinema as largely a rough catalogue to future cultural consumption.

Third, motion picture release is part of the structure of memories and activities over the course of a year. New films appear in an informal and ever-fluctuating structure of seasons. The concepts of summer movies and Christmas films, or the opening weekends that are marked by a holiday, sets up a fit between cinemagoing and other activities -- family gatherings, celebrations, etc. Further, this fit is presumably resonant for both the industry and popular audiences alike, though certainly for different reasons. The concentration of new films around visible holiday periods results in a temporally defined dearth of cinemas; an inordinate focus upon three periods in the year in the U.S. and Canada -- the last weekend in May, June/July/August and December -- creates seasonal shortages of screens (Rice-Barker 20). In fact, the boom in theatre construction through the latter half of the 1990s was, in part, to deal with those short-term shortages and not some year-round inadequate seating.

Configurations of releasing colour a calendar with the tactical manoeuvres of distributors and exhibitors. Releasing provides a particular shape to the "current cinema", a term I employ to refer to a temporally designated slate of cinematic texts characterised most prominently by their newness. Television arranges programmes to capitalise on flow, to carry forward audiences and to counter-programme competitors' simultaneous offerings. Similarly, distributors jostle with each other, with their films and with certain key dates, for the limited weekends available, hoping to match a competitor's film intended for one audience with one intended for another. Industry reporter Leonard Klady sketched some of the contemporary truisms of releasing based upon the experience of 1997. He remarks upon the success of moving Liar, Liar (Tom Shadyac, 1997) to a March opening and the early May openings of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (Jay Roach, 1997) and Breakdown (Jonathan Mostow, 1997), generally seen as not desirable times of the year for premieres. He cautions against opening two films the same weekend, and thus competing with yourself, using the example of Fox's Soul Food (George Tillman, Jr., 1997) and The Edge (Lee Tamahori, 1997). While distributors seek out weekends clear of films that would threaten to overshadow their own, Klady points to the exception of two hits opening on the same date of December 19, 1997 -- Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spottiswoode, 1997) and Titanic (James Cameron, 1997). Though but a single opinion, Klady's observations are a peek into a conventional strain of strategising among distributors and exhibitors. Such planning for the timing and appearance of films is akin to the programming decisions of network executives. And I would hazard to say that digital cinema, reportedly -- though unlikely -- just on the horizon and in which texts will be beamed to cinemas via satellite rather than circulated in prints, will only augment this comparison; releasing will become that much more like programming, or at least will be conceptualised as such.

To summarize, the first vector of exhibition temporality is the scheduling and running time; the second is the theatrical run; the third is the idea of seasons and the "programming" of openings. These are just some of the forces streamlining filmgoers; the temporal structuring of screenings, runs and film seasons provides a material contour to the abstraction of audience. Here, what I have delineated are components of an industrial logic about popular and public entertainment, one that offers a certain controlled knowledge about and for cinemagoing audiences.

Shifting Conceptual Frameworks

A note of caution is in order. I emphatically resist an interpretation that we are witnessing the becoming-film of television and the becoming-tv of film. Underneath the "inversion" argument is a weak brand of technological determinism, as though each asserts its own essential qualities. Such a pat declaration seems more in line with the mythos of convergence, and its quasi-Darwinian "natural" collapse of technologies. Instead, my point here is quite the opposite, that there is nothing essential or unique about the scheduling or flow of television; indeed, one does not have to look far to find examples of less schedule-dependent television. What I want to highlight is that application of any term of distinction -- event/flow, gaze/glance, public/private, and so on -- has more to do with our thinking, with the core discursive arrangements that have made film and television, and their audiences, available to us as knowable and different. So, using empirical evidence to slide one term over to the other is a strategy intended to supplement and destabilise the manner in which we draw conclusions, and even pose questions, of each.

What this proposes is, again following the contributions of Ien Ang, that we need to see cinemagoing in its institutional formation, rather than some stable technological, textual or experiential apparatus. The activity is not only a function of a constraining industrial practice or of wildly creative patrons, but of a complex inter-determination between the two. Cinemagoing is an organisational entity harbouring, reviving and constituting knowledge and commonsense about film commodities, audiences and everyday life. An event of cinema begins well before the dimming of an auditorium's lights. The moment a newspaper is consulted, with its local representation of an internationally circulating current cinema, its listings belie a scheduling, an orderliness, to the possible projections in a given location. As audiences are formed as subjects of the current cinema, we are also agents in the continuation of a set of institutions as well.

Author Biography

Charles Acland