This blog is part of the courses on film, art, literature, and media
given by Dr.
Hudson Moura, Toronto, Canada.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Importance of Film in the World of Political Economy

Chapter: 05 "Revisiting the Political Economy of Film" Janet Wasko
Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. by Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy

By Ryan Rodrigues

When considering the significance of order and understanding in today’s world, and how humans monitor, govern and dictate one another to make sense of the systems we’ve created for ourselves, the activity of politics reveals its importance. Politics allows one to organize and interpret these systems which prove to be vital in our progression to a more rational state, not only for the individual, but for entire societies as a whole. One of these systems of governance and understanding is brought to attention in Janet Wasko’s chapter “Revisiting the Political Economy of Film” in the book, “The Routledge Companion to Cinema Politics”. Here, the author, Wasko, argues for the importance of taking a closer look at film in the political economy of the media and communication industries. Wasko, a professor of Communication at the University of Oregon, having written four books on the inner workings of the U.S. film industry, is justified in making her claims as she breaks down why film is overlooked and undervalued in terms of its relation to the political economy of media. She pushes for the reader to question, as well as understand, why this is. By explaining first, classical political economy, political economy applied to media/communication, and finally film’s role in the media/communication industries, Wasko outlines why the political economy of film can be key to understanding larger, social, political and economic systems.

Wasko’s chapter begins by describing political economy, it’s history, what it focuses on, and how it functions in today’s world. Although the focus of the chapter is to outline political economy and it’s relation to film and the media/communication industries, explaining the history of political economy allows the reader to get a general sense of the topic. When speaking of it’s origins, she refers to political economy as classical political economy, stating that it, “...focused on the production, distribution, exchange and consumption of wealth and the consequences for the welfare of individuals and society.” (Wasko, 2016). Here we see how political economy is rooted in understanding how wealth is created and moved around in society. This is significant because it deals with a societies economy in relation to how it works with the political structure of that society, more specifically a capitalist structure. Wasko says that political economists studied capitalism as a system of social production, meaning that the economic structure of the society has great influence on how that society produces something. As the study of classical political economy grew, along with the development of capitalism, Wasko highlights the shift from it being a study focused on the link between economics and societal concerns, to economics and individual concerns. Referencing economist William Jevons, Wasko mentions the new focus of political economy to be, “...the study of ‘the mechanics of utility and self satisfy our wants to the utmost with the least maximize pleasure is the problem of economics’”. (Wasko, 2016).

This shift in the concerns of political economy provide the key explanation and background for why media is not always studied in relation to economics and its greater societal relevancy. Wasko states that, “...communication scholars focused primarily on individual effects and psychologically oriented research, with little concern for the economic context in which media is produced, distributed, and consumed.” (Wasko, 2016). In other words, the shift from macro to micro-analysis in the study of political economy, meant there was little to no room for media/communication industries to be looked at as an economic factor in society. When it came to media, theorists only concerned themselves with its individual effects, rather than societal. However in the 1960’s and 70’s, few theorists and economists saw this to be an issue. As Wasko identifies, economists such as Murdock, Golding and Smythe, saw how the importance of media and communication industries began to reveal itself in the world of political economy. In a sense, Smythe brought the perspective of political economy back from micro, individual analysis, to macro, societal analysis. He did this by arguing, “...that the central purpose of applying political economy to communication...was to study the structure and policies of communication institutions in their social settings.” (Wasko, 2016). These economists help bring to light why applying political economy to the media and communication industries is not only good for a deeper look at these industries, but necessary to understanding how our society functions, through cultural analysis, studies of ownership and control, as well as debunking common myths about our political systems. Essentially, studying media and communication industries through the eyes of political economy give some notable insight into how power and control can come into effect in a capitalist society.

In capitalist societies, the control comes from those who own and generate the most money. Studying how the media and communication industries make money is one, if not the most important, way to see how these industries attain power, culturally and politically. This is
why Wasko stresses the importance of political economy applied to this field. She mentions a few themes economists focus on when studying the media and communication industries from the political economy lens. These themes include, commercialization and commodification. As media communication companies produce more, they begin to rely on commercializing a number of products to reach more people and make more money. Eventually the company becomes a commodity, and their main goal is to make more money, so commercialization falls perfectly into this trend. This along with diversification and horizontal/vertical integration of companies allows for maximum growth in the media and communication industries. Companies no longer find interest (or profit) in one aspect or way of media communication, therefore they find other ways to do this, hence the integration of other types of companies to help them achieve this goal. This diversification in how they achieve their goal leads to companies expanding because now they have help from other companies to produce and distribute the same things. This is in some ways a synergetic way of operating, as multiple companies work together to reach the same goal, and although this is not a common characteristic of capitalism, it creates a concentration on one thing, so less competition means easier, less risky ways of making money. This is one example of seeing how political economy in media can help us challenge and see change in very traditional political and economic structures. As the media and communication industries grow and continue to increase their capital, it becomes almost impossible for them not to be concerned with state relations and vice versa.

Understanding this argument is quite simple, if media and communication industries are expanding and making so much money, it is only a matter of time before they need to expand across borders. Even within their own national borders, they become relevant to the state, because they control, or have a serious hand in the control, over societal views and norms. This is the single most important point in Wasko’s chapter, the significant influence the media and communication industries have over society and the way people dictate themselves, make it a valid factor in political economy since this heavily influences what people make money doing and spend money on. Wasko’s strongest point in reinforcing this argument is her emphasis on the political economy of film. After analyzing political economy itself, as well as the political economy of the media/communication industries, she closes the chapter by discussing one of the strongest aspects of the media/communication industries, film.

The fact is that seeing the importance of the political economy of film means seeing film as a commodity utilized in a capitalist structure. The US film industry provides a good study of this, as this industry has dominated the global film industry, and expansion means more wealth. The political economy of film then, encompasses the study of how this US industry has marketed itself to the rest of the world along with the implications this has on “...indigenous film industries in other countries, and what political/cultural implications may stem from the situation.” (Wasko, 2016). In other words, looking at how the film industry has involved itself in international, political relations. Wasko’s point here is that since the media and communication industries have a vital role in the society, then film, being one of the biggest parts of the media communications industries, must also play a role in the development and continuation of a society and it’s culture; something which is learned by looking at the political economy of film itself. When this takes effect, its political implications arise.

The issue she claims, is that critical studies addressing the political economy of film and studying it’s significant role in the economy, are few and far between. Since we can now see the film industry as impactful on society, economy, and political/state relations, Wasko questions why such few studies on the political economy of film exist. Although there have been studies on the political economy of film, Wasko identifies one of the main reasons for the lack of these studies to be because scholars can only work with what they are supplied with, and information on the film industry usually only comes from the industry itself, rather than an outsider looking in. Clearly in a situation like this, biases arise, the industry likely only puts out information regarding its triumphs and few on it’s downfalls. This among a few other reasons such as film being separated from media communication studies in the academic world, information and “critique” on the industry only being released by trade publications and entertainment magazines, and the different levels of importance film has to communication scholars, all add to the answer of why the political economy of film is not often looked at. What is key in Wasko’s chapter is understanding that the goal of political economy is not to try and figure out who controls the money, but rather how that money is distributed in certain systems and how these
systems use that money to influence, maintain, or create societal values and norms. If scholars focused on this, they would see the importance of the political economy of film.

Essentially, understanding the inner workings of societal structure means understanding the systems that govern society. The political economy of media and communication industries, being one of the most sought after and successful capitalist industries, offer explanations on how societies function within themselves and in relation to one another. However, neglecting or ignoring crucial aspects of these industries, such as film, means leaving out major pieces to the puzzle. Wasko does not argue that the political economy of film is the single most significant factor in the study of political economy, instead she offers an argument that paints the political economy of film as one of the most vital factors. She makes it clear that the lack of research into the political economy of film is not solely to be the burden of those who chose not to take it seriously, but partially on the film industry as well, since they do not often release information necessary to the contribution of this study. However, as the title of her chapter indicates, revisiting and reevaluating the political economy of film has the potential to help us better understand the world we live in.

Tzioumakis, Y., & Molloy, C. (2016).
The Routledge companion to cinema and politics.
Basingstoke: Taylor & Francis Ltd. Chapter 5. pp. 62-74. 

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