The Mediating Power of Distribution

As a mediating process, distribution, especially in film culture, is a site of power. “It determines what films we see, and when and how we see them. Crucially, it also determines what we do not see. Distribution, then, is about cultural power, about the regulation, provision, and denial of audiovisual content.” (Lobato, 2009) As Garnham points out, distribution “is the key locus of power and profit” (Garnham, 1990, p. 162).

This power comes into play especially when distribution is controlled by a limited group. In the presence of such control, the freedom of choice of the public is reduced. In this regard, Pardo and Sánchez-Tabernero (2012) point to the dangers of both horizontal and vertical integrations. On the one hand, horizontal integration permits the creation of oligopolies and a consequent abuse of power. Such abuse could lead to such practices like zoning, block booking or blind bidding, through which the distributor imposes on the exhibitor what films are shown and when. On the other hand, the control of production, distribution and exhibition by a few companies, through vertical integration, makes it difficult for a new competitor to enter into the market.

Distribution as a Channel for Feedback

Distribution is, however, not just a one-way supply process; it also involves an informational loop:

Not only does distribution bring news, entertainment and advertising to audiences; it is also a feedback loop. The cash flow returning to producers is not merely money: it is also vital data confirming the performance of products in the marketplace, and thereby shaping both the future handling of the current product and what further products will be commissioned. (Cubitt, 2005, p. 202)

Harbord (2002) lists distribution among the “practices that shape the flow of film,” adding that “These are more than mediating processes suturing the path between supply and demand. The structures, patterns and formations produced by these practices in part inform production and shape consumption in a circle that never quite connects” (p. 5).

Compared with the two poles of production and consumption, between which it mediates, distribution is more open to regulation. In this regard, it is not uncommon for states to promote distribution, through subsidies to the cultural industries, or to limit it through protectionist measures.

Informal Distribution Systems

Lobato (2009) contrasts mainstream film distribution with what he terms “ephemeral and subterranean systems of circulation that are less frequently studied by film scholars – media piracy, straight-to-video distribution, diasporic networks, and so on” (p. 3). He presents these informal distribution networks as viable options to the standard film distribution routine. In Lobato’s subcinema model, he highlights “the influence that circulatory networks wield on reception, the social and cultural specificities of informal modes of distribution, and the textual changes that occur as films circulate in informal markets. Lobato speaks of the need for policymakers to take informal circulation into consideration and points, as example, to the extreme effectiveness of subcinematic distribution in the dissemination of a nation’s image. Nevertheless, he does recognise that this informal distribution “will not be helpful in realising many of the objectives of national cultural policy” (Lobato, 2009, p. 252).

However, although the informal distribution network might be effective in terms of providing a wide spread for audiovisual products, it is hardly recommendable as an effective economic model. The informality that facilitates easy movement and spread is the very factor that undermines profitability due to the lack of adequate accountability. As Lobato himself puts it, the market “cannot guarantee the return of revenues to producers” (Lobato, 2010). This lack of return will effectively break the feedback loop between the producer and the consumer. An element of instability is thus introduced that brings continuity into question.

Distribution for the Nigerian Video Film

These considerations are relevant for the study of distribution in the Nigerian film industry. It is widely recognised that distribution is a key problem of this industry, which has largely depended on an informal distribution system. This system has been “a success in its ability to spread Nollywood as a cultural product” enriching many along the way (Miller, 2012, p. 131). However, the sustainability of this success is dependent on the formalization of its distribution network. It is hoped that the various moves towards this end, such as the development of strong cinema chains will yield the due fruit. Works Cited

Cubitt, S. (2005). Distribution and Media Flows. Cultural Politics, 1(2), 193-214.

Garnham, N. (1990). Capitalism and Communication. (F. Inglis, Ed.) London; Newbury Park; Delhi: Sage Publications.

Harbord, J. (2002). Film Culture. London: Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Lobato, R. (2009). Subcinema: Mapping Informal Film Distribution. Unpublished doctoral thesis, School of Culture and Communication, The University of Melbourne.

Lobato, R. (2010). Creative Industries and Informal Economies. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 13(4), 337-354.

Miller, J. (2012). Global Nollywood: The Nigerian Movie Industry and Alternative Global Networks in Production and Distribution. Global Media and Communication, 8(2), 117-133


Pardo, A., & Sánchez-Tabernero, A. (2012). Effects of Market Concentration in Theatrical Distribution: The Case of the Big Five Western European Countries. International Journal on Media Management, 14(1), 51-71.

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