Friday, October 21, 2016

#PerformanceMatters: SAG-AFTRA and Hollywood History

With SAG-AFTRA affiliated voice actors having begun their strike today, I thought a quick look at the history of cinema might be in order. Not to draw broad parallels, as many of these comparisons do -- I'm personally often loathe to make the comparison at all -- but to see what it could mean.

In this case, though, the cinema comparison is more industrial than artistic. Throughout the months of discussion of the possibility of the strike, a number of discussion points have circulated throughout the games enthusiast press. Primary among them, related to the union's demand for residuals, has relied on a thought experiment: would the presence or absence of voice actors be a selling point in a game? Are they stars in the same way that Hollywood produces?

We'll start with a quick rundown of the pre-Hollywood years of the movies, with the history largely taken from Roberta Pearson's essays "Early Cinema" and "Transitional Cinema" from The Oxford History of World Cinema. The former covers the years "from the beginnings up to about 1906," while the latter goes "from 1907 to the mid-1910s," or roughly the First World War (13). Pearson says of the early cinema that it was "concerned ... with the individual shot, preserving the spatial aspects of the pro-filmic event (the scene that takes place in front of the camera). ...The camera was kept stationary ... with viewers more interested in the cinema as visual spectacle than as story-teller." (16-7) This "cinema of attractions" was, in the transitional period, contrasted with a "cinema of narrative integration" which, among other things, "increased [the] use of editing ... decreased [the] distance between camera and actors ... [and] moved the actors closer to the camera. ... The decreased distance between action and camera not only enabled identification of the actors and the development of the star system, but also contributed to the increased emphasis upon individualized characters and facial expression." (29) The whole story is significantly more complicated, of course, involving advances that included the technical (cameras, film, etc), business (distribution practices, filmmaking practices) the artistic (shot-framing, editing, etc) and eventually the geopolitical (national subsidization of film, histories of trade, World War I). Broadly speaking, however, there is a very clear moment in which the seeds for cinema stars are born.

The birth of Hollywood itself can be explained in a relatively uncomplicated manner: Edison and other produces in 1908 banded together to create the Motion Picture Patents Company, whose business model relied on licensing fees for films and equipment for which the members held patents. By attempting to monopolize the showing of films, they created enemies who, only a year later, founded the Independent Moving Picture Company that distributed films to exhibitors who were not licensed by the MPPC. A court ruling MPPC illegal and a failure to stranglehold the market later, the IMPC became Universal and the lack of unions and the climate and abundance of locations around Hollywood made for the beginning of modern cinema history as it still continues today.

And that history is largely the history of the feature film. We're just over a century into it (depending on where you place the origin at, of course) at this point, and only a bit more background is necessary. This bit is largely from Douglas Gomery's "The Hollywood Studio System," also from The Oxford History of World Cinema. Gomery says it more or less right out: "Hollywood centred its promotional efforts on the star system. ... Stars provided an effective means of differentiating feature films ... Mary Pickford saw her salary increase from $100 a week in 1909 to $10,000 per week in 1917, ... the stars were quick to realize that, if they were so important to the studios, they had bargaining power of their own. Although many remained tied to exploitative contracts, some of the most successful broke loose from the system." (46) Pickford joined Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith in founding United Artists, an early alternative to the vertically-integrated Hollywood studio system which had already begun to dominate.

The development of the feature film also caused developments in business models; "as the demand for narrative films increased, speacialists were trained to assist the director," including painters for scenery and writers for plot and fashion designers, and eventually continuity editors and scriptwriters. Gomery is careful to note that "The Hollywood production system was not invented, but evolved in response to a number of felt imperatives, of which the most important was the need for regular and consistent profit." (48) That evolution did not take place solely on the side of production. Hollywood also ran distribution and, eventually, exhibition of films, cutting out any third parties possible. It didn't even take decades for the only real holdouts to be anemic governmental responses (think the Canadian Broadcasting rules that still apply today) or consequences of geopolitics (Japan's being closed to trade, the Soviet Union, etc).

There are some obvious potential parallels between this history and that of the videogames industry; the early lack of a defined division of labor (from MIT laboratories through, lets say, the NES), proceeding from novelty to narrative (Pong to Space Invaders to Wizardry to Final Fantasy), and the consolidation of industrial and marketing practices near-simultaneously (Console Wars with Mario and Sonic, studio association with directors or intellectual properties, etc). Zooming in on any one aspect involves a multiplication of discontinuities, of course, because the material conditions of a century ago are different in any number of ways from where they are now.

What's instructive here, though, isn't the parallels: it's the possibilities. Looking at early cinema makes it very clear that the century of history we have under the Hollywood system may have been the winner, and was certainly compelled by the profit motive most successfully, but that it came about due to a huge confluence of factors. Many of these are cloaked in a quasi-objectivity; scientific advancements in film production and audience interest in particular kinds of films especially. But the Hollywood takeover of exhibition was an intentional move, especially designed to move cinema into the world of the middle class rather than the proletarians it had been popular with initially. The star system was very much in line with that: once technical and artistic decisions had been made to centralize the actor/character, the humanist impulses of the middle class could be exploited by making celebrities of the actors who in turn would expend more of their income to continue seeing them.

And, even more than that, the cinema itself was not somehow objectively a place for stars. It took decades of industrial production to get to the point that individual actors were even of interest to producers or audiences. And it wasn't some coordinated effort on the parts of audiences to make that foundational to how we learned to watch movies, but a huge confluence of factors that included the mechanical, the artistic, and the economic, some intentional, some not.

SAG-AFTRA's reasons for striking are hardly even a quarter of a step towards making something like a move toward the development of a proper star system in videogames. Minor residuals certainly change the story significantly, in certain ways -- especially for those for whom the other aspects, like vocal strain and MoCap oversight, go less well -- and have the potential to open the door for themselves and others. That this is a union action, rather than the decree of executives responding to (and shaping) market forces, puts an emphasis on the "and others" there, as well.

More than anything, though, the outcome of this strike necessarily shifts the direction of the video game industry in one way or the other. Even with the possibilities of doors opening aside, it casts relief onto the particular decisions that have been made, and in so doing highlights those that will be. Whether your concerns are related to the construction of the gamer demographic or the production costs of high-budget titles, the potential of lost history or the representation of historically underrepresented groups in the creation or text of games -- or just about anything else -- this strike will shape the future history of those concerns. Because no matter how focused cinema seems now to necessarily be on the strength of individuals, especially in performance, it didn't have to be that way. And the same goes for games.

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