Hi again! Following on from last week, I wanted to take some time to look at the ways institutional contexts impact narratives in Media. Like last week, I’ll be breaking this down under the four steps of our Media Production Process: production, distribution, consumption and reception. Here’s a reminder of what those terms mean:
Before we jump in, we have to quickly revise what an institutional context actually is. To put that into perspective, an institutional context involves ‘the conditions applied by institutions (companies, organisations, and industries) that influence the production process of a media product.’ Where ideology looks at the values and beliefs circulating in society during a certain time and place, an institutional context is more focused on who was responsible for making and dealing with the product. This could include:
● Media industries (Hollywood, Bollywood, Australian film industry)
● Media companies (20th Century Fox, Disney, Netflix)
● Media distribution companies (Hoyts Cinemas, also Netflix)
● Media creators (directors, producers, editors, etc.)
There are a lot of ways production can be influenced by an institution, and these will be really specific to the films you study as a class. Since a production company or even an independent media creator is responsible for the entire production of the film, their ability and access to certain things makes all the difference in the final product. One of the most important things here is budget - how much money was available to the project which produced this narrative? Budget is important for all sorts of things, such as:
● Paying the cast and crew. This can become increasingly pricey as you attempt to include high-profile actors or directors. For instance, Robert Downey Jr. was paid $75 million for his appearance in Avengers: Endgame!
● Access to technology and resources - this is especially true for modern productions, where audiences expect high-quality special effects as the bare minimum.
● Access to locations - big-budget production companies can afford to buy permits to film in internationally recognisable locations. This is not so easy for small productions.
● ALL the other management of your production - think of all the jobs that need to be done on a movie set, and all of the other payments that need to be made.
The industry can also impact a lot of decisions made in this area. If a Hollywood film studio does have a sizable budget, then they might choose to hire a very famous actor. Even though this will cost them a lot of money, it ensures that more people will go and see the film, because they are fans or the celebrity actors cause increased interest. As you can see, the context of Hollywood makes hiring a celebrity a favourable choice, so the institution is causing elements of production to be a certain way.
When we go out with friends to the movies to see a film, we tend to take it for granted - maybe not this year, but generally speaking. However, just like the production stage, the distribution of a media narrative is controlled and influenced by a larger institutional context. Why are films released the way they are? Are there certain dates when films are released to help them perform better? We know that Boxing Day is extremely popular in Australia, and that there are conversely ‘dump months’ like January and September that media distributors tend to avoid. That brings on an interesting point - for most of film history, media production and media distribution would belong to two separate companies. This is still the case for a lot of theatrical releases, but with the advent of streaming services this is changing. Companies like Netflix produce and distribute a lot of their own content - there are now over 1,500 ‘Netflix Originals' titles. Again, you’ll have specific examples from how your films were distributed, but these are some examples.
Why do we choose to go to the movies in the first place? Is it because our favourite director or actor was involved with the film? Or maybe because we saw lots of advertising for it online and decided to go and check it out. Consumption refers to who saw the narrative, how many people saw it, and the ways in which they saw it - these are all very important questions for media producers who make a living from people paying to see their films. I would argue that part of this comes from reputation, and the ways in which audiences grow to like or dislike certain media producers. The classic example here is the debate over DC vs. Marvel superhero movies. In one corner, Marvel Studios is known for consistently making well-performing films which reference one another, and making these films very often. In the other corner, DC has faced issues of mixed reviews for their films, and don’t tend to make those films very often. So are DC films objectively worse? Well, you could argue that people like DC films less because they are conditioned to do so - they grow to dislike the name DC, and might end up hating one of their films based on reputation even though they liked the story. We are not blind to the institutional contexts that our narratives come from - it’s a large part of how we choose to consume texts.
When I saw James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) (the blue aliens one) for the first time in IMAX, I was blown away - the special effects were incredible, like nothing I’d seen before (or since, really). But some people have recently argued that the special effects, and James Cameron’s reputation as a director, are the only thing keeping the film afloat. They have suggested that the mediocre story and dialogue of the film are only made amazing because of the way it looks. Of course, these special effects wouldn’t have been possible without the money and production companies that were behind it. So - has the institutional context influenced our reception in this scenario? Have we been charmed into liking the film and giving it rave reviews because of how shiny and expensive it is? And do we ignore or tend to dislike films that we can tell had less monetary support? These are the sorts of questions we need to ask ourselves for reception.
Well, that’s about everything I wanted to summarise for institutional contexts! Hopefully that helped some of you understand and think more deeply about the films, companies, actors and directors we hear about every day. Next week i’m going to cover my last week of content - reflection on your SAT - before jumping into some practice questions leading up to your exam!
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