Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Hi again! Last week I took you through a revision of our codes and conventions, which are really the building blocks in terms of terminology for the Narrative and Ideology section of your studies. I want to move further into that unit of study this week by revising the ideological and institutional contexts in which media narratives are produced. The most comprehensive way to do this is to look at these contexts with reference to the Media Narrative Production Process, which looks a bit like this:
We can track the ways that ideological and institutional contexts shape each step in this process. Let’s jump right in!
I think the most important thing to remember here is that narratives are the products of the time and place they were created. In saying this, there are a few factors we need to consider:
● Time and Location of Production
● Dominant Ideology Present in Text
● Values and Beliefs (Ideology) of the Time
● Evidence (things that happened in society at the time/location that show these values and beliefs were present)
So when we mention that an ideology exists in a certain narrative text we studied, we need evidence to back this up. One example I like to use comes from the 1984 classic film The Terminator. We could argue that this film conveys the ideology present in America in 1984 that ‘technology could be dangerous to society in the future.’ We would need some real-world evidence to back up this claim. One great piece of evidence I’ve found comes from this article, which used Google’s software to search how many times the word ‘computerphobia’ was used in books and newspapers in recent history. Here’s the results:
Looking at this evidence, we can ask ourselves: did movies like The Terminator cause people to become scared of computers, or did their existing ideology around computers lead to that fear showing up in popular films? I would argue that the latter is true.
Ideologies can also definitely impact the distribution of a narrative text - this is most commonly seen in examples of censorship. One example of this comes from 2017, when the film Wonder Woman was released globally in cinemas - well, not quite. The film was banned in Lebanon. This is because the lead actress Gal Gadot had undertaken compulsory military service in Israel when she was younger. Since Lebanon and Israel were in conflict, the Lebanese government did not think it was appropriate for their citizens to see Gadot on screen, and therefore banned the film. We can also see examples of government censorship in places like China, where Western films and social media platforms are often heavily restricted or banned. One interesting reversal of this idea is the way Chinese markets influence Hollywood production and distribution - producers of Western media have grown increasingly conscious of what they include in their films, because of the money they can earn in China. This has led to scenes involving homosexuality in films such as Bohemian Rhapsody being removed in Chinese theaters - ideology has affected how this film was distributed in different situations.
The ideologies we hold as a society can also affect how and why we choose to consume media narratives. Returning to the example of Wonder Woman, one interesting thing to note is that the film became the highest-grossing DC superhero film of its time. Why is this the case? Well, one argument is that it was due to its progressive and well-received ideology of feminism. The film is written and shot spectacularly, but what made it special was that it involved a lot of exposure and empowerment for women in the superhero genre for the first time. Gal Gadot stepped out into a world led by male superheroes, and was backed up by female director Patty Jenkins. This may explain why it was consumed so widely and successfully. This also leads us to talk about:
The fact that so many people loved the film Wonder Woman might be explained for the same reason. Because feminism is a dominant ideology across the world, this barrier-breaking film would have appealed to and satisfied many people who chose to watch it. Of course, people who held opposing views or beliefs may not have enjoyed the film. In both cases, ideology has guided the way we respond to and draw meaning from the narrative.
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 ideological and 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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