“Sony and Local-Language Productions”: Fieldwork Follow-up
Courtney Brannon Donoghue, Oakland University
Based on trade coverage and local fieldwork conducted in Brazil and Spain between 2010 and 2011, my Cinema Journal article explores conglomerate Hollywood and the local-language production (LLP) strategy. While I outline a brief history of the LLP’s development, I chose to focus primarily on one filmed entertainment division of a major media conglomerate—Sony Pictures Entertainment—for two reasons. One, Sony was the first international film studio to aggressively develop a strategy and unit for co-producing films outside of the Anglophone market in the 1990s. And second, limiting the project to one institutional strategy and culture proved to be the most manageable approach for delving into the complexities of this industrial history. Overall, I argue that Sony serves as an important case study in illustrating the difficulties of adapting what I am calling a “flexible localization” strategy for a number of vastly different local markets.
The LLP game has changed since completing this article. The time between submission and publication revealed how the LLP as an industry-wide strategy was in a transitional moment during the late 2000s. As studios like Warner Bros. and Fox have expanded their local production units in recent years and are focusing increasingly on India and China, other studios like Sony, Disney, Universal, and Paramount have restructured or scaled back their operations. For example, Universal and Paramount’s longstanding joint venture to distribute their films locally in Brazil was dissolved in 2010. In turn, Paramount Brasil reorganized its local operations and began to be more involved in Portuguese-language co-productions. Today, Paramount Brasil co-produces two to three LLPs per year, including the recent romantic comedy Os Homens São de Marte… E É Pra Lá Que Eu Vou (Men are from Mars . . . And that is where I go!, dir. Marcus Baldini and Homero Olivetto).
Currently, I am expanding this project to be published as part of the BFI’s International Screen Industries Series edited by Paul McDonald and Michael Curtin. Building upon my work on Sony, I am exploring local-language productions and distribution within the larger context of studio local operations across key markets in Latin America and Europe. Between 2013 and 2014, I conducted fieldwork across Spain, Germany, the UK, Brazil, and Los Angeles talking with local division managers, local production managers, worldwide acquisitions executives, and international division executives at Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount, and Universal. In fact, I currently am in Brazil this summer conducting follow-up interviews with a number of industry contacts and working to expand my network for new ones. What emerges is a complex and nuanced picture of institutional priorities, production strategies, and management cultures that varies from studio to studio. This is a story where local-language productions must be understood within the same conversation as the studio’s English-language titles. For example, local operations may co-produce and distribute local projects but they also market and distribute the studio’s big budget English language titles. In turn, I am interested in how a local Warner Bros. manager in a mid-size Latin American or European market negotiates creative and financial involvement to co-produce and release local content against larger priorities of the international division to market and distribute their English-language titles. The local studio operation must rely heavily on the position of prominent local producers and independent distributors as partners in these LLP projects. While LLPs are co-produced by local studio divisions, they are not solely products of conglomerate Hollywood.
I find myself once again in the middle of a fieldwork trip in Brazil facing many of the same research questions and methodological challenges. In many ways, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to build upon this work. I consider this type of research methods to be a fluid process, one that allows me to continue the conversation from publication to publication as industrial conditions evolve. As many of us studying the contemporary media industries know well, tracking down industry professionals, institutional organizational structures, trade discourse, etc. at times is like chasing a moving target. Then again, it is the thrill of the chase (or as I have discussed with other industry studies colleagues as the fieldwork “high”). This chase drives so many of us conducting media ethnographies and interviews for just one more. And it is that one more interview or additional case study that helps to revisit and refine an ever-evolving project.
As I move forward with the book project, I have identified two key reflections or challenges from my continued work on international operations of the Hollywood studios:
1. starting local and moving out
Familiarity with changing local industry conditions is key to moving beyond the LLP as simply a studio-made and controlled product. As the position of Brazilian independent distributors like Downtown Filmes and Paris Filmes strengths locally and access to audiovisual funds has increased, some local studio divisions are taking less of a direct role in Brazilian LLPs than before. Instead, many times, Sony or Paramount will co-produce and invest in a local comedy and Downtown or Paris will market and distribute the film. Therefore, it has been vital to understand first how local-language productions operate uniquely in the Brazilian or Spanish industry prior to interviewing the VP or President who oversees the studios international division in Los Angeles. Executives located in the United States compared to local managers have vastly different perspectives of local market conditions and what works as a local production.
The phrase “commercial viability” comes up during conversations with local studio managers. Yet, I still have not found a stable definition of this criteria for investing in a film project since it varies from studio to studio and market to market. For example, the Brazilian blockbuster has moved away from the biopics and favela films of 2010 to ensemble comedies of 2014. Often times, the VP of Fox International Productions or Executive VP of international productions at Warner Bros. approach individual territories in generalities of market conditions (tax incentives, increased theatrical attendance), whereas the local managers offers a specific perspective of the studio’s position and process for developing and sustaining relationships in the local industry. Two perspectives that offer a more detailed understanding of how LLPs operate and circulate as an international studio strategy and an independent local production within the Brazilian industry.
2. continued access
Access to industry professionals, especially those in executive positions, always has been a major challenge for scholars conducting this type of fieldwork. Even after gaining entry through email or in-person meetings, keeping the door open is unpredictable. In returning to Rio de Janeiro, much of my time has involved reconnecting with former contacts or chasing down the new executive or manager who replaced a former contact. A strategy I have utilized successfully has been working through a studio network of introductions, or an institutional snowball effect. In other words, a local manager in one territory will introduce me to a manager in another one. Or a manager will introduce me to their production manager who oversees LLPs in that market.
However, this does not always work as intended. For example, after working my way through introductions via a particular studio’s local manager to three other Western European markets, I received a call from the VP of Communications based in London. She had a number of questions about my project since I already had met with six or so mid-level studio employees in various markets. When asking her about the possibility of meeting with someone at the UK studio lots, I was informed that was not relevant to my project on local productions. I found how the filmed entertainment group defined local and how I defined it were in conflict. Even when cheerfully asking me if I needed help with further contacts, she essentially blocked me from meeting with any local managers in London. I had been managed into a corner, one in which I am still working my way out of with this particular studio. This anecdote reveals how information and access is controlled and managed differently across the various divisions of a studio. As John Caldwell’s work on “deep industrial practices” of film production highlights, part of this process is understanding how corporate culture, insider information, and multi-levels of management intersect to construct the studio’s international activities in particular ways. Complicating this idea of manager, management, and managing the international market drives the next phase of my project.