Andrew and Harry both paint a familiar image of film distribution and exhibition, and it is an image that I can only echo: one characterized by aporia. It depicts on one hand an industry attempting to preserve something pure about cinema while on its other, attempting to make it as convenient and as financially profitably as possible. I shan't pretend to comment meaningfully on how "the state of global or local distribution" has changed since, say, a decade ago. But I shall hazard from the perspective of a non-professional, but in the spirit of our dearly beloved bankers, some speculation on how it should be.
Since digital media destroyed traditional topologies of film distribution and exhibition, the film industry has been—and still is—struggling to make sense of it all. And by the phrase "make sense," what is merely hinted at is a world in itself stricken with familiar considerations. Here is a quick gloss of some of them: the tiresome debate on digital formats as worthy, equal, superior or inferior versions of their more traditional ones; debating the merits of viewing spaces, where cinema houses become temples for taste or hurdles against solipsistic rights to view on demand; and on influence and audiences, to whom does influence belong, the audiences and filmmakers themselves or those who front the costs on making them, thereby reserving their right to manipulate the other to their profit? And so on, ad nauseum.
Clearly this line of questioning pivots on assumptions of what the nature of distribution and exhibition is for. And the likely outcome of this is to reach for the bedrock of "love for cinema" (cinephillia); in that, all deals brokered, arranged and signed in defining how audiences experience cinema are justified expressions of this love. The question, then, must be: should cinephillia be normalised with cultures of consumerism or is it ultimately something else? Of course, this question is nothing new, but it is one still unanswered and shall continue to divide the plethora of self-proclaimed cinephiles. The side taken, then, should clarify the type of response to the endless re-formulations of this single one asked in the above paragraph.
And continuing on this divisive imperative it becomes possible to see the wisdom—albeit through the pugnacious tone—of how Albert Serra predicted where cinema is going [here at the bottom]? In that, allowing distribution and exhibition to function as nothing more than the facilitating of mass consumerism—Serra’s choice of example was mass television entertainment—then it follows that cinephillia amounts to nothing beyond measures of spending. And this includes every last niche one cares to imagine, regardless of how exotically it is constructed. When "love for cinema" is willingly reduced to economic viability then cinephiles shall have the markets they deserve; and with it, the file sizes, desktop wallpapers and tie-in ring tones that markets will dictate for them. It is tempting to amend Serra's remark that "people became stupid," into something less harsh yet still unpalatable: "audiences have allowed themselves to be treated as stupid."
There can be no denial that the future of film distribution and exhibition is digital. It is the genie out of the bottle, so to speak. And how can it not be since it is conducive for the double lures of being suitably lucrative and convenient? Despite its currently precarious position, distributors will eventually be shifting their enthusiasm towards video-on-demand; be it as paid downloads, set-top boxes (set-top box-sets anyone?), streaming for High-Definition video-to-widescreen-portable devices, and the rest of it. How concrete cinema theatres will adapt to compete or compliment these innovations will be anyone’s guess. Already there are plans for in-movie advertising (forget product placement), or as it is known in marketese "the ad model." And these are the least speculative of the speculations raised so far. Since the uncertain future of film distribution and exhibition has become inextricable to the future orientation of leading economies. Both Barrack Obama—who virtually experiences little orgasms when uttering the word ‘broadband’—and Brown—who must have been in a wet dream when he envisioned ‘Digital Britain’—have announced their respective measures, like stimulus package shaped doves from Noah's ark, at directing global economies towards stability through investment in digital technologies. For the eventual exploitation of growth in new digital markets of course.
This still leaves the other half of the divide. And this like all true alternatives is the more difficult option. How to rescind this paradigm? The answer must reside in the re-thinking of what cinema is again. Despite its undesirable air of elitism, Serra raised something important when he declared that cinema in the future 'will lose its popular dimension.' To which Weepingsam (why do you weep sir?) rightly elaborated as implying 'a split between art aimed for the masses and art aimed for specialists.' However, this still is not a radical enough split to escape the logic of the market. The infinite adaptability of capitalism merely embraces any specialism or segmentation one cares to allow it to exploit. If it were viable to make and sell films to audiences of one, then markets of one should be expected. Perhaps most will be content with this insofar as demands are sated; it is certainly easier to persist with the status quo. But to conceptualise an escape from capitalist cultural relativism, especially by those still daring to believe in cinema as the seventh art, requires a following through with its reversal: the subtraction of cinema from culture. This alternative treatment of cinema as an uncompromising art becomes a project not unlike the invigorating, though notoriously complex, renewal of philosophy conceived by Alain Badiou [cf. The Subject of Art , and here for a video lecture]. Badiou warns against collapsing art into the world; since, as "truth-procedures," they are "wagers" or "logical revolts" against "worldliness." If, then, cinema is to be subtracted from "worldliness," how can it also be asked to yield to it?