The Social Film: Regulated Democracy

by Jon Lisi

What happens when Hollywood allows social media users to contribute to its film productions? The following pages aim to answer this question by focusing on an important and interesting new genre of filmmaking that has been described by the American film industry as the “social film.” I will use one of these films, The Beauty Inside (2012), as a case study to show that the social film complicates the relationship between industry and audience by having social media users interact with and contribute to a major Hollywood production via digital technology. The social film promotes a problematic mode of regulated democracy, where any users with internet access can participate in the production provided that they adhere to Hollywood’s terms and guidelines. As a result, I argue that the social film promises a utopian form of social interaction and artistic collaboration that can never be fully achieved. This essay therefore destabilizes social media’s status as a democratic form of communication and claims that powerful media industries exploit social media users for a profit.

Since 2011, technology companies Intel and Toshiba have used social media to market their latest products to a young, tech-savvy audience, and one of the creative ways they do this is by having social media users contribute to the production of short Hollywood films in which their products will be placed. One of their films is The Beauty Inside, a romantic coming-of-age drama directed by Drake Doremus and starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The Beauty Inside tells the story of Alex, a 20-something male who wakes up every day with a new physical appearance. To pull this narrative conceit off, the filmmakers asked social media users to record themselves on their webcams, starring as physical versions of Alex as he laments about his condition on his Toshiba Portégé Ultrabook, the product Intel and Toshiba are promoting in this particular film.

For many social media users, the announcement of The Beauty Inside was appealing as it offered them the opportunity to interact with Hollywood professionals and display their creative talent to a mass audience. However, as Fast Company reports, those who participated were required to record themselves reading an audition script (Champagne). This shows that users had little control over the film’s content, and would only be selected if they followed specific creative guidelines. Moreover, the report points out that Doremus maintained control over the production and “would have the final say over who goes in the film” (Ibid.). Social films like The Beauty Inside hint at a utopian collaborative experience in which industry and audience possess equal creative control, but in actuality social media participants are limited to what Hollywood, Intel, and Toshiba deem appropriate. Their participation is therefore regulated by powerful media industries who oversee the production process.

Further, it is imperative to keep in mind that social media contributors aren’t financially compensated for their work, and many of them can only take away the experience of working on the production in the hope that someone in Hollywood might recognize their work within the larger film, track them down, and give them a movie deal. Kathleen Kuehn and Thomas F. Corrigan have identified this as “hope labor,” or an “under-compensated work carried out in the present, often for experience or exposure, in the hope that future employment opportunities may follow” (9).

Therefore, we must consider the extent to which social media in general and the social film in particular signify a democratic form of communication. On the one hand, participation is limited to what serves the narrative that Hollywood professionals have constructed, and only a portion of participants will appear in the final version of the film that streams to audiences. On the other hand, Hollywood professionals aren’t exactly knocking on the doors of those who do appear in the final version to cast them in another movie. Hollywood, Intel, and Toshiba exploit the free labor of social media participants for a profit, and they promise users experience and exposure in a Hollywood film to lure them into the production so they will purchase Toshiba’s Portégé Ultrabook on display. Despite the industry’s utopian promises of user interactivity and participation, the social film reinforces much of what we already know about Hollywood and its promotional practices. As Richard Maltby reminds us, “beyond its technological, organizational, or stylistic changes, Hollywood’s essential business has remained the same: to entertain its audience and make a profit” (30).

Scholars may claim that users maintain control over the social film because the genre wouldn’t exist without their initial interactions, but such statements simplify the complex relationship between industry and audience. A more fruitful approach to this relationship is through Michel Foucault’s theory of governmentality. In the simplest sense, governmentality refers to “how we think about governing others and ourselves in a wide variety of contexts” (Dean 209). In this case, institutions encourage freedom to ensure that behavior is exercised properly, and they govern at a distance rather than by force to give public citizens the illusion that they have power. Hollywood, Intel, and Toshiba approach social media users with this intention. Thus, what we must find, and what the social film can illuminate, is the balance between democratization and industrialization on the one hand and artistic control and creative limitation on the other. The social film may provide users with an unprecedented amount of interaction with the Hollywood production process, but Hollywood, Intel, and Toshiba still call the shots. We must remember most of all that they wouldn’t be calling the shots, which is to say that they wouldn’t bother with social media users and the creation of social films, if they didn’t think they could generate a profit from them in the first place.