In her powerful story of early cinema, the scholar Jaine Gaines suggested that informal and pirate duplication was essential to the film form even as it arrived mythically in the early years. Once copied, pirate cinema moved transnationally. Gaines writes, “’ Stories crossed national boundaries shipped in cans, duplication factories were hooked up to the beginnings of distribution routes, only barely imagined as the global networks they would become”.(1)  Modern cinema is a powerful vehicle of sensation, but typically we neglect the material infrastructures of circulation and modes of movement.  For many years film and media studies was dominated by ‘representational’ traditions of understanding screens, affects and audiences. In recent years a material turn in film and media studies has widened the experience of cinema by looking at infrastructures, circulation, and transnational connections – all of which date back to early cinema.

The new vehicles of circulation include the transnational and regional media industries, with industrial linkages of publicity and exhibition. Much of this has been redefined with the simultaneous rise of informal economies in the non Western world along with personalised media gadgets following the VCR. Smaller units low-cost units of video and media production emerged by the 1980s, amplified with the digital turn in the 1990s. A vast territory of media production and circulation has emerged outside the older control models of the state or media industries.  Street markets, low-cost media production sites, sharing of media by peer to peer networks in the last decade, have fundamentally transformed the experience of cinema in the last 30 years for much of the world.  If cinema is a powerful archive of the contemporary, then the pirate and informal connection is its last mile for many in the world today. Much of independent cinema in Asia and Eastern Europe was weaned on the pirate archive, it was the only way they could afford world cinema and circulate their own products, often banned by local regimes.

It is precisely this transformation of the film experience that Shadow Economies of Cinema by Ramon Lobato takes as a point of departure to intervene in cinema studies.  In opposition to the overwhelming focus on representation, Lobato usefully argues that distribution is central to the film experience; in fact, it alters the materiality of cinema itself. As cinema moves, it attaches itself to different contexts, media environments, networks, markets and changes its texture and reception.  Within distribution, Lobato makes a distinction between formal and informal film economies. While formal refer to systems regulated by states and media industries, informal economies exists outside this world, or overlap with it.  Within the latter Lobato advances the category of a ‘shadow’ economy which always exists in conjunction with the formal structures.  The shadow or the informal economy is now the norm rather than the exception Lobato argues, cinema must be reimaged on the basis of this.

Ghost in the Shell (Oshii, 1995)

Lobato’s various chapters move to expand this thesis. His first chapter discusses distribution debates and the idea that film circulation can actually be a remarkable site for cultural politics. Citing among others  work by SV Srinivas looking at the circulation of Hong Kong action cinema in India’s B circuit, and Jefferey Himpele’s tracking of cinema’s changing movements in subaltern spaces in the Bolivian Andes, Lobato argues that distribution exposes a dynamic cultural politics. This is further thickened in the case of shadow economies as multiple nodes such as informal markets, small budget production and exhibition, and poorer audiences join and connect, shaping the original final production to local tastes. In India itself, the impoverished textile workers of Malegaon made Superman rip-offs on VHS-era machines and low-cost cameras, which went on to become popular hits in the shadow economy. Examples like this are multifold world wide, and Lobato’s argument can be extended to most countries in the world today.

Lobato has a fascinating chapter on the Straight to video (STV) genre, that vast body of ‘mediocre’, B-grade action film/erotic thriller which grew rapidly from the video era. As an industry response, STV drew from and addressed video’s low budget and transnational network . STV was fast and cheap and addressed subaltern audiences.  Borrowing from literary scholar Franco Moretti, Lobato calls STV the ‘slaughterhouse of cinema’. Here STV is akin to literary kitsch, an important and affective part of popular culture, but part of that forgotten archive of cinema when retold in film hagiographies.  Lobato’s other chapters look at informal media economies, the now-famous Nigerian film industry Nollywood that emerged from video, the various sites of piracy and the now familiar copyright wars, and finally a discussion of digital distribution and the mixed up ways in the formal /informal networks collide and overlap.  The chapters synthesise the main debates well within the broad trajectory of the shadow economies argument. The range of topics is wide, ranging from distribution debates, STV genres, open source and free software, Nigerian cinema, Mexican pirate markets, the whole rhetoric of copyright enforcement and IPR, pirate ecologies, online and in street markets, the trajectory of the peer to peer worlds. The book manages to put all these discussions in a reasonably coherent narrative that will also interest the non-academic reader.

Tropa de Elite (José Padilha, 2007)

One of the great myths of piracy put out by the media industry’s lobbyist machine is that it cripples the profits of the mainstream producers. This is usually produced though an inflationary logic of loss numbers that bears little relation to reality and not backed up by research. Lobato’s book shows how detailed research of particular cases can actually shed greater light on this. A case that Lobato examines is the popular Brazilian hit Tropa de Elite (2007), that actually addressed formal and informal, legal and extra legal circulation, all subaltern worlds. The pirate version of this came out before the official release, tens millions saw the film before the formal release. Yet the film went also on to become on the top grosser ever in Brazilian film history, with piracy have a miniscule effect on formal profits. This is very similar in cases that I have seen in Asia, popular pirate film releases are also usually popular in the box office.

Shadow Economies is a valuable contribution to reimagine the experience of cinema beyond the classic focus on representation. International in its scope, and lucid in its theoretical exposition, it will find interest among academic and non academic readers.

Shadow Economies of Cinema: Mapping Informal Film Distribution, by Roman Lobato, Palgrave Macmillan/BFI, London 2012.


  1. Jaine Gaines, ‘Early Cinema’s Heyday of Copying’, Cultural Studies, vol.20, no2-3, 2006, pp. 237-238.

About The Author

Ravi Sundaram’s work rests at the intersection of the postcolonial city and contemporary media experiences. As media technology and urban life have intermingled in the postcolonial world, new challenges have emerged for contemporary cultural theory. Sundaram’s work has looked at the phenomenon that he calls ‘pirate modernity’, an illicit form of urbanism that draws from media and technological infrastructures of the postcolonial city. Sundaram’s current research looks at urban fear after media modernity. Sundaram recently published Pirate Modernity: Media Urbanism in Delhi (2009) (Routledge, London and Delhi), and is finishing two edited volumes, No Limits: Media Studies from India and Delhi’s Twentieth Century, both from Oxford University Press.

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