Time to see the Invisibility Dilemma

Posted on April 15, 2013

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Still from The Invisible ManPut the words “crisis” and “film industry” into Google and you get almost five million returns.

The idea of crisis underpins industry discussions at festivals and conferences, though they are often now given an ostensibly positive spin– you don’t sell many tickets reminding the industry which creek they are in and how short they are of paddles.

But however it is couched, the film debate is still largely concentrated on a narrow definition of crisis. It is about the threats to the industrial structure of film, in terms of investment, finance and revenues.

Those current threats are real enough to those at the sharp end of business but anyone with a memory longer than the last decade will affirm that crisis in that sense is pretty much the default position of the film industry.

And it is currently nowhere near the rock bottom of the 1980s, when the idea of an existential threat to cinema seemed all too real, but the reaction to the real crisis then is worth revisiting. The arrival of VHS and then DVD, which helped resurrect the business, lest we forget, was vigorously opposed by much of the theatrical business.

But the real issue then and now is what we might call the Invisibility Dilemma.

Broadly speaking, innovation in new formats brings a choice between increasing access at the expense of the existing business model, or protecting existing positions and risking losing the demand on which new business can be built.

Back then the supposed battle was between home entertainment and theatres, today it is a potentially more significant, and challenging, divide between anytime, anywhere access and physical sales.

For the big corporates of film and media, the experience of the coalmine canaries of the music industry, has forced a change of attitude. From initial angry opposition to all change, the music business response was a story of retreat, repositioning and eventual acceptance of the once unthinkable, such as the deals with Spotify, YouTube and the iTunes Cloud service.

Hollywood has tried to make sure that the same mistakes are not made and, rather than burying its head in the sand, has sought to ensure that the new digital economy works to its benefit. The majors have dictated the shape of the new world to a disturbing extent, from the DCI specifications for digital cinema to the VOD platforms they choose to support.

Supported by increasingly sophisticated use of social media and cross-media marketing, the reach to global audiences has become stronger, supporting ever more gargantuan franchise releases. In 2005, there were 14 films with production budgets above $100m but by 2011, that had risen to 24. That choice may come back to haunt the studios with recent hints that consumers were falling out of love with 3D.

The independent industry, however, still has a bad habit of not spotting the oncoming dangers until it has reached the point of crisis. Independent film is more reliant than Hollywood on the shock of the new, the innovative and the surprising but there are reasons for concern about how new talent will find audiences, particularly outside the big countries with large internal markets.

Film of course has never been an easy option for the newcomer. It has been a business characterised by obstacles and ruled by gatekeepers.

The cost of film-making ensured that it was open to very few and yet there was at least a degree of social mobility in film and television. People from a range of backgrounds could learn trades and some eventually take leading creative or business roles on merit.

The fact that women in particular were so often excluded says more about social attitudes that still need to be fought than the weaknesses of the theoretical meritocracy of the craft trade.

There were, and remain, hopes of a more democratised business, open to all, and where the audience is not simply the passive recipients of content profitable enough to distribute or which cultural powers, such as state broadcasters and critics, felt was good for them.

The landscape today is in many ways more diverse.

The cost of entry to film-making and the ability to market and distribute films using social media has created the means for film, in its broadest definition, to find audiences. Over recent years, services such as YouTube and IndieFlix have adopted smart micro payment approaches that have added up to occasionally significant sums.

Knowledge of audiences has dramatically increased in the digital age and every film-maker has the potential to speak directly to existing and potential fans.

So what’s the problem?

The music world and publishing both suggest the possibility of a world that remains dominated at one end by corporate giants but in which a new world of micro-scale production, close to its fans is increasingly thriving.

Around the world, hyper low-budget work is finding audiences and that may continue to grow with a range of media outlets and social media opportunities and support from public bodies and festivals.

Most makers of low-budget films, however, do not want to be makers of low-budget films; they want to paint on larger canvasses and, a few even fancy the notion of making money.

A recent piece of academic research from two UK universities suggested there has been a narrowing of the social base of those working in media and film, partly because there is no career structure any more, meaning that today’s would-be content creators need to start with at least some independent wealth, or a healthy contacts book.

There are other obvious areas of concern: the vast increase in the amount of available films to watch – from the 75% increase in films made in Europe over the last decade, supported by public money, to the digitisation of a vast archive.

And the diversity of the current environment is itself under threat. History suggests digital change always starts with a free-for-all land grab and ends with near monopolies.

A recent survey by media consultants Simon Kucher & Partners suggested that 90% of online content would be behind a paywall in the next three years. With terrestrial television rarely showing challenging independent film to mass audiences, paywalls and subscriptions may lead to ever more fragmented demand, with the new and adventurous disappearing.

Some of the more radical transmedia activists, suggest this is all inevitable; that we are simply reaching the end an era in which film was the means by which a culture expressed its ideas.

Perhaps, as leading transmedia advocate Sean Stewart, of Fourth Wall Studios suggests, we are entering a ‘fifth age of storytelling” of interactive, crowdsourced and collaborative content, supplanting the one-to-many approach of movies.

If that sounds like a  simplification and that there is room for thrilling and challenging film at the centre of cultural life, then the Invisibility Dilemma needs to be addressed before it becomes a crisis.

SampoMedia’s approach takes a different starting point for these issues with particular emphasis on the role of audience data. Rather than starting with processes or platforms, new or old, our starting point is to use knowledge of consumer behaviour and demand from a variety of sources and through direct interaction as the means to connect creative projects to audiences.

If the future is seen in terms of releasing the potential of creative ideas through audience understanding and engagement, it is possible to take a more positive view of the future.

 A version of this report appears in this month’s Moviescope magazine.