Connecting audiences: the story remains the same

Posted on April 26, 2013

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The stories remain the same, it is the way we tell them that changes, suggested pioneering cross-media storyteller Lance Weiler in his  keynote at the Film Agency for Wales’ Audience Connect event in Cardiff.

The idea that there are universal human needs, including a basic hunger for stories, ought to be at the core of any discussion about audiences.

It was certainly the factor that united Weiler, one of the great pioneers and thinkers about new means of storytelling, and the other keynote, Lord Puttnam, who, as David Puttnam, was one of the towering figures of feature film production, both as Oscar-winning independent and as CEO of Columbia Pictures.

Lord Puttnam made his argument for emotional universality with a series of often moving clips from classic films.

He made a convincing case that the cinematic language is so powerfully resonant with the widest  variety of audiences because its roots are in the silent era, where actions necessarily spoke louder than words. Film is a visual language which, over more than a century, has found ways to elicit basic emotional responses.

They both agreed on another essential point: the potential of technology to create fresh ways to connect content to audiences. There was an explicit appeal from both for creative people to embrace new technology as a means to reach and engage people.

And in both cases, there was a warning not to turn technology into an end but as a means to create emotional experiences. The keynotes, from different perspectives, undermined the narrative of old media turning into new media. The real story was (still) about understanding human needs and desires but finding new means of identifying, engaging and, crucially, interacting with audiences.

During the packed event at the stunning Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (pictured) in the capital city of Wales, there was, however, plenty of airing of the contradictions and challenges of a digital era.

Lord Puttnam’s film clips emerged from a time when very few people got to put their ideas on to a big screen, whereas Weiler’s projects explicitly remove the distinction between auteur and audience. His call for making content with, rather than for, audiences was compelling.

The film industry debate is some way from the open and expansive cross-media vision of Weiler. At its more conservative end, it is about how to protect business models based on the economics of scarcity and the sales of physical goods. Even the more progressive approach, supported by many policy makers, is largely about trying to increase the number of people making films, through talent programmes and training; and in increasing access to a wider variety of film, through subsidised screening, experimentation in release patterns and on-demand platforms etc.

What may emerge from this period of change may be a pluralist cultural environment, in which stories are told in a multiplicity of ways. After all, the world is not divided into those demanding interactive relationships with the content they consume and those who want only a choice of top-down content.

The afternoon panels discussed how the vast increase in choice had opened up a demand for ‘curation’ as opposed to ‘gatekeeping’. Gatekeepers referring to those who restrict access for mostly commercial reasons, and Curators meaning the people, places or services that we actively want to filter the stuff we might want from the unfathomable depth of content.

If there was one recurring theme that demonstrates the opportunities and challenges ahead, it was data. Each online interaction leaves behind it a mostly indelible footprint of data and metadata that can be turned into knowledge.

For the first time, there is now the potential to convincingly measure consumer behaviour. Summing up the day, innovation agency Nesta‘s director of the creative economy programme Jon Kingsbury, made a convincing case for the need to spend more energy on research and development based on audience knowledge.

But for producers and distributors speaking, there was disagreement about the value of audience data. Does knowledge lead to a chase for lowest-common denominators, or a subjugation of art to databases?

Or does knowledge, particularly if collected through direct interaction with audiences, create the means for challenging and original content to find audiences and for the intellectual property from work to deliver benefits to creative people and businesses?

The conference returned often to the ubiquitous quotation from William Goldman, with some suggesting that the film business is not just still one where “nobody knows anything”, but perhaps even one where nobody wants to know anything.

Audience Connect offered a more positive view that knowledge and technology could play a crucial role in both understanding and connecting with those human universal emotions, and it could act as the model for building business and cultural engagement.

But from Weiler’s touching and inspiring Robot Heart Stories and Lord Puttnam’s evergreen clip from The Graduate, the Audience Connect event was a reminder that imagination and inspiration, whatever its source remains the essential ingredient.

Audience Connect was co-chaired by SampoMedia’s Michael Gubbins with SampoMedia’s Peter Buckingham taking part in a panel.