Key ideas from the Next sessions at Cannes

Posted on May 29, 2014

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The Cannes Film Festival market (Marché Du Film) this year launched a new section, called Next, aiming to create a connection between emerging new models and the conventional business activity at the market. SampoMedia’s Michael Gubbins, who led a series of debates and discussions at Next, reflects on what was a very well attended and lively debut.

The inaugural Next programme at this year’s Cannes film market might appear on the surface as a disparate collection of new models, covering everything from day-and-date releasing to Cinema On Demand.

But the commonalities soon became obvious. Next brought together those disruptive models that have already begun to provide a valuable alternative route to market for independent films, whose options in the conventional market look increasingly unattractive.

Rather than a futurist adjunct to the ‘real’ business of film, Next was set up as a resource for the considerable number of producers and film-makers either excluded from, or disillusioned with, the available industry options.

The need for the initiative was reinforced by a dominating theme at this year’s market: an over-supply of content that is distorting the market and putting a squeeze on independent film.

A quick glance at the European Audiovisual Observatory’s latest annual Focus report shows the number of productions from the 28 EU countries rose again in 2013 to 1,546, more than twice the number it counted in 2004 (770, although that was among 25 nations and on a slightly different calculation model). Admissions, by contrast, had fallen during the same period from just over a billion in 2004 to 907,100 in 2013.

Next was made up of services and models that have made at least some impact on the film business, even if they mostly remain in their infancy.

The programme, which ran alongside the Marché, included discussion of: Premium VOD, Ultra VOD, day-and-date releasing, crowdfunding, Cinema On Demand, social media, direct and self-distribution, VOD aggregation services, online marketing strategies, gameification, event cinema, virtual reality, interactive services, and new DIY services.

The Marché was determined the emphasis would be on practical realities and evidence of real demand.

Despite the variety of speakers, a broad consensus emerged about rapidly emerging changes that might be expected to have a significant effect on the film market over the coming years.

KEY THEMES

There is no single new media model

Next represented a conscious effort by the world’s biggest film market to integrate fast evolving innovative activity into the mainstream.

The trap of contrasting ‘new media’ and ‘digital’ with ‘analogue’ and ‘traditional’ ones was assiduously avoided.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to avoid lumping together very different approaches to business under convenient but sometimes misleading labels.

The most obvious example is Video On Demand, which is used as a label covering everything from boutique downloading services to globalised giant subscription services, such as Netflix.

Even seemingly clear-cut new labels, such as Cinema On Demand, hide significant differences.  Some entrants, including Next participants We Want Cinema and Gathr, offer producers a means of bypassing traditional distribution by creating direct links to theatres.

While retaining direct audience involvement in programming, other services, such as La Septieme Salle in France,  are really extensions of the existing system. Rather than inventing a new distribution model, they effectively create a new theatrical release window for distributors, allowing audiences to programme films they might have missed or which have built up new demand through word of mouth.

The answer to confusing definitions for Next is to centre discussion on demand rather than supply. Each new service is defined by its relationship to audience choice and behaviour rather than the technology it uses.

New patterns of consumption that are forcing “paradigm shift” for the industry, according to Eamonn Bowles, founder and President of Magnolia Pictures.

But he suggests that what is emerging is not a unified new media model to replace the singular value chain of the old industry, but a range of options to be knitted together according to the needs of a film.

He raises the existential question of whether there is any longer a single film business, to which all movies essentially belong; ‘what is ‘film’?’ is becoming more than an academic question in a post-celluloid world.

Serious question marks now hang over the idea that all film is defined by the cinema.

Bowles (Magnolia Pictures) and Philip Knatchbull, (Curzon World) both expressed doubt about whether films are really best served by the traditional initial theatrical release, followed later by other platforms. Both Premium VOD (release on VOD at the same time as theatres) and Ultra VOD (release on VOD before theatres) were effective for certain releases, they argued.

Both Magnolia and Curzon are vertically-integrated businesses with interests in distribution, exhibition and VOD. For them, cinema is no longer the indispensible driver of the economic model for every film but one among many platforms. In both cases, they suggested that the theatrical business (in which they both continue to invest) is being redefined and even enhanced in a multiplatform world, finding renewed strength as a venue for unique ‘events’ and ‘experiences’.

Knatchbull, in particular, is bullish about the emerging multi-platform world, suggesting that windows have become an irrelevant barrier between content and audience for all films.

But Bowles was more circumspect: “There isn’t a cookie cutter approach.” Some kinds of films were more suited to multi-platform releasing than others, he suggested.

Engaging existing communities works best

Documentary and low-budget genre film has been in the vanguard of change, according to many Next speakers.

Again, there is a negative driver of that change: most such films struggle to find theatrical release and the decline of DVD has forced experimentation.

Yet for many speakers, the success of documentary and genre film is not in any intrinsic qualities of the work itself but in the ability to engage pre-existing active communities of potential fans and supporters. Yves Janneau, CEO, of Sunny Side of the Doc, said the most successful experimentation with new models had come from ‘activist cinema’, in which support for a film was also a political statement. In recent years, environmentalist films had made been particularly adept at finding and engaging audiences.

A number of speakers felt that some kinds of genre films, with large online followings, such as horror and sci-fi, were equally well served by  focusing on existing communities online, rather than the cinema. Sam Toles, VP Content Acquisitions and Business Development at video sharing platform Vimeo, said films that focused on specific communities were often among the platform’s biggest success stories. He cited In The High Country, which was able to mobilise a huge online following among endurance and mountain runners, as a prime example.

Nicolas Bailly, founder and CEO of French crowdfunding site Touscoprod said: “I don’t think it’s a matter of genre…it’s rather about how much people are engaged in your story. It’s fundamental to have a general idea of the community you want to reach before the start of your campaign.”

New models don’t work as consolation prizes

At film markets around the world, it is clear that many producers and film-makers would still rather take a poor sales deal in the old market than pursue the theoretical potential of a promising new model.

Former Universal boss Jeff Zucker’s warning about “trading analogue dollars for digital pennies” still articulates a strong market sentiment (even if he later upgraded it to “digital dimes”).

The speakers at Next were not entirely dismissive of the genuine concerns about leaping into the digital unknown. Many speakers accepted that the ratio of effort to revenues in new models was challenging.

Even with the advent of intuitive distribution and marketing tools, it takes greater time, effort and commitment to pursue pretty much every new route to market, than had been required by traditional models.

The underlying theme of many of the sessions, however, was that the combined motivations of fast evolving tools, proven case studies and diminishing alternative choices, was already inspiring significant and permanent change.

Every speaker suggested the potential for success was dramatically enhanced if audience-driven digital models were Plan A, pursued from the earliest stages of development, rather than a Plan B when all else had failed.

Throwing together a last-minute direct distribution plan, after the completion of a film and as a consolation for the failure to find an attractive conventional sales option, almost always led to disappointing results.

But speakers suggested that finding and mobilising supporters through the early stages of a film could lead to success in its own right but, in any case, would actually enhance the attractiveness of a project to the traditional market.

In other words, it is easier to sell out on an innovative audience-driven project than to build a new distribution model on the crumbling foundations of an old model.

Timing is critical

Time is often the most underestimated factor in the changing economy.

The 24-hour clock is the one fixed element in consumer choice and, while many tools and services are theoretically free, the value of producer and film-maker time is often forgotten or misjudged.

The new models beginning to make an impact are generally those which find the right ratio of time to returns, and which are attuned to the realities of the changing consumer day.

New forms of on-demand marketing and distribution are fundamentally changing the chronology of releases. That timing has historically been built on established release windows, created for a different era but now often fiercely defended as a means to protect exhibitors.

Those windows have become battlegrounds between old models and new one, often built on the simultaneous release of a film on multiple platforms. The speakers at the various debates offered different justifications for change:

  • A belief that audiences in a digital age expect and demand immediate access on whatever platform they choose
  • A pragmatic belief in the greater financial efficiency of a single all-platform marketing push
  • An emerging sense that VOD, rather than theatrical, will become, an equal, and perhaps the core driver of an on-demand film economy.

It is the last of those justifications, which has been most contentious thus far. Entrenched positions on the question of release windows, which in some countries, notably France, are supported by law and funding rules, have unquestionably undermined possible new multiplatform models.

That battle is likely to rage for some time yet but the optimum timing of new models is only now emerging.

Some areas, such as crowdfunding, are being adopted in large enough numbers to allow an accurate understanding of what works.

“It’s always best to focus on short-term campaigns,” according to Mathieu Maire du Poset, of French crowdfunding site Ulule. “Otherwise, people will get bored of what you’re promoting. The crowd’s interest only lasts three months and the first week and the last three weeks are the top crowdfunding moments.”

The most efficientand effective timing of Premium and Ultra VOD marketing and releasing will only become clear through trial and error.

But the biggest challenge, raised by speaker after speaker, is finding the right timing to turn initial interest from audiences into a long-term active relationship that will become central to the financial success of a film, and potentially of sustainable growth of independent film businesses. (See below)

Active audiences need to be nurtured

The maxim for the online age ought to be that ‘reach’ is not the same as ‘engagement.’ Theoretically, the Internet allows any film to have free access to vast audiences worldwide. There are now services and tools that allow film-makers and producers to take an element of control over their own distribution and marketing.

Yet case studies show that, for all the lazy terminology of social media, those willing to offer a degree of support in the development and distribution of a film cannot be taken for granted as ‘fans’.

The variety of impulses that lead to a contribution to a crowdfunding campaign, for example, may not translate into a willingness to allow the use of a personal social media network as a marketing tool, or to support a Cinema On Demand screening.

Speakers warned that buillding and mobilising an audience requires a major commitment of time and energy.

“Everyone can have VoD at hand nowadays,” said Marieke Jonker, of We Want Cinema, “but it takes an extra effort to involve other people, sharing your tastes and deciding together what to watch.”

Different parts of the audience may want exclusive access to unique content, or merchandising, particularly in crowdfunding; others may want to feel that they are valued as something more than passive consumers.

Nicola Allieta, VOD manager at on-demand aggregation services Under The Milky Way, said that success was built on an ongoing conversation and the curation of content. Done properly, it was possible to appeal to consumers over the heads of traditional gatekeepers.

“It’s up to us to influence our audience, and we can be even more effective than the press,” he said.

That conversation can help build and shape a loyal community, according to Soleil Nathwani, of GATHR Films:  “I think everyone should value the importance of social networks more highly. Their role is fundamental in defining who and where their community is.”

Over the long term, the success of audience-driven models will be about more than gathering ‘fans’.

“Crowdfunding has now become much more than just funding,” said Yves Jeanneau, of Sunny Side of the Doc, “and each subscriber’s contribution extends beyond the budgetary realm. I would rather call it a Participative Economy.”

Shared knowledge is the key to the future

The problem for the Next sessions, like so many of the debates on new media, is the shortage of hard evidence. The film industry was always built to an extent on myth that could trump mere facts and data; more than one speaker reminded the Next audience of the historical importance of P.T Barnum’s  maxim that “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

In a world of Big Data and social media, however, suckers might become a more scarce commodity.

It is not that there is now a lack of pioneering experiments: the sessions brought up many case studies, including Iron Sky; the release of Nymphomaniac in the UK and US.

The real issue is a lack of hard data, particularly around VOD models, and an inflated expectation of immediate results. It is an unfortunate but inevitable reality that a significant number of those testing the waters of new models are doing so in desperation and would have had few prospects of success at any time.

That will change as new options mature and old ones further decline.

Nonetheless, the history of innovation in film, and so many other industries, is that long-term success will built on bold and brave failure among pathfinder projects.

Instead of writing off supposed failure, the systematic collection of value created by each project, in terms of data created and lessons learned may hold the key to the future.