Talent: developing the developers

Posted on April 24, 2015

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syd

SampoMedia co-founder Peter Buckingham returned to Europe last week after returning from a three-week working tour of Poland and Australia. 

His first assignment was a speech at the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam for industry professionals working to support the development and progression of film talent. 

The title was ‘Talent: Developing The Developers’ that explored some of the themes that have been emerging from his workshops. Here are a few of those themes:

OUTPUTS

Outputs are what we produce, the things that have been achieved by the end of a process: training programmes, short films, reports, talent schemes, films etc. The measurements of success of outputs is also quantitative including for example the number of films in distribution, the number of films shown in festivals, and even the box office of a film. These are, more or less, all outputs. But basically outputs have limited meaning. It doesn’t say why these things matter. And outputs might actually be counter productive…as a couple of things point to especially in the world of film talent development.

COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE OUTPUTS

The measurement of outputs assumes that all interventions are intrinsically valuable. Yet they might actually be counter-productive, especially in the world of film talent development.

For example, here’s a clear danger: the world really doesn’t need more films.

An output-based talent development programme, based solely on producing films risks encouraging people to begin a career in film, totally or near totally supported by the state, only for them to fall off an output-based cliff when they move outside these support cocoons.

Many schemes, for example, are based on support for first or second-time directors. But what happens to the third film, when the film-maker is forced to justify new film ideas to a wider community of investors, operating on very different definitions of success?

An output-based policy contains risks to the very people that are the recipients of this seemingly beneficial largesse – the film-makers.

The paradigm that currently exists – first and second-time director schemes, or even the micro-budget programmes – might be too output focused, rather like the Old Soviet Tractor factories. Output isn’t everything.

CULTURE CRASH

Scott Timber has recently written a fascinating book called Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class about the collapse of the ability to earn a living in culture and the arts.

Richard Brody writing in the New Yorker makes the point that, while Culture Crash is focused on the US,  the same underlying issues are true in Europe, despite public support systems:

“The main reason that European cinema— even, for the most part, French cinema— is in dire artistic straits is the maintenance of the industry by direct and indirect subsidies. But the subsidy process is especially deadly for younger film-makers.

“First, it turns them into bureaucrats, into clients of the state. Second, taking a subsidy usually means entering, from the start, into the norms of the industry. That’s why there are very few young film-makers in Europe today and why those who do turn up are working in modes that resemble their parents’ TV shows.

Film-makers who want to make movies that reflect personal passion and artistic vision outside the mainstream (or even offbeat) commercial realm have equipment, talent, and connections to help make it possible.”

That’s a real challenge thrown down. Is he right or even half right? And perhaps more importantly – how would we know? What are we trying to achieve with talent development? How do we know it is successful?

PUBLIC ART 

I believe in public intervention as a general principle, especially in the cultural space. The BBC, for example, remains one of the two most loved institutions in the UK (alongside the National Health Service), and for good reasons.

Concepts of publicly-owned public space of all kinds and types are very important, if not precious. But support for what Brody calls ‘subsidy’ needs refining and framing.

When I was in Sydney this week, I came across the piece of public art in the photograph at the top of this article. It is of an installation beneath a Sydney underpass and above it are two massive lanes built for cars to ease themselves in and out of the central city.

The underpass is so low at some points that you almost have to duck to avoid your head banging on the concrete. Until I witnessed this art piece (in yellow here), I was resentful of Sydney’s car culture, and was interpreting its brutal mastery of the public space as worship of the individual over the collective space. In short, I was unimpressed.

But when I came across this piece. It changed my whole feeling of the place. It made my spirits lift – unexpectedly. I felt attended to, that someone had cared in this desolate corner, small and unseen, to recognise that something was needed. It showed the power and need for public art in public spaces to – in this case – soften and enrich life. My opinion of Sydney subtly shifted a notch.

IMPACT

In looking at talent schemes, it is hard to see beyond measures of success that are purely based on the standard measures of output, mentioned above.

Yet it does not capture the kind of appreciation that this piece of art in Sydney stirred in me. So what might a different approach look like?

The first step needs to be deeper consideration of impact but what is impact and how do we measure it?

Impact is hugely different than outputs. That is something I learned early on working in the public sector. (Buckingham is the former head of Distribution and Exhibition at the UK Film Council, and then the British Film Institute).

One could argue that there are three types of potential impact with talent development schemes.

  • Impact on the individual(s) in the scheme. Learning and creating and, I assume, career development.
  • Then there is impact on a wider connection with the scheme – local economies perhaps. People employed to run it the schemes.
  • Then there is a potential third one. The impact on the people actually watching and engaging with the results, and that is where there needs to be much greater focus.

Subsidy, in my book, means having a public impact.

Meaning in this instance that some of the people who pay for support for art also get some of the benefit of the work. This is an incredibly important principle.

An effective impact of pubic works and initiatives can be the most wonderful thing, shifting the emphasis from the personal to the collective, creating social value. It moves a scheme from being about individual or private (profit) into experiences that can be collaborative, shared and emotionally valued by people.

EMOTIONAL IMPACT

So what might a talent development public impact scheme might look like?

As a starter, lets try my reaction to the art I encountered. I had an emotional reaction as well as an intellectual one. So to begin lets see if we can establish an emotional impact conversation with people. All sorts of people.

Let’s not worry about who and how yet. Just imagine that this is a vital part of a film-maker’s work, and we are going to delve into this. The value of the work is the ability to emotionally reach out and connect and move people who witness or encounter it.

By concentrating on this connection as a core value, we start to examine our relationship to the talent schemes and the possible direction they might go.

For example people might feel…boredom, disgust, fear or erotic excitement. The creative team might discover this via conversations and feedback from all kinds of people. They learn where and how people feel this. All sides of the creative team begin to see what might work and not work on a people facing impact level.

This reaction doesn’t matter if the vast majority of people are turned off a film because (lets say) the work is a daring, out-there artifact exploring fresh ground in storytelling. On the contrary, this is the space and place that new films should, and must explore, in areas such as anger, disgust, and even extreme boredom. As long as the gaze and attention is on emotional reaction to the film.

From here, there can be some kind of understanding of the public impact of a film. And that experience and learning can increase the emotional connection of a film-maker’s next work.

COLLABORATIVE EXPERIENCES

There is a very important reason why this is important, and it is becoming even more important. The film business is declining in overall value, caused in the most part by the ever-lowering marginal cost of distribution (to a price of almost zero now) and to a lesser degree by the lowering of the production cost.

The hope for some – including me, perhaps – is that somehow technologies, such as VOD, will reboot the value chain. But that might be wishful thinking.

Instead, it could be that, as in other media sectors, the digital and Internet world will mean a continual decline in the amount of money in the system – and consequently a problem for creative people wishing to earn a living.

A creative response might be to move away from an implicit model that relies upon income, to one that is transactional and based around concepts of product. Put simply, the new paradigm is that experience is the thing.

Jeremy Rifkin, in an interview in the Financial Times about art exhibition based upon his book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society. “I see art changing into different forms, becoming more collaborative, and seen as works-in-process, and also more ephemeral, which fits in with the notion of the digital world. Artists will no longer be so interested in creating a sense of immortality. The transistorises of the experience, the enjoyment of the moment, will be everything. Life will be seen as a series of unique moments. And maybe we will see that reflected more in the art.”

And deeper still, the emotional elements that add up to an experience.

From the public perspective, that is from the side of people actually paying for these schemes, there might now be a direct benefit from talent development schemes, if measured on an experiential level. The people who run and the people who benefit from them would then be looking at the emotional impact values of films. Therefore, there would be a true public sphere of state intervention.

Public money for private gain is not an equation that sits easily in most people’s evaluation of where and how our resources should be allocated. A possible rebalancing, by using a public-value impact focus, might be very healthily for all concerned.

Focusing on that KPI at this stage of a young person’s artistic development might stand in good stead in 10-to-15 years time, when the landscape and patterns of consumption may well look very different.

HOW SCHEMES MIGHT WORK

Well, firstly, let’s take the fact that we have the ability to communicate and collaborate in new ways with citizens, consumers, audiences, investors, and the pubic in ever more effective ways.

The rise of the collaborative sharing economy and society is one of the huge changes coming into our society.

The means to collaborate, either casually, via social media, or in a more focused easy, through joint collaborative open-source projects, are now widely available and their effectiveness largely proven.

What’s more, new talent initiatives, capable of creating a real community of interest, would include and involve a wider set of players than just government agencies and industry specialists.

It might include: Community engagement; Crowdsourced finance; Cross-collaborative teams; Clubs; Conversations; Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), etc

REDISTRIBUTING POWER

My generation has seen power and the achievement of results as a pyramid, very vertical and exercised from the top down. The younger generations of this century are much more interested in inclusivity, access to networks, transparency.

At heart, this is about developing new talent.

There are some great existing schemes but the world is now in a new fast-changing environment.

Top-down structured bureaucratic schemes might have their place…but they might actually need a wider, more relaxed and devolved companion piece, built on these principles of collaboration and emotional impact.

There could be ground-up talent communities, potentially joined across national boundaries; or more support might be given to crowd funded films with a limited percentage of public subsidy.

It would mean a change from formal training labs, attached to talent schemes to facilitated meet-ups and MOOC-style, fast, cheap offers and discussions if people want them.

These schemes would:

  • Help create and facilitate the way we might find and discover the emotional responses from people out there.
  • Help build different communities (or one) that have that emotional impact feedback part of the process. This could be paid for formal (e.g. Facebook focus groups) and/or a wider party of interested film people, experts, critics, and execs, etc.
  • Encourage entrepreneurial distribution by not having any prescriptions of what these should be
  • And publish everything

CONCLUSIONS

The world is changing. It may be that the best way to foster new talent would be to accept and embrace the increasingly collaborative, sharing and experience-led nature of our society, facilitated by digital and personal interconnectivity.

A new 21st public sector Scheme could create a community of common interests of people in the talent development room.

And it would share everything, as opposed to sharing little apart from output data, created by organisations running 20th Century-styled pyramid-structured and heavily-controlled programmes that, in the end, might just be stifling creativity as much as helping it develop.

A talent scheme might also be more about searching for, and connecting with, a community rather than merely amassing proprietary knowledge for self-interest. And, at its heart, it would encourage an emotional impact with the audience it seeks to effect.