Whilst operating in the shadows of powerful market leaders Netflix and Amazon, the specialised subscription Video-on-Demand (VOD) platform MUBI has branded itself as a pioneering and innovative platform with a global presence in international markets. MUBI has put itself at the forefront of the evolving online market for specialised films after a period of trial and error. In particular, their business model has undergone radical change over the course of their brief history. We chart the historical development of MUBI with the purpose of analysing its business model and its role as cultural gatekeeper and tastemaker. Through a discussion of their engagement with online distribution, it becomes clear that MUBI’s platform strategies are rooted in an underlying practice and philosophy that closely aligns with conventional traditions and practices of linear and physical media delivery formats. Therefore, we argue that established practices in the physical media market have been relocated online in somewhat new and interesting ways. We also scrutinise MUBI’s response to the challenge of promoting specialised film in a crowded and volatile market. In particular, we analyse MUBI’s recent venture into the wider business of distribution and demonstrate that this strategy is needed to add promotional values to their platform.
What differentiates ‘Beyond the Multiplex’ from many other studies into film audiences is the way that it puts viewers right at the heart of our research. Having interviewed 200 people individually, we are now holding 16 focus groups across the country to find out how viewers actually engage with specialised films. Instead of analysing how a film has been put together by a producer, director or editor, we are studying how people make sense of what’s on the screen in front of them.
Showing focus group participants clips from four non-mainstream films – two British and two foreign – we have asked for their immediate responses to them. It’s becoming evident that what people are seeing, hearing and understanding depends largely on their own life experiences. For instance, if a person watching I, Daniel Blake has ever spent time in a Job Centre, they tend to view the frustration of becoming entangled in an inflexible state benefits system through the memories of their own times in that situation.
They have also discussed the feeling that characters on-screen seem to exist and converse in ‘real-time’, with all the inarticulacies, awkwardness and difficulties of everyday life left in, instead of being edited out as they might be in a Hollywood blockbuster. The chance to view seemingly authentic people in believable situations has enabled some participants to ‘almost imagine myself there’, while others said that the extra effort required to focus was like real life – too hard, unappealing, not the relaxing, easy entertainment you would go to the cinema for.
This kind of disengagement is also providing interesting insights. Someone faced with a touching farewell scene in Call Me By Your Name explained that he had seen too many similar departures at train stations to concentrate on the action. But the lingering camera made it possible for him to admire the train itself instead. Another viewer who felt uncomfortable about watching same-sex relationships was still able to enjoy the Yorkshire countryside pictured in God’s Own Country. A similar point has been made in most of the focus groups we’ve held so far – that independent films give viewers more space to spend time in a scene, to look around at the landscape, or the train leaving the station, or to empathise with a character, rather than being obliged to focus on one specific element. This is heightened by the way these films often lack an all-pervading musical score intended to compel your attention and emotional reactions into one particular direction, thus opening up diverse opportunities to gain pleasure from the same film in different ways.
Many of our participants have commented on the joy of seeing other countries, cultures and ways of life depicted on screen, which open up their eyes to the unknown or make them think about, or even challenge, their own knowledge and opinions. Loveless stimulates discussions around work, love, marriage, family and the level to which each of these impacts on the others – do companies really have the right to dictate their employees’ marital status in Russia? On the other hand, some clips have confirmed viewers’ preconceptions about certain kinds of film, one laughing as he calls Happy End a ‘typically French film’.
Some focus group members have said these are reasons why they enjoy watching non-mainstream films. Others would normally avoid these kinds of films, either through personal preference or, more frequently, because they haven’t got the time to travel to a cinema which shows this kind of fare. Although it is now easy to access films on DVD or online, several people have said that viewing them on a big screen in a darkened cinema as part of a larger audience provides a totally separate experience from watching them at home in the midst of other everyday distractions. Cinema viewing creates concentration, immersion, imagination and reflection.
The focus groups are continuing. So far these discussions have raised several intriguing themes: the lack of opportunity for people to watch non-mainstream films in a local cinema; the space that specialised films offer to engage with and move around inside a film, layering your own memories and ideas onto the characters, locations and narratives; and the realisation that people do not necessarily consume a film exactly as it is placed before them, but one comprised of the director’s cut intermingled with their own worldviews. Could the creators of The Eagle Huntress, a documentary about a teenage girl in Kazakhstan defying her society’s gender conventions, really have expected it to transport someone in the audience back to the years she once spent in the Australian outback, stirring an urgent longing to return?
Michael Pidd and Katherine Rogers
The mixed data challenge
One of the challenges for a mixed methods project such as the AHRC-funded Beyond the Multiplex is that it produces mixed data – data that is different in its file format, structure, and content. There is a longitudinal survey (nominal data) which takes three snapshots of people’s film viewing habits over time; a socio-cultural index which profiles a population’s cultural habits based on a range of national lifestyle surveys (statistical data); semi-structured interviews with cinema-goers and industry experts (natural language data in audio format); and focus groups which use film elicitation methods to prompt cinema-goers to reflect on meaning in film (again, natural language data in audio format).
Each type of data has a research value in its own right, and will help us address specific research questions. For example, the longitudinal survey enables us to understand how film viewing habits change over time, whilst film elicitation focus groups enable us to understand how cinema-goers construct meaning from film. This is all well and good for siloed research questions, but the project is more ambitious than this, seeking to answer questions that cannot be answered by any one individual type of data alone.
So the number one challenge for a mixed methods project is: how can we capture and interrogate mixed data consistently, such that we can submit one question to the entire collection of data and be given meaningful results? The solution is an ontology.
What is an ontology?
Apart from its pretentious sounding name and its tendency to attract contempt from Philosophy colleagues (all good reasons for using the term, in my view), an ontology is a data model which describes all the components and characteristics of a particular knowledge domain. In Beyond the Multiplex, our ontology describes the domain of film, cinema, and cinema-going using three simple classes of information: entities, the characteristics of entities, and relationships between entities. For example: film is an entity; it has characteristics such as a title, plot, characters, duration, media; it has relationships to other entities such as actors, venues, and cinema-goers; and each of these entities has its own characteristics and further relationships. Note that this is a data model — it is not data, nor is it a database. It is purely conceptual.
Data models are used to dictate how data is described, structured, and related. For example, a relational database uses a relational data model. But an ontology goes beyond a traditional relational model. Relational data models enable us to create relationships between entities, such as film->venue if we wanted to describe which films were shown in which venues, but this does not tell us what the relationship is – it merely tells us that two entities are related, and we are required to infer the nature of this relationship. An ontology elaborates a relational data model by defining relationships explicitly. For example: film->was shown at->venue. In this model, we have named three parts of the relationship: we have named the two related entities (film and venue), and we have named what the relationship is (was shown at). We can use the same structure for capturing the characteristics of entities: film->is called->title and film->has character->ET. In information science this tri-part structure is often referred to as a triple or subject-predicate-object.
You can see a visualisation of the ontology which we have designed for Beyond the Multiplex. Film and person are unsurprisingly at the centre of an ontology which is concerned with the relationships between film and their audiences. Organisation is also an important entity, because it relates to those organisations that define policy with respect to film and audience, and those organisations that screen films or organise film related events. A person has relationships with real-world objects (named entities) such as location and film; socio-cultural phenomena such as cultural activity and audience; and behavioural characteristics such as motivation, memory, and response (e.g. a person’s response to watching a film). This type of structure enables us to link a person to both qualitative and quantitative data, allowing a person’s behaviour, not only with respect to film consumption, but also other cultural activities, either to be viewed within an individual context or as part of a larger socio-economic group. Each entity also has characteristics, such as the title of a film. In many instances these characteristics are underpinned by formal taxonomies, such as film titles. The ontology is not a final version – it is intended to identify the key entities and relationships, and evolve as more data is collected to more accurately model the domain.
Why is an ontology useful for mixed data?
First, it enables us to store and interrogate mixed data consistently. The conventional approach to mixed data is to analyse statistical data using spreadsheet-like software such as SPSS and then separately analyse natural language data using qualitative software such as NVivo and MaxQData. Although NVivo abnd MaxQData now allow users to work with statistical data alongside qualitative data, they are slow when analysing large datasets. An ontology enables us to apply the same data model to all data types, thereby enabling us to interrogate all data types in the same way, simultaneously. Of course this requires us to transform all our data into the ontology, which is where much of the labour is required for this type of project (more on this later).
Second, it enables us to infer relationships across the different data types. For example, an attendee of the film elicitation focus groups might express an interest in Asian cinema; an interviewee might cite Asian cinema as their preferred sub-genre of foreign film; and the longitudinal survey might reveal that Asian cinema has a growing audience on digital streaming platforms. The use of a consistent ontology enables us to explore these qualities simultaneously, and to have the qualities arising from one body of data enrich and elucidate our understanding of another body of data. In our example, one might infer that the attendee of the focus group and the interviewee fulfil their interest in Asian cinema using a digital streaming platform at home rather than by attending their local cinema.
Third, and related to my previous point, defining the characteristics of entities and their relationships to one another using a formal model could enable a computer to undertake deductive reasoning. For example, if John->lives in->Hull and John->watches films at->home, whilst Sarah->lives in->Hull and Sarah->watches films at->cinema, the computer could infer that John is able to watch films at a cinema in or near Hull but chooses not to. Although this is straightforward logic for humans, only an ontological data model enables a computer to infer information not explicit within the dataset. When datasets become huge, computer-assisted deduction is helpful for researchers framing questions such as: which people choose to watch films at home rather than going to their local cinema? In our example, there is no information in John’s data to show that there is a cinema in or near Hull – this is inferred from Sarah’s data.
How do we capture mixed data using an ontology – in practice?
So that’s the data model, conceptually. But how do we implement it so that we can start storing data using its structure and rules? First we defined and refined the basic ontology using OWL (Web Ontology Language) as part of an iterative process which involved examination of the source documents and a deepening of our understanding of the project’s research questions. OWL is an XML schema for formally describing ontologies. In essence, it sets out the rules that make up the data model: for example, it identifies what entities, characteristics and relationships are possible within the ontology’s knowledge domain. The schema can then be used to natively encode data as XML documents using XML authoring software, such as XMetaL, or it can be used as the blueprint for a system designed to store and manage ontologically-structured data, such as a database.
In our case we used an OWL visualisation service called WebVOWL that enabled the project team to visualise and critique the ontology, before implementing the ontology using NVivo and a MySQL database. We used NVivo as an authoring environment for encoding our natural language data (full-text transcriptions of interviews, focus groups and policy documents). The project’s researchers developed an NVivo coding structure using nodes (in NVivo terminology) to mirror the ontology. After encoding our data we exported the nodes as an XML extract, and ingested the encoded information into a MySQL database. Crucially, just as the encoded information (our extract of NVivo nodes) mirrors our ontology, the table structure of the MySQL database mirrors our ontology also.
We chose NVivo as an authoring environment for our natural language data because it was user friendly and familiar to the project team, and it enabled the team to interrogate aspects of the data during the process of encoding. Also, as part of the discovery interface which we envisage, it will be important for users interrogating our ontologically-structured data to have the facility to ‘drill down’ into the original transcripts and full texts. The only drawback we have experienced in using NVivo is that relationships between nodes are not included in the extract, and have to be supplied as a separate data file in HTML. Statistical and nominal data (surveys and socio-cultural index) are transformed into structures that reflect our ontology using scripts and then ingested into the MySQL database.
The MySQL database mirrors the ontology by having separate tables that describe our entities, their attributes, and their relationships to one another. Our preference for MySQL as a data storage format is in part due to the ease in which data can be subsequently transformed into other formats and encoding standards (including OWL-encoded XML documents) using SQL, and because we can then audit and quality check the data via a simple interface such as Sonata Admin.
How do we query mixed data using an ontology? Next steps
In the next phase of Beyond the Multiplex we need to explore whether a relational database such as MySQL is the best solution for querying ontologically-structured data, because an ontology results in data that is highly atomised and therefore slow to query in a relational system that has to join all the atoms together each time a query is made. For example, whereas a conventional relational database will have a table called person which contains all the attributes of the person as table columns (e.g. a person table containing the columns name, gender, age etc), an ontologically-structured database will store all the attributes of a person in separate tables (e.g. tables called name, gender, age) and link them to the person table using a relationships table which contains values such as hasName, hasGender, hasAge. The eventual data output will be person->hasName->name, person->hasGender->gender, person->hasAge->age.
The advantages of an ontology for describing complex, mixed data using a simple triples structure have been described above, but the performance issues that arise due to the need for a database query to join together so many atoms of data is forcing us to consider RDF and graph systems such as Neo4j, noSQL databases, and query languages such as SPARQL. Establishing an architecture that enables us to perform quick, efficient, consistent, and complex querying of our data is an essential next step towards designing a discovery interface for Beyond the Multiplex and utilising the value of our ontology. We will report further on this in due course!
Roderik Smits (Research Associate, University of York) reports on the state of video-on-demand access in the UK for The Conversation…
“If you like independent, art-house films or other specialised movies, you may have heard of the Romanian comedy-drama Sieranevada, which was released in 2016. The film was formally premiered as part of the main competition programme of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and was subsequently shown at other international film festivals, including Toronto, New York and London.
Due to its success on the festival circuit, Sieranevada was reviewed by 48 international film critics, and received a positive rating from 92% of them. Among these were UK-based trade journals, such as Sight and Sound and Screen International as well as mainstream newspapers The Guardian and The Telegraph. But while this publicity generated audience interest in the film, it has yet to secure distribution that would allow UK audiences to actually watch the film – it’s not in cinemas, on DVD/Blu-ray, nor on online video-on-demand platforms (VOD).
The development of VOD has provided new opportunities for films to reach audiences. In particular, specialised films with traditionally limited distribution opportunities have taken advantage of this development. But are online audiences presented with an endless choice? Not really. So why is this?”
Read the full article here.
Some of the BTM team were lucky enough to make the journey to the Truck Theatre in Hull, the UK’s City of Culture, for this year’s This Way Up Conference. This Way Up is the UK’s annual film exhibition conference and is particularly important for our project because it draws together many of our partners and stakeholders to discuss the ‘live’ issues that our work is seeking to address.
Within minutes of arriving at the venue I started talking to a representative from Hull Independent Cinema, an organisation that shows specialised films in a range of venues across the city but which lacks a permanent home. I’d heard about the work of HIC during our pilot study, which explored the provision of specialised film in the North, and it was fascinating to get an insight, however brief, into the challenges and opportunities of such a venture. It was a further reminder, too, that this is very much an industry built on passion: a sense that to exhibit cinema is to celebrate and to advocate for the medium.
I went into the keynotes with this sense of the social and cultural value of exhibition in mind, but provocative presentations from Simran Hans, and Jenny Sealey in particular suggested that passion for film had, more than ever, to be married with an ethics of access and participation. Hans largely took aim at the unethical working practices of elements of the exhibition sector in London and highlighted the exploitation of freelance labour, while Sealey was focused specifically on the representation and employment (or lack thereof) of D/deaf people within the wider culture industry. Sealey in particular called on exhibitors to stop showing films where actors ‘crip up’, that is the practice of able bodied actors playing disabled characters.
These provocations set the tone for a conference which was very much about the sector critically reflecting on its values to discuss what constitutes ethical practice in exhibition. The resulting discussions drew out a range of thoughtful engagements from the audience, but its worth singling out Dave Moutrey from HOME in Manchester, who identified the need to avoid a solely metropolitan context in discussions around diversity, ethics, and access. Thinking through questions of provision and cultural value, as our research does, demands engagements with questions of regional inequalities. Indeed, the conference opened with an inspirational presentation about the power of culture in Hull over the last year, a city that is slowly finding the tools to tell a new story about itself but that still faces significant challenges to generate a sustainable and inclusive cultural offer.
It was also fascinating to learn about audience development work from a European perspective. Tarah Judah led a discussion with Boglarka Nagy about some of the ways in which the Elvire Popesco in Bucharest had worked to engage young people in cinematic experiences by generating relationships with them that went beyond the mere consumption of film texts in large spaces. This more holistic, ‘event-driven’ approach to engagement chimed with the experiences of exhibitors closer to home. There seemed, however, to be a mixture of hope and anxiety in the room about cultivating the audiences of tomorrow in the digital age. This was, of course, a theme that recurred throughout the event but it was heartening to hear multiple impassioned and evidence-based defences of the collective cinematic experience circulate alongside a nuanced, non-adversarial take on the widening and increasingly disruptive digital landscape. But Simran Hans probably had her finger on the pulse of the majority of delegates when she described VOD as: ‘[a] good way of widening access that will never replace the sacred space of the cinema.’
These questions of technology and contemporary screen cultures were picked up in day 2 in a fascinating discussion between Anna Kime, Will Massa, and Tara Judah about the future of the archive, with delegates prompting thought provoking dialogues about the ways in which video game cultures resist archival collection, and I was left wondering about the potential of a ‘specialised’ gaming culture. The audience also raised points about the politics of place in relation to archives, and the BFI’s role in stimulating engagements with the local and the regional through mechanisms such as the BFI Player.
Earlier, a very timely and informative discussion of safeguarding at cultural events, led by Melanie Iredale, took place in the main space – this conference is as much about providing delegates with tools for action as it is about allowing the space to reflect critically and collectively and every aspect of exhibition.
Next year we’ll be returning to the conference to present some of our initial work and to draw on a range of perspectives to help shape the research as it develops. My experience of This Way Up ’17 was a reminder that this is exactly the forum for the kinds of challenging and productive dialogues that will give intellectual and practical direction to our work.
David Forrest is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies in the School of English at the University of Sheffield and Co-Investigator on Beyond the Multiplex.
The central concern of Beyond the Multiplex is to question how audiences engage with and form in different ways around specialised film in English regions. Therefore, the question of what an audience is and how it is understood in relation to the moving image and the specialised film sector is important. There are several approaches to the study of audiences and this blog discusses one of these, which is the ‘Audience Development’ approach.
Audience Development is primarily used to address the creation of future audiences, either through marketing or programming. Cinemas and film festivals as well as online platforms utilise this approach in their marketing and programming strategies because it takes them beyond box office takings or viewing figures to consider how to grow their audiences in different ways.
In general, there are three modes through which film audience development is framed, in increasing frequency (the number of films people watch over a given period), in increasing scale (attracting new audiences, while retaining existing audiences or bringing back old audiences) and in composition (diversifying the content available for audiences or diversifying the demographics of audiences).
Beyond its use as a marketing and programming device by public bodies and the film exhibition sector, it is useful for us as researchers to think about Audience Development as one particular approach within the study of audiences. Oriented towards the future, Audience Development is underpinned by a desire to change the present, it deploys anticipatory actions to alter the dynamics of potential audiences in some way, but usually set against how the present audience is imagined, in a quantitative or descriptive sense.
While the discourse of Audience Development is prevalent throughout the arts, and in particular, those drawing upon public funding, as Hadley (2017) recently noted in Cultural Trends, within cultural policy there has been limited critical reflection on the process of Audience Development. One exception is the work of Kawashima (2000) in relation to cultural policy and social inclusion in Britain, who categorised Audience Development into four approaches: Cultural Inclusion, Extended Marketing, Taste Cultivation and Audience Education.
While there is limited scholarly work examining film exhibition and Audience Development strategies, Audience Development is a central feature of film policy at both a national and European level. The European Commission has a dedicated Audience Development fund to “stimulate interest in, and improve access to, European audio-visual works, in particular through promotion, events, film literacy and festivals.” In addition, the concept and use of Audience Development was evaluated and advanced in the recent European Commission report: Study on audience development: How to place audiences at the centre of cultural organisations.
At a national level, Audience Development has also been a strategic priority for the BFI for many years and was central in both the last two BFI strategies, Film Forever (running from 2012 to 2017) and BFI2022 (running 2017 to 2022). This follows the UK film policy review of 2011 which, titled A Future For British Film: ‘It begins with the audience’, highlighted (p.12) that “despite the success of some high-profile British hits in recent years, the audience across the UK still gets to see too few British films, especially independent British films and too few films from the rest of the world apart from ever popular Hollywood blockbusters.”
Creating wider access to a diverse film culture was a key priority of the film policy review. Increasing the choice available to audiences, for the cultural benefit of audiences and the economic benefit of the UK film sector more widely is a task the BFI now undertakes. The BFI’s Film Audience Network (FAN), which has been running since 2012, was created using National Lottery money to meet these goals by growing audiences for British and specialist film with a focus on the collective viewing experience. The FAN takes a regional approach in attempting to improve provision and create a more diverse film culture.
The process of Audience Development undertaken by the film exhibition sector is set against an inequality of access, where for geographic, sociocultural or economic reasons or because of the international market, diverse film provision is unevenly distributed. Working with FAN, Beyond the Multiplex aims to understand how policies and industry practices shape the development of regional audiences, where place is considered significant for how people engage with film. Questions of provision, access and distribution both to collective viewing and at home are important here.
One part of this research project is conducting interviews with policy makers and industry professionals to understand how their work relates to regional provision of specialised film as well as interviewing audiences themselves to understand how people engage with film in relation to place. The goal is both to advance scholarship in our understanding of Audience Development and to work closely with the FAN to provide concrete recommendations about how UK audience policies can be improved. We are currently at the start of this research project and as the project develops we will be writing more blog posts and working papers on the different approaches to understanding the audience through audience research.
At its heart, Beyond the Multiplex is about exploring the ways in which audiences find meaning and value in the moving image. This naturally requires an interdisciplinary approach: seeking to understand policy and practice, thinking about audiences at scale with longitudinal surveys, and at depth by working with groups of film watchers to learn more about the nature of their experiences. It is this latter area that will be of particular interest to me. One of my main roles will be managing a series of focus groups across our partnership regions to examine the specific experiences and feelings that are evoked by the kind of ‘specialised’ cinema that we’re interested in. In short, this part of the project asks, ‘so, what is it about the films?’
As a discipline, Film Studies has tended towards textual analysis as its central methodology. It’s hard to define, but in broad terms I would say it’s the practice of closely examining film texts with the aim of understanding how meaning is generated and communicated within them. These close readings are attentive to formal patterns, historical traditions and contexts, and the wider theoretical implications of aesthetics, and they should be underpinned by scholarly precision and rigour. One of the interesting things about our project is that we’re not really doing this kind of work, at least not in the pure sense that I’ve described here. In Beyond the Multiplex, the ‘so, what is it about the films?’ question will be answered by the audiences.
This is alien territory for me. Textual analysis is my ‘bread and butter’, and my most recent research has involved the close reading of literary and visual texts in an archival context. The solitary pursuit of exploring meaning through meticulous and sometimes painstaking re-watching and reading will here be complemented (perhaps even replaced) by a far less individualised process that privileges the less academic but more authentic analysis undertaken by communities of cinemagoers. So, we’re interested in exploring the specific points in the films that prompt feeling in audiences and in so doing we’ll be able to understand more about the ways in which the cultural value of cinema might be generated.
We’re working with a very broad definition of ‘specialised’ film (from archive, to foreign language, to artists’ cinema, documentary and British films generally) so it will be impossible to extrapolate broad conclusions about the way meaning is generated in ‘specialised’ film. However, we will be able to learn more about the ways in which specific kinds of ‘specialised’ films operate – understanding their textual characteristics alongside those of their production and reception.
To frame our understanding, we might look to works of established film criticism by the likes of David Bordwell (1985) and Steve Neale (1981), both of whom combined institutional and textual approaches to anatomise, though not without problems, the convention of art cinema, most commonly associated with European New Waves of the post-war period that self-consciously defined themselves against the Hollywood mainstream. ‘Specialised’ film obviously goes beyond ‘art cinema’, but this framework offers us a way of understanding how non-mainstream film texts historically operate. Thinking on the subject has been developed in recent years by scholars such as Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover (2010) but something of a common view on the art cinema tradition might be that its films generate meaning for their audiences through a fundamental ambiguity or open endedness, which in some way stimulates thought and feeling. My hunch is that conclusions such as this one will play out when we meet our groups. Audiences will be provoked into discussion and debate by the moments that invite contemplation and perhaps frustration; moments which are by definition more prevalent in the kinds of ‘specialised’ films that we are working with.
Finally, it’s worth considering that this part of the project is about further disrupting the idea of a homogenous audience. The resources of empathy and identification that we channel and exercise through the cinema are specific to us and emerge from our own lives. In essence, the specialised film experience involves us in bringing our own story to the story we see on the screen: Beyond the Multiplex is about recognising and understanding the value of that relationship.