Video-on-demand and the myth of ‘endless choice’

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 TorontoNew 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.


This Way Up 2017

David Forrest

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.


Understanding Audiences: the Audience Development approach

Dr Peter Merrington

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.

Beyond Textual Analysis?

Dr David Forrest

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.