Research Context

The aim of the project was to understand firstly how to enable a wider range of audiences to participate in a more diverse film culture that embraces the wealth of films beyond the mainstream; and secondly how to optimise the cultural value of engaging with those less familiar films.

The project investigated how audiences engage with and form around ‘specialised’ films in four English regions. Here, audience formation is understood as a process of engagement with films that generates audience experiences. Drawing on industry definitions, ‘specialised films’ are understood as films outside the mainstream, including small-scale UK films, foreign language, documentary, archival, hard-to-pigeonhole films, and films with unconventional narratives, themes, or cinematic techniques.

Provision of mainstream film is good across England; however, provision of specialised films is low across the English regions outside London, which limits the opportunities for people to experience a more diverse film culture. We need to know more about the provision of specialised films in those regions, and about how audiences form in relation to specialised film provision. Although audience reception studies have made audiences increasingly visible within academic debate, and the film industry and policy makers also gather intelligence about audiences, little attention has been paid to the specific contextual relationships and interactions between media and the people that generate and sustain audiences in English regions.

Audience policy for specialised films takes a regional approach in attempting to improve provision and create a more diverse film culture. The project aimed to provide a firm evidence base for such policy developments by establishing a detailed understanding of how audiences form in their engagement with specialised films, the extent to which they are committed to film cultural diversity, and the role of regional identity in that process.

To achieve these aims, the project took an holistic approach that addressed the details of consumption and the opportunities to consume film at a regional level, as well as online. The goal was both to advance scholarship and to provide concrete recommendations about how UK audience policies can be improved. To do so, the project explored the relationship between audiences and specialised films by examining the practices of venue-based and online film consumption, how different audiences experience specialised films, and the value of venues in the regional provision of film. It also addressed the provision of specialised film by examining industry processes of funding, production, distribution and exhibition (including online) of specialised films in the English regions.

The audience research involved a multilevel comparative study of audience formation in relation to specialised films in four English regions, collecting data both in depth and at scale, using innovative digital humanities analytical methods. Following an earlier pilot study, a highly experienced interdisciplinary team worked together on the project, comprised of academic experts from film studies, sociology, cultural policy and digital humanities, as well as partners working in film policy and the wider film industry. Through a partnership with the British Film Institute (BFI)’s Film Audience Network (FAN) and Film Hubs (which organise the provision of specialised film and fosters audience participation regionally), the project directly impacts on the BFI’s efforts to improve regional audience figures, widen film choice, and enhance the cultural benefits of specialised film. The project has therefore helped to establish a strong relationship between the scholarly understanding of audiences and the development of official audience policies and industry practices in the context of regional film provision.