Research

The aim of the project is 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.

We will do this by investigating how audiences engage with and form around ‘specialised’ films in four English regions. Audience formation is here understood as the processes of engagement with films that generate audience experiences. Drawing on industry definitions, ‘specialised films’ are understood as films outside the mainstream, including small scale UK films, foreign language, documentary, archive and 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 although the industry and policy makers also gather intelligence about audiences, little attention has been paid to the specific contextual relationships and interactions between media and 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. Our project aims 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 that regional identity plays in that process.

To achieve these aims requires an holistic approach that addresses the details of consumption and the opportunities to consume, namely the provision of film at a regional level, including online. The goal is both to advance scholarship and to provide concrete recommendations about how UK audience policies can be improved.

This focused, comprehensive and impactful project will explore 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 will also address the provision of specialised film by examining the industry processes of funding, production, distribution and exhibition (including online) of specialised films in selected English regions.

The audience research will involve a multilevel comparative study of audience formation in relations to specialised films in four English regions, collecting data that is in depth and at scale and using innovative digital humanities analytical methods. Following our earlier pilot study, we have developed a highly experienced interdisciplinary team to undertake this project, comprised of academic experts in film studies, sociology, cultural policy, digital humanities and partners from film policy and the film industry. Through a partnership with the British Film Institute’s (BFI) Film Audience Network (FAN) and the Film Hubs (which organise provision of specialised film and fosters audience participation regionally), the project will have direct impact on the BFI’s efforts to improve regional audience figures, widen film choice, and enhance the cultural benefits of specialised film. The project will therefore 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 provision.

The project focuses on four English regions with a range of specialised film exhibition venues and mixed socio-economic populations, serviced by three of the BFI’s Film Hubs.

For each region we will collect data about: (a) audience characteristics and practices, venues, screens, events and programming, and interpretations of films; (b) film policy and industry developments; and (c) regional demographics. We will use digital humanities methods to structure, store and analyse this data. We will develop an ontological data model, which will enable us to ask conceptual questions about audiences, how they form, and the regional provision of film. We will then present the results using a range of visualisation techniques that will enable distant readings of the results as well as revealing patterns, trends and anomalies that warrant closer, deep reading of the data. In the spirit of the AHRC Digital Transformations Theme, this approach has the potential to transform audience studies by using digital techniques that go beyond qualitative studies of audience reception and quantitative studies of audience attendance and will allow us to address the formation of audiences in depth and at scale.