About the Research

Aims and questions

Overall, the BtM project sought to understand:

  • 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.
  • How to optimise the cultural value of engaging with those less familiar films.

BtM investigated how audiences engage with and form around ‘specialised’ films in four English regions (the North East, North West, South West, and Yorkshire and the Humber). Audience formation is understood here 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, archival, and hard-to-pigeonhole films, and films with unconventional narratives, themes, or cinematic techniques.

Background context

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. Although audience reception studies have made audiences increasingly visible within academic debate, and UK film industry and policy has gathered 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. Thus, there was a need to examine the provision of specialised films, and how audiences form in relation to specialised film provision in different regions.

Audience policy for specialised films takes a regional approach in attempting to improve provision and create a more diverse film culture. This 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 that regional identity plays in that process.

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

This focused, comprehensive and impactful 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 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.

Research approach

The audience research involved a multilevel comparative study of audience formation in relation to specialised films in four English regions. It involved collecting data to gain both in-depth insights and an overview of patterns at scale (see About the Data), then using innovative digital humanities-inspired analytical methods to examine and visualise the data holistically.

Following an earlier pilot study, the project brought together a highly experienced interdisciplinary team to undertake this research, comprised of academic experts in cultural policy, digital humanities, film studies, sociology, and partners from UK film industry and policy organisations. 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 has directly impacted the BFI’s efforts to improve regional audience figures, widen film choice, and enhance the cultural benefits of specialised film. The project has therefore established a strong relationship between scholarly understandings of audiences and the development of official audience policies and industry practices in the context of regional provision.

The project focused 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, the research entailed gathering data about:

  • Audience characteristics and practices
  • Venues, screens, events and programming
  • Interpretations of films
  • Film policy and industry developments
  • Regional demographics

Using digital humanities methods to structure, store and analyse the data entailed developing an innovative ontology and various data visualisations. This enabled conceptual questions to be asked about audiences, how they form, and the regional provision of film. Presenting the data via a set of data visualisation tools revealed patterns, trends and anomalies that warranted a closer and deeper reading of more detailed insights in the the data. In the spirit of the AHRC Digital Transformations theme, this approach has shown the potential of transforming audience studies by using digital techniques that go beyond qualitative studies of audience reception studies and/or quantitative studies of audience attendance figures, to address the formation of audiences both in depth and at scale.