Understanding Audiences: the Audience Development approach

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.