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Digital Distribution and the Invisibility Dilemma – movieScope

Digital Distribution and the Invisibility Dilemma

While interactive projects like Call Alert are taking advantage of the digital revolution, new technologies could see independent projects disappearing…

Industry analyst Michael Gubbins examines why the growth of digital cinema and on-demand platforms may see independent content disappearing…

Put the words ‘crisis’ and ‘film industry’ into Google and you get almost five million returns. The idea of crisis underpins industry discussions at festivals and conferences, though they are now often given an ostensibly positive spin—you don’t sell many tickets reminding the industry which creek they are in and how short they are of paddles.

But are we looking at the right crisis?

The current film debate is largely about the threats to the industrial structure of film, in terms of investment, finance and revenues. Anyone with a memory longer than the last decade will affirm that ‘crisis’ in that sense is pretty much the default position of the film industry. We are currently nowhere near the rock bottom of the 1980s, when the idea of an existential threat to cinema seemed all too real. And the arrival of VHS and then DVD, which helped resurrect the business, lest we forget, was vigorously opposed by much of the theatrical business. Back then, the supposed threat was framed by the narrow concerns of sections of the industry, but the real issue then, and now, is what we might call the ‘invisibility dilemma’.

Broadly speaking, each innovation brings a choice between increasing access at the expense of the existing business model, or protecting existing positions and risking losing the demand on which new business can be built. Then, the supposed battle was between home entertainment and theatres; today, it is between anytime/anywhere access and physical sales.

For the big corporates of film and media, the experience of the coal mine canaries of the music industry has forced a change of attitude. From initial angry opposition to all change, the music business response was a story of retreat, repositioning and eventual acceptance of the once unthinkable, such as the deals with Spotify, YouTube and the iTunes cloud-based Match service. Hollywood has tried to make sure that the same mistakes are not made and, rather than burying its head in the sand, has sought to ensure that the new digital economy works to its benefit. The majors have dictated the shape of the new world to a disturbing extent, from the DCI specifications for digital cinema, to the VOD platforms they choose to support.

Indeed, supported by increasingly sophisticated use of social media and cross-media marketing, the reach to global audiences has become stronger, resulting in ever more gargantuan franchise releases. In 2005, there were 14 films with production budgets above $100m; by 2011, that had risen to 24. The independent industry, however, still has a bad habit of not spotting the oncoming dangers until it has reached the point of crisis.

Independent film is more reliant than Hollywood on the shock of the new but there are reasons for concern about how new talent will find audiences, particularly outside the big countries with large internal markets. Film, of course, has never been an easy option for the newcomer. It has been a business characterised by obstacles and ruled by gatekeepers. The cost of filmmaking ensured that it was open to very few, and yet there was at least a degree of social mobility in film and television. People from a range of backgrounds could learn trades and some eventually take leading creative or business roles on merit. (The fact that women in particular were so often excluded says more about social attitudes that still need to be fought than the weaknesses of the theoretical meritocracy of the craft trade.) There were, and remain, hopes of a more democratised business, open to all, and one in which the audience is not simply the passive recipient of content profitable enough to distribute or which cultural powers—such as state broadcasters and critics—felt was good for them.

The landscape today is, in many ways, more diverse. The cost of entry to filmmaking and the ability to market and distribute films using social media has created the means for film, in its broadest definition, to find audiences. Over recent years, services such as YouTube and IndieFlix have found smart micro payments that have added up to occasionally significant sums. Knowledge of audiences has dramatically increased in the digital age and every filmmaker has the potential to speak directly to existing and potential fans. So what’s the problem?

The music world and publishing both suggest the possibility of a world that remains dominated at one end by corporate giants but in which a new world of micro-scale production, close to its fans, is increasingly thriving. Around the world, hyper-low-budget work is finding audiences and that may continue to grow with a range of media outlets and social media opportunities, plus support from public bodies and festivals. Most makers of low-budget films, however, do not want to be makers of low-budget films; they want to paint on larger canvasses, and a few even fancy the notion of making money.

A recent piece of academic research from two UK universities suggested there has been a narrowing of the social base of those working in media and film, partly because there is no career structure any more. This means that today’s would-be content creators need to start with at least some independent wealth, or a healthy contacts book.

There are other obvious areas of concern: the vast increase in the amount of available films to watch, from the 75 per cent increase in films made in Europe over the last decade, supported by public money, to the digitisation of a vast archive. And the diversity of the current environment is itself under threat. History suggests digital change always starts with a free-for-all land grab and ends with near monopolies.

A recent survey by media consultants Simon-Kucher & Partners suggested that 90 per cent of online content would be behind a pay wall in the next three years. With terrestrial television rarely bringing challenging independent film to mass audiences, pay walls and subscriptions may lead to ever more fragmented demand, with the new and adventurous disappearing.

Some of the more radical transmedia activists suggest this is all inevitable; that we are simply reaching the end of an era in which film was the means by which a culture expressed its ideas. Perhaps, as leading transmedia advocate Sean Stewart, of Fourth Wall Studios suggests, we are entering a ‘fifth age of storytelling’ of interactive, crowd-sourced and collaborative content, supplanting the one-to-many approach of movies. If that sounds like a trite simplification and that there is room for thrilling and challenging film at the centre of cultural life, then the ‘invisibility dilemma’ needs to be addressed before it becomes a crisis.

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 34 (May/June 2013)