There are many reasons to fear and question the scrapping of the UK Film Council. The gains, both culturally and financially far outweigh the very modest spend. Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt himself notes that the UKFC spends just £3 million a year on admin – that’s trifling figure when compared to the National Debt. There’s also the ripple effect – scrapping this one body threatens many small UK creative enterprises. Killing small business cannot be considered a way out of the recession, potentially when those small businesses have such high earning potential. Suffice it to say, plenty has been written on these reasons by people far better placed and far more influential than I.
What I want to focus on is the UKFC’s promotion of digital marketing of Film, to highlight the huge importance of digital marketing for the future of independent film and to question the idea that without a body administering the lottery money that this funding will somehow magically work its way into the right places.
For many industries the Internet presents a unique opportunity for the small guys to compete on the same playing field as the big guys. A global company with a multi-million pound turnover can be just a small number of people working from a small office or even virtually. The same is true of film. Whilst traditional outdoor, newspaper and television advertising will always be dominated by the studios, for a fraction of the cost a decent web presence and social media campaign can put a low budget film on an even footing with a Hollywood blockbuster.
Yet there are two reasons this doesn’t happen more regularly.
Firstly, there is still too great a reliance on traditional advertising in independent film marketing. Even a high percentage of an already challengingly small marketing budget is dwarfed by the amounts that studios spend and as a result, the indies are drowned. TV spots in particular are a cripplingly expensive and wasteful form of marketing for an indie film and the web presents a far more efficient and relatively effective spend.
Secondly, to amplify the effectiveness of the Internet in making you appear bigger than you are, you need to present a single, consistent and cohesive identity. In film, this means covering many phases – production, festivals, theatrical release then DVD/TV/online release – which can frequently span 18 month to 2 years.
In the last decade the studios have become extremely adept at this in rolling out well-branded franchises. They can do this because they control all of these phases. At the same time as a script is being developed, marketing teams will be considering their campaigns which will start to trickle out through a film’s production and which will grow in momentum to the final release.
In independent film, this process is incredibly fractured with different companies and personnel taking over at each stage. At production stage, although the Internet may have made potential viewers aware that the film is being made, too frequently there is no official voice to try and tap into this audience. The first official coverage may not come until festivals, though any marketing material generated here is more often than not changed or even discarded by theatrical release. There is absolutely no sense of a targeted and growing campaign here. In fact it’s not uncommon for a film to have several websites, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and blogs by the end of its run. If any one part is successful my experience is commonly that others fail to connect and build on it.
Rather than utilising the power of the Internet to amplify this small voice to a studio-defying roar, the result is several smaller voices saying different things.
Enter the UK Film Council and their Digital Innovation in Distribution fund. Consisting initially of 5 awards of up to £30,000 (again, note relatively that this is not a considerable total), money was specifically to be spent on an innovative online marketing idea, over and above what a distributor normally produced, to be released ahead of the usual marketing window. It demonstrates the UKFC recognising that digital marketing is increasingly important and what’s more, that this is being ignored and needs a kick start. They understand it’s important to close the gap between producer and distributor and to involve the distributor earlier. The distributor in turn gains by building their audience early and then being able to grow their campaign consistently and organically from this platform. It also seeks to give solid evidence to an exhibitor that the audience for the film exists – the kind of evidence only usually seen from a studio touting a franchise.
Where an industry structure did not lend itself to providing this vital marketing foundation, it took a top-level body to produce the initiative, an initiative I can’t see being taken if left to the free market.
Clearly this is more than “admin”; more than a redundant valve in the flow of money from lottery to filmmaker. For Jeremy Hunt’s claim of “admin”, I see “education”. For me, what was equally as important as whether box office was improved by the granting of these awards was the resulting dialogue. For the pitches I was involved with, regardless of being successful or otherwise, was the fact that for the first time we were actually having these kind of discussions with distributors, and what’s more a number of distributors we’d not talked to previously with no great track record in digital marketing.
In my mind there is no doubt that this fund was the catalyst to get distributors thinking about what I see as a vitally important way of countering the studios in marketing terms.
For “education” also read “insurance”, for that is what this fund also offers. If the distributor is taking no risk in dipping a toe in the water to see the likely audience of a film, they surely would. Without this opportunity, the safest option is to go with exactly the same as what’s sold before. Return to the devil you know. Or the vampire you know. Or the pirate you know. Or the super hero you know. Because without a top level incentive to try and diversify, these will likely be the only types of film you ever get to see.