On hearing David Cameron’s remarks that the British Film industry must be more focussed on making commercially successful films, my response was initially the same incredulity and concern as many others.
I do still think that, like so many political soundbites, his comments were clumsy and heavy-handed. But having reflected for a day or so, I think there is some positivity to be drawn from them.
One thing is for sure – that it’s brought a much needed spotlight to the great contribution that the creative industry (with Film as its biggest component) makes to the British economy. Media coverage is otherwise massively biased toward financial services, which for the attention it gets and the pedestal it is put on would seem to be the only significant UK industry. The reality is that the creative industry contributes perhaps just 2 to 3 percent less to GDP. At the smallest level, I’d argue that simply to hear the Today programme yesterday discussing the Film industry, if only for one day, rather than what has become just a perpetual background drone about financial issues, was refreshing enough to justify the comment.
On a more significant scale though, if, rather than interpreting the PM’s comments as meaning “you must all make studio films” instead as “you must produce films in a more studio-like way”, I think this is no bad thing. Of course, the worry is that funding will be given only to tried and tested ideas, though for the imaginative filmmaker wanting to create original cinema, is there an opportunity here to force them to consider who their audience are and engage with them at an earlier stage?
Sadly, my experience of the UK independent industry, aside from a few notable exceptions, is that considering who may actually watch their film is not something a filmmaker sullies themselves with. The production of a film and the marketing of it are completely separate. Perhaps as much as a few years after a film has wrapped, with no access to the production or its assets, a distributor has the almost impossible task of generating an audience from scratch with very little marketing spend in a noisy marketplace in just three to four weeks. Because of the disconnect with the production and the limited timescale, any attempt to reach an audience often ends up shoe-horning the marketing of another genre around it. The result is that there may be a great film with a sizeable potential audience, but for too many films, that audience will never know.
Digital media provides the tools to integrate this process, allowing a filmmaker to reach out and nurture an audience from the start right up to offering a legitimate distribution method at the end. All this comes with a price tag that is affordable. Affordable, but not free. The first thing that must change is that all productions, however small, must consider marketing and audience development as part of their responsibility and allocate budget for it. The next is to embrace the creative side of digital as imaginatively as their own film – it is less marketing, more an extension of the production (amazingly, still the greatest percentage of digital marketing spend in indie films is on banner ads – banner ads are not new media, they are old media masquerading as new).
Was this what Cameron meant? Well, probably not… there’s an implicit and insidious faith in market research, my feelings on which can be summed up by a couple of choice Steve Jobs’ quotes: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them” and “If you want to know what the future is, invent it”. Every industry needs those figures who can generate paradigm shifts, and those shifts do not come about by asking people what should be made, but from pioneering, visionary voices. The UK film industry has a great history of those pioneers and visionaries, but can we honestly say that we’re representing that talent in the best possible way? Is there scope to direct more of that creative zeal to connecting a film to an audience? Absolutely.