It's not often that the specialised film exhibition sector gets the opportunity to talk directly to policy-makers. So yesterday's Independent Cultural Cinema Exhibition Conference hosted by SylC partner and field leader Watershed in Bristol, was a welcome opening for cinemas, film societies, higher education and research bodies, and funders to share feedback and strategy with DCMS representatives. Rachael Castell attended on behalf of SylC to note down some of the emerging headlines from an industry both in flux, and - according to many of the attendees - on the brink of an exciting new era...
A traditional manifesto goes a long way
When was the last time you got your teeth into a really good manifesto? One written with both passion and insight, and hopefully by someone from within the sector being addressed, whose suggested strategies are based on both research and experience...? This morning actually. I was re-reading Independent Cultural Exhibition by Mark Cosgrove written out of consultancy with industry peers and following an event entitled 'Beyond the Box Office' - also hosted at Watershed earlier this year. Concise and direct, the document is designed to give governmental policy-makers an insight into the current landscape of the specialised film exhibition sector, and is broken down into three usefully simple headings: i) what we do, ii) what we plan to do, iii) what we need. Nice work Mark.
Meet the Ministers
Indeed, the better work was in fact in having the good sense to 'activate' the manifesto into an event and use it as a springboard to, not only discuss but in some ways to pitch potential strategic ideas straight into the notebooks of DCMS representatives Hugh M. Muckian and Tim Richards, whose willingness and openness to listen to the assembled attendees was very refreshing. It was also wise to do so in concurrence with the Film Policy Review Process (which has been extended NB), and at a time when both industry and audience are perhaps rethinking the whole social experience of cinema. Given the inclination for the cinematically minded to err on the side of drama and anecdote, the event was in fact kept on a pretty even keel by chair John Newbigin of Creative England, and some positive core areas of focus and consideration did emerge. As Dave Moutrey of SylC partner Cornerhouse said, 'when asked if it's better to be an optimist or a pessimist, the answer is "a realist"'; and I think the afternoon held true to that notion.
The Usual Suspects
Of course, the usual debates arose around the need for the government to 'validate' cultural cinema as an important artform (on a par with theatre, opera, dance and so on) and not just an industry. The economics of cultural cinema - particularly relative to other cultural artforms who tend to receive more government support than our lot, was inevitably discussed. The age old production-exhibition-distribution tango danced around the room a few times dipping and swerving because no-one knows exactly how this uneasy relationship is going to resolve: although all agree that there are changes afoot whose ripples could well be positive. And we all talked alot about market failure and learning from our mistakes. Although it was great that the focus really did seem to be on the learning element, and not on the mistakes.
Some New Suspects
Primarily for me, at the forefront of discussion was the potential of the (finally!) solidifying CAV (Cross-Arts Venue) Network (see Crossing Boundaries - The role of cross-art-form and media venues i...), now under the auspices of Creative England. The R&D possibilities offered by this currently 6-cinema intiative, demonstrate how digital could potentially revolutionise the cultural cinema sector for the better. Looking at setting up a new high speed broadband network between arthouse cinemas means a whole world of opportunity for indies: from simultaneous screenings and events, to file sharing and outreach, as well as allowing cinemas to further tailor their programme to their distinct audience.
So CAVs certainly hold a key and deserve support and finance from the government. In addition, and potentially as a source of further R&D potential, there was a fair amount of vocal support from and for Higher Education to play a part in informing experiments in cinematic futures. SylC has certainly seen a trend among successful cinemas to form relationships with local universities where experimentation and modeling can take place in that famous 'sandpit'. From another perspective, the importance of connections with established Public Service Broadcasters was acknowledged and further investment and connection encouraged there. All sensible stuff!
The importance of giving focus to archives was definitively underlined (whether that be in researching, expanding, protecting, preserving, or absolutely in improving accessibility to content therein). As was the need to celebrate the offer of digital and social media to diversify cinematic opportunity, and to widen access for audiences to meet cultural film - within or without actual cinematic walls. There was lively discussion regarding how to economically incentivise or reward cultural cinema exhibition - whether that be in the minefield of VAT removal, or by reflecting eg. the Europa Cinemas model of finance in return for guarantee to screen a percentage of world cinema.
Missed opportunities? Not yet!
Indeed, the issues and ideas discussed for the most part directly reflected those which I understand to be at the heart of independent cinema in the UK. Although there were two areas which I didn't feel received as much attention as perhaps they should have done: which I will try to rectify here by re-opening the debate...
First of all, and close to our hearts, it seems to me of note that successful independent cinemas have become so through a diversification of in-house skills and technology, and of output. Producing supplementary content in the form of podcasts, blogs, videos of Q&As and so on, is widening the net through which audiences come to specialised film, and strengthening the ties that keep them there. By focusing on the need for cinemas to 'tool-up' - whether that be through funded training initiatives for staff, part-funded job posts, or grants for equipment - the government and the sector could seriously answer contemporary audience expectations for rich media experiences, thereby widening audiences and creating more high quality cultural legacy.
The second and final area of focus is that of that very audience. Given that the delegation absolutely concurred that 21st century policy must be shaped in recognition of the ever-growing power of the audience, we did not definitely state the need for cinemas to be assisted and encouraged to understand and represent their audiences. In many cases of cinemas that I have spoken to, market research into current audiences was a luxury unafforded by time or money. If the government and the industry want to make successful positive changes in the future cinematic landscape, an understanding of societal behaviour and expectation with regards to cultural cinema must be paramount. As Mark C. states in his manifesto the government clearly needs to initiate 'a cultural exhibition strategy that begins with the audience'. Whether that is achieved through governmentally-funded research (or research templates), through an enabling of access to relevant information, or through, qualitative analysis and response based on social media (for example, via the CAV Network) this must be central to moving forward.
Encouragingly, both the debate and DCMS ears seem to remain open. Contribute via the Film Policy Review website or by comment to this post and we promise to pass the information on! The resulting paper will be presented to ministers in December for their response in early January. There will then be a consultation period with the BFI, which will lead to the first steps of policy implementation from April 2012 onwards... Watch this space folks, watch this space.