Number crunchers at (the) stake

One of the many good things at risk if the UKFC does get sacrificed on the Coalition Government’s QUANGO bonfire is its Research and Statistics Unit (RSU). They have done all of us with a professional interest in film a huge service over the past few years by producing a steady stream of  research both wide and deep.  One of the many questions to be answered by the DCMS and Jeremy Hunt is whether, and if so by whom, this vital if unglamorous part of the UKFC’s work will be carried on.

Delving into the RSU’s latest annual yearbook of film facts, as always there is a wealth of important and revealing data to be found, albeit too little of it disaggregated to provide the Scottish dimension.  Amongst the sections which are, we find that Scots in the central belt continue to go to the cinema more than anywhere else in the UK with 3.5 admissions annually per person compared to the UK average of 2.8 per year which happens to be exactly the frequency at which Northern Scots take in a movie.

Scottish movie taste appears to be more diverse than most of the UK apart with over 5 ‘specialised’ screens per million of population compared to the UK average of 4.  Only London, perhaps not that surprisingly, has more at 10 per million.

One of the more obscure facts buried in the yearbook but none the less still interesting is a comparison of the top movies on free-to-air and subscription channels.  ITV2 clocked up 5.8m viewers for Ice Age 2 while Sky Movies scored 5.3m for National Treasure: Book of Secrets.  The interesting bit is that whereas Ice Age was screened just 5 times on the free channel, garnering an average audience of just over a million, Sky had to press the playout button on National Treasure no less than 184 times for an average audience per transmission of around 30,000.  Two very different patterns of viewing it would seem to get roughly the same number of eyeballs.

A related but much less obscure fact is that contrary to expectations UK pay-movie channels have experienced a decline in audience over the past nine years from 647 million views in 2000 to 559 million last year.  Though over that period the total audience for movies on TV rose above then fell below its 2000 level of 3.5million viewers, it has more or less recovered, mainly thanks to Freeview (with the help of those Artic critters and their friends) to stand at 3.4 million.

What matters most about these numbers is that movies generate a substantial part of the broadcasters’ audience and thus revenue, which the UKFC estimate at around £1.1 billion a year of which around 20% – £200m – are UK films.  Although the majority of these are US backed UK films such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Love Actually, there remains an important argument that whether free-to-air public service, licence fee based, advertising or subscription-based, UK broadcasters should be investing more of their revenue in UK production, both on cultural grounds for those with serious ‘public value’ intent (i.e. the BBC) and/or as part of their self-interest in ensuring the continued existence of a UK film industry that can continue to supply film content for their audiences i.e. us.  UK Broadcasters currently invest only about £25m in film production, low compared to other European countries.

These are just a few, almost random, bits of data from the over 200 pages of the 2010 yearbook, a taste of the crucial research that the RSU undertake, collate and analyse so that serious discussion of the film industry is possible and we are not reduced to exchanging anecdotes and guess-work about what’s really going on.  Or as one sage put it:

“Where facts are few, experts are many.”

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