Archive for October, 2011

Getting film researchers and industry into the same room proves productive

Around 60 researchers, policy makers, consultants and others too multi-faceted to categorise but all  sharing an active interest in film policy gathered at NESTA’s London HQ on Wednesday (26th October), courtesy of sponsors the University of Hertfordshire.  Titled ‘Research and policy making for film’ the symposium’s objective was captured in an early session title: ‘Opportunities and challenges of collaboration’.  Setting the scene, the BFI’s head of strategic development Carol Comely observed that in recent times Governments (of various hues) had developed and implemented policy on the basis of a ‘sub-optimal’ research and evidence base.  This was so despite the recommendations of the 2008 “Creative Britain” review.  Declaring the BFI’s aim to be seen as a ‘knowledgeable organisation’ whose expertise ought to extend way beyond ‘film as text’ she acknowledged that it still had “some way to go”.

One  might add that the BFI is not alone in that regard, the evidence base for film policy in Scotland has been scanty to say the least, indeed there hasn’t been any systematic research into the impacts or options for film policy here for over a decade. The closest we’ve got being the 2001 Scottish Executive Review of Scottish Screen and David Graham Associates ‘Audit of the Screen Industries in Scotland’ but as in other domains (see below) these tend to studiously ignore reviewing previous policy success or failure and are thus apt to neither learn from nor avoid repeating the same (mis)judegments.  There have of course been occasional and useful contributions to an otherwise largely absent ‘serious’ debate as distinct from under-informed invective.  These ranging in time and place from e.g. Mark Cousins writing in Vertigo and (then backbencher) Mike Russell reporting to Parliament  to contributions from the more academically inclined such as Duncan Petrie’s significant corpus of work on Scottish ciema which often touches on policy questions and myself (though I leave the usefulness of the latter for others to judge).

Back to the present and Jim Barret from Bigger Picture Research identified a key challenge to greater academic influence on the policy process – the disparity in timescales between policy formation, often measurable in months (or, in the case of the UKFC’s demise what appeared to be weeks) and securing funding for and completing academic research, which is more often measured in years.  Royal Holloway’s John Hill characterised the position of academic researchers as lying on a continuum ranging from ‘hired hand’ to ‘critical public agent’ – the latter ensuring that researchers maintained sufficient distance and disinterest to both ask and answer questions that might not always be the ones Government or public agencies want asked.

A little surprisingly, during the course of the day few seemed to feel that policy evaluation, as distinct from original research which might inform new policy areas, was a significant area of potential.  Compared to other fields such as health, criminal justice and so on, which are awash with evaluation projects, the results of successive film policies seems to go unchallenged.  To be fair John Hill did point out that every successive Government film policy seemed to adopt an ‘ab initio’ position, blithely ignoring the previous regime’s efforts.

NESTA’s creative industries director and former Lehman Brothers economist Hasan Bakhshi was less interested in what had or hadn’t worked in the past, preferring to focus on what he suggested were as yet largely unexplored methodological avenues.  ‘Experimental’ and ‘action research’ approaches could, he argued, yield more useful research outcomes, citing the example of NESTA’s work with the National Theatre on cinema broadcast relay of theatre performances.  He suggested there are insights not being brought to researching the film industry: “as an economist I’m particularly concerned at the lack of engagement of economics researchers with the film industry.”

One might challenge this assertion as there has certainly been quite a lot of work going on nationally and internationally, usefully summarised in Sydney University researcher Jordi McKenzie’s recent literature survey.  That said a contributor from the floor rightly observed that applied film industry research doesn’t tend to get you published in the mainstream international journals and thus gain the attendant quality ranking when exercises such as the Research Excellence Framework are conducted.  These are major concerns for up and coming as well as established academics.  As a potential corrective Bakhshi supported the idea of dedicated funding streams to support academic-film business research collaborations.

Turning in the next session to examples of successful collaborations, veteran film historian, curator and researcher Ian Christie, a leading light in 2009’s groundbreaking study ‘Stories we tell ourselves…’  gave a thoughtful and cogent summary of the ways in which his work has engaged with real world concerns. He gently berated the film studies research community for failing to properly engage with empirical methods which could generate the kind of evidence base to inform cultural as much as industrial policy debates, declaring “we’ve had too little quantitative and too much qualitative” work.

Screenwriter and former Hollywood exec Susan Rogers reflected on her work into the experience of women and other underrepresented screenwriters – how they had found a way into the industry and how they managed to stay in.  Echoing other contributions she noted how prone to believing in its own mythology the film industry is.  Far too many people, for example, appeared to believe that the dearth of women screenwriters was because they didn’t write ‘the kind of material that applied to 16-24 year old boys’ commonly believed, erroneously, to be the dominant demographic (as a quick check of the BFI statistical yearbook will confirm).

The first afternoon session zeroed in on film industry data – what exists, what doesn’t, who collects it and owns it and how far they are prepared to share it with researchers or place it in the public domain.  Earlier in the day Ian Christie noted that the large dataset of British film that had to be created for ‘Stories’ because it simply didn’t exist previously, hasn’t as yet been adopted for further development by anyone else – a major omission which he hoped would soon be put right.  Sean Perkins, Acting Head of former UKFC and now BFI Research and Statistics Unit (whose existence within the BFI finally seems, after a concerted industry lobby, to be secure) declared his hope that more of the large volume of data collated and held by the Unit could be made available to other researchers in academia or industry, the better to facilitate analysis in directions or to depths beyond the limited capacity of the Unit’s staffing base.  At the same time he noted that there were significant obstacles to accessing increasingly important data on e.g. non-theatrical audiences and revenues for Video On Demand, with the UK’s biggest operator believed to be working strenuously to withhold such information.

Manchester Business School’s Richard Philips was rather more sceptical of the benefits of ‘data mining’, suggesting that more ‘what if’ based approaches would be of more help to industry (rather overlooking the point that benefit to the industry is not the only criterion for conducting film industry research).  By ‘what if’ he meant drilling into the film value chain to unpick what the decision making, evaluation and risk management process are at each stage of the film lifecycle from development to exploitation, the better to  understand how risk is/can be minimised by investors.

While such ‘operational’ focussed research has an important role to play in informing business improvement, and may well have wider policy implications, it shouldn’t eclipse the equally valid, and at least as strategically significant importance of, aggregate data about patterns and factors in the economic, cultural and social performance of films and filmmaking and film policies, of different kinds and at different levels from national to local.  Amongst these concerns are questions of equality and diversity of representation in respect of women, minorities and other groups.   Picking up this concern Rosalind Gill from King’s College highlighted the continuing issues of access and equality surrounding the film industry’s resiliently ‘informal’ recruitment and selection practices which continue to reinforce the underrepresentation of women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities in many if not most parts of the industry.  She observed that it continues to be difficult even to raise the resistance and/or inability of the film industry to adopt the kinds of formal practices and interventions that have gained ground in other sectors.

At the end of this particular day, it’s fair to say it was a valuable and welcome start to a much larger enterprise – that of getting better film policy(ies) informed by more and better research arising out of what all present hope will be a significant increase in scale, range and impact of film industry-academic collaborations.  This, of course, requires funding from industry and/or Government and if the most tangible outcome of the day proves to be a better-marshalled case for the benefits of such an investment that alone would make it worthwhile.

Getting creative on your assets at Edinburgh Napier’s new Institute for Creative Industries

We launched the new Institute for Creative Industries at Edinburgh Napier University last Thursday and a fair few folk from across the sector joined us in marking the occasion including Creative Scotland CEO Andrew Dixon.  As I remarked in my welcome Universities are often criticised, sometimes rightly,  for being slow to respond, bureaucratic or out of touch with what people in the ‘real world’ do; what kind of help they need and in what sort of timescale.”  We aim to  alter both the  reality and perception of that charge by  focusing on what we can do practically to address the needs of practitioners, SMEs and policy makers.  That can be as simple as offering some technological know-how in interactive media to a TV production company or as complex as facilitating a multi-national collaboration between local authorities, business support agencies and others to share best practice in supporting creative company growth.

From research that we commissioned recently there could be as many as 20,000 businesses in the creative sector in Scotland i.e.nearly twice as many as previously thought, though the vast majority of those permanently employ no-one other than the owner (though they may mushroom on a project by project basis).  Whichever figure is closest to the truth that’s still a complex ecology of businesses/freelancers who make up an interwoven tapestry of suppliers/collaborators/customers/innovators and talent ‘accelerators’.  Universities such as Edinburgh Napier have, through initiatives like the Institute, a vital role to play in linking, facilitating and promoting innovation and reducing the time and expense taken to share knowledge generated in one part with the wider ‘ecosphere’.  Over the next year the Institute will be working with a whole range of partners to develop, draw attention to and maximise the innovation support systems that can help our creative sector thrive.  So watch this space.

Film been turned down for funding? that’s showbusiness

Writer and actor Ford Kiernan is reportedly rather frustrated that his film Seven Songs for Amy is being made in Ireland after having been turned down by Scottish Screen (Interest declared: a former employer of mine, though it no longer exists).  Well of course they did. Why?  Not because it wasnt any good or despite it being good (I have no idea of the quality of the project) but because everybody, repeat everybody (with the exception of Pixar), is very, very bad at picking winning film ideas.

It’s as simple as that – many very succesful films get turned down several times by very smart, very succesful executives in studios, independent companies and public agencies.  Equally the majority of films that do get made disappear without trace.  Film development is a game of chance (for a personal experience see previous post ) in which judgement and taste are important but not determinant and routinely overstated (see http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/10.1086/209624.pdf?acceptTC=true) and no-one (well Pixar do seem to be the exception) has devised a system to beat the odds.  This has been shown repeatedly, with considerable scientific rigour and is part of the fundamental reality of the creative industries.  One person passes on a project and another says yes.  Fire the former and promote the latter and you’ll soon find the terms reversed.  (There’s some evidence that US Studio Executives are often fired for underperformance shortly before the projects they have actually been involved in developing get released and the studio’s performance improves.  In other words they get blamed for their predecessor’s decisions and their decisions get credited to their successor. For more on this and a good non-technical introduction to chaos in movie making see Leonard Mlodinow’s  Chaotic – How Hollywood really operates.).

Seven Songs for Amy may well turn out to be a smash hit like The Inbetweeners or it may tank.  If the former, then Scottish Screen’s decision will be seen as poor, if the latter as wise.  Twenty-twenty hindsight is the curse of this business and those close to a production are always going to be miffed when an exec passes on their cherished project.  There is a good case to invest public funds to keep productions in Scotland on economic grounds but those funds need to be kept separate from those invested on the grounds of a film’s significance to our culture or audience needs.  In either case some decisions will prove to have been smart, others not, that’s life in a risky business.


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