The Problem with Abundance
My first panel of This Way Up 2016 sought to built on the themes of Bobby Allen’s opening keynote speech on the subject of abundance in film exhibition and the challenge of keeping audiences engaged rather than overwhelmed in the face of too much choice. Bobby’s keynote contained reference to Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice and accompanying TED Talk which is very much worth a watch.
Brief introductions were followed by a statistic from Wendy Mitchell that is staggering: Comscore believe that UK theatrical film releases will top 900 for the first time this year. The question is: does this break the system, and how can we cope?
The sheer volume provides curators like Jason Wood from HOME Manchester with a programming headache: how can you ensure that you’re giving screen time to the right films if you don’t have enough time to watch everything? This creates a hierarchy in which the smaller independents can get pushed to the bottom. Furthermore, even if HOME are in a position to screen 20+ films across one week, how are staff and audiences expected to keep up?
Allison Gardner said the problem is compounded by the nature of the release schedule, which sees volumes swell at awards time, forcing venues and audiences to miss out on certain titles that might otherwise have found screen time, if released at less competitive times of the year.
Conversely, Ben Luxford revealed that the BFI’s distribution fund has seen rapidly declining in applications over recent years as rights holders see a shifting market that no longer offers guaranteed bookings for titles.
On the flipside, abundance also means that there are more really great films being released. The challenge is to help audiences engage with this work without being overwhelmed by choice. Bobby Allen made the case for MUBI’s model of limited availability in order to help provide focus on certain titles at specific times, as opposed to the everything—available-at-any-moment approach of other streaming services.
A wide-ranging debate took in everything from cheaper technology democratising the filmmaking process, through online piracy, and the comeback of rep cinema thanks to new restorations. Someone taking a trip to the cinema to see a restoration of a Tarkovsky may well then go online to seek out the rest of the catalogue via the likes of MUBI or the BFI Player, and vice versa.
Ultimately, the panel settled on the idea that, for audiences, all of these exhibition forms combine to create a thriving film culture.
Next up was Postcards from the Future – billed as a panel of artists and practitioners who are blurring the boundaries between media and mixing film with elements of gaming and live performance.
Yann Seznec set the scene by putting the focus on storytelling: will the future of storytelling be delivered through technologies as they become available to us or, do we need to actively seek to create technologies to support new ways of storytelling?
Filmmaker Shola Amoo gave us an overview of how he has used user-generated content from around the world to address the subject of gentrification in London, something which couldn’t have been achieved until very recently. He argued convincingly that content should drive form, rather than vice versa, and the panel agreed that we have all seen examples of technology being shoe-horned into projects because it is available rather than because it adds something to the story.
A first impression of a new technology can be formative for people, so there is a real danger that using technology in uninspired or unnecessary ways will switch people off rather than inspire them to explore those new forms.
The most revealing part of the session, for me, was in a discussion about the privilege of technology. In the UK we take access to technology and the internet as a given, but is there a danger that we give little thought to the barriers of entry for those less privileged?
Technology is often cited as democratising the filmmaking process but is this always the case? Shola Amoo is quick to counter that in Nigeria, technological advances have seen a huge market for selling DVDs on the street migrate into a thriving online streaming service that feeds the entrepreneurial Nollywood industry without any state funding. It is more about DIY attitude and energy; are we too reliant on state funding initiatives in the UK?
My day wrapped up with the RE:Mixing it: Film, Archive, Music session which showcased the wide variety of projects mixing film with live music, newly commissioned and otherwise. We were shown clips from projects by the British Council, Faction North’s From Scotland with Love, Sensoria’s many varied events (from an outdoor screening of Threads in Sheffield to a screening in a swimming pool with an underwater soundsystem), and HippFest’s Alison Strauss who presented an overview of Scotland’s only silent film festival.
I was left thinking about how creatively people are dealing with the abundance of film, and how competition for screen time is seeing films increasingly escape the cinema and onto screens in unusual places, in our hands and online.
Photograph courtesy of Eoin Carey.