Industry analyst Michael Gubbins explains why the huge gap between filmmaking and distribution is threatening to swallow the industry’s chance for real change.
It’s tempting to see the dedication of the European Union’s Polish presidency to ‘culture’ as a distraction from the rather bigger financial issues besetting member states: a case of fiddling while Rome, or at least Athens, sizzles. Yet for Poles, with their experience under Communism, cinema and art are not removed from the wider political discourse. Or at least that was the case for the generation which saw off dictatorship.
There are concerns, however, about the growing distance between the great Polish cinematic tradition and younger citizens, not least because the nation has struggled to finance a sustainable film industry. And it is a situation that is all too familiar across the rest of Europe.
The first of a number of Polish conferences on cultural change in the EU, entitled Competencies in Culture, brought together representatives of industry and politics from across the continent. The event made useful contributions to well-known but still unresolved issues of law and business practice, including territorial rights and release windows. Delegates also debated the difficult balance between the rights of artists through copyright, and the right of access to content for consumers.
But while the focus was on the business challenges presented by the digital economy, it became clear that there’s another essential debate that speaks to more recent experience in Poland. While we are arguing about how to adapt the existing model to a demand-driven business environment, the same effort has not been spent on how that demand can be created and nurtured in the first place. That is partly because of the primacy in national film policy of production over distribution: when states talk about cultural diversity, they generally mean the ability to make films, not ensuring that those films are seen.
There is, of course, a far greater choice of films for the cinephile today than at any time in history, and each year throws up exciting new ways—both legal and illegal—to find and consume them. Even so, there is a wide gap between access and engagement; the explosion of choice does not help the uninitiated find their way to great cinema. In fact, paradoxically, many of today’s older cinema lovers were introduced to great film because of the paucity of platforms. There is a sizeable section of the audience who were given their first taste of art-house and specialist cinema because it was featured on one of a handful of state television channels.
In the UK, for example, there is what we might call a Moviedrome generation, who watched Alex Cox’s series in the days when there were just three or four television channels and the Internet was up there with flying cars and domestic robots. Back then the BBC took its Reithian role as educator as well as entertainer very seriously, and Cox—the director of cult films including Repo Man—was the coolest teacher. Today, terrestrial television remains the critical introduction to new experience, even if the pursuit of those passions now often takes place elsewhere: online, on digital channels, etc.
But there are serious concerns here. Research on the last 20 years of film on television in the UK shows that foreign-language film has all but disappeared from the small screen, and that specialised independent cinema and classic film has been relegated to the outer edges of the schedule. For all the much-hyped development of ‘non-linear’ consumption of television, the peak still counts, with shows like The X-Factor still attracting huge numbers. Given that television exports is now a billion-pound business—and that in many ways television drama, from The Wire to The Killing, has come of age in recent years—television has few commercial incentives to help the big screen.
And we shouldn’t forget that the Moviedrome tradition was about falling in love with film because there was bugger all else on the telly. That doesn’t sound like the basis for a 21st-century cultural policy. Those days are over and there is no role for nostalgia in a complex debate about the future. If film wants a piece of the prime-time terrestrial TV action, it’s going to have to fight for it with music, sport, gardening, cars, etc, etc.
Perhaps, though, there remains a critical role for education in nurturing a cinema culture in its natural home: schools and universities. Some countries, notably France, are way ahead of the game in treating film as a subject worthy of study. For others, including the UK, there have been intermittent campaigns to encourage the teaching of film but these have relied on the drive of individuals and groups and public money that all too often is short-lived. Putting film into the curriculum cannot be done cheaply and decades of neglect mean that significant work would be needed even just to educate the educators.
The industry may need to take a role here. Some flexibility on the release of content rights for education and television, for example. The issue of rights to clips is one reason why we do not even have a film quiz show.
It’s time to accept that there are bigger issues at stake.
Now there are those who believe we have reached a significant turning point in the cultural history of film and that the Moviedrome generation needs to accept the realities of a new age. Some believe a new Internet generation wants to rewrite the history of cinema, rather than wait for permission to access it. They see transmedia—interactive forms of art and entertainment—as the next stage of evolution in audiovisual art.
But if cinema in its purest sense, not to mention the rich visual language it has created over the last century, is to remain relevant and vibrant then it must address the issue of attracting a new generation. It needs to focus on nurturing the roots of a cinematic culture, rather than endless arguments about the value of the fruit. ♦