“The lack of authoritative, widely available statistics for UK film, video and television, is both a symptom and a cause of the troubles affecting the industry.”
Introduction to the BFI Film and Television Handbook 1993, the first to include a section dedicated to market intelligence
“If we cannot measure trends in performance, we cannot establish with any degree of certainty whether this action plan is having any effect and whether and how it needs to be modified.”
A Bigger Picture, Film Policy Review Group, 1998
“[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.”
Donald Rumsfeld, former United States Secretary of Defense
What do we need to know? That is the question I put to a number of film industry insiders, analysts, academics and interested observers over the last few weeks.
As worded, the question implies some degree of empirical evidence is necessary to the film business and the state apparatus that supports it, though I was quite prepared to hear from people who felt the contrary was true. Of course, nobody did. In fact, everyone I approached was clear that research and statistics are essential in one form or another, as a means to a variety of ends.
Answers to the question also depend on the direction and goals of public policy for film, as Karsten Grummitt (Dodona Research) points out in his contribution, and it may be premature to draw firm conclusions about what is needed until DCMS and the BFI have formally set out their stall (we can expect a public consultation on draft proposals in due course).
Nevertheless, the idea that some consideration of evidence is necessary for effective policymaking and implementation, as Adam Minns (Pact) argues, is surely true (a conclusion shared by the Film Policy Review Group, quoted above).
As Adam goes on to explain, the issue then becomes how best to harness and balance the respective roles of public and private sector data providers in meeting the demands of evidence-based policy. Steve Perrin (Digital Funding Partnership) is in no doubt of the benefits of public agencies working alongside commercial data providers in this regard.
Of course it’s not just public policy that needs to stay informed of the latest research findings, as the quote above from the introduction to the 1993 BFI Film and Television Handbook makes clear. Nic Wistreich (Netribution) points out that demand for hard data has always been high among diligent film professionals, particularly for business planning to attract investors. Nic introduces the idea that the wider dissemination of such information by public film agencies can serve a ‘common good’, a theme that runs through a number of other contributions.
Though not framed as such, Arvind Ethan David (Slingshot Studios) evokes the idea of the common good when he writes of the ‘informational asymmetry’ between the major Hollywood studios and just about everyone else. In this context, public agencies can perform a vital service by making market intelligence available to local industry players and policymakers- provided that all parties know how to use it.
Producer Stephen Follows (Catsnake) gives another example of the common good when he describes the value derived from research commissioned by the UK Film Council’s Distribution & Exhibition department. Stephen contends this would never have found such free expression by a private source. A number of contributors, including Paul Homer (Phoenix Cinema), Julia Vickers (BFFS) and Alison Small, point to other UK Film Council research publications (the Statistical Yearbook, UK production tracking etc.) as prime examples of service to the common good.
That’s not to suggest UK Film Council output escapes criticism. On the contrary, several contributors, including a number of those previously mentioned, suggest areas for improvement.
For example, Jon Barrenechea (Duke of York’s Picturehouse) detects certain biases in the Statistical Yearbook, and calls for greater emphasis on audience research in a striking parallel with the Film Policy Review Group’s proposal (dating back to 1998) to establish ‘a permanent audience research capability for use by the whole industry - a film industry equivalent of the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board’.
In many cases, gaps in the existing public data record fall into the category of what Donald Rumsfeld once quaintly termed ‘known unknowns’. That is, knowledge deficiencies of which we are aware. Thus, Stephen Follows cites the lamentable lack of data about first time producers and micro budget filmmaking. We understand these represent significant areas of activity (both in their likely scale and as a formative stage in career building), but they occur below the ‘industry radar’ (Nic Wistreich makes a related point when he notes the UK Film Council does not track productions budgeted under £500k).
Clive Davies-Frayne (Filmutopia) gives the lack of readily available data about return on investment (ROI) for British film projects as another example of a ‘known unknown’ that can seriously hamper investment decisions, yet there is no easy way to address this omission.
Emma Biggins (Multistory Films), speaking from direct experience, observes that first time producers are likely to encounter more ‘known unknowns’ than established players by virtue of limited access to privileged, insider data (and, given their relative inexperience, new entrants doubtless also encounter a good many ‘unknown unknowns’. Although they won’t know it, of course).
One way to tackle many of the most common ‘known unknowns’ cited by contributors is to find some way to mine the rich seams of data held by private companies, a point made most persuasively by Angus Finney. Angus argues the common good can be usefully served by more concerted data sharing by sales companies, and he claims measures can be taken to overcome objections to this on the grounds of commercial sensitivity.
So: the contributions reported below cover a very wide terrain. The most salient conclusion to draw is that the act of gathering, analysing and disseminating film research and statistics is too important to be ignored. If you think that sounds portentous, I can go further: the question of who does what and to what end needs urgent consideration in the next phase of film policy development.
The remainder of this post gives voice to the views of industry contributors name-checked above. A follow-up post will do likewise from the perspective of academia and the wider research community. And in a final post concluding this series I’ll attempt to draw the various threads together and offer some thoughts on future options.
My thanks to all the contributors, and please feel free to join the discussion through the comments box.
Karsten Grummitt, Managing Director, Dodona Research; author of the Black Dove blog
“The question of what types of data public agencies ought to be collecting and disseminating is really meaningless in the absence of an agreement as to the goals of the public agency. In the case of film this agreement is generally elusive because film is both a cultural product and a business, and the boundary between these two aspects is both fluid and fundamentally unclear. A cynic might suggest that the only time the two aspects truly come together is when the business asks for a cultural subsidy so that it can turn a profit.
Keeping them separate, and considering first the question of culture, it’s hard to see the need for any data collection at all. In pretty well every country worldwide, defending cultural patrimony in the film business means rigging statistics to claim every film you can as a national film. Co-productions are a well-established way to get the numbers up, and the UK Film Council got pretty inventive with the idea of culturally British or whatever it was. The market share of national films is important to film agencies, it’s their reason for being. But to the public, country of origin statistics are irrelevant: film is a responsive, not to say opportunistic, business with very short product life cycles. If audiences show a taste for films about, for example, the British monarchy, appropriate films will generally turn up to meet the demand.
Looking at the question from a business point of view, insofar as a great deal of data gathered about the film industry is gathered by private organisations (including mine), interventions by public agencies to disseminate it more widely are genuinely useful, as indeed are the data collection activities of film agencies. But it can be a rather negative kind of usefulness: one look at the numbers and it’s pretty clear that huge swathes of the film business are not a business. Investors would do well to study the data.
Whether it might be useful for public agencies to disseminate different types of data is another question. What film entrepreneurs or investors arguably most need to know (after how to judge a script) is how much money a project might make, with the favourite route to a guesstimate being the performance of comparable films. In this area, public agencies are inhibited by the blanket prohibition on revealing data relating to individual firms.
At present I would guess it is still effectively impossible to obtain, meaningfully estimate, or model data concerning the income from a single film that has enjoyed any appreciable life as a commercial entity. There are too many sources of income earned in, hopefully, too many territories. Some relevant data is available from established sources, most of it is not. Only those closely involved in the production and exploitation of the film are in a position to see the full picture and, given the state of accounting in parts of the motion picture industry, even this may be questionable. So this doesn’t seem to me an area where the state or its agencies could produce reliable data, or should tread.”
Adam Minns, director of policy, Pact
“There is absolutely a role for public agencies and/or Government to gather and publish market information – any policy or market intervention by Government should be based on a reliable evidence base, and in the film industry there are a lot of interventions! Without that evidence base, we run the risk of regulators or politicians being captured by the most powerful interest groups.
That doesn’t mean that bodies such as Pact don’t have an important role in this area either. Pact will commission many reports and studies over the year to inform our campaigning – on anything from exports, to the size of the production sector, through to our recent report on building a sustainable film industry. Obviously we want the data to stand up to scrutiny if we are going to persuade the regulator or Government to act on it. But equally, as a trade association, we serve the interests of independent film, television and digital media producers. We can be the first to identify trends or gaps in Government’s understanding, but our work is not a substitute for the Government or another independent body conducting its own research to establish the accuracy of our analysis, or at the very least employing someone who is comfortable with data to interrogate it.
What sort of data do we need in film? We thought the annual yearbook produced by the Film Council, some of it based on data from industry stakeholders, was very useful as a one-stop overview of the film sector and would welcome its continuation through an independent body or a Government department. We would have to be careful to preserve the granular understanding of the film business, though – ONS data is often too high level, for example.
What sort of data don’t we need? Pact does not think it is the role of the public sector to tell companies how to develop their businesses, so we would be nervous about a public body commissioning research into specific issues as part of an agenda. Nor should the public sector try to replace the industry – we don’t need public money to be spent on research that the market is providing already, particularly where that data is part of a business to business service already.”
Steve Perrin, Chief Executive, Digital Funding Partnership (UK); former Head of RSU, UK Film Council and Managing Director, Nielsen EDI
“The UK film industry may be deficient in a number of areas. However, statistics is not one of them. Web sites abound with box office data, production costs, profit estimates etc. Equally, the mainstream press have an apparent love affair with such data, using them to draw conclusions that are in the main spurious. Until now, the UK Film Council has filled the role of co-ordinating, quality controlling, commenting on and disseminating such data in a manner that is authoritative, insightful and universally accepted as a veridical picture of the industry.
With the imminent closure of the UKFC, it is as yet unclear where this function will reside, if indeed anywhere at all. It is thus imperative that all relevant parties, both commercial and public, seek to determine the future direction of statistical analysis and data dissemination if the UK, the third largest box office generator in the world, is not to become the only major country in the modern world without such a facility. Such a state of affairs would be highly detrimental to an industry that is worth billions to the UK economy.”
Nic Wistreich, Director, Netribution; editor of The Film Finance Handbook
“Netribution has always had a steady flow of questions from people wanting to find good film data - indeed one of our most successful sections when we launched was the statistics sections as there was very little online other than the MPA yearbook. Mostly the data is for preparing business plans for films or sometimes investors trying to judge the value of a business plan. But good data also informs general understanding of the market for all sorts of people - technology providers, platforms, academics - even kids trying to convince their parents that a career in filmmaking isn't a dead-end option.
But most importantly, I think, it's a 'common good' - i.e. it's public investment into something that makes life easier for many people inside and outside the industry without prejudice. This kind of universal service not only benefits the film community, it comes with no barriers to access and is non-discriminatory. It's like the free press lists that the Scottish Arts Council used to make available to anyone via their website - by saving small arts organisations the trouble of compiling this themselves it's a kind of universal in-kind grant.
Of course it could be significantly improved. One big shortfall is failure to track production activity below £500k, not to mention short films, indie-documentary, community video and the broad range of professional production in the UK outside film and TV.
And then there's the web. Aside from any data from iTunes and the VoD services, how many British filmmakers have their work on YouTube and similar sites? How many collective views have they had? I know of British filmmakers posting work to YouTube with over 4 million views, who make a living from this, yet are completely unknown and disconnected from conventional film circles.
It would also be interesting to see more data offered raw as a CSV/XML so third parties could build apps around it. For instance - cross referencing box office records in the UK for the last decade or more against FindAnyFilm.com or IMDB would be incredibly useful for those putting investment plans together to be able to pull together a list of the top ten grossing foreign language documentaries, or gangster films not starring Ray Winstone, or films longer than 4 hours, for instance.”
Arvind Ethan David, CEO, Slingshot Studios
“I think my starting point is that the informational asymmetry between the bulk of producers (and policy makers) on the one hand, and the Studios, is a serious impediment to both sound business strategy or policy making. A longer post on this subject can be found here.
As that post starts to suggest, the problem is not just in what data is available, it’s also in what data the press, the public and the policy makers tend to fixate on – though the second is in part a function of the former. When even the minister in charge feels free to talk about BO [box office] as the key indicator of profitability without reference to costs or other revenue streams, you start to realize how bad the problem is.
I think the UKFC’s soon to be defunct policy unit did valuable work in collecting data, but a less good job in making it available in usable forms to the industry. The Statistical Yearbook was fine, but what would have been more useful is raw data, available online, and searchable, sliceable, and capable of manipulation and republishing in an open govt. model. It’s worrying that this function has been more or less lost, and whilst the industry has it in separate pots (BVA, [Rentrak] EDI, Screen, etc etc) it’s not clear who – outside the Studios – has the motivation to collate it and use it for the broader good.
Perhaps the BFI or PACT could negotiate a low cost ‘cottage industry’ discount to [Rentrak]’s full Flash service and the BVA lobbied to make their data more available...?
Even then, though, I fear a little that comparative innumeracy amongst our producers would make it of limited use to them, but at least distributors, sales agents, financiers, consultants and (hope against hope) policy framers could have access to better data.”
Stephen Follows, Producer, Catsnake
“What do we need to know? Two things – who are we, and what do we need to improve?
Who Are We?
It’s easy to measure the number of large to mid-level productions as they are ‘on the radar’ of the industry. However this ignores a huge number of small to micro budget productions in the UK. To my knowledge the best measure of UK films is the UKFC’s annual report and the British Council’s annual Cannes book. But these are very surface level and don’t give us the full picture.
It also counts productions, not personnel. I have been asked on a number of occasions how many producers there are in the UK and I honestly have no idea! I know how many members the New Producers’ Alliance had, how many on the Raindance lists, etc but these are sporadic, anecdotal pieces of data picked up in the course of conversations.
I recognise that the problem is far from simple as defining who is a producer isn’t an easy task but we should at least have someone/some body trying. Without a union or any qualifications needed to do the job we have no way of knowing even on what order of magnitude the number is. The more success a producer has the easier it is to measure them (published numbers include the number of UK producers at the Cannes Producer’s Network, the number of producers supported by regional screen agencies, etc) but this only counts the producers after they’ve had some success. How can we help producers at the start of their careers if we don’t know who they are or even how many of them there are?!
And if we’re going to have a system that only provides support when the producers come forward themselves then we need a much clearer system and aim to help a broader number of people. At the moment early-stage producers create their own informal support networks by getting to know people randomly and floundering for a while.
The current system only tracks and helps producers who have done ‘something’ and ignores the ones that need help the most.
What Do We Need to Work On?
I have found Peter Buckingham’s research and analysis on film audiences fascinating and extremely helpful in my job as a producer. An institution like the UKFC is the only place that such a body of work could have amassed and it’s very sad to think that it will stop. I can’t see any private organisation being so supportive of such work and also so free with the findings.
The thing that always seemed strange to me was why his work isn’t more widely known. Peter and the UKFC are hardly secretive about their results but still there is widespread ignorance on the issue in the independent film sector. I’m not sure what was failing here but there exists a gap between the creation of the data / analysis and the very professionals that need to know. It could be a problem of the UKFC not having the resources to promote it, a poor promotion strategy or producers’ unwillingness to seek out such data – I don’t know. But I’m sure that a wider understanding of Peter Buckingham’s audience research would help improve UK films commercially.”
Paul Homer, Chief Executive, Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley
“Industry statistics, when accurate, collated and properly analysed are vital to any business in the industry. They enable us to make informed decisions about how and where to grow our business. How much to spend on advertising, how to best serve our customers and how we compare with industry averages.
The role of the Film Council in this area has, over the last few years, become indispensable. Previously there was no one-stop shop to find the information one needed. With the advent of the Film Council suddenly there was loads of useful data, well presented and well analysed.
Not only that, but crucially for an organisation of our size, this data was publicly available. We didn’t have to rely on headline information from the far-too-expensive Screen Digest – which whilst great are an unjustifiable expense for our organisation.
The demise of the Film Council has been interesting, as it appears that almost all of its functions, and thus spending, have been transferred to other organisation. The argument about saving money then is not valid here. However what is as yet unclear is whether the vital work carried out by the stats unit will also continue. It seems like madness for such a mature sector to suddenly rid itself of such important information. Information without which the sector will be poorer, figuratively and literally.
The industry needs this data to continue to be gathered and analysed and it needs to be freely available to the industry.”
Julia Vickers, Partnerships and Development Consultant, British Federation of Film Societies
"I believe it's vital that we keep track of what's happening across all parts of the industry - with resources becoming ever more limited it's the only way to ensure there is evidenced best value for money (be it public, corporate or personal).
The inclusion of BFFS-originated data in the UKFC Statistical Yearbook's Exhibition chapter has helped to raise the profile of the UK's thriving community cinema movement. Provided we have the means to do so, we will continue to collect data about film societies and other community cinema providers through our annual survey and updates to our Community Cinema Database, to complement whatever future arrangements are made for UK film research more generally."
Alison Small, Consultant; former Senior Executive International Production, Office of the British Film Commissioner, UK Film Council
“I sometimes feel like a lone voice banging on about the importance of the information coming out of the research that UKFC puts together. The information on levels of production is the tip of the iceberg, and the ability to look at where production takes place in the UK, the companies producing those films, the budget levels and the backers is essential information to anyone looking to develop business, from regional post production facilities to well established studios in the South of England.”
[This contribution originally appeared as a comment in response to an earlier post. I’ve reproduced it, with permission, because of its relevance here]
Jon Barrenechea, General Manager, Duke of York's Picturehouse; author of the Splendor Cinema blog
“For years, the UKFC’s annual yearbook was a fascinating (if somewhat biased) insight into the UK’s film industry which went beyond the usual production-focused numbers and delved deep into the guts of what the business is made of: movies, the people who make, distribute and ultimately show them.
With the demise of the UKFC and the ‘bonfire of the quangos’, where will we get this information? How do decision makers get their information without paying exorbitant market research fees? What will the new and ‘improved’ BFI do to let us know how it’s spending lottery money?
I’ve worked as an exhibitor for the last seven years and I recently completed a Master’s degree where I researched the UK film industry for my dissertation. I have read every report, yearbook, white paper and research around the film business that has been published in the past decade. I’ve also attended quite a few international events, conferences and training courses on the continent where the UKFC Yearbook was praised for its thoroughness. The CNC in France are the only other body to produce such a comprehensive document.
There are two sides to the question- what did we need to know during the UKFC’s time, and what do we need to know now, post-UKFC? One frustration I always have had with the Yearbook is the way it merges the amount of public funding for distribution and exhibition into one category, making it almost impossible to accurately quantify the amount of money given to support either of these (very) different fields. My suspicion is that the reason was that the support for exhibition was so paltry so as to be an embarrassing figure on its own, and the combined number gave the Council a better, rounder statistic to throw around.
So, post-UKFC, what do we need? For me, understanding audiences is the beginning, middle and end. The numbers are important, of course, but they exist in a vacuum unless we understand what is the audience experience and opinion of what happens on the ground. More focus groups, surveys, polls and opinion is needed (and this can help shape public policy). Most of the research done in this area is commercial, proprietary and therefore inaccessible to most. The Arts Council published a couple of reports which delve deep into the participation and engagement of audiences in the arts, but sadly, there is no film-specific information.
So, to conclude, we need numbers, yes, but we need them to be objective and specific, and to link to what is happening on the ground, in cinemas, and some thorough analysis that links the two in a cause-effect way, so that we can both allocate public funds responsibly and so that those in decision-making positions can make informed choices.”
Clive Davies-Frayne, Managing Director, Filmutopia; author of Filmutopia's Sunday Morning Movie Blog
“I'm not sure that the kind of data that would be useful is possible to get. I remember discussing film financing with a guy in the City of London. He told me that films could get plenty of investment if they could get the return/risk figures right. So, offering a high ROI, with a less than 30% risk of failure.
One of the biggest problems in presenting a coherent business plan to investors is providing reliable data on ROI on similar projects. From my perspective: accurate figures of what returns to the producers can be expected for British movies, for the various sales opportunities and territories. So, what are the actual economics of a limited print UK theatrical distribution, in a particular genre? I have no idea at all about how that could be achieved, but I do know that the lack of open and accurate data is a hurdle that doesn't help the industry.”
Emma Biggins, Producer, Multistory Films
“The UKFC research pages were a starting point for me, and certainly gives a very broad idea of the bigger picture (excuse the pun) i.e. number of films being made each year, how many are indies, etc, (although I think the definition of an independent film is skewed). But it also spurred me on to try and find other sources of information - mostly these were actual production companies and other producers, hence why I gave the UKFC as a research reference in my blog post.
But in truth, in terms of statistics and how they and the UK Film Council website affected my decisions, their influence was minimal. As a micro-budget first-time producer the information I really wanted and needed was near impossible to find - how all these films get financed, budget information (real budgets!), sales information - (and how much revenue actually goes to the producer/production company). Statistics on indie production companies and their growth and viability based on their slates of films and the amount of equity they are maintaining in each film (if any). All this information is always well guarded, I often find myself exploring with envy, a lot of Australian film web sites. Their film industry, it's upkeep and incentives are so much more attractive and accessible.”
Angus Finney, author of The International Film Business: A Market Guide Beyond Hollywood
“I think we need some basic research done beyond just the key stats and analysis thrown up by the production sector. That said, I'd like to see what happened re the dwindling co-productions (specifically UK-EU partners), and to track that landscape in detail going forwards. For example, a change in UK-spend laws let alone a visionary move into Eurimages would throw up a plethora of interesting data if decent benchmarking exists.
The areas that need more data are in the sales, international distribution and export arena. Real figures, not just guff. Cost of reaching the market (AFM, Cannes, Berlin), cost of festival launches (from Cannes to Toronto to Rotterdam, etc), sales commission spreads, price ranges, etc. Sales companies love to say that this information is commercially sensitive (I know, I ran one), but pooling this information could be done in a productive manner without any one company being exposed or damaged.
We need more data on what happens to vertically integrated companies who are operating and re-structuring to the new content value chain. Especially those with one foot in TV and digital content (plus music etc - think Warp), and the other in feature film.
What this would throw up is more business model data and analysis, which would attract further academic as well as practitioner insights. None of the UKFC data dug into this area in depth. We need this to understand how content production, distribution and, ultimately, revenue streams are adapting to the new user-driven, multi-platform world that arrived earlier than just yesterday.”