Much has changed since this series began. It was unclear at the time of the first post whether publicly funded film research of the kind undertaken by the UK Film Council had any real future. Now it seems there’s reason for hope.
I’ve been told research was one of the topics discussed at the first Ministerial Film Forum chaired by Ed Vaizey. Meanwhile, attendees at last Thursday’s BSAC Film Conference learned the UK Film Council Research & Statistics Unit (RSU) is transferring to the BFI. This is a welcome development, for all the reasons given by contributors to earlier posts.
More dispiriting is news there’s no money attached to the transfer, which means the BFI’s shrinking pot will have to be further eked out. Unfortunately, research is an expensive business. The last UK Film Council three-year plan earmarked £500k for the task, a figure that looks fancifully high now. To do a half-decent job you’d need a low six-figure sum annually…but even that looks like a stretch too far in the present circumstances.
But we are where we are, and there’s no point bemoaning the fact. In any case, I think there are two reasons for remaining positive.
First, the moment is right for a fundamental rethink of publicly funded, and industry sponsored, research activity. There’s an opportunity in this transitional moment to consider how best to utilise available resources and prioritise those areas of most pressing need.
It makes sense for the future direction of research activity to be considered in parallel with development of the next iteration of film policy. The forthcoming film policy review, flagged last Thursday by the Minister, will look at ‘improving the sustainability of the industry’. Research ought to feature prominently, not least in setting terms of reference for judging industry sustainability against agreed measures.
Furthermore, as contributors to previous posts have argued, UKFC has done much to be commended on the research front, but more is always needed to meet existing and future requirements.
Viewed from another angle, filmmaker Chris Atkins once described UKFC’s research output as ‘a running joke among friends’ in an article in The Times. This points to a breakdown in trust among certain sections of the industry that should be tackled directly, and now’s the time for the BFI to start afresh.
As expressed by contributors to earlier posts, top priorities include addressing the information asymmetry between the biggest companies and the smallest, promoting awareness of market trends and audience behaviour, and making accessible the types of data needed for investor-friendly business plans.
None of this will directly address the trust deficit Chris Atkins alludes to. That’s largely a presentational matter, and so I’d add to the list of priorities the need for greater care over the way research is mobilised in news stories about changing industry fortunes. The current practice of using statistics-heavy press releases to trumpet home grown successes misses a trick, as Arvind Ethan David described in last Friday’s FT (‘The King’s Speech and British Cinema’). Puff pieces may garner column inches in the red tops but nobody in the industry really buys into them. And given the UK Film Council’s premature demise, it seems this kind of cheerleading doesn’t always wash in Westminster either.
The second reason for optimism poses a more fundamental challenge to the established way of doing things, driven this time by developments in information technology.
A recurring theme of previous posts is the desire for ready access to free (or low cost) data. This in turn requires greater openness on the part of public and private sector providers, and a willingness to do things differently. One possible solution is to strike a more appropriate balance between ‘push’ and ‘pull’ in making data accessible.
The current model operated by UKFC is classic ‘push’: research reports and summary statistics are published at regular intervals or on an ad hoc basis during the year. In this scenario, the RSU acts as a gatekeeper, deciding how and when to release information based on its assessment of need and mindful of institutional factors (like communications planning). This approach enables the RSU to observe any restrictions placed on the publication of commercial data, and ensures information is quality checked and analysed in ways deemed most appropriate. Which is all well and good…
…But as several contributors have argued, users want access to more raw data (not just statistics) in readable formats so they can generate their own analyses.
Benefits of such an approach include:
- Increased transparency (summary statistics only direct the eye to where the analyst is pointing, and they can also mislead by omission. Here's a quote I never tire of: ‘Statistics’, A.E. Housman once noted, ‘are like a lamppost to a drunk: used more for support than illumination’);
- Greater relevance (open disclosure has the potential to serve a wider range of needs beyond those envisaged by gatekeepers);
- Harnessing all the talents (users can analyse, ‘mash’ and share data in any way they choose, bringing more minds to bear on the task);
- Encouraging user involvement (push= passive reception; pull= active engagement).
Some vestige of the push model may still be desirable, in the form of, for example, an annual summary of key indicators linked to the main struts of film policy, or a 'Yearbook lite' that draws on RSU's expertise in presenting market overviews. Nonetheless, the default should surely be pull not push, as information technology suited to the task is already widely available. At the most basic level, a pull model can be operated much like the Guardian’s Data Store; all that’s needed is an online platform and a willing community of users.
There are challenges, and they should not be underestimated. For one thing, the RSU cannot unilaterally decide to make its data holdings freely available. It is bound by commercial licenses that impose strict conditions on disclosure to third parties. And in the case of UK production data generated through UKFC tracking and certification records, the publication of individual film budgets is currently prohibited.
But this is where a public-private partnership approach could yield genuine benefits, by involving trade associations, public agencies and the main commercial data providers in a thoroughgoing conversation about how to liberate data for mutual gain. That really would be a radical development.
While we’re at it, let’s not confine this partnership approach to the UK. Existing networks have a role to play, notably the European Film Agency Research Network coordinated by the European Audiovisual Observatory, which brings together the research interests of public bodies across the continent. Europe is certainly a key market for UK film and television, as a paper authored by the Observatory for the BSAC conference makes clear (‘The Importance of the European Market for the UK Film and Television Industry’). But just as significant in the present context is the fact that European agencies face common data acquisition challenges. In the search for UK-based public-private solutions, there’s good reason to remain attentive to creative thinking wherever it hails from, and to collaborate across borders wherever the common good can be served.
How to bring this series of posts to a close? We’ve covered such a wide terrain. Let’s follow up Housman’s quote with another inebriated fellow, who’s looking for his house keys under a lamppost. A policeman comes over to ask what he’s doing.
“I’m looking for my keys,” the drunk says. He points across the road: “I lost them over there”.
The policeman looks puzzled. “Then why are you looking for them all the way over here?”
“Well obviously,” the man slurs matter-of-factly, “because the light’s much better.”
This drunken encounter is a reminder that doing something for convenience, rather than because it’s the best course of action, can have certain logic; and that extends to film research provision. But there really is no point in simply going through the motions, especially when public money is at stake. In straitened times the temptation is to become fixated on means (or rather, the lack thereof), yet it’s ends that really count.