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This Way Up 2016: Thoughts on abundance, VR and new audiences

  • Bobby Allen

MUBI's Bobby Allen

Sophie Brown reports on key themes from the third-annual This Way Up cinema exhibition innovation conference, which was held in Glasgow on Nov 29-30.

One of the key themes of the the conference was abundance, both in terms of challenges and opportunities.

In one of the keynote addresses, Bobby Allen, VP of Content for MUBI, discussed “the paradox of choice, shortening attention spans and fragmentation of audience.” Allen stated that people now watch “better content and more of it, than ever before.”

Highlighting the competition posed by social media, with its enticing pings of personal validation, leading to audiences with very serious attention span issues, Allen stated that “we live in a world now where people are obsessed and addicted to screens.”

Allen discussed the importance of the role of the curator - “the etymology of curation is to care” – and how vital it is for people to know there is a real person behind the programming. “When people have too many choices and become overwhelmed, this leads to paralysis and dissatisfaction.”

MUBI has made efforts recently to bringing their online audiences into physical cinemas, with theatrical releases of films including Baden Baden and the forthcoming The Happiest Day In The Life of Olli Maki. “If the audience is living online, we need to identify them and drag them into the real world,” he explained.

Chairing a panel on how cinemas cope with the prolific productivity of the film industry, British Council Film Programme Manager Wendy Mitchell pointed out the overwhelming fact that with 900 theatrical releases in a single year in British cinemas; “even if you saw two films a day, you couldn’t see everything.”

BFI Head of UK Audiences Ben Luxford discussed the decline in distributors and rights holders applying for distribution funding, because in this age of abundance, there are smaller theatrical release windows and “ambition isn’t there in the way it was in 2004.” However, he believes abundance isn’t all bad, that on the contrary it can be good for audiences.

Allen argued that if you want to reach an audience, you need an online platform, and although technologists dictate that content should always come from the audiences, “curation is more important than ever”.

Allison Gardner of Glasgow Film Theatre emphasised the importance of committing to a film and how crucial it is to see who is coming into your building. In a similar vein, Jason Wood, the artistic director of HOME in Manchester, argued for the importance of showing curated films, even if there isn’t a large audience initially, “audiences start quite small and they grow, sometimes it’s about holding your nerve,” asserting that the duty of a curator is “not just to choose what you’re going to play, but what you’re going to do when you have it.”

Jason Wood is pleased to see DIY programming collectives such as Club des Femmes have more power and feels the rise in the popularity of repertory film is a positive addition to abundance, as these are experiences that are exclusive to the cinema.

Calling for more of a network among programmers, and for more films like I, Daniel Blake, which “genuinely deals with real issues that need to be addressed,” Wood emphasised the importance of engaging with a “wider debate with what is happening in the world” and is happy to see that the “dominance of London is gradually being eroded.”

Reaching audiences with compelling content and spaces

In her keynote ‘Bodies, Spaces and Communities’, Johanna Koljonen, editor of Sweden’s Nostradamus Project, presented a series of arguments about the importance of experience in our world of abundance, remarking that people often choose the film they’re going to watch after making the decision to visit the cinema. For this reason “we are in the business of designing experiences,” she said. Koljonen went on to describe how experience is part of a time and space where something changes, “so it’s not about the film, it’s about the experience.”

Koljonen pointed out that the last 20% of an experience is what shapes memory, and that this immediate window of time after the transformative event had a great potential for enabling a connection between these people; “Art can change our beliefs about who we are permitted to be.”

“All humans want to feel recognised, seen and respected.” However, there are hierarchies in our society that are directly attached to privilege and dictate the norms of cultural spaces.  Who is allowed to laugh as loudly as they like? Middle-aged white people.

She emphasised the vital cultural value of screenings: “Every screening you host is shaping the wider culture of this country.”

The Founder of Eclipse Theatre Company, Dawn Walton, spoke about how she had been working in publicly funded buildings where strategic conversations about inclusivity featured phrases such as “extending ladders down,” prodding her to found Eclipse on the simple idea that it would be “all about audiences.”

The company has created long-term relationships with audiences, by going to places with the least engagement and talking to people in buildings where they’ve attended an event to find out their relationship with the space.

Another problem Walton encountered is that these publicly funded buildings don’t know the good black writers they have in their cities. Walton found 10 black writers from 10 different cities and created a body of work called 10x10, and launched Eclipse TV, which features a curation of already existing black content such as Cecile Emeke’s Ackee & Saltfish.

She offered positive statistics of first-time attendees at Eclipse: one-third return within six months. She said people “want to see something different, that might change their view on the world.”

Another panel about cities addressed the homogenisation and gentrification of cities, and where the responsibility, and necessity, of art lies. The discussion put forward the idea that cities need to learn to have confidence in their own unique ways of operating, and support their communities.

Cian Smyth, producer of Hull, City of Culture 2017, criticised “a capitalist agenda” in which places like London and New York City are regarded as the model “and every city needs to go in that direction.” Smyth went on to suggest that we “need to psychoanalyse our cities” as a lot of the problems are to do with self-confidence.” There is a problem in the rigid belief that “cities are about centres.”

Shola Amoo, whose film A Moving Image explores gentrification in Brixton, talked about how the areas in his film “have always been concrete, vibrant, leftfield spaces”, yet are treated with the belief that “prior to regeneration, this space wasn’t fulfilling its potential. Now these places that people didn’t want to go are losing culture to homogenisation.”

Smyth urged for a cultural or philosophical shift on what it means to exist in a place and emphasised the importance of art, “the idea of giving your citizens permission to be creative, to have access to the best art in the world, have access to spaces, to be a citizen in your own city, to your own city, to have free speech.”

The potential for new technologies

Audiences might also want to not just see something different, but help create it. Musician and artist Yann Seznec asked his panellists on the ‘Postcards From the Future’ panel whether the future of storytelling is “audiences creating their own narratives” and “personalisation versus the group experience.”

The development and focus on personal narratives is an aspect that Live Cinema UK’s Lisa Brook recognises in live cinema, which expands experience beyond the screen. However, with regards to virtual reality, Brook raised concerns over the experience of film becoming increasingly individualistic and losing the communal experience in a VR headset.

The panel discussed the transformation of television – “once the poorman’s cinema, now Netflix are putting millions into it” – and how to utilise new technologies to bring in new audiences. Brook emphasised the importance of crossover audiences, cinemas working with fanbases of other mediums such as music and television, and how fans keep stories alive beyond the finale.

This autonomous drive to support and generate new material can be seen in the innovative filmmaking of Nollywood. As Amoo commented, with no government funding and a straight-to-audience dynamism, Nigeria's Nollywood industry is “independent in the purest sense – we could learn a lot from taking that energy and attitude.”

Amoo talked about his work on Dear Mr Shakespeare, a short film (headed for Sundance 2017) written by artist Phoebe Boswell and produced as part of the British Council’s Shakespeare Lives season, which provided a platform to “recontextualise Othello” and move away from a traditional narrative; “the content demanded that the form was different.” Amoo expressed how online platforms and social media enabled his work to have a much wider audience and impact than it would with cinemas alone, and raised the question of ‘what deserves to be cinema?’.

There was wariness of the gimmicky potential of VR, with filmmakers failing to consider whether it works for the project, yet optimism in the potential for expensive equipment to be made accessible to artists. However, suspicions were raised about the big businesses behind the technology, such as Facebook’s ownership of Oculus VR.

On another panel about virtual reality, Melanie Iredale, deputy director of Sheffield Doc/Fest, argued that the format is still finding its feet: “VR is an embryonic art form, dominated by advertising and not very interesting gaming and pornography.”

Jorg Tittel, a filmmaker and VR creator, argued that virtual reality is a new art from, much more similar to promenade theatre than cinema, so there is a need to gather expertise from theatre, dance and choreographers. “In virtual reality you’re no longer a filmmaker – you’re a puppeteer, animator, game designer.”  Tittel imagines the VR future in cinema as “traditional films for traditional viewers, but with augmented realities.”

Tittel highlighted the problem of duration; the longer it is, the more expensive it is to make, while Sweden’s Koljonen pointed out that there are there are no business models for VR, so there are no methods as yet of recouping the enormous expense. Collaboration across sectors will be key for developing new models.

Koljonen believes that good VR can be an empathy machine: “The story that each person creates in their own experience is their own work, but it’s really important to find out what they learned from this experience. This means people connect and it requires them to be in the same room – which may be the valuable thing.”

Finally, Koljonen thinks VR “will be at the core of everything we do”, and Tittel sees mixed reality as the future: “We’ll all be living a mixed and augmented reality in the future.”

New creative approaches can also entice audiences to experience archival content. British Council Film Programme Manager Gary Thomas led a discussion exploring the creative possibilities enabled by cross-collaborations, the potential for reaching new audiences, and the complexities of re-contextualising archive film.

From Scotland With Love filmmaker Virginia Heath talked of her collaborative work with the musician King Creosote, and how it pushed the film out to new audiences; Heath reflected on the power of using archive film with re-scores to bring new meanings to the films; “they open up a space for audiences to bring their own memories and thoughts.”

BFI commitment

In a session discussing the new BFI Strategy for 2017-2022, BFI chief executive Amanda Nevill hit upon some of the other speakers’ talking points about audiences and innovation.

She stressed the commitment of the BFI to “promote the great art that is film” and that the film industry needs “to use this money to promote change, reach out to audiences.”

The key points of the new strategy are to fund film “that’s intended for any platform”, to focus on more funding for education as “we need more people studying film”, with a particular focus on diversity as future skills need foundations to do it.

Although not mentioned in the strategy, community cinema remains central to the strategy, as the BFI continues to fund Cinema For All, and a commitment to finding new ways to bring 16-30 year olds into cinemas.

Nevill discussed the plans to work with the Arts Council to move decision-making outside London to the regions. This chimed with what Lisa Brook of Live Cinema criticised in the Postcards from the Future panel as the unfair centrality of London – “Londonsuming”: to assume London should host all meetings and critical film activity.