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Puttnam: Let digital platforms develop freely

Acclaimed filmmaker Lord [David] Puttnam, President of the UK’s Film Distributors’ Association (FDA), has called for more flexibility in the film business as the industry confronts a series of momentous, even existential, challenges.

Speaking at an industry event in London, Puttnam noted the polarisation of the cinema market place. Despite more than 800 titles receiving a UK cinema release in 2015, the top five generated more than a quarter (26.1 per cent) of the year’s box-office receipts; the top ten nearly 40 per cent (38.8 per cent). The film business model as a whole, spanning an ever increasing array of digital platforms, remains in a state of flux.

In terms of changing audience demographics and attitudes, Puttnam noted that the millennial generation – people born between 1980 and 2000, one of the largest generations in history – are about to move into roles that carry serious responsibility. “The first fully digital generation, they’ve come of age during a period of globalisation, economic upheaval and incredibly rapid changes in technology.

“Enjoying experiences is as important to the millennials as acquiring products, if not more so.  Long-form, cinematic television has changed perceptions of the sort of stories that can work brilliantly for viewers who appreciate the validation of their own super-size plasma screens. The original 12 or more-part drama commissions emanating from the likes of Amazon, Netflix and soon Vimeo, are unquestionably feature quality.

“As the millennial and subsequent generations age, they’re most likely to migrate towards cloud-based or internet-delivered content services. The cinema’s larger-than-life brand of escapism can continue to thrive provided that cinema-going retains a public appreciation that its monetary and emotional values compare favourably with those of any number of competing attractions in and out of the home. But cinemas that focus 95 per cent of their screen time solely on blockbusters, effectively opting out of more specialised films, should be careful what they wish for.”

In an attack on theatrical exclusivity Puttnam said the enforced rigidity of 17-week windows of theatrical exclusivity, preventing legitimate consumer access at a time when cinemas tend only to play films for less than half of that period, was “utterly counter-productive and unjustified. The sorely-needed ‘ask’ from distributors is flexibility – one size does not, and cannot, fit all. Name any other product or service which, whilst being commercially successful and knowing itself to have a limited life-span, wilfully removes itself from the marketplace!

“There’s not a shred of evidence from countries such as the US or Australia, where a little more flexibility applies on a film by film basis, that the theatrical box-office is harmed in any way whatsoever. As DVD sales continue to decline, albeit from a healthy base, it’s absolutely vital that digital platforms are allowed to develop freely.”

Addressing the European Digital Single Market (DSM), Puttnam suggested it already existed and was a fine thing. “There’s nothing in copyright law, or any other law, to restrict simultaneous pan-European distribution of content online or in any other form – nor should there be. Any changes to the EU copyright regime must be soundly evidence-based, with plurality and cultural diversity at the heart of that planning.

“This is an industry that’s already deeply engaged in the digital environment – the idea that the film industry is opposed to the DSM is nonsense. But once again, the key is flexibility. The industry must continue to work closely with the European Commission to forge a DSM that works for all Europe’s citizens, including the 7 million whose jobs depend, directly or indirectly, on the creative industries. Europe has 743 million citizens and rising – more than double the population of the US. The notion of a single European audience, seeking the same content at the same time, is also a nonsense.

“The DSM has many implications. Portability of services is one that we can and should support – subject to strong safeguards being in place to ensure that it does not become a de facto form of cross-border access. ‘Portability’ means providing consumers with the same legitimately acquired online access to films and TV when they travel in Europe as they’d enjoy if they were still at home.

“The UK government and all industry parties are in lock-step in their belief that cross-border portability is wholly distinct from unfettered cross-border access to unlicensed content, something which fatally undermines the film industry’s business model that depends on territorial licensing.”

As to the costs of digital transition in UK cinemas, Puttnam suggested that the whole point of digitisation was that it brought increased scope for differentiation, diversity and flexibility. “The rise of ‘event cinema’ presentations is one rather wonderful example. But there’s been no such digital dividend for film distributors who’ve been left picking up the tab for cinema exhibitors’ digital projection systems.

“Five years ago, a DCMS-backed policy review panel tasked the British Film Institute (BFI) with ensuring, on a broadly comparable basis, that film distributors find themselves ‘no worse off’ in digital times than in the 35mm era. An appropriate degree of scrutiny may be needed to help distributors better understand what, after so many years, they’re still being expected to pay for. It’s crucial that the BFI, with DCMS backing, achieves a fair, independent and transparent resolution to this complex issue as rapidly as possible.”

Finally, Puttnam called for an enhanced role for film distributors in the BFI’s new five-year plan, set to be effective in the UK from spring 2017.

Puttnam said: “Of course production and skills development are as vital to the future as they always have been. But in an age of abundant supply, the overwhelming priority must be to connect a broader range of content with UK-wide audiences, which is exactly where the expertise of distributors is most valuable.

“So, specifically, I’d suggest the BFI create an enhanced Distribution Fund for specialised films, and assign a super-charged role to distributors to make its Film Audience Network and regional hubs a lot more effective. Given the seismic changes buffeting the distribution business model, this kind of support is crucial if independent, specialised cinema programming is not to shrink even further over the coming years.

“And as audiences are, in practice, delivered film by film via distribution risk and investment, there’s an argument for a significant slice of any income received by the BFI from commercially successful, Lottery-funded releases to be re-allocated to the Distribution Fund. Anything less than this additional life-line seems somewhat out of kilter with market realities.”

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