Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Film Industry in a Digital Age with Lord Puttnam

Lord Puttnam is a game-changing thinker, who is not only a film producer with iconic credits to his name including Bugsy Malone and Chariots Of Fire, but he passionately supports young people as founder of Skillset and as an international educator.

I went along to a talk he was giving on 'The Film Industry in a Digital Age' at the International Students House (ISH) in London, and was inspired by his futurist thinking about what the the film industry has to do to survive and thrive in the ever changing digital topography of fast-consumerism, his passion for the BBC and his views on experiential cinema.

Lord Puttnam started off with a talk loaded with impressive stats and plenty of cause for consideration about how digital technology and our consumer behaviours are dictating the future of film more ferociously then ever before, and then he invited questions from the audience.

Below I've transcribed what I can from these audience question to give you some insight into the night for those that couldn't attend.

Lord Puttnam at the ISH talk with a still of
film Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Audience: I too remember CDP [Collett Dickenson Pearce, a British advertising agency] very well – I worked as an account manager in Covent Garden in the 70s and 80s, and I wanted to know if you are enjoying Mad Men as much as I am?

LP: I absolutely love it, early on I was a total addict. I began to lose some interest once it went past the period when I worked [in advertising]. I was extraordinarily lucky after a painful start in publishing, I was the first person from the agency [CDP] to be sent to New York in 1964, and the world I encountered was precisely the Mad Men world. I’m still recovering from the scene where the gynaecologist is smoking while he’s checking out his patient, but it was illustrative of how barking it was. But what I witnessed is the reason I am so passionate about change and adjusting to change; I literally lived on the cusp of change. If you look at the advertising that was prevalent at that time of 1962, it was unbelievably mundane. If you were advertising a tyre, it was relatively simple to keep a client happy; you would have a claim such as ‘new and improved’. You’d then have a straight forward drawing of a tyre, a price that would hopefully be not much more that last year, then the stockist details and the brand logo.

At CDP we were trained to think ‘why to people buy tyres?’ which would lead you onto thinking that buyers might be concerned by blow-outs [punctures]. So we’d show a man confidently driving with his classic looking family in the back, and we would talk about safety. Once you’d moved the onlooker to the safety matter, you didn’t have to put prices, because people aren’t concerned about the price if they really think you are selling them something safer. The stockist details need to be added because people would find your product if they believe it to be safer. You’d put a logo on, but the actual advertisement was about the security of a person’s family not about an in-your-face tyre at a price, round the corner. That simple, small example was exactly what was going on in the 60s; it was transformatory. In hindsight it wasn’t all good, we were essentially playing off peoples fears, engaging them with the products, changing the nature of consumerism. But we were also beginning to have a proper grown up relationship with the consumer. We were beginning to address where the customer was, opposed to where the product client wanted them to be. I watched this extraordinary change take place. Massive companies like Benson’s go to the wall within 2 years, big organisations that had been going for years and years vanished, but other small agencies like the one I was in grew exponentially. That was really extraordinary change, putting the emphasis on creativity and how good the ads could be instead of just trying to keep the client.

Audience: Have you heard about a piece of technology called Spritz? It’s a reading app that’s being trialled at the moment that displays words at a very fast pace allowing a person to dead 4-5 times faster than average. We live in an age where it’s very easy to access information where we have to do very little work to obtain and consume it. Do you see a future where we become fat, lazy and overfed consumers that is of detriment to us as a result?

LP: No I don’t, because I’ve read enough history to know that that sort of sedation or danger was attributed to the extraordinary danger of Victorian women reading Charlotte Bronte at home, this debate has gone on for a long time. I do know the software, my son showed it to me. The system is basically using speed-reading down the middle of the page, and you accept the fact that your peripheral vision is able to take in more than you realise, and in theory to can train yourself which I’m sure is true, and the claims they are making are very reasonable; that you can move from maybe 200 words per minute to 300-400wpm.

"Young people will have to re-learn what I learnt 40 years ago...Old skills will become new skills."

I think that sort of technology is very interesting, but let me offer another version of it as to why I profoundly don’t share the original concern. One of the most difficult things I had to learn when I was a very young so-called executive, was I had to learn how to dictate letters, which meant calling the typing pool where a young, relatively attractive woman would come in with a notepad, and you, in your young stuttery way had to learn how to . Now I was very lucky as the 2 or 3 people I started with were all very kind to me despite how useless I was, and I spent the next 40 years or so dictating letters. I always wanted to learn to type and I did eventually teach myself rather poorly how to type, but after 40 years of dictating you had to have the entire letter in your head – knowing the differences between paragraphs and sentences, and assembling the logic of it, knowing how you are going to end that letter before you’ve even started it; it’s a real skill that was largely shared and widely used back then. Now we’ve got out present technology, I will bet you a pound to a penny that by 3020 voice recognition systems will become extremely sophisticated and normal. There is no money in keypads for computer manufacturers; they are a kind of non-item. So keyboards will be integrated as standard like on my iPad, and will be eventually be needed less and less. Now what’s the implication of that? Young people will have to re-learn what I learnt 40 years ago, how to articulate and assemble communications, which means you won’t be able to go ‘ahh errr ummm like err umm’ as it won’t work. Old skills will become new skills. I think this is really interesting. I’m a real fan of Michael Fullan who is the Professor of Education at the University of Toronto who recently wrote a really interesting piece about how the teaching and learning process is about to reverse itself. People who teach will be the people who say to their students at any level, ‘I’ve got a really interesting question and I want you to help me answer it – now here’s my question I want you to go away and think about it – its quite tricky, but come back next week and teach me the answer’. Now why does that work? The mechanics for finding the answers are out there, so this forces the students to go out and start searching for answers. Instead of always supplying the answers, the teacher will now be supplying the questions. The students then come back with their versions of their self-discovered answer, and the teacher then suggests and steers with ‘well have you thought about this?’ There are interesting and engaging alternative ways of learning not just the font of teaching knowledge pumping answers in to you, that find out how good are you at answering quite complicated questions and convincing your teacher you are right. So I’m enormously excited about the future. The one thing I said in passing that is important is that there is a school of thought as we move in to the world of human struggle, is somehow or another we have to lose sight or eject our core values – I think the opposite is true. I think that as we begin to move into a world that is more investigatory, where we seek more knowledge and to improve performance, I think there is a better chance that we might be able to strip back to really what our core values are. I’m excited by a world where we simultaneously evolves taking much of the technology we have today and rethinks and re-evaluates what our collective core values are. That’s a very exciting world.

Audience: What are the funding opportunities like for graduate filmmakers who want to get their short films made? Given there are a lot of people wanting to see films for free on the internet, what’s your view on funding?

LP: In one sense it’s never been easier – when I started, or when Alan Parker or Ridley Scott started, you couldn’t do anything unless you could afford film stock or an enormously expensive and enormous camera. Now film stock’s gone, cameras are relatively inexpensive and you can upload on to YouTube, its really about as good as you can make it. So being able to demonstrate your talent has never been greater or cheaper. The challenge comes in getting noticed, and that is a problem. Seven hundred movies were released last year, twice as many as 10 years ago, it’s a very crowded marketplace so the opportunity to get your head above the parapet or to be noticed as not drowning is tough. But proving you have I teach and the examples I use is not to get too fancy or too complicated. I’ll try it tonight – who here has never had a bicycle? [Only a couple of hands shoot up] Next question is do you remember the day you got your first bicycle and what did it represent? Freedom and excitement. Next I show my students clips of 3 movies from an Italian film The Bicycle Thieves [1948], then a Chinese film Beijing Bicycle [2001] and then a very recent film called Wadjda [2012] the very first film ever to have been made by a Saudi woman [Haifaa Al-Mansour]. All of them are about the relationship children have with a bicycle and all 3 are remarkable, and all bar Bicycle Thieves won the Palme d’Or award at Cannes. The idea about making a film about a bicycle is accessible. Then like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, I show them a short 2 minute film made in the North East of England by Ridley Scott, his first film. So this idea of making a really simple story well, illustrating a beginning, middle and an end that is emotionally involving and most importantly has a great sense of identity, has never been easier to demonstrate.

Now getting back to the getting noticed part, I’m going to list some films of last few years that I thought were wonderful but I bet hardly any of you have seen; Frances Ha, Metro Manila, Fruitvale Station which is a stunning film, The Selfish Giant, a beautiful film, none of them barely made a penny. But the directors have been noticed and are making their next movie.

Audience: [The founder of the Hackney Bicycle Film Society asks] I set up the society five years ago thinking there would be just enough films about bicycle to last us 6 months, but 5 years later I’m still showing bicycle films to a specialised audience. One of the things that intrigues me is that with these audiences in mind and with new technology, whether that’s going to change and are we going to see more fragmented audiences with specialist films aimed at these specific audiences? Is there also a future for films being more social than just being watched individually at home?

LP: Good questions. One problem is that it’s becoming increasingly hard to define what a film is. I’m a huge fan of the Danish series The Bridge. The last 10 minutes of the last episode of series 2 is in every sense a movie. The way the camera is used, the pace, the music is beautiful, it’s pure cinema. It’s the directors way of saying ‘you’ve spent 16 hours with me, in case you thought I couldn’t make a movie, here’s this!’, so we’re really reaching a point where movies stop becoming so distinguished.

I think there has always been fragmentation most definitely. As well as specialist audiences and cinemas, there were always specialist cinemas I remember when I was young I would go to the Academy Cinema down the road here in London, and the Curzon in Mayfair and Tottenham Court Road and a dual screen that would be showing foreign films. When I talk about cinema I’m talking about [Ingmar] Bergman and [Akira] Kurosawa. I think there is a cinematic conceit that assumes somehow the arthouse film was once popular but now aren’t, but I think that type of cinema always was highly specialist. What does trouble me is Fruitvale Station is a sensational movie and I can’t understand why it wasn’t nominated for an Oscar and that isn’t finding an audience amidst wall-to-wall sci-fi spectaculars. For my money that is better than 12 Years a Slave. The sadness is that there are some very good filmmakers and storytellers who are being reduced by the technology by ever bigger explosions, trying to create bigger gasps by the audience.

Audience: I think that whole film and television merge has already happened – just look at House of Cards with David Fincher directing and Kevin Spacey acting, the budgets and cost per episode. Like the specialised cinema already mentioned, what are your thoughts of Secret Cinema, using social media to put the excitement out there?

LP: The success of Secret Cinema and that sort of cinema has surprised everyone, which it shouldn’t have really as The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been around a long time. One of the nicest things for screenings of something like Bugsy Malone is that people are turning up to the screenings in plastic overalls in order to splurge each other at the cinema! I’m not yet into that myself yet [audience laughter], I’m not old enough. The other format is cinema as a live show – last year Helen Mirren’s The Audience was one of the most successful films to transform cinema. The ability to have operas live in cinemas [also see Corialan/us] from a cash flow point of view this is quite fantastic. This is an interesting paradox - as the world becomes more digital, more connected and surreal, the desire for live experience increases – so what’s happening is that audiences wanting to experiment are going up, the demand to watch operas is going up. Some people find that surprising but I genuinely don’t, as there’s always been a reverse reaction. As we lean into the unreal interactive world, the more we yearn for real connection and that’s what we’re achieving through things like Secret Cinema.

Audience: With the advent of technology companies such as Google and Amazon making their own content, do you think Hollywood and the television industry have left it too late to capitalise on the financial success of DRM [Digital Rights Management] and the restrictions imposed to make a legitimate purchase?

"Netflix or Amazon will buy one of the Hollywood studios"

LP: Hollywood is just a place, a head office, where a lot of people gather, they don’t make films there. If I had to predict, I’d say Netflix or Amazon or another such company will buy one of the Hollywood studios, simply because it would be easier for them. They are huge distribution machines, it would make them more secure acquiring content. The other thing that I think will happen unquestionably is that one of the big Chinese conglomerates will as well because the Chinese movie industry is now the second largest in the world, and they will soon feel like the are trapped inside their own language and not able to use their unquestionable financial power to get out into the marketplace.

Will Hollywood have missed out? No, it will just another exchange, which is pretty consistent over the past 50 years. Another part of the answer is the copyright, as they currently don’t offer the consumer enough choice, so they have to find the right place to value change. For me the music industry was literally its own execution – many smart people were telling the music industry years and years before what happened that their prices were too high, they were abusing it’s core market, but they didn’t listen. So what happened was as soon as could access music more either freely or at marginal cost, they did. The key is finding fair prices where the consumer is comfortable, doesn’t feel like they are being taken advantage of, and when there is creator return is sufficient to access an interest cap. It’s this cycle that needs to be recreated as its this cycle that piracy breaks, defeats.

The Spanish movie industry is decimated because piracy is so rife, largely since 2008. If people's natural instinct is to get material for free and if that isn’t arrested by turning them into legitimate consumers by serving the consumer with a fair proper price, then its game over. Trying to get that message across is difficult. Gravity is a good example – in the first few weeks families of 4 or 5 members seemed happy to go to the cinema and pay £100 to see the film – that is a lot of money, but the experience was so extraordinary and the buzz was so intense, the want of being one of the first people to see it was so strong that people would do that.

Oscar winning film Gravity; a great example of buzz-worthy cinema

I personally think the DVDs have found a good place in the value chain at around £7-8.99. I think a box set is remarkable value – being able to buy an 8-10 part series for £12.99 is incredible. Finding the different price point in the value chain is what it’s going to be all about. Once we’ve done that, I think the crack-down on piracy is going to be very important. Piracy is literally pulling the plug out of the bottom of the value chain and everyone else is paying for it. You as a legitimate consumer are effectively underwriting the pirates, but equally I think the frustration is also caused by the studios. For example the other thing I think is ridiculous is that you have a 5 month wait in-between a films final showing at a cinema and it being released on DVD or on television, because cinemas insist on their period of exclusivity which is not the way we live now. The way we live now is that we make the decision to either be in a large audience and laugh together which is what I love, or we want to grab a pizza and watch the same film at home; that’s our choice and that choice has a price attached to it, so that choice needs to be there. The novelty of cinema is that they see it as a privilege which is rubbish and it won’t last. Its dealing with all these discontinuities and seeing how they evolve a finding a sense of the marketplace, then I really do think we can tackle piracy.

Audience: What do you see in the future of radio and communications in the next 10 years?

LP: Radio proves to be amazingly resilient – the death of radio has been predicted for a long time, but why has it proven so resilient? Because we can listen to it while doing other things while listening to it. We live in a 2-3 screen generation. The bigger question is what is the future of the BBC? Another interesting aspect of this debate is whether its correct to criminalise people who can’t afford the license fee? So let me make my argument for the BBC – I was Director of Anglia Television, then ITN and I was Deputy Chairman of Channel 4 for 6 years so I do think I know a little bit about this. The BBC is the goldstone by which all television and radio are forced to judge themselves by. And anyone who thinks that ITV or Sky wouldn’t give their eyeteeth to cut their costs by offering you something that isn’t as good if they could, is nuts. The reason that the quality of British television is so good is because the benchmark set by them is what every other station is forced to aspire to. Next Monday there’s a new station launching [London Live] at a different place in the value chain, so the BBC is our goldstone. If you look at those countries that maintain a public broadcasting system, you see flourishing creativity. I’ve already mentioned the Danish station producing programmes like The Bridge, which is based on a very well funded national television station, a very well funded equivalent of RADA, and a very well funded film school, so the quality is inherently high. Where as other countries who abandon public service broadcasting very quickly find themselves in the purchase programme, buying in programmes from elsewhere because they are cheaper. The BBC are absolutely fundamental to the future of creative Britain, there is virility of voice, and the quality of the programming itself. The quality of drama will be maintained as long as the BBC license fee is high enough. The moment it can’t afford top quality per drama, every one of us will be able to ratchet down because we’ll be able to cut costs.

"There are not many things I would march in the rain for, but try and take my BBC away from me, and I will be at the front of that march and will die in a ditch before it happens."

The BBC is experimenting in other ways to generate income such as the iPlayer, which is very interesting. You can now pay extra if you want to see something premiered on the iPlayer, which I think is fine. So if you want to see something 2 weeks ahead off air, you pay a premium. Tony Hall, the current BBC Director-General would die in a ditch before he allowed the radio license being disconnected from the television license as in the end, the BBC started as radio. I think the people wh love the BBC in their hearts, in their guts, it starts with radio and did start with radio. So I don’t think in our lifetime we’ll ever see 2 license fees.  There are not many things I would march in the rain for, but try and take my BBC away from me, and I will be at the front of that march and will die in a ditch before it happens.

Further reading:

Posted by: Geek Girl Kerensa Creswell-Bryant
Geek Girl, Updated at: 22:29