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BSS 2012: not really byte sized

Two sessions covering different aspects of digital ran on the closing day of the Big Screen Symposium. What was clear in both was that there’s a lot of work still to do.

The morning session on digital distribution brought together a collection of speakers who, while all good value, lacked sufficient time to go into a great deal of depth on a range of topics. The afternoon session, Uploading, Downloading, Freeloading?, became sidetracked by the pushing of various barrows.

In opening the session on digital distribution, Paul Davis noted that one aspect in particular of the move to digital marks it out as unusual in the history of innovation in cinema. Whereas previously, the advent of sound, colour, 3D has been designed to attract more cinemagoers, the change to digital isn’t really doing that.

Looking below the surface, the deeper reason the film industry has introduced all of these developments has been two-fold. Technology has been developed to allow it and, in studios’ estimation, the bottom line will improve if they do.

By and large, they’ve been right (smell-o-vision and early 3D experiments being notable exceptions), and in seeking a greater return on investment, the move to digital sits well with other innovations in the exhibition industry over the last century.

Geoff Leland’s work, including the charming research project Cinemas of NZ, offered a view of an under-exploited audience segment: old buggers.

Noting that box office fell 11% in 2011 over the previous year to a less than impressive 3.2 visits per year, Leland attributed it in part to a growing reluctance among Hollywood’s preferred demographic of late teens to early twenties males to turn out. Quoting figures from Val Morgan and US and UK research, he noted the growth area was older female-skewed viewers who “dislike multiplexes and prefer hoodie-free environments to popcorn” and like age appropriate films “and anything with Helen Mirren in it”.

He claimed the arthouse and independent sector now contributes c30% of NZ box office takings, but mused on whether the current arthouse audience represented the last generation of filmgoers.

Digital (both as a cheaper production medium and method of distribution) was making it possible to better serve these audiences, and Leland pointed to a number of new cinemas (including Wellington’s Roxy and Wanaka’s Ruby’s) attracting such audiences.

At the sales end of the business, the NZFC’s James Thompson noted the cost advantage of digital distribution. DCP offered compelling financial benefits over the waste of 35mm prints and noted that, internationally, exhibitors in many countries were further down the track in conversion to digital.

As a distributor, Madman’s Michael Eldred also noted the change, saying that for Madman’s theatrical product, “18 months ago I had no DCPs, now it’s all I have.”

He also noted the benefit in ability to respond quickly to audience demand. With The Orator, it opened on one screen in Manukau and proved so popular that it was on four the next day. Such a rapid ramp-up would not have been possible if 35mm prints had had to be struck.

He shared a couple of notes of caution, one being that the move to take advantage of online promotion and marketing opportunities was not yet being properly exploited in NZ (or elsewhere) and that, as a distributor, Madman still asked the same questions of a film whatever format it would be delivered in: does it know its audience and can we reach that audience?

The self-dubbed “evil empire” representative, the National Association of Cinemas’ Andrew Miller pled poverty when it came to the capital costs of converting to digital and on behalf of most of those employed in the sector. The latter claim was somewhat backed up the release earlier in the day of the report Economic Contribution of the New Zealand Film and Television Industry. As for the former, Michael Eldred reckoned studios and distributors would more than fully fund the conversion through the VPF deal now in place with major exhibitors Event and Hoyts and still being developed with smaller exhibitors.

Anna Jackson, a regular presenter on transmedia, spoke briefly on the benefits of the wider digital world in supporting projects from conception (crowdfunding, building communities) through to exhibition but noted that successful DIY distribution remains a bit of a myth – and that a team of people skilled in digital exploitation would create a better outcome than an individual filmmaker adding marketing and distribution to their to do list.

Lisa Lewis noted that US models around most aspects of digital were better developed than here, but that was fine. Let them make the expensive mistakes. She also noted that, while it will always be a different ballgame if you’ve got 300+ million people in your home market, four in 10 Americans now buy downloadable content and spend an average of US$166/month on doing so. Even scaled down to 4 million people, there’s opportunity there. By contrast, she said, sales of physical media (DVD, CD) fell 33% in the US last year.

Across the session, there was a sense from the speakers that exploiting the opportunities digital in its many forms would serve filmmakers well (even if Annie Goldson called thinking about it tiring!).

It was left to the afternoon session to discuss the downside of the brave new(ish) digital world.

Auckland University associate professor of law Alexandra Sims, who specialises in copyright law, ran the session which began sedately before disintegrating into many separate bits, not unlike a torrent file. Unlike a torrent file, the session didn’t quite reassemble itself.

NZ FACT’s Tony Eaton spoke about the organisation’s work, with an emphasis on the education work being done (at a cost of over $5 million) to promote not downloading illegally.

Opposition to NZFACT’s position on legislation came (predictably) from InternetNZ’s Vikram Kumar, who spoke provocatively in claiming that for most filmmakers “obsucrity is more of a problem than piracy” and “copyright infringement is a marketing problem.”

Tim Riley noted objections, as lawyers do, to both sides. He called NZFACT’s name (NZ Federation Against Copyright Theft) “unhelpful”, saying it wasn’t possible to steal copyright, only goods.

It led to the first of several diversions with Quickflix’s Paddy Buckley claiming that ownership of digital material wasn’t really much of a concept any longer when services (including his own) allowed use of material whenever and wherever in exchange for a monthly subscription. He expected new players with similar models to Quickflix to enter the NZ market, creating more opportunities for people to not own stuff.

The point wasn’t fully explored, particularly in respect to the legality or otherwise of selling second-hand digital goods such as (legally acquired) film, TV or music files … and some might argue that if you nobody really owns digital material then you can’t really steal it either.

Arguments ran back and forth and then around in circles about the nature of the internet and its use, with Vikram Kumar claiming elements of the proposed Trans-Pacific Trade Treaty would “break the internet”, a concept Tony Eaton disagreed with.

Specifically Kumar noted the TPTT would disadvantage countries a long way from the US, such as NZ, by imposing additional obligations and costs around temporary copies or caching of material and subverting the broader principles underpinning net neutrality.

From a producer’s perspective Leanne Saunders contrasted the experiences of two films she’d produced, The Devil Dared Me To and The Devil’s Rock.

The former, produced by Headstrong with fellow BSS attendees Paul Swadel and Ant Timpson, was made for c$550,000 which bumped up to $850,000 when it was decided to release theatrically. The film took $235,000 theatrically, made strong returns on DVD and did good sales.

Paul Campion’s The Devil’s Rock, by contrast, ended up getting its UK theatrical and video release, through Metrodome, before distributor Vendetta had it into cinemas here. Illegal downloads destroyed both the theatrical and DVD business.

Nobody spoke against making a film available online, either for free or at a cost, but the argument promoted by both Saunders and Riley (and supported by Eaton) was that it should be the copyright holder’s choice.

Buckley noted that if films were made available through services such as Quickflix, the filmmaker would be seeing at least some return. He also noted that, as Quickflix had managed to satisfy US studios that its security systems made it very difficult to copy its streaming content, digital media offered some benefits over physical as well as those of cost.

While Buckley’s model might be viable in the future, NZ internet infrastructure simply doesn’t support streaming on the scale Quickflix would like. Nor, with data caps, is it likely many people would choose to stream their in-home viewing over choosing either TV or physical media or a one-off (hopefully legal) download.

The session didn’t so much conclude as run out of time and, while robust debate is often entertaining, it seems that even within the industry there are quite diverse opinions and interests in play. And no clear solutions to the problem of piracy.

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