Comment: Report marks shift in digital debate

By Michael Gubbins

The launch of the Pixel Report comes at a time when there has been a distinct change of tone in the discussion of digital change in film and other creative industries.

There was a time when one might have a heated argument for suggesting that the traditional industry business models for film and other creative media were ‘broken.’

And the debate about digital ‘revolution’ is now largely an issue of semantics because most accept that the changes we are now seeing represent fundamental challenges to media business.

There is even a broad consensus that the unstoppable force behind change is not the technology itself but the consumer attitudes and habits this proliferation of alternative media has brought about.

So after a stop-start decade or so of debates about the future, we are now at the business end of digital change.

All that’s missing is, well, the actual business.

The film industry and many other media businesses have polarised in attitudes to change. On one side, there are those – chiefly the ‘major’ labels and studios – who want to put a rein on demand.

This chiefly manifests itself in demands for controls on illegal downloading and copyright theft generally. Access is all very well but first the Internet has to become something much closer to the rest of the commercial world, with borders and charges.

On the other side, there are those who believe the very act of trying to ration content to specific platforms, to control customer behaviour and to impose tough laws on unauthorised use is counter-productive.

This explosion of choice and the potential to reach and aggregate new audiences will find its own means of creating value. But it will come with engagement with audiences, working out to meet demand, not how to restrict it.

Both of these contradictory approaches is now firmly in play. A number of countries, notably France and the UK have introduced new laws forcing Internet Service Providers to inform on customers regularly infringing copyright.

The argument has the weight of the law and the lion’s share of the financial backing. But the alternatives

What is now becoming clearer is the attitudes to change, even if not yet many hard and fast models.

The uniting factor is that the audience is now the critical factor – an audience, whose expectations and habits have been dramatically changed by easy access to new technologies.

There are obviously big variations between audience attitudes depending on demographic, geographic, social circumstances.

But the truth is that audiences now have unprecedented choice

Those responses are varied and highly polarised. For some – notably the studios and some of the bigger independents –

. Now there is widespread acceptance that we are in a period of fundamental change.

Despite an Avatar-fuelled boom at the box office in many countries, the independent film business is largely resigned to change, feeling it can do little more than wave as the sacred cows head off to the barbecue

Yet this depressed acceptance of the inevitability of digital revolution hides a conservatism that is proving harder to shake off.

Most of the film industry is still using the battered old industry compass to find the way to a digital progress.

New opportunities are defined by the effect that they will have on the existing business rather than refocusing on what they will mean to audiences.

In fact, the conversation in film, or indeed music and publishing is rarely about the way forward for film, music ¬†or journalism…but about the future of the industries that have delivered content for the last century or so.

Yet what is becoming clear is that the “artificial scarcity” model at the heart of those industries – based on exploitation windows and territorial rights – is incompatible with digital progress.

The odd thing is that independent businesses with little or nothing to gain from the struggling analogue models can be just as resistant to change. The would-be auteur straight out of film school can sometimes be the most conservative voice of all.

The Pixel Report is intended to help business rethink how it sees digital change, centring the discussion towards servicing the needs and demands of an active audience.

It will also fill in a big gap in the knowledge base of the largely small-and-medium-sized businesses that make up most creative industries and certainly independent film.

Highlighting not only case studies of digital and cross-media ventures but revealing the tools and services that made them possible, should be a major contribution to progress.

What pioneers, such as Power to the Pixel, have done in the last four or five years is to challenge us to think more positively about the potential that comes with the connection with audiences that new technology and social media has enabled.

The industry has been challenged to go back to the core of it business – the telling of stories to an engaged audience.

If you go back to what film is rather than what the film industry does, the perspective changes.

The Pixel Report starts with that premise and, as a result, can offer a practical path forward without having to fight to protect every outmoded industrial process.

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