Peak Eyeballs and the Scarcity of Attention

There are only so many hours in the day. Take a look – if it’s not etched already in your film business memory – at the graph of cinema admissions in the UK following the launch of television. TV's arrival, peaking in the 50s, did not herald an end to people engaging with mass-market moving image – but it dramatically changed the platform and format for where they did that.

Source: BFI Statistical Yearbook

This impact of TV on cinema, which cut admissions by some 3000% from the peak in 1946 to the very bottom in 1984, left much of the industry terrified of new distribution technology, leaving them erring on the side of caution henceforth. Indeed the first video-on-demand system running over a phone line was Zenith’s PhoneVision and was unveiled back in 1951. It aimed to offer Hollywood films direct to people's homes for a $1 a time, but in a pattern that many start-ups today could sympathise with, it never got the studio support it needed. It's understandable the majors were scared: thousands of cinemas had closed and laid empty or were turned into bingo halls and night clubs. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs. But the appetite for great films didn't decline, it just moved to a different space. 

The graph is significant as it not only shows how dramatic an impact such a new ‘empowering technology’ can have on a business model, but also how slow adaptation allowed for the recovery of some lost ground. With the TV-saturated market of the 1980s and the threat of multi-channel TV and cable, cinemas began to split their screens into smaller spaces so they could show a wider range of films. It was a step backwards for the architecture but a jump forward for audiences and producers. The rise of the multiplex in the 1990s, a further unfortunate footnote in the history of architecture, helped to drive a resurgence in film-going that has not abated since, with admissions rising more than three-fold since the mid-80s and continuing to grow through recent recessions. In these adaptations, the cinemas had found that they could keep their base costs of running a building and box office roughly the same while offering more films to attract wider audiences. In other words, cinemas (eventually) evolved, much to the benefit of producers and filmgoers – and the cinemas' survival.

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How Turkish soap operas turned into a Greek drama

Kostas Spiropoulos, who has done so much for creative documentary in Greece and for international cooperation throughout the Mediterranean through Storydoc training, has just been fired by ERT (the Greek state broadcaster)  for his contribution to Kismet, a documentary on Turkish soap operas and their effects on the societies in which they are broadcast. Kismet is a Greek production, very successfully pitched at IDFA this year and supported by ARTE, among others, and with strong international potential. The board of ERT found the documentary to be a form of propaganda for Turkey while in fact the documentary depicted realities about Turkish dramas.

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Bridging the Gap alums today (4): Tali Yankelevich

Tali.jpgTali Yankelevich's Bridging the Gap short The Perfect Fit is currenty on the Oscars shortlist for documentary shorts and nominated for tonight's Creative Scotland Awards. She is also just finishing a film for Why Poverty?SDI's Agata Jagodzinska speaks to her as part of our mini series following up with former participants of SDI's flagship shorts programme.

Congratulations on the shortlising of The Perfect Fit for an Oscar nomination. Where did the idea for the film came from?

It came from an internet article I found while I was researching an idea for a ballet documentary. For a long time, I had been wanting to make a film on the topic, but I never found an approach I felt was original enough, since so many films have been made about classical ballet. Also, a couple of years back, I researched an idea about instrument makers, specifically on the craft of violin making which I found fascinating. Later it occurred to me to look into the story behind the making of ballet shoes.
When I started reading about it, it really moved me on a personal level. Even though I was trained in classical ballet when I was growing up, it never occurred to me that the shoes could have been hand-made. And it is a contradiction, as the shoes are so beautiful but at the same time cause so much pain for a dancer, and you cannot dance without them. And knowing that there is someone on the other side of that story, making those shoes with their hands, and damaging their own hands to try to make them more comfortable, is really intriguing. 
After reading the article about the shoe factory, I immediately wanted to make the film. As documentary makers I think this is what we look for, as we investigate the world around us: a story which is universal and also unique, and that is hidden in places we often do not pay any attention to, where there is drama, beauty, mystery and humanity.

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Bridging the Gap alums today (3): Jane McAllister

Jane_McAllister_320px.jpgIn our mini series following up with former participants of SDI's Bridging the Gap programme, SDI's Agata Jagodzinska speaks to Jane McAllister who is currently working on a 30-minute documentary for Bridging the Gap PLUS, commissioned by BBC Scotland and Creative Scotland.

Jane, how did you get into filmmaking, and what did you do beforehand?

For a long time I have been making tassels for sporrans. The job has given me many things over the years; most importantly, time to think. When your hands are busy your mind is free. I listen to a lot of audio books and the radio. It is piecework so I sew from home and that can be anywhere; I have lived in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, and Inverness. I have also tasselled a while in Uist, Perth, and on trains back and forth to Aberdeen when I did a passenger survey job. I have found a lot of films over the years, and have a long list.

It took me a while to realise that documentaries would be the best way for me to do justice to my ideas. I tried writing a philosophical work in my mid twenties, 'The Philosophy of a Young Mind'; but soon embarrassed myself enough to stop. I made conceptual jewellery and obviously wrote poetry.

"First lesson: record it now, do not wait"

The first time I picked up a film camera was when I lived in Dundee. The way I had explored the city was via its churches. There are around 75 in various stages of use. I would walk to each one and plot it on the map. My favourite had a flock of starlings living in its rafters in the winter. I had never seen starlings flock before and I couldn't believe how beautiful. I was determined to film them. There was a media access centre in Glenrothes at the time that rented out equipment at very cheap rates.  All winter I was going to rent a camera. But I missed my chance, the weather got warmer and the starlings left. Next year, I thought. The next time I went to look at the church it had construction signs all over it. So angry with myself, I rented a camera and filmed the church’s demolition. First lesson in documentary film making learned: record it now, do not wait.

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Bridging the Gap alums today (2): Maja Borg

Maja BorgMaja Borg's first feature-length film Future My Love has successfully launched at major festivals in Edinburgh, Copenhagen, and Tallinn. Ahead of further preview screenings in Glasgow and London, SDI's Agata Jagodzinska spoke to her about her journey in filmmaking which included a Bridging the Gap film.

When did you know that you wanted to make films, and what do you value the most in documentaries?

I’ve been making films since I was a child; I played with my friend’s video camera even before I had a television. When people asked me who I wanted to be when I grow up, I usually said three things: that I wanted to be a cobbler, a carpenter, and a filmmaker. I still have hopes to become a carpenter one day. Maybe not so much a cobbler any more…
Coming back to filmmaking, when I tell a story, the genre isn't important – it is finding ways of telling it honestly. Sometimes documentaries are the best way of doing that, sometimes they are not. There are some subjects you can’t quite tackle honestly with documentary. There are loads of reasons for it: you may be putting your subject at risk, or you may not be able to get honest answers out of people who are afraid of making themselves look bad. It can also be argued that by being in a situation with a camera, you are changing it…

"There are some subjects you can’t quite tackle honestly with documentary"

For me, the genre is very much secondary to the subject of the story. Therefore I don’t think I've made a single film that is a straight documentary. I find fiction quite limited as well, it is limited by your imagination. What’s great about making documentaries is that you need to respond to reality all the time. You can make a plan and you may even write a proposal about what you think you’ll find – and it’s wonderful how you always get surprised and have to deal with the fact that you can’t control what will happen. I really like that.

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Bridging the Gap alums today (1): Eva Weber

Eva_Weber.jpgEva Weber's new film Black Out is launching at IDFA in Amsterdam today. SDI's Agata Jagodzinska spoke to her ahead of the premiere. This interview is the first in a little series about what has happened to our Bridging the Gap alumni in the years since...

What attracted you to focus on documentaries in your filmmaking career?

I think there is real power in documentaries. The beauty of it is that no matter how much you plan and prepare for your shoot, and imagine what you will film, there will always be those unexpected moments that you can't plan for, and it’s those moments that can really transform a film. Moments of beauty or pain, of real life, that surprise you and make you think. It makes the filmmaking experience very special. There is something extraordinary when you think, wow, I would have never thought of this but you see it happening right in front of you and you capture it, real life writing its own story.

What is the best way for an aspiring filmmaker to find his/her style and get their name out there?

I believe the most important thing is to work out what connects with you on an emotional level, and the stories you want to tell as a filmmaker - to find your own voice. I believe you need to think about what you want to say as an individual and how you want to say it. Before you start filming, I also find it important to think about the visuals of a film and how you can visually convey what is important in a story. Once the film is done, it’s really about making sure it is seen, through festivals, broadcast or online. Whatever route you decide to take, you need to keep on working at it, in the end it is all about perseverance and resilience. 

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Leaning Smart

"Reclaim the Vision" was the title of one of the DOK Leipzig industry talks Sonja Henrici attended recently – and also the festival's overall motto. The debate got Sonja thinking about branding, the market vs the public, and how we stay relevant in what we do.

327255_10151071976077663_1465685003_o.jpgMedia academic and creative director at ExozetFriederike Schultz kicked off with a keynote summarising the big technological and behavioural changes under way. Producers will have to learn to provide for an audience that likes to "lean smart": "lean forward" when we want to engage, and "lean backward" when we want to view in a more traditional way. A world in which we can watch and interact, as Schultz calls it: "any place, any time, any line."

A world which is becoming more complex, app-ified and controlled in 'user-friendly' walled gardens. Even Google fears we have reached "peak search" – much like peak oil – which could threaten its entire business model (see Guardian article), as browser search is on the decline. Multi-screen is already commonplace – who doesn't use their mobile or iPad as their 'private' secondary screen? Brands – from broadcasters down to individual productions – are becoming de rigeur: How will you otherwise stand out in a post-broadcast era without schedules; how will you be found online or in the app shop?

"Ask yourself, what do you stand for?" Schultz says. To communicate this, is your brand.

Simon Kilmurry from POV emphasised the need for public broadcasters to keep championing diversity of opinions and culture, and to resist the simplistic measurement of audience ratings. In an increasingly self-curated media schedule, how do you ensure that you don't just watch films and news which confirm your already-held opinions? How do we expose ourselves to a multitude of opinions? (I'm sure an app is already on the way for this.) Public broadcaster brands still have a really important function to uphold. But once you're into branding, how can you stand outside the market to provide for 'the public'?

Gargi Sen from Magic Lantern in India said wisely: "The market doesn't see the public – only consumers."

In my eyes, most of us see no difference between the public and the market – no doubt, a neoliberal legacy. Perhaps we should debate the difference between the audience or user and the public more? In all our thinking about new business models I believe this question is rarely addressed. In a world where we're jointly scrabbling for scraps of money, we've resigned ourselves to the market model.

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Have some Popcorn with your documentary (2)

Popcorn in action - a dozen different demos

As explored in part one, Popcorn.js and timed metadata are ways to bring the rich interactive and interconnected web into video and audio. As audiences increasingly 'dual-screen' – surf the web and social networks while watching TV or a video in the background – connecting this extra information to a film in a way that is coherent with the look and feel of the film, has lots of potential.

Some Popcorn creations keep the data away from the video, while others add so much data that to some viewers they could be seen as distracting from the documentary. Some go further still and consider the entire web browser as the documentary canvas, and the video elements just one part of that beside any other form of media. Like any new tool, there’s a wealth of possibilities with it, and the most interesting thing about watching the framework’s development over the last few years has been the depth of ingenuity people have applied when mixing audio and video with the potential of the HTML, javascript and the many open web services out there. Here's selection of a wide variety of use-cases.

1. On-screen notations

Inspired by the pop-up info panels that would appear on some music TV shows, pop-ups let you provide text-based commentary during a video and can be styled and coloured as needed – and placed anywhere on screen for as long as desired. Because these aren't encoded into the video, they can be indexed by search engines, translated by screen readers – and changed and added to during the life of the video.

Example: Reblious Pixel’s Buffy vs Edward remix with pop-ups

Pasted-Graphic-13.jpg

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Documentary, Fiction, or just Film?

On the occasion of an award and a honourable mention for Pablo's Winter at DOK Leipzig, we re-publish Chico Pereira's excellent thoughts on whether he has created a documentary, fiction – or just a "Chicomentary" as he called it in Leipzig. This essay was first posted on pabloswinter.com

I wanted to find a more organic method of developing a film,
to experiment with an hybrid form
and to have a film with as little story as I could
and as much depth as possible.

My motivation to make a film never comes from the need to tell a story or to document an aspect of the world. The real force that drives my filmmaking is the desire of developing projects that reflect on film language or film form and that experiment with creative techniques. Story is always the last element to come into place and it is the most likely to change at any point of the creative process. For Pablo’s Winter the idea was to develop a film in my hometown that would feature my neighbours and would combine documentary and fiction film elements and techniques.

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Have some Popcorn with your documentary (1)

What does transmedia documentary really mean?

This weekend at Ravensbourne College on the Greenwich peninsular, over 1,000 of the world's leading web makers and digital innovators have gathered for MozFest, Mozilla's annual get-together for a weekend of idea-sharing and web-making. One of the big announcements at the three-day event – which spans from gaming and learning to digital media and collaborative creativity – is the arrival of version 1.0 of a tool called Popcorn, which could revolutionise the way we watch and interact with films and video online. Nic Wistreich, tech consultant on SDI's Virtuous Circle initiative, is on location. 

Popcorn.js @ Mozilla Fest 2011

Photos from MozFest 2011 by Jonathan McIntosh (Creative Commons)

It has been suggested that the most innovative aspect of the web was the hyperlink, as it gave the ability to connect one page or item to another without needing the permission of whatever you are connecting to. An article is no longer limited to just reporting an event or idea but can connect directly to the sources, discussion, points for further reading, means to share more widely, and suggestions for taking action. The invisible threads between ideas and debate that once could only be found in the indexes of books and journals could begin to be connected, building an ever-growing tapestry of knowledge and ideas.

But while this has been liberating for text, images – anything that could be printed onto paper – it falls flat (quite literally) when applied to time-based media. You can link to a video file, but the mass of information within it and related to it is mostly lost. 

Metadata is the addition of data to data, and for films has traditionally dealt just with the sort of info you could find in IMDb: the credits, technical details, synopsis, rights holders and so on. But a blog link and biography for the person speaking at 24 minutes and 03 seconds? A map reference for the breathtaking cathedral during the opening scene? The latest news stories around the topic at the heart of the film? This sort of metadata has until recently been kept quite separate from the time-based media itself.

Enter Popcorn.

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I AM BREATHING
FUTURE MY LOVE
PABLO'S WINTER
STEM CELL REVOLUTIONS

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