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Conference report: UK Film Distribution: What’s Changing?

Nathan Townsend reports from the UK Film Distribution: What’s Changing? event, organised by MeCETES and Creative Europe Desk UK at the Regent Street Cinema, London, 13 June 2016.

Few conferences have such an unambiguous title, and the programme succeeded in exploring what it says on the tin, albeit with a more diverse range of European input than the headline suggested. This is, perhaps, unsurprising given that MeCETES and the Creative Europe Desk UK were behind the event.

Opening remarks from Andrew Higson (MeCETES), and Agniesszka Moody (Creative Europe Desk UK) set the tone that followed: an event which brought together an impressive range of film distribution professionals, independent filmmakers, industry commentators and academics for lively and engaging debate about the vital and rapidly evolving sector of film distribution.

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Panel on the changing nature of distribution with (l-r) Laurance Gornall (The Works), Stephen Follows (Catsnake), Edward Fletcher (Soda Pictures) and Angus Finney (Film London).

The changing nature of film distribution

The first panel got off to a flying start with its consideration of ‘The changing nature of film distribution’. Edward Fletcher (Soda Pictures) quickly established that the new trend in some filmmaking circles towards self-distribution was a distraction from the genuine concerns which the sector faces.

For Laurence Gornall (The Works), the impact of digitisation has meant increased rather than decreased costs. The chief culprit, the Digital Cinema Initiative’s ‘Virtual Print Fee’ was said to disadvantage independent distributors, with the suggestion that limited releases should be subject to different legislation.

Stephen Follows (Film Consultant) and Angus Finney (Film London / London Film School) both pointed to further consequences of the digital revolution, namely the simultaneous increase in the film production and diminution of production budgets that have led to a saturated marketplace and an increasing focus on niche audiences.

Online film distribution

Geoffrey Macnab offered a welcome historical perspective on the evolution of film distribution in the UK from his recent book, Delivering Dreams, before introducing the advent of Netflix and Amazon into the mix in his keynote address.

The following panel, ‘Online film distribution’, began with Muriel Joly (Under the Milky Way) discussing her role as in digital aggregation, the intermediary business between film producers and online distribution platforms which manages the technical, legal, editorial and financial relationship between the two.

Edward Humphry (BFI) discussed the development of the BFI Player and the difficulties of operating on a commercial footing while being a not-for-profit national body. The theme of public-private interface was continued by Bertrand Moullier (IFTA Europe / Narval Media) who described the difficulties presented by the Digital Single Market and its incompatibility with the structures and processes of European independent film production.

Convergence between film and TV

The final panel, ‘Convergence between film and TV’ opened up the issue of medium specificity, once again centred upon digital distribution. Alex Agran (Arrow Films) highlighted the increasing emphasis on branding for Nordic Noir releases, before pointing to the importance of acquiring TV programming with established broadcast sales to prompt success in secondary windows.

Tim Highsted (Channel 4) discussed the film acquisition policy at the broadcaster before covering the rationale for the foreign language online platform, Walter Presents. In contrast, Jeanette Steemers (University of Westminster) took a longer view on developments in UK film policy since the turn of the century, pointing to the fundamental changes in ownership of rights and thus the structure of production and distribution.

The event concluded with a round table discussion where the emphasis was more squarely on the major new entrants to the distribution and latterly production landscape, Netflix and Amazon. While enthusiasm was found for the idea of a new ‘golden age’ of TV, in part spearheaded by these companies, concern was also raised about the impact of global rights deals and the consequences of global entertainment for national industries.

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The recently reopened London-based Regent Street Cinema, “the birthplace of cinema in Britain”.

Cross-pollination of debate

The successes of this event were many. It succeeded in opening up a current, multifaceted and complex range of topics to a diverse audience of 165 delegates which was populated by as many independent filmmakers as academics, by as many industry professionals as industry commentators. The result was a thorough cross-pollination of debate which examined an area of the industry which, despite its centrality to the film experience, too often receives scant attention when compared to its sexier relation, production.

The venue too played its part. The Regent Street Cinema – the site of the first act of film distribution and exhibition in the UK – was a reminder of the late Victorian era of early cinematic magic. Film and the possibilities for its distribution and exhibition have, of course, changed dramatically since. The necessity of finding an audience, however, has not.

Nathan Townsend is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of York. His research focuses on issues of transnationalism within the contemporary British  and Hollywood film industries. 

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