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Conference Report: New Directions in Film and TV Production Studies

Huw Jones reports on the New Directions in Film and Television Production Studies, at the Watershed, Bristol, April 14-15, 2015

Production studies is a particularly a ‘hot’ topic for film and media scholars at the moment – or at least it seems that way, as over 100 academics from across the UK, Europe and as far afield as Australia, US and the Caribbean crammed into the Watershed in Bristol for the two-day conference New Directions in Film and Television Production Studies.

Phil Drake (Edge Hill) kicked things off with a keynote outlining some of the key trends within production studies, highlighting issues to do with labour conditions, ethnic diversity, policy analysis, media clustering, regional competition and digital distribution as particular areas of importance.

ChasEPwatershed4/6/2002-He asked whether production studies should think of itself as a separate field of inquiry, or whether this might isolate it from other areas of media research, such as audience studies.

I’m sure most scholars would argue for a comprehensive approach (like the one adopted in the MeCETES project) where production is considered alongside the analysis of media content and its reception.

Yet many of the papers I heard at the conference seemed to treat such issues as the management of media firms without any reference to what audiences actually see on screen. In some cases they might as well have been talking about the management of car factories or hotels.

That said, there were many very good papers which went against this trend. I particularly enjoyed Christopher Meir’s (University of the West Indies) presentation on Studiocanal, in which he charted the French company’s often turbulent development from an aspiring Hollywood player – Basic Instinct (1992) and Terminator 2  (1991) were amongst its early productions – towards becoming a European major, albeit one with strong British interests in terms of production and distribution (for example, it acquired the UK distributor Optimum Releasing in 2006).

Meir left aside the question of whether Studiocanal’s European turn had made its films more culturally distinct from Hollywood, but noted the emphasis the company placed on producing Anglophone movies, such as Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (2011) and Non-Stop (2014), which suggests at least some accommodation with Hollywood norms.

Equally impressive was Yannis Tzioumakis’s (University of Liverpool) paper on American independent cinema in the twenty-first century. After tracing the history of the US indie, Tziousmakis argued the sector was becoming increasingly polarised between ‘Indiewood’ (i.e. mainstream ‘independent’ films, often backed by studio specialty film divisions) and an emerging sub-culture of low-budget indie films online.

The latter appears to be a particularly vibrant area of filmmaking, though it was interesting to hear Tzioumakis’s paper alongside that of Tim Tarrant (University of the West of England), in which he highlighted some of the difficulties involved in finding a market for online films, based on his experience working with Creative England’s iFeatures initiative. Tarrant’s conclusion that digital distribution should not be seen as a panacea for UK independent film is one I’m sure could equally apply to the US indie market as well.

Finally, I’d like to flag-up Matthew Freeman’s (Birmingham University) fascinating paper on the history of ‘transmedia production’. Freeman argued that transmedia, where stories are told across multiple media platforms, is nothing new – as early as 1900 the author of The Wizard of Oz, Frank Baum, was using things like fake newspapers to both market and add additional context to his novel. What has changed over time is, of course, the technology used to produce the media, and it is these technological shifts which, according to Freeman, have affected the way transmedia stories are told.

Academia and industry

A recurring theme throughout the conference was the relationship between industry and academia, as well as the challenges involved in getting media professionals to be open with researchers.

A discussion panel involving academics and industry professionals debated these issues with particular vigour. Frank Mannion, who founded his company Swipe Films after working as a legal adviser for Nik Powell and Stephen Woolley at Palace Productions (producers of The Crying Game), talked about the importance of work placements and teaching students transferable skills, a point which was echoed by Fly Film’s Kate Ogborn, who said students needed to know more about different roles in the industry.

However, Mannion was rebuked by Rob Stoneman (National University of Ireland, Galway), author of Educating Filmmakers (2014), for ‘instrumentalising’ film studies. Stoneman argued students needed to learn more about the political, aesthetic and ethical aspects of filmmaking, and not just how to hold a camera.

Meanwhile, Laura Marshall of Bristol-based Icon Films welcomed greater collaboration between academia and industry, suggesting that industry professionals could learn much from research on what makes film and television programmes successful – a nod perhaps to the Success in the Film and Television Industries (SiFTI) project, who organised the conference.

UCLA’s John Thornton Caldwell also dealt with the relationship between industry and academia in his closing keynote lecture. Drawing on the work of his own PhD students, he explored some of the different ways researchers could get industry professionals to disclose information about their profession, including the use of ad-hoc sources such as the recent Sony Hack.

Quantitative data

One key source overlooked by Caldwell – and indeed by most of the other speakers at the conference – is the vast amount of quantitative data made freely available in the statistical yearbooks of agencies like the British Film Institute (BFI) and the European Audiovisual Observatory, as well as other public resources such as Box Office Mojo, IMDb and the Lumiere database.

As bloggers like Stephen Follows, Phil Hoad and Nick Redfern demonstrate, these sources provide a particularly rich insight into industry trends, yet they seem to be underused within production studies, perhaps because of the paucity of statistical skills amongst film and media researchers.

New Directions in Film and Television Production Studies may well come to be remembered as a key milestone in the development of production studies. But for this area of research to really flourish I think it needs to become not only more integrated with other areas of media research (e.g. audience studies), but also make better use of the vast amounts of quantitative data now available on the film and television industries.

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