digitising the film industry: the big questions

tina kaufman reviews richard harris on digital distribution

Film in the Age of Digital Distribution

Film in the Age of Digital Distribution

OVER THE LAST DECADE, AT CONFERENCES, SEMINARS AND FESTIVALS WITHIN THE FILM COMMUNITY, MANY PANELS HAVE BEEN ASSEMBLED TO ADDRESS THE ELUSIVE ‘DIGITAL FUTURE’ THAT HAS SEEMED TO OFFER SO MUCH—IF ONLY IT COULD BE PINNED DOWN AND DEFINED. AT MANY OF THESE SESSIONS, RICHARD HARRIS HAS BEEN PRESENT AS ORGANISER, CHAIR OR PANELLIST.

Harris has had a legitimate role in these discussions, as Executive Director of the Australian Screen Directors Association (recently renamed the Australian Directors Guild). As an advocate for directors, he has been keen to identify, as he says in his Platform Paper, Film in the Age of Digital Distribution, “what all this change actually means and is likely to mean for the Australian film industry in general and for filmmakers in particular.”

As industry associations go, ASDA has been more interesting than most, probably due to its very active membership of film and television directors and documentary makers. It’s always had the most interesting events and conferences, always been eager to explore the creative side of the filmmaking process, and it’s played an energetic and involved part in industry-wide campaigns such as local content and the US Free Trade Agreement negotiations. Since 1998 Richard Harris has been an exemplary executive director, working hard on guild issues such as legal recognition of directors’ copyright, as well as giving ASDA a strong industry voice, a presence in Canberra and even an international profile.

While keeping himself and his members informed and up to date on the many policy and practical issues that affect the sector, he’s found that the digital revolution has provided the biggest challenge. As he says, “trying to get a handle on the fast-changing media landscape is a daunting exercise, as new developments occur every day—in internet terms, this essay is already light years out of date—and it is easy to freeze in the face of so much hype and hysteria. That said, I felt it important to put some facts on the table for both filmmakers and policy makers, and add my mite to the industry’s attempts to navigate the new media’s hype curve.”

Film in the Age of Digital Distribution, published by Currency House as part of its series addressing issues of concern for the arts in public life, is more than a mite; it’s a serious and detailed look at just what future is possible for the film industry in the digital age. Harris’ approach is to analyse the industry as it is now, investigate the realities and myths of the digital revolution, ask what the internet offers and how it will compete with conventional media, how it can help people earn money, and what the challenges and options are for the industry.

But through it all, his major questions are: how to ensure that Australian audiences continue to receive adequate levels of Australian content, and how to guarantee that the film industry is able to negotiate the new media terrain by taking on the opportunities and challenges that it offers.

As someone who has been closely involved with most of the film and media-related political campaigns of the last decade or so, Harris is well placed to analyse the current state of the industry, and he’s not too impressed. He sees it as one that’s been in decline in recent years, with production levels critically low, one that probably wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the substantial government support it has received for years. (Since this was written, a new and well-received support structure has been introduced by the federal government for the film industry. Interestingly, while it strongly lobbied for inclusion, Australia’s creative and entrepreneurial and digitally-based games industry—which suffers many of the same problems as the film industry, particularly in relation to large overseas competitors—was left out in the cold.)

At the same time, with the real money being made by those who control, distribute and exhibit rather than produce screen content, Harris sees filmmaker access to screens (and therefore to audiences) restricted by a series of gatekeepers with whom they have to negotiate, and who profoundly affect the sorts of films and programs that are made and shown. Despite all this, filmmakers have learnt to work within this production landscape, and with an accepted set of rules. But, Harris asks, will the development of new digital technologies offer a means of breaking open this (flawed) structure, without destroying the fragile and vulnerable Australian industry?

While canvassing what digital technology, and especially the internet, has to offer, Harris does so with a clear and analytical eye; he might discover not only many and varied possibilities for content creation and new ways of viewing and distributing work that avoid many of the traditional pathways, but he also recognises the big question: where does the revenue come from? As new internet business models emerge, as broadband accelerates internet use and downloading of films and programs becomes accepted, and as internet advertising growth outstrips its more traditional competitors, does this really provide a new style of marketplace for local content?

So, Harris asks, “how do we ensure that the Australian film industry is best placed to survive and prosper in the new cross-platform environment? What interventions by government will guarantee Australian audiences access to the quality and diversity of original Australian content that they have come to expect?”

In this coherent and clear-sighted analysis of the digital possibilities for the film community, Harris doesn’t pretend to have the answers, but what he does offer are at least some of the questions that need to be asked in the development of “an integrated content strategy that considers everything from regulation to tax mechanisms, from the public broadcasters to professional training, with the focus always returning to Australian content.” But, he warns, in this short but substantial book, “only by stepping back and looking at the structure as a whole do we stand any chance of developing the strategies that will create a sustainable and prosperous future for our industry.” Let’s hope that the policy setters and decision makers are reading.

In July, Richard Harris left ASDG to take up the position of CEO at the South Australian Film Corporation.

Richard Harris, Film in the Age of Digital Distribution, The Challenge for Australian Content, Platform Paper No, 12, Currency House, April 2007, IBSN 978 0 9802802-0-3

RealTime issue #80 Aug-Sept 2007 pg. 35

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2007