The taste of data

Jane Mills chews over the AFC’s Get The Picture

Here is a metanarrative-free text which is seriously intertextual, idiosyncratically fragmented and dangerously challenging notions of authorship. It wouldn’t be stretching the point to make claims for its flavours of bricolage, (re)appropriation and even the ludic. While (sadly) lacking in irony, parody or camp, it is possible to detect an ecstasy of excess, an inferno of intergenericity, a nose for nostalgia, a quire of “quotations”, a ream of repetitions, and a penchant for pastiche.

A Baudrillardian wetdream? A work by Imants Tillers? The poster for The Truman Show? Nothing so obvious—but you might turn to another article if this one began by revealing the text in question as Get The Picture, the Australian Film Commission’s 5th edition of their biannual “essential data on Australian film, television, video and new media” (AFC, Sydney, 1998). But if statistics, pie charts and line graphs are not your accustomed fare, postmodern or otherwise, don’t be put off. Where else could you discover the media facts and figures to dazzle your friends? Did you know, for instance, that Australian women beat their menfolk by 6 percent in terms of bums on cinema seats? That our consumption of popcorn and cola represents a mighty 17 percent of exhibitors’ income? Or that while Sydney television viewers in 1997 preferred True Lies and Speed to Muriel’s Wedding, in Melbourne they sensibly opted for Muriel and the Crown Casino Opening Ceremony in preference to either Schwarzenegger on a bad day or Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock on an even worse one. This may all sound like media trivia to you—but to the industry it’s life and death.

To everyone who cares about the future of screen culture, reliable data about production, distribution, exhibition, audiences, overseas sales, ratings, video rentals and sell-throughs and awards is crucial. Without it, wheels will continue to be reinvented, mistakes remade and, perhaps even more potentially disastrous, successes turned into persistent formulaic codes and conventions.

The AFC and the editors of Get The Picture, Rosemary Curtis and Cathy Gray, should be more than congratulated on this excellent book, they deserve to be hugged. This is a model book of its kind. It proved to this normally chart-allergic cultural analyst that the mantra ‘style equals content’, ritualistically chanted to media students and cultural producers, applies to sets of statistics as much as it does to films, television programs, videos, digital media products, or any other text.

The book provides overviews of each chapter, a beautifully simple cross referencing system, enough historical background to make sense of the present, and clearly designed visual material in the form of charts, graphs and columns (plus the occasional production still) to make browsing an attractive proposition. In addition, the introductory sections are written with verve and style—in particular those by Sandy George, Garry Maddox and Jock Given. In short, the data collected in this book is peerlessly presented, can be effortlessly acquired and understood and provides a comprehensive survey of our screen industry and culture.

So much for the formal characteristics of Get The Picture. But what, as Grace Kelly crucially asked of James Stewart after he had (somewhat tediously to someone wanting to be kissed) adumbrated a series of observable, empirical facts in Rear Window, does it all mean? For without this question there wouldn’t have been a movie—not a movie worth watching. This point is raised by AFC Research Manager, co-editor Rosemary Curtis, in her introduction:

Then there is the issue of what the data means—what it is telling us. This question is not unique to Australia—there are few international standards of performance indicators in this area—but it is vitally important. While the breadth and width of the data collection must be maintained, the new task is to develop methodologies for analysing and contextualising it.

This, of course, is where the fun (or pain) begins. It is perfectly possible to draw complacent conclusions from the array of data about the state of the industry a couple of years ago. Total employment in the media industries had increased since 1986 by 53 percent. The size of the industry in number of business terms had expanded by 70 percent since mid-1994. The number of feature films produced in the 90s was almost double what it was in the 1970s. Screens and admissions have both steadily increased over the past years. On the whole, the data apparently provides cause for celebration.

But we can’t ignore what the data doesn’t (or can’t) reveal. Worrying tendencies or patterns are emerging. There may be more women employed in the screen industries than the average for all industries, but there are also more women earning less and more women working only part-time. Who knows if this is from choice? Feature film production may be almost twice what it was in the 1970s, but it’s down—and decreasing—from the 1980s. Is this the result of increased budgets in an unsuccessful attempt to compete with mainstream blockbusters?

It may be precipitant to celebrate the increase in screens and admissions: in 1995 the number of US screens per million population stood at 106 while we had only 64; Americans visited the cinema an average of 5 times a year while we went merely 3.9 times. Clearly growth in Australia has to be carefully nurtured if the stasis the US is experiencing is to be prevented.

What can be deduced from the fact that between 1993/4 to 1996/7 the number of films classified MA rose from 8 percent to 18 percent? Does this mean excessive classification criteria or more violent movies? What is the significance in the levelling off of video rentals and the increase in sell-through purchases? Might this lead to fewer video classics as some fear?

Nor does data alone shed light on Australian screen tastebuds in terms of both production and consumption. There seems little to celebrate in the reduction in the number of Australian movies in the top 50 from 2 in 1996 (Babe at 2, Shine at 20) to one in 1997 (The Castle at 13). Undeniably, the films themselves leave some screen culture analysts with an unpleasant aftertaste and raise questions about the commissioning and funding process which no amount of data will answer.

As Rosemary Curtis states, the bringing together of an extensive array of information and commentary on Australia’s audiovisual industries—film, video, television and new media (as she quaintly calls what is, by now, a medium fast reaching maturity)—is part of the effort to develop methodologies for analysing and contextualising the data. She is clearly aware, by her use of the plural, that there is no single thought-frame for any industry or government body to adopt. It would be disastrous if we failed to espouse a pluralistic approach to either the production and funding processes or the analysis of our screen culture.

Get The Picture: essential data on Australian film, television, video and new media, 5th edition, Australian Film Commission, Sydney 1998.

RealTime issue #31 June-July 1999 pg. 21

© Jane Mills; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 1999