The recent DOC NYC Visionaries Tribute Luncheon celebrated the ability of documentaries “to speak truth to power” and noted the success of theatrical releases over the last year despite challenging market conditions. This year has seen doco challenging its reputation as a risky financial proposition by playing an important role in streaming platform’s content strategy, reaching significant theatrical audiences (with feel-good documentaries having particular success) and showing resilience when Netflix and Amazon stopped buying at Sundance. Documentary filmmakers have always been adaptive and able to find new ways of engaging with audiences. The recent success of Australian Richard Todd’s documentary on the platform Demand Films is testament to that.
In contrast, the recent scaling down and write-down of $157m at Vice shows the volatility of on-line publishing platforms. Local success story So Bad So Good has also shuttered and their founders point to the job cuts at Buzzfeed and the fire sale of Mashable as evidence of a market that is going through some significant bumps.
Exhibitors are rebounding in the US with extra cheer coming from the seemingly failing business model of MoviePass (you know you are in trouble when your strategy for customer retention is a picture of a cute dog). Even the AFM didn’t end up as apocalyptic as people first thought, with buyers choosing smaller films with clear theatrical potential over the bigger titles that were being packaged. The ability to adapt to change was the main advice coming out of the market. Jean Prewitt, CEO of Independent Film & TV Alliance summed it up succinctly: “the audience is there but everyone has to keep striving to not lose heart, not be discouraged to the fact that there was an old golden age that we wish would come back. This is this golden age.” Spike Lee puts it more bluntly “where the money is, that’s where filmmakers have to go.” And in terms of what to make? Whatever it is, it has to be different.
One of the consequences of the success of streaming platforms is that broadcasters across the world are having to rethink their programming strategy and put good shows on throughout the summer too. Now that research shows that Netflix and not live TV is where people are watch their favourite shows, “networks have finally realised that they just can’t show rubbish for two months and expect people to come back.” The one constant is constant change. We’re seeing an upside-down world where dramas are getting shorter and YouTube videos a lot longer.
An unintended impact of the multi-screen boom is that it could be creating a generation who have less empathy, and that the adverse effects of this will be felt strongest by lower-to-middle income families. To quote from this article “the children of poorer and middle-class parents will be raised by screens, while the children of Silicon Valley’s elite will be going back to wooden toys and the luxury of human interaction.” This is particularly worrying when we are told 82% of all internet traffic will be video by 2021 and that it is difficult to detect fake news. You can’t even trust the video that comes out of the White House nowadays, let alone be sure the person speaking is actually the person speaking. Maybe we would all benefit from some no-tech zones. Just don’t tell the FAANGs, they’re already spooked about the recent ‘peak tech’ sell-offs.
The recent report from Screen Australia on drama production shows an industry with record local spend of $718m due to a boom in co-productions, but suffering from a decline in US studios investment. The net result is that there has been a fall in overall production spend from $1.3bn to $814m. Attracting ‘footloose’ production is increasingly difficult in a highly competitive global market. The UK and Canada already have a significant share of this market. In the US Atlanta’s film industry is having to build its own mini-city to cope with demand. The most recent entry into the race to provide the most generous tax incentive is Romania. The question that some ask is whether the incentive outweighs the gain for the local industry. Some believe the multiplier effect that stimulates the wider economy makes it worthwhile, whilst others argue that it requires more investment than just the tax credit alone and instead requires developing a local workforce and infrastructure. An interesting recent proposition in the UK was to use tax-incentives to promote diversity.
Closer to home, the Asia-Pacific market has seen China still open to Hollywood blockbusters with Venom taking a record $111m on its opening, despite a recent move towards encouraging more local product. The Australia government has suggested introducing a new Pacific broadcasting scheme to commercial networks, which may illustrate the growing potential in these markets and the importance of Australia promoting itself. Finally, the UK publication Screen International highlights the huge growth potential of Indonesia. Lucky for us it is a short trip to get there. However, after Brexit the Brits may be forced to get their passports out more often.