Format Wars: Return of the Record

5th December 2017

Johan Ewing

The development of digital technology this century has had one of the greatest impacts on our consumption of media.  The logarithmic growth of digital technology through the distribution power of the internet – only rivalled by the inexplicable growth in popularity of Love Island – has been one of the defining cultural impacts of our age.

On the face of it, digital technology makes everything easier for consumers – easy to find, tiny to store and accessible from everywhere.  Why then are some analogue options flourishing?

eBook sales appear to have peaked (or even be declining) in favour of physical books.  Vinyl sales are through the roof, although whether this is at the cost of compact discs, mp3s or streaming services is a complicated prospect.  Theatrical movies distributed on film reels are high-profile and growing from a point where digital distribution seemed to have conquered all.  Dunkirk was the widest 70mm release since 1992 (“Far and Away”, fact fans) – this and the IMAX-mastered 70mm version being key components of the marketing to distinguish the film.  The Hateful Eight broke records at several theatres that were showing the 70mm release (technically this was titled “The Hateful Eight in 70mm” – emphasising the marketing attention).  I was unable to ascertain if this quote from Greg Sherman, head projectionist for the Film Society of Lincoln Centre, was intended to be ironic: “70mm is the new vinyl”; or if he knew this article was being written.  Experiential cinema expands apace – most notably Secret Cinema and venue-associated nostalgia screenings.  It seems like only a matter of time until I, Daniel Blake is screened at The Job Centre in Deptford (now, a pub).

Trends in Film

A few years ago you needed the investigative skills of Hercules Poirot to find film reels – perhaps why Murder on the Orient Express is the latest high-profile release promoting its 70mm release.  Now film is available, but is certainly not any cheaper.  Studio productions can laud the release on film as part of the marketing campaign, but the cost is prohibitive for all but the biggest independent films.  In the independent space, the speed and cost of digital filming and distribution is invaluable.  While the cause and effect relationship is not clear, this does tie in to the long-running trend of independent film budgets decreasing and studio blockbusters increasing.

Viewed from another perspective, this can be seen as an extension of the increasing consumer desire for quality, provenance and distinctiveness.  Whether it be craft beer, artisan sourdough, handmade ostrich burgers or coffee made to a level of precision Walter White would be proud, “authenticity” of experience is booming; along with the bewildering premiums this can command.  Millennials may not be able to afford to buy a flat, but they can definitely drink some Albino Squid Assassin or Hoptimus Prime (both craft beers) and eat The Lambshank Redemption or a Shia Nobeouf (both burgers).

What Next

Lest the rest of this article be about craft beer and burgers, back to media distribution.  What’s next?  Who knows.  Not even Vince Cable predicted the resurgence of vinyl.  As should ever have been the case, the key seems to be accessibility, quality and experience.

Whether there is an opportunity for independent feature films producers and distributors to harness these trends to their advantage is a key question for independent films – particularly in relation to theatrical distribution.  While the spending power of studios is unlikely to be matched, provenance and distinctiveness seem to favour independent and local film-making.  Theatrical releases are being shown in more places and in more ways than ever before, but home projectors have a limited market (not that it’s a high-street item, but you can now get an IMAX system fitted in your own home.  How or why I’m not sure.  Maybe Countryfile is better experienced with “Heart-Pounding Audio”.  Despite the bewildering array of over-the-top services and the money behind them, there is clearly still a place for the “theatrical experience”, both in and beyond traditional cinemas.

Suiting content to the platform and delivery method is more important than ever.  Pokemon Go was far more than just another way to walk into a lamp post – it was a big step in the dawn of Augmented Reality; breaking out apace alongside Virtual Reality with every sign that they are the next big consumer product.  Virtual Reality has previously failed to break out, but with the technical and experiential improvements currently evolving Augmented and Virtual Reality have an opportunity to take the next step in the theatrical experience for films.  While the cost of this is yet to be determined, the flexibility and opportunities for innovation favour those willing to take risks and with the agility to adapt to the demands of new markets.

Competition of production and distribution is flourishing which leaves a new variant of an old question – how to stand out?  Anyone can access your self-published fan fiction mash-up of The Famous Five and The Big Sleep, but how will they know it exists?  More importantly, should it be called The Famous Sleep or The Big Five?