Puttnam on digital impact: my notes

David Puttnam’s lecture this evening focused on skills (he spends a fair bit of his time advising the Department for Education and Skills these days) and on intervention to stimulate digital distribution and exhibition of films in the UK (he’s a Labour peer).

He addressed the potential impact of digital technologies on production of films/motion pictures, on distribution and exhibition, and briefly on aesthetics.

Digital technologies have already transformed production and post-production (see earlier reference to the ‘digital sandwich’ of production). Puttnam suggested that — while digital production might open up opportunities for guerrilla film-making at the budget independent end of the spectrum — the effect of technology on mainstream production has so far been to drive up costs. These costs are mainly in computer-generated images (CGI) as film-makers strive for ever more impressive effects. CGI is incredibly dependent on highly skilled operators and, according to Puttnam, the UK currently excels in this area, drawing on a tradition of imagination and creativity. But there is a need to invest in generating more talent. Apparently some companies are already importing skills, sometimes in defiance of work permits, to meet demand. There is a looming skills gap, Puttnam says, that the UK must address to avoid more production moving to Eastern Europe.

The film industry has been distribution-led for at least the last 30 years. Advertising is the biggest cost in distribution, but the cost of prints is also significant, particularly for ‘big’ films that the distributor wants to open in many places across the country at the once. Digital distribution would slash these costs. While half the UK population can get digital TV, there are still only a handful of cinemas with digital projectors. (Puttnam often uses scare tactics, arguing that the UK is going to fall behind, and in this case he compared our progress unfavourable with that in China and Brazil, though I believe they are mostly installing cheap, lower quality digital projectors in locations that have never previously had any cinema projection.) The cause of the delay is a business model impasse: distributors will see the most immediate savings from digital projection, but don’t want to set a precedent of paying for exhibitors’ equipment and infrastructure. Lord Puttnam said the Film Council should support the costs of installing the digital infrastructure in cinemas in return for commitment to show more specialised product. As can only happen with a Lord, I wasn’t sure whether he was just floating a half-formed idea, or whether this was already official policy! [Postscript: it turns out it’s policy:see this BBC news story].

On the subject of online distribution of films, Puttnam pointed out that DVDs have provided massive revenues to distributors over the last five years. His own Chariots of Fire is apparently at 23 in some chart, providing welcome royalties to cast and crew over 20 years after its release. This success makes for one more reason holding back the industry from plunging into online distribution: they don’t want to cannibalise this revenue stream from DVDs. Terror at the prospect of following the music industry example is also scaring them off. But Puttnam asserted that it could not be in the industry’s interests to criminalise its customers.

As ever, Puttnam is an optimist and also an enthusiast for new technology. Traditionally film has driven new technology, he claimed, and he would like to see film realise its potential to drive the uptake of broadband services. In his book the choice and flexibility of digital technologies are very attractive to customers: the film industry should seek to exploit this, not to constrain it.

The aesthetic impact of digital technologies was not raised until the Q&A session: Puttnam feels we will have to wait a generation before we get real perspective on this impact. That is, people who have grown up with the old film-making traditions will not be the people to exploit the aesthetic potential of digital technologies fully. That will be left to the ‘digital native’ generation who have been born into a world of software and games.

Also in the Q&A Puttnam raised the horrifying spectre of Microsoft buying a studio and being first mover in owning a slice of the film industry process from end-to-end (i.e. from production and online distribution up to the point where you watch the film with Windows Media Player). If they did this, they might avoid falling into the trap that snared Sony with its Betamax video format — that they did not have access to the rights to sufficient material to build a critical mass of users. But, Puttnam predicted, Microsoft probably won’t go down this route for the same reason that Sony later pulled out of the film industry: it’s too complex and illogical by the standards of normal business, and as such would be too alien for Microsoft to manage.

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