Just finished reading Richard Harris’s essay in the Platform Papers series – ‘Film in the Age of Digital Distribution: The Challenge for Australian Content’. You can find out more about this paper by clicking here. That was the advertisement, now for the critique.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s timely for a paper like this to be released to kick off a debate about the future of the Australian media industries in a time of rapid change. And my response is a little late as the paper was released in April, apologies. But for better or worse I’m taking the bait and responding to what Richard has raised in the spirit of public debate. And I thank him for acknowledging the work we have been doing at LAMP in the last chapter of the paper. But having said that I really don’t think the full extent of the ideas pursued by LAMP have been addressed here. Richard’s paper promised to lift the veil on all kinds of new media ‘hype’ so at the risk of being perceived as a snake oil salesman it’s down to business.
My first major issue is with basic terminology. Richard explains his choice of the term ‘filmmaking’ to refer to the creation of all kinds of digital content: film, TV and interactive media. Well I don’t think so. The term is weighted towards the familiar comforting forms we all know and love – cinema and TV. Interactive media is the elephant in the room and there are many things about it that are fundamentally different from linear media. Interactive media is the native form in the new digital environment and it’s no coincidence that leading filmmakers like Peter Jackson, James Cameron and even our own George Miller are gravitating towards games and interactivity in upcoming projects. My main point here is that when media becomes digital it’s a fairly seamless transition for it to become ‘software’. And while ‘film’, Richard points out, is a term which has an existing meaning in copyright law, I’d suggest there is a raft of intellectual property law that sits around software creation of all kinds. Just because ‘filmmakers’ don’t operate in this arena isn’t going to stop it from eating them for dinner. My contention is that entertainment media is tending towards software creation and the sooner we start to move the Australian creative media industries down this path the better. Linear film is just one part of a much bigger picture. We are in a major era of change and we can’t keep doing things the same way and expect anyone to notice. As Joseph Jaffe says this is a time where we need to “experiment experiment experiment and be prepared to make mistakes”. While Jaffe’s work is primarily aimed at advertisers creating 30 second spots the principle is exactly the same for all content creators who want to reach audiences. And I’d contend that all ‘filmmakers’ need to think about the form in which they express their ideas – whether it’s feature film, a television hour documentary or a 13 part 11 minute animation series. The medium is the message and the medium has changed.
My primary issue with the whole approach of Richard’s paper is about the ‘what’. In Chris Anderson’s economy of media abundance where media consumers are beset with an incredible array of choice, what sort of content will they chose to spend their valuable time with? There is a raft of reliable statistics to suggest that phenomena such as social networking sites like Myspace and YouTube, massively multiplayer games, blogging, mobile media devices and virtual worlds are taking audiences away from the telly and the cinema. Don’t get me wrong, film and TV are going to be around for a long time, but there are new kids on the block who are offering consumers a range of other choices. My contention is simply that only a small portion of what we now think of as ‘film’ will form the average daily intake of media consumers in a system of true digital distribution. And this era is upon us now – or at least it is in the rest of the world. While it is important to support creation of Australian media content, now more than ever we need to try a few new things. I fear that the latest raft of tax rebates (which don’t apply to the games and interactive industries) will artificially stimulate Australian ‘heritage’ media at the expense of innovation. A digital distribution platform is an interactive platform. Content which can take advantage of this will instantly differentiate itself from the oceans of new and back catalogue linear content already available online. Surely the changes wrought by digital distribution are as much about media form as they are about replacing film distributors. And this is the real challenge of digital distribution to ‘filmmakers’. How can your content take best advantage of the new landscape to capture global audiences? I’d contend you can only do this by embracing interactivity.