“Improving Access to Film & Television Markets”: lessons from digitized markets

The coronavirus pandemic has brought with it significant disruptions to all aspects of the film and television industries, including the shuttering of nearly all in-person festivals and marketplaces in the past year. While some have opted to cancel their 2020 and sometimes 2021 festivities altogether, many organizations have, instead, pivoted to hosting virtual versions of their offerings. Now that the possibility of physical gatherings is on the horizon, what can we learn from this year of virtuality, and what do these lessons mean for the future of film festivals and markets?

To answer these questions, 1844 Studios Inc., in collaboration with the Canada Council for the Arts, conducted a study examining the impact of this digitization, called “Improving Access to Film & Television Markets”. They collected data from 14 in-depth interviews with personnel from all areas of the film value chain, and from over 100 days of virtual field research at 13 key markets. “Our team designed a study which analyzes the prospects for the digital market to increase access to previously underserved communities and to determine the format such a market might take in the future,” says Nauzanin Knight, one of the co-authors on the study. 

The study’s participants unanimously agreed that traditional film and television markets were inundated with barriers to entry, from the high cost of admission and travel to the strict accreditation and registration requirements. Markets often proved overwhelming for new participants and completely inaccessible for many others, particularly those from marginalized communities.

“Our finding suggested that digitization of markets removed certain obstacles for attending these events for those who have experienced systemic barriers to attending in the past, especially mothers, those residing in remote regions and emerging filmmakers from underrepresented groups,” Knight explains. Virtual events also have “enormous potential to improve accessibility for the differently abled community… a community that has faced too many barriers until now.”

One of the major causes of this enhanced accessibility would be the reduced costs of attendance, since virtual events eliminate the need for travel, related documentation, accommodation, and childcare. Participants also mentioned the reduced cost to the environment, recognizing the smaller carbon footprint created by this lack of physical travel.

With these barriers down, this heightened accessibility impacts all types of participants, not just filmmakers and producers. The study, for example, reveals an increase in the attendance of “middle range” companies, who act as gatekeepers between major studios and content creators. The findings also emphasize the variety of panelists and speakers now available, thanks to the reduced concern for costs and geography. This lends itself well to creating markets that are potentially richer and more diverse, connecting a wider range of players within the industry.

The digital format itself also has its perks, such as “the usefulness of alternative transactional platforms and catalogues that operate 24/7,” which allow buyers and sellers to have more control over releasing and engaging with products. Other digital offerings, however, prove less effective, such as algorithms matching buyers to sellers, the results of which participants felt lacked a necessary human touch. To ensure smooth operations for the digital format, participants suggested more tutorials and practice with the virtual interface before the start of the market. 

Despite these advantages, digital markets also exhibit some of the same issues as in-person markets and festivals, such as the exclusivity of accreditation and social connections. There are also elements of the physical market that do not translate well into the digital sphere, such as impromptu bump-ins and the essential festival “buzz”. Finally, over a year of remote working and learning has taught us the strain of screen fatigue, to which digital markets are not immune. 

Knight reveals that “all of our research participants were itching to return to physical events in the future, which could not come soon enough for them.” Nevertheless, Knight predicts a future of hybrid markets, “combining the digital and in-person spaces, as the best option for offering the quintessential experience of the physical market and the enhanced accessibility of digital markets.”

One concern regarding hybrid markets, however, is their potential to amplify inequalities between those who can attend in-person and those who can only attend virtually. Not only will this divide privilege certain groups with the effectiveness of in-person engagement, it might also lead to smaller fares dying out as a result of people picking larger festivals to attend physically. While “critical mass events” might still take priority in the travel budget, more niche markets might find it difficult to host in-person events.

Considering this potential pitfall, the study proposes “a two-prolonged strategy to improve access to film and television markets: (1) ensure that digital markets—which are more accessible in terms of price, etc. – continue to evolve to better meet the needs of a wider range of industry players and (2) increase the number of accessibility programs which assist emerging filmmakers, especially those from marginalized groups and geographically restricted regions.”

The study’s participants explain that these accessibility programs “ease the stress of entering the chaotic environment of markets” by allowing filmmaking peers to “buddy up” and enter the market as a community. “Having the camaraderie and a group with which one can check in makes it easier to pursue opportunities”, says Nauzanin Night, making not only the market doors, but the market culture more accessible as well. These programs, coupled with the benefits of digitization, are the study’s key takeaways for the future of film and television markets.

Jessica Yang
Jing Xian (Jessica) Yang is a PhD student at the University of Southern California, studying the intersection between new media and fandom research. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia, double majoring in Psychology and Film Studies. Jessica’s current work aims to harmonize quantitative methods with cultural studies and textual analysis in an effort to better capture the complexities of online trends and communities.
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