This week, a lot of people who work in the arts will be thinking about “Producing and commissioning digital content”. And it’s in the nature of the beast that a lot of those people will be thinking about making films.
For some reason, everyone in the arts loves a film. It’s not yet entirely clear whether everyone in the audience loves a film (in lots of cases, the answer is “not really – this is a bit boring and badly made, and I can’t quite tell what it’s about”), but certainly – lots of the people doing the commissioning and making are quite clear on the wondrous benefits of committing everything to YouTube or Vimeo. It makes them feel good about themselves. But because most of these films don’t feature either cats or naked ladies, not many people watch them.
Now, by and large, people are busy. If you make a film, you have to market the film. Unless, of course, it involves cats and naked ladies – in which case it will sell itself. But if it doesn’t involve cats and naked ladies, then you need to tell everyone about your film. But sometimes your film will be so bad that it will actually do the opposite, and put people off the thing they came to your website/YouTube channel to find out about.
If you were a gallery or a performing arts company, you wouldn’t hang an exhibition or put a show on your stage that you felt was ‘alright’. You would try to make it as good as you possibly could. And if you were the marketing department, commissioning a poster, you would make it sell as hard as you could – make it look as attractive and glossy as possible. But for some reason, that doesn’t apply to films. Films are allowed to be bad.
The corollary to Everyone Loves a Film is that they also get Even More Excited About Cinema.
Plays and operas and ballets in cinemas are one of those things that are definitely okay. Everyone feels good about them, despite the fact that sometimes, they aren’t very good. For some reason, some of the commissioners think, “Oh, we don’t need to make this as good as a real film – it can be a bit badly directed and lit, and the trailers can be a bit boring, because it’s ART so it’s BRILLIANT.”
This might be the case now – while all the nice middle-class old people who can’t see quite as well as they could before and don’t want to make it to Zone 1 on a Wednesday night – are very keen to go to their local cinema to see a bit of Bryn Terfel or Zoe Wanamaker. But it won’t last.
People will tire of inappropriate close-ups and bad sound and talking head interval footage, because it’s not what the cinema was made for. They will, essentially, want to go and see X-Men First Class because, despite being a bit silly, it looks and sounds extraordinary and everyone in it is really good looking. And I’m sorry about the good looking bit, but it’s true, especially now everything’s in HD.
If I had programmed this week’s Building Digital Capacity seminar, I would send everyone who attends to see Senna. It’s a film about (of all things) motor-racing that could teach every single arts commissioner a thing or two.
Given that it’s a documentary, playing into cinemas, about the world’s most boring sport and featuring voiceover by Nigel Mansell, you would say that the odds aren’t exactly in its favour. But it’s an astonishing piece of film-making. There’s a hero, a girl, a goal, a nemesis, truckloads of jeopardy and scenes of great skill and heroism. And even though you know how it ends, it still makes you cry.
If one arts organisation makes a film that’s half as good as Senna this year, then we’ll have come a long way. They probably won’t, however, because they won’t have the skills, the time or the budget. And I don’t mean to be miserable about this, just realistic. Making good films is hard. Writing, directing, producing, lighting and filming them are all skills that command serious fees in the wider world, and just because you have a first violinist in your company who can turn on a Z3, it doesn’t mean you’re Wong Kar-Wei.
Asif Kapadia says he had one cut of the film that was £5m over budget because he’d used so much archive footage. There’s not one talking head in his film – not one cheap shot. It’s a great movie that – despite costing more money than many NPOs are ever going to see – could teach us all a thing about producing and commissioning digital content.
So I would suggest, before you commission the next film for your website, you go and see Senna and think, “What would Asif Kapadia do?” If the answer is, “He wouldn’t make this film” then I suggest you do the same.