Re-thinking film distribution - Richard Sowada

Ironically, I wasn't able to film my conversation with Richard Sowada, recent Head of Film Programs at ACMI and Festival Director at Revelation Perth Independent Film Festival, so perhaps think of these penned notes as a "script" for a movie you haven't yet seen!

Whilst my thoughts on this blog often explore how models or practices in art and creativity benefit us in unrelated areas, by no means is the creative sector itself free of the need for innovation or creative solutions to ensure the arts can deliver its outcomes effectively. In many cases, delivery or distribution models have proven to be outdated, as the recorded music industry itself can sorely attest to. As artists themselves continue to experiment with form, structure or even product, this can seed wider change in how we access art.

Richard explains, "The film sector may be viewed as being based on innovative approaches and practice, but this pertains in most part to (film) technology and the use of it. The qualities and power that digital presentation provides in cinema, festival, installation and non-cinema contexts and concepts is extraordinary. Sound, picture, colour, mobility, photography and cost all amount to an utterly different experience for audiences and extraordinary new creative ground for filmmakers to explore". 

Richard adds that there has been a marked leap in both the quality of ideas and quality of execution, in experimental cinema particularly, which has experienced a great shift into broader festival programming due to an ability to harness big screen aesthetics.

"But the gears of the industry aren’t necessarily working together in a way that follows through that innovative production approach into actually reaching audiences", Richard explains. "Despite wholesale changes in the sector and a rapid move away from analogue to digital presentation, the distribution and exhibition sector has stayed largely the same". 

"Despite the audiences desire for more tailored experiences and the dissolving of traditional "territory by territory" access to content, the distribution and exhibition sector remains a small number of key players, multiplex dominated, with decades old program formats of staggered release windows - cinema, TV, home entertainment etc. This is currently a major battleground, but utterly unwinnable by the exhibitors, who want to maintain longer release times between cinema and other platforms."

So, as the filmmaking art-form itself is seeing such leaps and bounds, why isn't the way it reaches its audience also keeping pace? Ironically again, the creative sector itself needs to maintain and build its own "creative capacity", and apply creative approaches and thinking to its own outputs. Apple and other's "creative capacity" did it for the music industry, which has struggled to catch-up since.

Like music, Richard says "There now exists a different chronology in the film release pattern, as well as a different kind of audience, with a different kind of expectation. The dilemma is that the foundations and practices are so entrenched that those who have been part of that traditional way simply cannot see an alternative - but I’m guessing that’s no different to any long standing business."

"For the filmmaker who wants to enter the business part of the sector, this provides some difficulty - especially if they’re wanting to effect some form of deep and immediate change in a sector that has fundamentally remained unchanged despite the enormous changes that have gone on around it and continue to buffet it. Strangely though, the sector doesn’t look inward to reveal the lessons of the power of innovation", he says.  If ever there was proof that we need to build our "creative capacity" in every area, there it is.

"One need look no further than the great moments of cinema and here two things spring immediately to mind - Reservoir Dogs, a film so fresh and different that Tarantino’s approach completely reshaped the world of contemporary cinema overnight. He’s not alone, as many of the great moments of cinema did likewise by emphatically pointing that-a-way and saying not “this is what we are” but “this is what we are not”.

As the world changes at an increasing rate, in new and unexpected ways, we need the ability to move forward from where we have been, understanding how to chart new courses and overcome new obstacles. It is our "creative capacity" that will deliver us that.