Research and policy making symposium

Last week I attended a symposium at NESTA, hosted by the University of Hertfordshire, with the BFI and Available Light Advisory, on the relationship between research and policymaking for film in the UK. This event brought together some 60-odd academics, consultants, and policymakers to discuss how to bring these two groups together and how to move forward in developing film policy in the UK. As you will see from the names below, a diverse group of people contributed to the various panels; and, where available, I have provided links to the web pages of those who were involved. A report on the symposium is promised for a future date, but you can read Robin Macpherson’s discussion of the event here. In this post I report on the symposium, before going on to make some observations about the role of film studies.

Opportunities, failures, and successes

To start at the beginning, Carol Comley (BFI) described the current processes of policymaking for film in the UK as ‘suboptimal’ due to the lack of an evidence base that can inform film policy. This was followed by Keith Randle and Neil Watson discussing the research and policy environments as they stand at present. Under the Research Excellence Framework and the current rules of the research councils, it is necessary for academics to demonstrate the ‘impact’ of their research. There is then a need for academics to demonstrate the contribution their research can make to the real world and a need for policymakers to be in possession of in order to achieve that elusive goal of a sustainable film industry in the UK.

Given the urgent nature of the needs of researchers and policymakers, why have we not yet seen them working together? In a panel hosted by Jim Barratt, and featuring John Hill, Jonathan Breckon, Hasan Bahkshi, and Rob Cheek, several reasons were identified for this failure to collaborate:

  • policymakers and academics operate on different time scales, with the former needing research at time scales much shorter than the latter are comfortable producing it
  • a lack of empathy and trust – even ‘cultural conflict’ – between academics and policymakers
  • the false split between economics and culture, and a failure to recognise that film policy is both industrial and cultural
  • the impact of government cuts, reducing the number of opportunities for consultation and collaboration
  • a lack of engagement by researchers with the film industry
  • little demand from the film industry for research

Additional problems were identified by others present. Ian Christie noted that film academics typically lack experience of the film industry they are researching; while Andy Pratt noted that the audio-visual industries were not at the cutting edge of research in economics and lacked credibility leading to researchers to avoiding the subject as it may not enhance their career. As a result of these factors, it was noted that there is little research on filmmaking in the UK, with too little applied research and a dearth of experimental research.

At the same time, this panel was concerned to stress that academics could make a contribution to film policy. John Hill argued that one of the major contributions researchers could make to film policy was to take a longer view and thereby overcome the lack of historical awareness among policymakers. Later on David Steele, former Head of Research & Statistics Unit at the UK Film Council, stressed that academics bring with them an in-depth knowledge of their field, knowledge of the literature on a particular topic, and state oft he art knowledge. Jonathan Breckon (AHRC) discussed the shift to funding larger and longer term research projects, and emphasised this as a way to distinguish academic research from the work of consultants.

A subsequent panel chaired by Maud Mansfield, and featuring David Steele, Ian Christie, Susan Rogers, and Tamsyn Dent, provided examples of how collaboration between and discussed some of the achievements and problems to which such research leads. Ian Christie and David Steele discussed the recent report from the BFI, ‘Opening Our Eyes’ (see here). Christie stressed the virtues of involving consultants in the research process as they are able to act much more quickly and decisively than academics. He also expressed the opinion that film studies had failed to grapple with important issues and to impose itself on the research agenda, of which more below. He went on to state that film studies had generated too much qualitative research that could provide only a limited range of answers to a limited range of questions, and that there had been too little quantitative research. Screenwriter Susan Rogers and Tamsyn Dent discussed past and current research projects, and the problems of gaining access to people working in the film industry in order to conduct research along with just how much this can reveal the cinema in the UK.

Data analysis

After lunch, a panel titled ‘Making use of data,’ chaired by Paul McDonald (University of Nottingham), looked at the problem gaining access to data about the film industry. Phil Clapp pointed out that the film industry was data rich and knowledge rich, but that access to commercially sensitive data was a fundamental problem. He also articulated a need, raised by various others of those present, for a coherent database of stats and research on film industry; and echoed an earlier demand made by Angus Finney for data rather than statistics. Sean Perkins, from the BFI’s Research and Statistics Unit, discussed the need to change from a ‘push’ model whereby the RSU distribute statistics to a ‘pull’ model whereby the impetus comes from researchers for data that can be provided via the RSU. It is worth noting that Screen Australia has a facility to do precisely this (see here), and this is an approach that could be adopted in the UK. Richard Philips took a different line, pointing to the limitations of quantitative research and stressing the need for action research within the industry. He also stressed the need to determine exactly what it is we want to know and who wants to know it, as this will largely determine how we go about deciding what research to do. Finally, Michael Pokorny noted that we spend too much time focussing on understanding success in the film industry and that we devoted too little attention to understanding failure (with the exception of Sex Lives of the Potato Men). Consequently, we do not have a very rounded view of the state of the industry, and you cannot make policy without the proper perspective.

In the discussion following this panel I raised the issue of statistical literacy in film studies. It is all very well producing work such as the RSU’s Statistical Yearbook or in making data sets available to researchers if people do not know what to do with them. This was obviously not going to be such a problem for the economists in the room, but as I have argued elsewhere (here) statistical literacy is a pressing concern in film studies that needs to be dealt with. We also should not assume that policymakers or people in the industry know how to make use of data. Richard Phillips responded to this by pointing out that an over-reliance on statistical analyses of quantitative data provides only a partial view of the industry and does not necessarily answer the questions the industry wants to ask. Which is true, but doesn’t deal with the problem at hand. Others present were more sympathetic and also recognised the problem of a lack understanding of how to make use of data. The Royal Statistical Society found last year (almost a year to the day, in fact) that the majority of people in the UK had little understanding of statistics even though they encounter them everyday (see here), and the same is true of film studies. It is nice to know that there are others who find the lack of statistical literacy in film studies troubling, and that I’m not just shouting into the wind. The question is what can we do about it.

Research Agendas

The final three panels of the day looked at three different research agendas – audiences, talent, and economics – that addressed various issues of how to go about researching these areas, what we know, what we don’t know, and what we should know. Many of the issues raised in the earlier part of the day were discussed and elaborated.

With regard to audiences, Terry Ilott and Finola Kerrigan again raised the tension between market and academic research. Martin Barker noted that one of the problems from the point of view of the academic community is that there is no follow-up on the way in which research is used. Researchers are effectively cut off from the fruits of their labours and do not have an opportunity to assess its impact. He also stated a need for portals through which data is made available to researchers. Pete Buckingham (BFI) noted that the public money spent on research was not used to ensure publication of research. This is a source of continuing frustration in the UK, and in order to make progress we need to follow the American model whereby publicly funded research is legally required to be in the public domain. Its common practice elsewhere and it is not difficult to achieve, so there is no excuse for this not to happen in the UK. Adam Cooper discussed the work of Film: 21st Century Literacy.

The panel on talent was chaired by Keith Randle, and featured Doris Eikhof, Rosalind Gill, Debbie Williams (EM-Media), and Dan Wilks (Skillset), and discussed the nature of their research (which you can find out about from their webpages) and the problems of doing research on film talent. Some obstacles identified by Dan Wilks were that people in the industry were suspicious of questions from researchers and see little value in providing data for the benefit fo the wider industry. As had been noted earlier in the day, the problem was one of engagement. In the following discussion Terry Ilott raised an interesting question: by what theory are we informed when creating a talent policy for the film industry? I do like simple questions – they are usually the hardest ones to answer.

The economics panel was chaired by Andy Pratt, and featured Angus Finney, Joe Lampel, John Newbigin, and John Sedgwick. Angus Finney raised the issue of who is going to lead research, a point later picked up by Terry Ilott and Andy Pratt. John Newbigin also raised this topic in a different way by asking, what sort of research consortia we need in order to conduct meaningful research projects? Joe Lampel stressed how little we actually know about the process of film development; and , in contrast to Ian Christie’s view of film studies lack of quantitative research, argued that we need more interpretative work on the economics of the film industry. John Sedgwick presented some results on the profitability of Hollywood films and the predictability of grosses in an effort to overturn the accepted wisdom that ‘nobody knows anything’ about the film industry, and to show that as Hollywood films are increasingly profitable someone must know something and that by analysing data we can know things too.

Perhaps what we need as a David Hilbert-type figure to given direction to research in the cinema:

Wir müssen wissen. Wir werden wissen.


Terry Illot argued that there should be some provision for funding research, presumably of the type mentioned above in relation to Screen Australia, and that it is necessary adopt a ‘door open’ policy for interesting research. He also suggested the intriguing idea of a research levy to overcome a lack of resources. Finally, he set out a series of needs: leadership, responsibility, accountability, and an agenda to give direction to research. Again, there is a Hilbert shaped in hole to be filled. Keith Randle also stressed the need for follow-up on the day’s activities. In his summary, Andy Pratt focussed on the need for a brokerage role to create a continuing conversation between interested parties and the legitimacy of multidisciplinary research. As Rob Cheek had noted earlier in the day, one of the problems in bringing academics and policymakers together is that little attention is paid to managing the relationship between them.

Some Observations

In reflecting on this symposium I wish to pay particular attention to the view articulated by various of those present that there is a lack of a common framework for the study of film that will bring researchers from different disciplines and policymakers together; and the opinion of Ian Christie that film studies has largely failed as a discipline.

In a post from 2009 (see here), I set out a definition of film studies that was based on a division into four related types of analysis:

  • Industrial analysis: the political economy of film industries; the organisation of film industries; technologies of film production, distribution, and exhibition; practices of film production, distribution, and exhibition; government policies; etc.
  • Textual analysis: representation and the symbolic meanings of film; film form; film style; narrative/non-narrative structure; etc.
  • Ethnographic analysis: the composition of audiences; rituals of cinema-going and film experiences; cultural meanings and issues of identity; etc.
  • Cognitive-psychological analysis: the viewer’s perception of a film; communication and information in the cinema; psychological processes of meaning-making in the cinema; the psychological basis of the viewer’s response to a film; etc.

Films can be analysed as institutionally produced commercial commodities that function as cultural artifacts inscribed with meanings which are then consumed and interpreted by audiences, whose experience of the cinema is predicated on cognitive-psychological processes of perception and comprehension. Film Studies can be defined as a research programme analysing films in institutional, textual, ethnographic, and cognitive-psychological terms.

This is, I think, a basis for determining the necessary framework that will allow our understanding of the cinema to move forward. I do not think that you can separate the four types of analysis identified above. You cannot understand how audiences respond to a film without first understanding how they watch a film. You cannot understand how film style operates without understanding how we watch and respond to films. You cannot understand which films get made and which do not without understanding the choices audiences make, and how the industry models those choices. Film studies is by its very nature multidisciplinary. That is why I think it is such a fascinating subject, and why students should be enthused about studying it.

I do not think that at present we are close to realising the full potential of the discipline. I share the opinion of Ian Christie that film studies has failed to make meaningful progress in our understanding of the cinema. As I have discussed elsewhere on this blog (here and here), the type of research programme that was discussed at the symposium was the norm for researchers interested in film and television prior to the 1970s. It was empirically driven research concerned with how viewers experienced and comprehended the cinema, at the behaviour of audiences, and at the social impact of cinema. It has taken some FORTY YEARS to get to a situation where, with the BFI’s ‘Opening Our Eyes’ report, we have finally have some similar research that will inform our understanding of the cinema in the UK. Of course, empirical research on industries, audiences, and the perception of viewers continued to be conducted after 1970 by psychologists, sociologists, and economists but not in film studies: the type of research we are talking about is much more common in the empirical strand of media studies, and is to be found in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media rather than in Screen.

Let’s be explicit about this: in my opinion, it is film studies that is the problem with the study of film. The study of film was diverted from an empirical and experimental approach by its institutionalisation as film studies in the early-1970s that simply ignored decades of prior research and which set off into the tedium of Theory. Forty years of film studies, and one of the common themes of many of the speakers at the symposium is that we know so little. That cannot be acceptable. There needs to be an honest appraisal of the successes and failures of film studies in order to explain how we have ended up in a situation like this. What do we actually know about the films, about film industries, and about audiences and viewers? What do we need to know? I know that David Bordwell and Noel Carroll took on Theory the in Post-theory: Re-constructing Film Studies fifteen years ago, but its impact in many areas has been rather limited: film studies isn’t that different to when I was an undergraduate in 1995-1998. What I want to know is, where is our Hilbert to shape our research (and teaching) agendas? (It is also worth noting that Post-theory does not discuss pre-film studies research on the cinema either).

If the BFI wants to be seen as a ‘knowledge organisation’ whose expertise is not confined to the interpretation of texts, then it is necessary to start with a new approach to the study of film based on a framework that encourages (in Einstein’s phrase) ‘many-sided thinking,’ and not one that will lead to just more bloody film studies.

About Nick Redfern

I am an independent academic with over 15 years experience teaching film in higher education in the UK. I have taught film analysis, film industries, film theories, film history, science fiction at Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Central Lancashire, and Leeds Trinity University, where I was programme leader for film from 2016 to 2020. My research interests include computational film analysis, horror cinema, sound design, science fiction, film trailers, British cinema, and regional film cultures.

Posted on November 3, 2011, in British Cinema, Film Industry, Film Policy, Film Studies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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