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Quantitative methods and the study of film

UPDATE: By sheer coincidence the day on which I gave this talk in Glasgow was also the day on which the Korean research on movie types was published online by the Journal of Media Economics. You can find a link to the published paper here.

On 14 and 15 May I gave a talk and a workshop at the University of Glasgow of quantitative methods and the study of film. It was very gratifying to meet a group of researchers who were interested in using, were already using, 0r had used quantitative methods and were looking to develop this more, but were a little tentative about moving forward. One thing that occurred to me on the (long) train journeys back from Glasgow is that there are some researchers out there studying film (and other media) who are ready to kick on with developing their quantitative skills but need a push; someone to tell them that it’s OK to do this, that it’s not completely alien and that you don’t need anyone’s permission to do something that is the ‘core process’ of the discipline. In my talk I argued that a change of mindset away from ‘Film Studies’ to the ‘study of film’ is the first step to adding quantitative methods to our toolbox for understanding the cinema. The second step it seems should be building the confidence of researchers to sustain that momentum. Once you’ve got your toes wet you want to get in the pool – but you might need your arm bands for a few weeks.

No-one from Screen attended the talk or workshop.

The text of my talk can be accessed here:

Nick Redfern – Quantitative methods and the study of film

This talk addresses the analysis of film – its texts, its audiences, its political economy – in higher education, arguing for the abandonment Film Studies as either a subject or a discipline and approaching the cinema as a complex object of inquiry that demands an ecumenical methodological perspective in order that its numerous and various dimensions are fully comprehended. Though used widely by those studying the cinema beyond the narrow methodological confines of Film Studies, quantitative methods are at present underused by film scholars. To fix their place in the study of film and place the study of film in the wider world – particularly the BFI’s recent recognition of the importance of evidence-based policy making – I argue there is much to be gained from the application of quantitative methods in studying film and its audiences, and I illustrate this claim by drawing on a range of empirical studies.

This piece refers to some material available online.

The work on audiences and genre from KAIST can be accessed here: Shon, J.-H., Kim, Y.-G., & Yim, S.-J. (2012) Dissecting Movie Genres from an Audience Perspective: MTI Movie Classification Method, KAIST Business School Working Paper No. 2012-008.

Andrew McGregor Olney’s work on film genres can be accessed here: Olney, A.M. (2013) Predicting film genres with implicit ideals, Frontiers in Psychology 3: 565.

The summary of the 2011 Research and Policymaking symposium can be accessed here: Research and Policymaking for Film – A Symposium, 26 October 2011, Report of the Day.

My account of this symposium was published on this blog a week later and can be found here.

(The rhubarb crumble was also very good – and I say that as someone from Yorkshire were all the world’s rhubarb comes from).

Age, gender, and television in the UK

UPDATE: This article has now been published – in a corrected form (see the comments below) – as Age, Gender, and Television in the United Kingdom, Journal of Popular Television 3 (1) 2015: 57-73. DOI: 10.1386/jptv.3.1.57_1. The post print of the article can be accessed here: Nick_Redfern – Age Gender and Television post print.

In December 2011 I published a post on genre preferences among UK cinema audiences, applying correspondence analysis to data from the BFI’s Opening Our Eyes report. You can read the article that was subsequently published in Participations last year here.

At the time I meant to write a follow up piece on genre preferences for UK television audiences using data from the same source but I never quite got round to it. I have now finished this analysis and the draft article can be found in the pdf file attached to this post. I also look at how age and gender affect audiences perceptions of television as a medium

We apply correspondence analysis to data produced for the BFI’s Opening Our Eyes report published in 2011 to discover how age and gender shape the experience of television for audiences in the UK. Age is an important factor in shaping how audience perceive television, with older viewers describing the medium as ‘informative,’ ‘thought provoking,’ ‘artistic,’ ‘good for people’s self-development,’ and ‘escapist’ and while younger viewers are more likely to describe television as ‘exciting,’ ‘fashionable,’ and ‘sociable.’ Younger respondents are also more likely to describe the effect of television on people/society as negative. Variation in programme choice is highly structured in terms of age and gender, though the extent to which of these factors determine audience choice varies greatly. Gender is the dominant factor in explaining preferences for some programme types with age a secondary factor in several cases, while age is the explanatory factor for other genres for which gender seemingly has little influence. Male audiences prefer sports, factual entertainment, and culture programmes and female audiences reality TV/talent shows, game/quiz/panel shows, chat shows, and soap operas. Older audiences prefer news, documentaries, and wildlife/nature programmes, while music shows/concerts and comedy/sitcoms are more popular with younger viewers.

The BFI report and the raw data can be accessed here.

Some notes on New Horizons for UK Film

Following on from the DCMS policy review for British film published in January 2012 (see here), the BFI has published its consultation document – New Horizons for UK Film – on the future development of education, audiences, filmmaking, and film heritage. The document can be accessed here.

New Horizons is focussed on three ‘strategic priorities:’

  • Expanding education opportunities and boosting audience choice across the UK
  • Supporting the future success of British film
  • Unlocking film heritage for everyone in the UK to enjoy

Associated with each of these priorities are a series of proposals about what the BFI is intending to do over the next five years in each of these areas. In today’s post I want to focus on the educational aspects of the plan.

First, the importance of moving image education is asserted as a first principle – which is exactly what the BFI should be doing:

Education is a key part of the foundation of a vibrant film culture and successful film industry.

Now, I don’t see how anyone can disagree with this statement, but it is indicative of a particular attitude that education serves industry and not the individual. This is the first problem with the future plan: it is not clear what the anyone is supposed to get from moving image education. The value of film culture as expressed in New Horizons exists solely in relation to the economy. But when choosing a path through education students at every level base their choices on what will deliver the maximum value to themselves based on their own personal goals and interests. They do not base their decision-making on their relationship to some abstract concept like ‘the economy,’ ‘national identity,’ or ‘film culture.’ Film and media education is no different, but New Horizons does not make any argument as to why someone should choose to study film. This is a document promising results to politicians, but it doesn’t have anything to say to anyone who might actually participate in any of the proposed programmes.

Now clearly this is an unfair criticism of a document that is obviously intended for a particular audience; but making the case for media education to politicians will count for nothing if the BFI cannot emphasise the value to the individual in terms of what such an education will add to their life (e.g. employability, intellectual stimulation, pleasure, etc). The BFI is often unfairly criticised for being too focussed on industry, but here the complaint is justified.

A part of the problem is that ‘education’ is not defined in relation to film. For example, the BFI states that

Our aspiration is that film is part of the education of every young person in the UK.

But what does ‘part of the education’ mean? Does it mean using films in the classroom as a teaching resource or does it mean the study of film in a sense that those working within film studies would understand? These are two very different things. The goal of the BFI is

to create a unified (watching, making and understanding) new education offer for all 5-19 year-olds, aimed especially at schools and colleges.

Sounds good, but are we going to teach five-year old children to make films? Are we going to teach continuity editing as part of the reception class? No, of course, we aren’t; but I would like someone to explain to me exactly what it is a five-year old is to be expected to learn about the cinema. The plan makes reference to (but does not cite) research demonstrating

that children who regularly go to the cinema are three times more likely to attend more frequently as adults. Regular visits help to develop a lifelong relationship with film, growing the next generation of audiences and filmmakers, instilling a love of cinema-going. We will invest heavily so all young people can increase their appetite for a broad range of film.

There is no arguing with that, and I think the BFI’s plans sound very good if you start at the age of 14 or 15. It’s about that age that you start to make decisions about the types of music, literature, films, and so on that you like as you develop you own tastes, and exposure to new cinematic experiences at this critical stage will have a lasting effect. But what constitutes ‘a broad range of film’ to a five-year old?  Actually, what constitutes ‘a broad range of film’ for anyone? My rental list at Love Film is as long as my arm (and I’m a big guy), but I couldn’t say whether the titles I have selected represent a ‘broad range.’ I’m the sort of person who spends his time drawing graphs of the editing patterns in slasher films, so what chance do primary school teachers have?

There is a tendency in this document for ‘film education’ to be equated with ‘skills and training’ (even though the proposals under the second strategic priority are primarily concerned with the latter), with no reference to academic film studies. One of the reasons for the distinction between the BFI and the UK Film Council was that the former had responsibility for film culture and film studies while the latter was industry-facing with responsibility for skills and training. Merging the two organisations also appears to have collapsed the distinction between education and training at the expense of the former. You can’t possibly disagree with investment in the training and development of the next generation of filmmakers in the UK, but is the case for film studies being made within the BFI?

The BFI states that it will

advocate the value of film education …

Good – assuming the BFI knows what ‘film education’ is. Again, we might ask to whom are the BFI advocating the value of film education? Based on this document the focus is clearly directed towards policymakers with no consideration given to making the argument to the public.

The low status of film and media studies in the UK is clear evidence that the BFI and other media organisations are failing to reach either audience. Certainly, promoting the value of film education to a Conservative Department of Education is a challenging prospect, especially when the Secretary of State for Education thinks that Latin is a vital addition to the primary school curriculum in the 21st century (as opposed to Mandarin or Cantonese because it’s those pesky Romans that are soon to become the dominant economic power and not the Chinese – oh no, wait, that’s not right).

Film studies and media studies are considered to be ‘soft subjects,’ and a report for the centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange (here) found that leading universities in the UK do not admit students with qualifications in these subjects at A-level even though they teach degree programmes in these subjects. This suggests a lack of faith in the standards of education at GCSE and A-level in non-traditional subjects rather than an aversion to the subjects themselves. The reason traditional subjects are accepted by universities with fewer problems is that they have been around longer and admission tutors know what to expect from teachers who are part of a clearly defined lineage in providing instruction in those areas. A maths teacher at a school is the next in a long line of maths teachers working within a well understood field that every admissions tutor has direct and personal experience (because everybody has to do maths). In contrast, film and media studies have only been a part of the school curriculum in the UK since the early 1990s and have only really become popular in the past decade; many of the teachers delivering these subjects have come from other areas (mainly English) and will have little specific training in film or media; and university admissions tutors are unlikely to have direct knowledge of the subjects. The problem lies not in the subjects themselves, but in the quality of delivery and in the understanding of university admissions tutors. The Policy Exchange report failed to notice this aspect – but the BFI does recognise the problem and has made a proposal to specifically deal with the issue:

We will increase the number of film education specialists including teachers so they can work closely with young people to develop an appreciation of film culture and their creative talent.

Now this really is awesome. It needs to be accompanied by educating government and universities about film and media subjects, but you can’t go wrong by doing the opposite of whatever Michael Gove says.

David Buckingham defended media studies in the Guardian in 2009 (see here), but noted the problematic nature in defining the subject that also features in New Horizons:

On the one hand, it is chided for being not vocational enough: …yet on the other, it is condemned for not being academic enough.

If the BFI is going to advocate the importance of film education then it needs to decide what it means by ‘film education.’ You can find my definition of film studies here.

The BFI’s future plan is part of a consultation process in which the views of interested parties are invited. Again, this is a good thing and there is much here that is useful and sensible. I don’t disagree with anything in New Horizons. It all sounds very good. I bet there’s another plan in 2017 that says exactly the same things.

More than bells and whistles

This week I want to return to something mentioned in passing in a post on from a couple of weeks ago. I quoted a paper on editing in television news by Richard Schaefer and Tony Martinez, which noted that there was a dearth of formal analyses of television news programmes, which they attribute to ‘the lack of a conventional vocabulary for describing and analyzing structural techniques used in what is primarily an audio-visual phenomenon’ and a reliance on ‘scant anecdotal evidence.’

You can read the article here:

Schaefer R and Martinez TJ 2009 Trends in network news editing strategies from 1969 through 2005, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 53 (3): 347-364.

It seems to me astonishing that after some forty years of film studies as an academic subject (building on decades of film criticism), media studies researchers have failed to develop a suitable vocabulary for describing the formal aspects of media texts. It is remarkable that as late as 2009it remains necessary to emphasise how form should be central to the analysis of media and should not be separated from content or discourse.

The fundamental question we are faced is

  • Why have media studies researchers failed to develop such a vocabulary?

I think there are two reasons for this.

First, style does not appear to be taken seriously in media studies. As an example read the following article online here:

Grabe ME, Zhou S, and Barnett B 2001 Explicating sensationalism in television news: content and the bells and whistles of form, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 45 (4): 635-655.

This is another article that reflects on the lack of formal research in news media, and sets out to remedy this. It sets out to explore sensationalism in television news by focussing on two different aspects of form:

  • video manoeuvres, by which are meant zooms and ‘eyewitness perspectives’ (POV shots)
  • decorative effects, referring to ‘brief, attention-grabbing devices’ and ‘flamboyant post-production techniques’ that are the ‘immaterial bells and whistles of television magazine shows;’ and includes audio manipulations, which refers to music, voice-over narration, and sound effects, transition effects (which is editing to you and me) with shot transitions such as wipes, dissolves, fades, etc referred to as ‘decorative transitions,’ and non-transitional effects (split-screen, freeze-frame, posterization, etc).

The lack of vocabulary is evident here: I’ve never seen anyone in film studies refer to ‘video manoeuvres,’ and the term ‘camera movement’ is more common. Why did the authors of this paper not know this, especially when there is an extensive literature on how pans, tilts, zooms, etc. create meaning in the cinema? ‘Video manoeuvres’ seems to me to imply post-production effects rather than camera movements. Why are zooms included but not other types of camera movements? I don’t think that either term adequately describes POV shots.

Why is editing not referred to as editing, and what is about them that is ‘decorative?’ To describe these aspects of style as ‘decorative’ is, I think, unfortunate as it may be inferred that these elements are not in themselves meaningful. Style does not adorn a film – it is integral to it. In general, this is the problem I have with this article: that it argues for the analysis of form as necessary in understanding sensationalism in news media, but then does not seem willing to take it seriously: the use of the term ‘bells and whistles’ to refer to film form is pejorative.

The second problem is that great problem that affects so many academic fields: the reason there is a lack is that apparently no one tried. Only two film studies text book is referred to: an article by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis on Surrealist cinema and the 1982 edition of Louis Gianetti’s Understanding Movies. This is the third edition of Gianetti’s book, and there have been numerous editions since then – at the time this article was published the current edition was the 8th edition. There are many, many, many books on film studies that could have been referred to that have been published since 1982. In fact, there are too many to bother listing here. There are no references to the literature on point-of-view (e.g. Noel Carroll or Edward Branigan), to cinematography, to editing, or to any other aspect of film style.

Now, the Schaefer and Martinez paper I referred to above does make an attempt to address this problems and does refer to editing manuals, but ultimately re-enacts the same opposition between realism of the Bazin/Kracauer stripe and Soviet montage that is the staple of first year film studies essays (although there is no reference to Ian Aitken’s European Film Theory). Rudolf Arnheim even makes an appearance. It is a sincere effort to bring some of the work of film studies into media research, but it would have been improved greatly if a film studies scholar had been involved somewhere along there line.

The reason we are lacking formal analyses of television news is basically that no one made the effort.

We might approach this problem from another direction, and ask the following question:

  • Why have film studies scholars failed to educate researchers in other similar fields about what we have done?

Surely, given the lack of formal analyses of television news this is an area to which film scholars could have made a substantial contribution. A problem here may be that film scholars define the scope of their research very narrowly: films, and only films. Consequently, they do not make contributions to research on other types of media texts even when their expertise is precisely that required to make progress. A more disappointing possibility is that we aren’t talking to anyone other than other film scholars who already know this stuff. A key question for film studies how do we make an impact on research outside the confines of the subject area?

Interdisciplinarity is one of the great academic clichés, but what we find when we examine the issue of form is that researchers cognate fields such as media studies and film studies do not talk to one another even when they are seeking answers to the same questions.