September 2012 marks the tenth anniversary of running a production company for Stuart Laws, Head of Development at Turtle Canyon Media. He reflects on those years and what could be in line for the next ten years in the industry…
In the ten years I have spent making films, videos and TV shows I have had the chance to watch the entire industry change around me. Being based at Pinewood Studios is an incredible realisation of a childhood dream and has allowed me to witness the online and digital revolution affect every area I’ve worked in. The emergence of the online world as a viable viewing platform will really define the next ten years, it was the emergence of digital video that made the past ten years possible for me.
Panasonic NV DS27 was the first camera that was mine, that I could use whenever I wanted, that I could pay £85 a month for 12 months for the pleasure of owning it. Using a Firewire I could, in real time, capture all my footage onto a home computer and then spend every waking hour taking advantage of my non-linear editing suite. Suite is an overstatement, it was closer to a ditty/cupboard/stool (depending on which definition you prefer). The quality of all that kit is irrelevant though, they were elements in the toolkit of an excited seventeen year old who was dreaming of making the next Unbreakable (I cannot emphasise how much I love that movie). In September 2002 Alastair Clayton asked me to start a video production business with him, but to do so with a home camcorder would be folly, especially for eighteen year olds.
The Canon XL1s was purchased with a bank loan and after a year of business we started production on Tomorrow, our first feature film. It was self-financed and still lacks distribution but we made it. The Canon XL2 followed and it was a real beauty: a three-chip, true 16:9 image and a beautiful lens. We shot our second feature on it, The Silent Cancer, which was broadcast on Sky Television. 2008 saw the gradual transition to HD and culminated in the purchase of a Sony PMW-EX3, I was delighted with it; I genuinely couldn’t believe the quality of image we were capable of and we’ve filmed some really fantastic corporate work on it, along with some online virals. 2011 saw some flirting with even better cameras, before we settled down with a Sony PMW-F3. This truly wonderful camera has shot a succession of shorts that have been selected at film festivals around the world and recently broadcast on Channel 4.
Those are just the tools though, the world that you release the finished film into has changed even more dramatically. The digital technology that made it possible for me to start a business, without winning the lottery, has kept getting better and cheaper. The video that my phone captures is of better quality than anything my first camera could film, the speed at which that video can now be uploaded to the internet and then distributed through social media means that a seventeen year old can be a superstar without going to film school or attending a film festival or even making an actual “film”. The traditional output methods are failing and companies are scrabbling to protect their profits and disguise the truth: that they never saw this revolution coming. The music industry didn’t see it and have now settled into a bitter and increasingly pathetic war with their old customers, using what remaining power they have to get regular people classified as criminals, in the hope they can wring a final few dollars from a product that was never very valuable. The moving picture industry is just coming to terms with the fact that people will now happily watch a movie on their phone.
Despite what happened with music, film and television is a slightly different proposition, in that people seem to recognise a more intrinsic value within productions. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people will make a film. Budgets can easily reach the millions whereas an album costing more than £10,000 has probably got too many choirs. The cinema is another selling point; it’s an experience, it has a history, it has appeal. That’s it though. To survive and flourish it will all have to change and it seems like everyone knows this but doesn’t know what to change into. Like a partygoer who remembers that it’s fancy dress but not the theme.
When I was a teenager you had to wait three years before a cinema film would become a television film, almost a year before it hit VHS. Now cinemas are kicking up a fuss because major releases are released on DVD within three months. Smaller releases only get a nominal theatrical release so as to get reviews and publicity but are simultaneously released on DVD and online to try and make money. So film companies are now pushing 3D because they believe that is what will keep people visiting cinemas; I find that an unusual assumption because I would never be tempted to go to a friend’s previously lovely, beautifully lit house if they insisted that I had to wear ridiculous headwear, they’d turned off most of the lights and I couldn’t leave until I had a headache. Before charging me extra for the pleasure.
Television knows that schedules will be the domain of the minority but seem unsure of what to do for the majority. The fact that that minority is not the minority that all the advertisers are chasing spells even greater trouble for traditional TV. On-demand programming is ever increasing but still has to compete with video libraries such as YouTube and Vimeo. Those are the sites that the advertisers’ dream minority are watching on. Those are the sites that anyone can publish to, those are the sites where anyone can become a celebrity. TV seems obsessed with trying to replicate the appeal of those sites, sometimes by syndicating their content into clips shows featuring the best of the web but now, increasingly, by insisting that viewers should interact, using social media. Hashtags are present on every show and are nothing more than an attempt to market their output and then provide statistics for presentations that are given to advertising companies.
Having a film collection has been something to build and desire for the past thirty years, millions of people repeatedly buying products so that they can have them on a shelf. Not any longer. DVD sales are decreasing and Blu-Ray never really took off; on-demand is, once again, the future. Netflix and LoveFilm are gathering pace in the UK, while Netflix and other services are pretty firmly established in America. Films are now just a click away, this increases the likelihood of someone taking a chance on a film that they wouldn’t have otherwise watched. Coupled with a reduced end cost, now that a physical product isn’t required, will hopefully result in distribution companies being able to take more of a chance with independents.
Independence. That’s the future. Hopefully. Individuals making the videos that they want to make, the audience finding them and the money finding the individuals. Independent production companies making films that don’t compromise, films that may well be funded by an audience before it’s even been made and has a chance to be seen by millions more. The past was about taking out a bank loan, pulling favours and spending years crafting a short film; before hawking it around film festivals to get enough interest, trust and financial backing to make that debut feature that you then hawk around film festivals in the hope that one distributor thinks enough of it to pay for 35mm prints to be made and an advertising strategy devised before it disappears quietly from the schedules. That’s a process longer than that sentence. The past was about creating TV shows that would appeal to certain demographics, so that advertisers would flock. It was about second-guessing what the public wanted and trying to deliver the next X-Factor.
Technology has allowed anyone to have a go and to a fairly high quality. This is undeniably a good thing. The new world consists of creators being discovered by audiences, rather than product being delivered to a specific audience. Television and film makes lots and lots of decent products, technically very competent and occasionally outstanding. The new world will lead to an awful amount of dreadful, dreadful videos and films. I know this because I’ve made some of them, but those awful videos were valuable to me and I learnt valuable lessons. The new world will also lead to a lot of truly unique and supposedly “unmarketable” film-makers finding an audience. The hope is that a real meritocracy will arise: where anyone can distribute films and the very best then earn kudos and then money to make new films that their newly acquired audience love even more. Of course this rosy future where anyone can indulge their dream of being the next Spielberg (a reference to the first local newspaper article headline about me starting in this business) is unlikely to happen. Amazon, YouTube and Netflix are commissioning original programming. They’ll be the new behemoths, they’ll present us with what they think we want. They might even present us with exactly what we do want, the difference will be that we can watch it when we want, where we want.
I’m excited that we’re on the cusp of a great change and am hopeful that Turtle Canyon Media can carve out a corner of the industry. I’m hopeful because I love films, am enthralled by television and I really admire those who excel at making it. I want to continue being someone who makes film and television, even when it’s completely transformed into HDD and online entertainment. That’s where I think the difference will lie in the future: the passion and skill will have a chance to shine through while all the dilettantes join in and drift away, once sated. I think that, here at Turtle Canyon Media, we have the passion and the skill to still be making admired and entertaining films in ten years time. I just hope we still have some cinemas to screen them in, because that’s where I want to watch my films. Rather than on a phone.
Chubby Bunny – a short film written and directed by Stuart and produced by Turtle Canyon Media
Turtle Canyon Media is made up of highly-motivated, enthusiastic people who have a real passion for film and comedy. We are passionate about what we do and take pride in our full commitment to every project, every step of the way.
Turtle Canyon Media’s UK office is based at Pinewood Studios, in the heart of the UK film industry. Our US office is based in Seattle, Washington – a dynamic hub of entrepreneurship and creativity.