The Circuit of Excess: Film Industry, Taboos and Online Conversations

I have just come back from a pretty intense full immersion session in taboos, censorship and cinema hosted at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. Yes, in the Czech Republic, right where Fifty Shades of Grey‘s sex symbol Jamie Dornan was presenting his latest film, Anthropoid. At this time of the year this city has a quite interesting multifaceted vibe: elderly people convene there for the thermal baths, but you can also easily party all night long or go for a stroll in the nice venues and meet iconic stars the like of Harvey Keitel and Udo Kier.

The 4th TorinoFilmLab Alumni Meeting at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

I had a very refreshing experience there, as always with the TorinoFilmLab Alumni Meetings. The topic for this year’s edition was “Provocative cinema – Addressing taboos, dealing with censors, generating debate and acting for change.” Having spent the past few months teaching a module on “Transgressive Culture” at Middlesex University, which is run by Dr Theresa Cronin at the School of Media and Performing Arts, the focus of the Meeting seemed an appropriate coincidence. So I felt I had to propose a case study focused on transgression and cinema.

Getting ready for "The Circuit of Excess: Film Industry, Taboos and Online Conversations" at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

I teamed up again with my friend and former Audience Design participant Juan Morali. This time we also had an amazing technological partner on board in the agency Sentisis, which works with big data and specialises in sentiment analysis and monitoring of online conversations in Spanish-speaking countries.

We focused on a topic that has proved a very popular theme across decades and film genres: cannibalism. We specifically analysed the buzz surrounding Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno and introduced the provisional findings of a study which considers viewers’ media habits, primary discussed assets in online conversations, preferred devices, as well as geo-localised insights on fans of the horror genre.

Final poster for Eli Roth's film "The Green Inferno".

I framed our analysis within transgression as a promotional tool involving the wider film industry: festivals, niche distributors, academic approaches and fan communities. The aim of my talk “The Circuit of Excess: Film Industry, Taboos and Online Conversations” was to address transgression as a commodity and consider censorship and taboos within cinema mainly drawing on Mikita Brottman‘s analysis of the impact and legacy of “offensive films” such as Cannibal Holocaust, Faces of Death, Snuff and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Mikita Brottman's "Offensive Films" book cover.While on 9 July I discussed Roth’s mainstream horror paying homage to the cult Italian cannibal cycle, that same day TFL Alumnus Edwin presented his personal experience with Indonesian cinema and censorship. On the 10th Azize Tan, the director of the Istanbul Film Festival, explained why last April Turkish filmmakers pulled out their films over a censorship row. Finally, documentarist Peter Kerekes introduced us to his cinematic international exploration of censors as “manual workers”. Oh, of course we had plenty of nice food and drinks too, because TFL takes great care of its Alumni.

Smart Thinking for Smart Audiences: Introducing Audience Design for Your Film Strategy

Let’s be frank: ideas need to circulate as much as possible, and new terms as well. So I thought I’d spread the word a bit again, given that “Audience Design” is a fairly recent concept introduced just a few years ago by the TorinoFilmLab to raise awareness of the need for a strategic approach to promoting independent and art-house films at an early stage of development.

The title of this post matches the master class that I ran last Friday in Belgium. It was a different format from the workshop Juan Morali and I conceived last November in Germany on behalf of TFL, as this time we were both invited to provide an overview on audience engagement strategies to filmmakers, producers, students and representatives of the Flanders Film Fund.

Adding memes to our presentation: a new version of Batman & Robin.

So we joined the TorinoFilmLab team at the end of the first residential workshop of the 2015 Audience Design Programme, which this year took place in Ghent. On Friday 20 March we delivered our master class at KASK Cinema, providing a wide range of case studies that spanned recent blockbusters as well as small and obscure gems; international projects with very consistent budgets and labours of love made for free; linear and interactive narratives; documentaries and fictional films.

Checking the presentation for the master class.

We provided an overview of some basic concepts of audience engagement, such as the difference between core and market niches, the creation of “personas”, and online vs digital communities. And of course we went through the difference between Audience Design and marketing, “the necessary evil”. The core of the master class was arranged around a set of key words that we believe are crucial when thinking of audience engagement: “Intensity and Scale”, “Interaction and Co-Creation”, “Tone and Pace”, “Immersion and Gamification”, as well as “Pertinence and Consistency”.

At KASK Cinema, about to start the master class in Audience Design.

We also addressed some “failures” and tried to understand what we can learn for example from an apparently successful transmedia project that is forced to close down because it is not economically sustainable in the long run.

One of the closing slides provocatively asked: “Where do we go from here?” It was meant to open the debate on how quickly the film industry needs to adapt to new need of audiences and react to alternative forms of consumption. On a more personal level, Juan and I are going to take part to the next TFL Alumni Meeting that will take place in Karlovy Vary this coming July. As we have many more stories to tell and exciting projects to discover together, expect a follow-up to this post from the Czech Republic.

Audience Design: Two Strategy Sketches at Connecting Cottbus

In the film industry there is one very specific place where creativity meets business: the market. It’s the place where scriptwriters, filmmakers and producers have the concrete chance to secure a budget for their projects, or find co-production opportunities that might open new international doors to develop their films. It’s also the place where, in the space of a few minutes, creative teams pitch their stories in front of a selected audience of decision makers and investors: a small arena where you can literally smell fear and excitement.

Last week I spent four days in Germany at Connecting Cottbus, the East-West co-production market at the Film Festival Cottbus, focused on East European Cinema. As alumni of the Torino Film Lab Audience Design programme, Juan Morali and I were invited to represent the international laboratory that supports emerging talents through training, development and funding activities. Our aim was to introduce the concept of Audience Design by working on two selected projects and showcasing the sketched strategies to engage audiences and raise awareness on stories at an early stage of development.

Connecting Cottbus logo

After reading the scripts and checking material already available, such as mood boards, the process behind designing strategies usually takes place over several months. Given the format of this event, we only had a few hours to work with the members of the teams after a preliminary exchange of emails.

On Wednesday 5 November Juan and I worked with them in a closed workshop: writer/director Anca Damian and producer Roxana Garet from Romanian production company Aparte Film applied to Co|Co with the drama In Perfect Health; producer Jamila Wenske from the German One Two Films and director Thomas Sieben were developing the political thriller The Vegetable Lamb.

Audience Design closed workshop with selected projects. Photo credits: Nicolò Gallio.

Audience Design closed workshop with selected projects. Photo credits: Nicolò Gallio.

We used tools and techniques to brainstorm a first set of ideas, which we later developed into a more coherent vision for each film. On 7 November, while publicly showcasing the results, we tried to provoke our audience and challenge some prejudices and old habits that, according to us, are well-established within the film industry. We felt the need to do that when we realised that the reaction of the audience during the previous days was the one we have usually experienced in the past: everyone wants to know more about how to engage audiences, but there is a mix of fear and laziness in facing the reality of a business that is changing very quickly.

Audience Design – Two Strategy Sketches

Juan Morali, Nicolò Gallio. Photo credits: Connecting Cottbus.

We were not the only ones discussing audiences at Connecting Cottbus. On Thursday Peter Buckingham from SampoMedia ran the workshop “Talking About Films From an Audience Perspective”, delving into technology and users’ needs, while stressing the importance of Service Design. His presentation led to the same reactions that we had experienced so many times while talking with writers, director, producers and exhibitors: no one wants to hear the word “marketing” and people involved in the art-house scene still believe in the romantic concept of the artist who produces art outside the rule of the market.

In our presentation we clarified what is for us the key element of Audience Design. Both Juan and I believe that the script must be treated as intellectual property that can be expanded through different channels to reach very well defined communities. Each of those potential audiences needs to be considered as part of a major discourse surrounding the story and Audience Design is a process and a method at the core of which lies the preservation of the integrity of the story.

Audience Design open workshop. Photo credits: Nicolò Gallio

Audience Design open workshop. Photo credits: Nicolò Gallio

We also addressed issues such as old-fashioned demographic age segmentations, the fear of digital media, a general industry reluctance in dropping established protocols and business models, as well as the dangerous “egocentric culture” which affects so many creatives nowadays, who refuse to acknowledge the impact of interacting with fans. Whether you like it or not, the process is already in place: people are talking about you and your films. Simply ignoring the conversation will only damage the opportunities to develop your next project.