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NOT FLUFFY! ‘CREATIVE BUSINESS’ IS NO OXYMORON

It was billed as a forum to re-examine the creative enterprise and attracted a studio full of creative and enterprising professionals in film & TV, to explore how the future should look for them. Hosted (on Saturday, August 4) by the AFTRS Centre for Screen Business, Not Fluffy! was the title – and true to its name, there was no fluff, just hard nosed creative thinking. Andrew L. Urban and Yen Yang* report.

William Shakespeare kicked off the forum, if not in person, at least his spirit, as conjured up by Head of Screen Business David Court, revealing the Bard as a ‘brand’ a man with business acumen and a company that exploited it, even after his death. It was a riveting exploration of the writer as a dynamic creative business force. Court taught his audience a thing or three about Shakespeare’s business interests and practices, including interaction with audience and overcoming challenges.

The point of the presentation was to drive home the eternal need for creative people to engage with the business of selling their creative output. What’s the point of creating it otherwise?

Court made the point that Shakespeare and his company regarded the audience as their asset – and it was a common purpose company. He recommended that model.

Simon Molloy from Cumulus Insight presented the findings of extensive and fascinating research (conducted with David Court) into the screen industry’s ‘psychic income’ - see our edited extract

Professor Deb Verhoeven, Chair of Media & Communication at Deakin University, spoke about the importance of data and the intersection between cinema studies and other disciplines, including information management, statistics, urban studies and economics.

After the presentations came the panel and open discussion, with AFTRS CEO Sandra Levy in the chair. Joining the panel were producer Brian Rosen (President, SPAA), producer Neil Peplow, Head of Screen Content at AFTRS, Dr Chris Burton from the UTS Business School and David Court.

Informative, invigorating and robust, the seminar was a platform for fresh thinking about the potential shape and nature of creative enterprises in a world changing faster than ever, with digital opportunities and challenges.


Yen Yang* reports on some other presentations, including the surprising predictability of the box office, as shown by Box Office Prophecy.

Dr Jordi MacKenzie of Sydney University is trying to bring some predictability and measurability to estimates of likely box office takings of a yet-to-be-released feature film. The boldness of this experiment flies in the face of conventional wisdom that says box office earnings of a film are too unpredictable to allow meaningful forecasts.

The study, now in its 5th year has managed to strip back the information required to make accurate predictions about box office to nothing more than the key cast and crew list. Good results have also been obtained with only a small number of screen industry participants, sometimes as few as 10 in each “game”.

The researchers have found a correlation of r = 0.95 between actual box office results and their predictions. In statistics-land, this is very, very robust. A correlation of ‘1’ is a perfect correlation, with ‘0’ being no correlation – and a correlation like what Jordi and his co-researchers obtained is virtually unheard of in natural phenomena.

The question researchers asked participants was not “What do you think [film X] will make at the box office?”, but “What do you think others will think this film makes at the box office?” This was a conscious attempt to divine the “Wisdom of the Crowd” phenomenon. In academic-speak they call it a “pari-mutuel” technique. 

Another benefit of the study in using this technique is that they were able to have the predictions naturally render themselves into probability distributions, rather than a single point prediction. This enabled the researchers to then quantify the uncertainty surrounding each prediction.

Whilst his statistical figures were too small for me to scrutinize from my vantage point, Jordi is confident that the research team has found a methodology that could be extremely useful in guiding early investment and financing decisions of individual film projects.

Copyrighting the Future, presented by Professor Michael Fraser

Professor Michael Fraser of the University of Technology Sydney argued for a copyright registration database, which he dubbed the “National Content Network” (NCN).

The professor is realistic about the environment that faces IP enforcement, acknowledging that enforcement causes alienation within society. This is because digital film piracy is practiced by 1 in 3 of the population. Consequently, in his words, “enforcement alone won’t fix this market failure.” 

Michael proposes a solution, simply stated: “Creators have to offer a better service.” His National Content Network would give both consumers and creators what they want. Creators want to be paid for their IP. But what do consumers want? According to Michael, they will pay for:

- Instant access
- Freedom to repurpose the material (“mash-up”)
- All of this in one transaction

Of copyright’s importance, Michael says that a fair and enforceable copyright law was the essential ingredient to the Industrial Revolution. He noted Imperial China had copyright law well before Europeans, however, it gave all copyright to the Emperor. British law dating from the late 17th century on the other hand specifically protected a citizen’s intellectual property (IP). It was this difference, he feels, that allowed the West to surpass China in technological terms, and how it came to dominate the World.

To further support his argument, he referred to Article 27 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the effect that “If you can’t make a living from your work, you are silenced.”

Creative Futures – presented by Tony Shannon

Tony Shannon, Acting Director of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre (CIIC) described some of the work they are doing for the Creative Industries. According to Tony, all of the creative industries seem to struggle with a basic level of business-mindedness. 

Tony urges creative businesses to make use of resources on the CIIC website such as the Revenue Master. As simple – and he himself admits, simplistic - as the tool is, he says it is too often that he comes across creative businesses that have not done a basic revenue forecast of this nature. 

Tony mentioned an analysis which I am currently working on with CIIC. We are looking at the Centre’s findings across the hundreds of creative industry business reviews which the Centre has done over the last three years. The picture which is emerging is that creative businesses’ key challenges arise because of weaknesses in business fundamentals, such as strategic planning, sales, finance and systems and processes.

Whilst the study does not yet include the screen sectors, Tony and the audience speculated as to how much these attributes of the broader creative industries might apply to the screen industry.

* Yen Yang is a principal of Bailey and Yang Consulting

Published August 6, 2012

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