Reworking the cliche that 'content is king' has been a favourite with analysts and conference speakers in recent years. In fact, it has already spawned its own cliche: 'The customer, not content, is king.'

Familiarity with that concept has already bred contempt. And when you strip down the idea of audience influence in the context of film, it's easy to see the holes in the argument.

Bona fide examples of customer power today are thin on the ground. Cinema has always been a thoroughly top-down enterprise and the punter gets what he or she is given. Film-making has never been a participation sport; feature films, at least, have always been too expensive and complex for amateurs to produce.

In effect, audiences have always taken whatever the professionals thought was a good idea two years previously, when production began. Listening to audiences in that context can be downright misleading because individuals don't know what they will want to see the year after next - if you can see the bandwagon, it's already too late to climb aboard.

Real customer choice is limited to choosing a film from the tiny selection playing, or not to go to the cinema at all. This summer, box-office figures suggest customers were quite happy to accept such a restricted range of choices - mostly familiar franchises - particularly if the alternative involved getting soaked in the unseasonably miserable weather that affected northern Europe.

On the whole, the experts were mostly right about what the mass market wanted to see. Critics may tear out their hair but this summer showed how big an appetite the world has for the cinematic equivalent of comfort food.

The digital distribution alternatives seem pretty unconvincing so far. The 10 seconds it takes to download the latest pop hit may seem like a fair use of time, but waiting for a film to grind its way on to your laptop is less so.

But that's analysing the market as it stands, when what is required is a degree of forward-thinking.

In today's Screen, we argue that distribution in the sense of giving customers what they want, when they want it (another concept that has passed into cliche before the fact) should be the pre-eminent issue for independent film. That's a few steps back from 'content is king' - perhaps the 'customer will be king' is closer to the mark.

What we can be absolutely sure of is that for the majority of territories, the present way of working has a shelf life. The summer box office results should not fool anyone into believing that 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'.

For the studios, the box office may have broken records but the cost-effectiveness of a monster summer of global blockbusters is not yet clear. Meanwhile, there is an undeniable squeeze, particularly on independent films that aim to travel across their national boundaries.

The greater efficiency provided by digital cinema and the alternative attractions for exhibitors such as 3D offerings or music concerts don't look like great news for indies trying to find finance or screen space. That's not a certainty, but a shift of focus is required.

There's a philistine expression that many producers hear a great deal and rightly has them reaching for their revolvers: 'You should make films people want to see.' What that usually means is that films should aim for mass-market commercialism. But turn the concept around and you get a sense of a much brighter future. 'Understand who you want to reach and how to get to them' is a maxim one can act on now.

The promise of tomorrow's distribution platforms is that they will reach mass markets cost-efficiently and mobilise specific audiences. Our kingly customers have multi-dimensional lives and the future cannot rest on today's one-dimensional business models.

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