Screen editor Matt Mueller on how the pace of change among digital natives is dizzying and exponential.

At the Step In industry think tank in August, organised by Locarno Film Festival and bringing together figures from all walks of the industry, Monique Simard from Quebec cultural development body SODEC took no prisoners in her open-session keynote.

“We’re in a period of revolution — sudden violent change; complete transformation,” she said.

“Remember that seven years ago mobile platforms did not exist. Now we can’t imagine a world without our iPhones or our tablets. And we could not have imagined a world where, ‘I will watch whatever I want, whenever I want, wherever I want. And I’ll pay if I want to.’”

Whereas producers and distributors could once control when and how their product was consumed, Simard argued, now they have to adapt to a world where the consumer holds all the power and the traditional structures are in danger of being swept away.

“The whole notion of territory is almost anachronistic — an obsolete notion,” she said.

It was blunt language (too blunt for some, I learned afterwards) on a day spent addressing the growing challenges around the dissemination of arthouse content in the EU and beyond.

Between Netflix’s rapid global expansion (also taking its toll on cable and satellite subscriptions in the US), the pressure on (and experimentation with) windows, the European Commission’s determined probe into a digital single market, and the lack of content-piracy shame among the ‘right here, right now’ generation (aka ‘digital natives’), who don’t own TVs and believe a decent internet connection is all that stands between them and unfettered consumption, the pace of change is dizzying and exponential.

It’s also hurling up a heap of questions that are keeping the brightest brains in the industry up at night.

Adapt or die

Inertia isn’t an option. As one leading exhibitor told me recently, it’s impossible to keep your head in the sand about the rapid pace of change - and what needs to be done to respond to that change.

His message to colleagues in his own sector, he said, has been “adapt or die”. And while there are some who may be left behind, most, he insisted, are exploring what the evolution in viewing habits means for their business, and what they can do to move with the times and keep audiences engaged.

There is no point in being sentimental and nostalgic about the old days - that’s not going to put any more bums on seats.

When I look at the proliferation of different viewing experiences, from the rise of boutique cinemas and the day-and-date models of Curzon Artificial Eye, IFC Films and others through to the explosive growth of IMAX, I feel heartened rather than deflated that movie-going can and will continue to be a vibrant part of communal cultural experience for - lacking a better term - donkey’s years.

As Simard also pointed out, it’s not that people aren’t watching movies (as Universal will attest this year, given the staggering success of their slate that has ranged from Fifty Shades Of Grey to Furious 7 to Straight Outta Compton) - it’s just that they’re watching them where they used to watch them in fewer and fewer numbers (ie, in cinemas or on DVD).

But the challenges being faced aren’t just exhibition’s to solve, or for VoD to save - they straddle the entire film value chain, from sales to production to distribution.

The model of territorial exclusivity that has been such a stabilising pillar for the European film industry over recent decades is threatened with, if not extinction, then fundamental readjustment by the cross-border access being proposed by the European Commission. 

While the rhetoric has cooled, and Europe’s many powerful film bodies have staunched the headlong rush towards a digital single market that at one stage seemed possible, there is nonetheless a feeling that it will be up to the industry to propose alternative models that would protect and even strengthen the circulation of European films (arthouse and otherwise). 

The onus is there to come up with the solutions in the face of rapid, inevitable change (one proposal increasingly floated is that internet service providers be required to start contributing towards content).

I’d love to believe the new world order that emerges could actually be a boon to the many amazing films that those of us who spend so much time at film festivals get to see but that never travel beyond those borders.

With smart thinking and practice, there could be a whole new audience for them in this bright new digital age.

Matt Mueller is Editor of Screen International