John Woodward, CEO of the UK Film Council, said Friday that controversial internet-connected television platform Project Canvas could be a ‘game changer’ for UK filmmakers and independent distributors.

Woodward was speaking about Project Canvas at The Media Festival Arts in London on a panel that included BBC director general Mark Thompson and new Project Canvas chair Kip Meek, who predicted that Project Canvas would be ready for launch in the second quarter of 2011.

“If this converged technology works as successfully as the consumer proposition then it’s a game changer. That the entire history of cinema for the first time can come into your living room would mean those issues of shelf space vanish forever,” said Woodward, regarding the platform’s archive and VOD potential.

Project Canvas is an open, internet-connected television platform built on common standards, set up by UK terrestrial broadcasters BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5, ITV and communications companies Arqiva, BT and Talk Talk. Users will receive content via a specific Project Canvas device such as a set top box. The platform will be free-to-air, though users will be charged for VOD services and broadband subscription.

One of the major issues surrounding Project Canvas concerns the editorial power of its seven major ‘shareholders’ over its content. Woodward said that independent filmmakers and distributors needed to make sure that they made their voices heard: “Project Canvas can specifically help UK films. One of the most interesting points about Canvas is that at the heart of Canvas are a number of organizations that operate in the public service remit. It has a mandate and capacity to create cultural value. Going forward you [delegates involved in film production and distribution] need to hold onto that. By which I mean you need to claim it. It won’t be given to you. It will be made available to you, but you’ll have to take it yourself. The opportunity of a public space that is successful and based on open standards accessible to developers everywhere is genuinely exciting and different and new.”

Woodward also stressed the event nature of Project Canvas, which he said could appeal to filmmakers and distributors.

“Increasingly, independent cinema is about the ability to create an event. It’s not good enough, any more, to release the film, hope for a good review in time out and expect people to turn up,” he said.”The way people consume films now has changed. People want more context and more engagement. That applies even more to low-budget films. The really interesting distribution strategies that we’ve engaged with at the UKFC have been where filmmakers make film more than just a film.”

The fusion of TV and internet allows viewers to watch film while simultaneously interact via social media, use widgets, apps and explore internet content related to the programme they may be watching.

“Canvas may be able to offer opportunities around social networking that enable filmmaker and distributors to ramp up their films. If Canvas has the ability to stimulate filmmakers’ interests at home and bounce audiences back out into the cinema that would be very interesting.”

Beyond the potential distribution deals via Project Canvas the scheme also represents significant advertising and marketing possibilities.

“Canvas represents an opportunity for arts organizations to showcase their work but also to drive revenues,” said Woodward.

Project Canvas has come under fire from broadcasters such as BSkyB who claim that the project would give public service broadcasters a monopolizing grip on the valuable IPTV market to the disadvantage of the private sector, and from Virgin Media who recently lodged a complaint with Ofcom claiming that the venture is an anti-competitive cartel that would breach the The Competition Act.

While Meek was unable to comment on the cost structure of Project Canvas, Mark Thompson was keen to stress the extent to which the BBC and its partners want to collaborate with other content providers: “We’re part of a shared debate. Our scale, funding and technology is something that we can and should put to the purpose of the whole public space. The BBC is like a sleeping giant awakening and recognising its power in this area. We are very strongly on the side of open standards and of opening up technologies and platforms so that in principle and ultimately anyone can connect with the public through Canvas.”