Go back fifteen years and it was pretty easy to figure out what success was for screen content. For the small screen it was the Nielsen ratings. For the big screen it was the box office. The show that knocked it out of the ratings park or the film that pulled significant box office clearly indicated it had found a lot of eyeballs. These measures only account though in essence for popularity.
What about the Māori news or information programme on a Sunday morning that Māori loved? Or the arthouse feature that had its world premiere at the A-list festival in Berlin and then did well at the A and B-list festival circuit but only did $250k at the NZ box office. This content reached its intended audiences, but they were niche not broad.
We all recognised this, though. Figure out your audience, broad or niche, and target your content at them. Even for niche audiences, you could still learn whether or not you were successful.
Nowadays, however, in a fragmented market, it’s not so easy to identify what success really is.
A series intended for Free-to-Air that doesn’t rate could find a much bigger audience when it’s moved to On-Demand. A film that does average box office in New Zealand could end up selling or being licensed to a global streamer and potentially be seen by millions more people than was ever thought possible.
The old indicators still work, but it’s simplistic to use them as the only measures of success, especially when popularity is the only yardstick being championed.
The digital world of content distribution has changed the paradigm and complicated how to measure real success, especially when those who control the means of distribution. Netflix, for example, rarely reveal what the very accurate data they alone have access to indicates about audience specifics.
To define a new measurement for screen content success, New Zealand company Parrot Analytics developed a 360 measurement system to take into account multiple points of digital activity around the world. This system is used by, amongst others, TVNZ, CBS, Disney, Sky, and WarnerMedia. Without the data from the content platforms available, this would seem a very valuable service. Perhaps something NZ On Air might want to consider to support their funding decisions if they don’t already utilise it.
But film sits in a very difficult position amongst this digital measurement system. The shared theatrical experience is considered first and foremost for film, unless you are making a telefeature. Filmmakers want their films to go on the big screen before they find their way to the small. Look at the ructions Warner Bros. created when they decided to send their entire 2021 slate straight to HBO Max at the same time as the theatrical release.
Even with the NZFC playing in the series drama space, NZ film is very much its raison d’etre. But the audience for New Zealand film just isn’t there like it used to be. The writing was on the wall before COVID arrived.
NZ film has had a tropical vacation in theatres while Hollywood has been on hold due to COVID, but winter is coming with the onslaught of backed up blockbusters about to hit us.
Amongst all the other changes needed at NZFC right now, defining success for NZ film is another thing that needs to go on the agenda. A paradigm shift in thinking is required because we can’t rely solely on box office numbers any more. Even more so because film is both art and business. There has to be room for both.