O brave new world

4th January 2012

As the out-of-office alerts are turned off and and the Christmas chocolate biscuits run out, there is inevitably something about this week that prompts reflections on the future. Not The Future in very general terms, but just how things might pan out over the coming couple of years for a small independent production company committed to innovative forms for the arts and media. That’ll be us. And what strikes me, more perhaps than ever before, is just how hard it is to prepare and to plan for whatever may be coming down the digital pipe. At the same time, and for all the reasons that promote the uncertainty, I know there has never been a more interesting and exciting time to be involved in cultural media production.

A time there was when Illuminations was clear about what it was, what it made and who it made it for. We were once an independent television production company creating innovative arts programmes, initially for Channel 4 and then later for BBC and for others. Today, broadcast television is still a hugely important part of what we do, and of the company’s balance sheet – and I believe will remain so – but there is so much more to be interested about and to involved in.

Our primary focus is still the creation of linear video, but even just over the coming weeks this will involve filming (and for all of the industry’s embrace of the digital, the traditional vocabulary sticks with us) for broadcast, for cultural institutions to use in exhibitions, in marketing and online, for our own DVD release of a new documentary, and for a number of other applications for the iPad and other tablets. The trick, as ever, is knowing where to commit one’s own – and the company’s – time and energy and resources.

Until recently, there has been the sense that, for all the interest of other contexts and distribution channels, broadcast television still had the stranglehold on funding. Most of our production financing was from the BBC and Channel 4. And while those partners are still hugely important to us – and it is the BBC who are financing our next collaboration with the RSC on Julius Caesar – there are now other funders and collaborators who can commit sensible budgets.

Broadcast budgets are still the best-resourced, but there are now other monies around that make sense as the basis for tightly controlled, cost-effective production. The Arts Council England/BBC digital arts initiative this summer, The Space, is one such – and we have a project that has been short-listed for the next round of applications. And collaborations with publishers is beginning to prove a very interesting new area to explore.

One of the implications of all this is that we need new skills and new forms of knowledge. The ways of working that were formalised in the early days of independent production for television need to re-thought and re-imagined. And we have to be not just producers but also engaged with distribution and marketing. We need a much better grasp of how we can integrate video creation and dissemination with social media (a process which includes continuing to ask questions of this blog).

So how do we grapple with all that, and a good deal more, at the same time as trying to produce first-class media? Welcome to my world. What I know for sure is that all we have to be certain about is uncertainty itself.

Image: an unidentified photograph taken for LIFE magazine by Walter Sanders, available from the LIFE archive hosted by Google here.

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