Catalyzing Creativity in the Digital World

April 2011

The Oscar-winning film producer Lord David Puttnam reflects on the growing importance of creative industries and the need to maximize the benefits of the digital environment for long-term economic growth.

About Lord Puttnam

Photo: Lord Puttnam

Lord Puttnam moved into film production in the late 1960s. His successes as a producer include film classics Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express, Chariots of Fire (which won the Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Picture in 1981), Local Hero, Memphis Belle, Meeting Venus as well as The Killing Fields and The Mission with Roland Joffé (which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986). Lord Puttnam was Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Columbia Pictures from 1986 to 1988. His current roles include serving as President of the Film Distributors’ Association, Deputy Chairman of British public service broadcaster Channel 4 and as Chancellor of the Open University.

In these extremely challenging times our creative industries are taking on a greater degree of importance than ever before. Digital technologies, including broadband, are already transforming the way in which audiences consume moving images of every kind. But beyond all else, the transformation is being driven by a growing number of fundamental changes in people’s behavior – in audiences, as consumers and as citizens. For example, people want to use digital technologies to access content faster, more conveniently, at home and on the move – in ways that were all but unimaginable even a decade ago. Needless to say, this poses some difficult challenges for anyone involved in creating and distributing films and television programs.

Change, when it occurs at the scale and speed seen today, can be tremendously challenging. When I first became involved in the film industry in the 1960s, much of it was ill equipped intellectually, emotionally or organizationally to take advantage of even the earliest forms of technological innovation.

In this respect there are some interesting lessons to be learned from history. These are perhaps epitomized by an organization which rejoiced in the name of FIDO - the Film Industry Defence Organisation. Based on what seemed to be a “brilliant” idea dreamed up in the mid-1950s by British film companies; FIDO sought to create a pool of money sufficient to buy the television rights to all American and British movies to prevent them from ever appearing on television – and, in doing so, to crush television at birth! The attempt was a miserable failure and demonstrated once more the importance of understanding, and coming to terms with, industrial change rather than simply trying to turn the clock back.

Fortunately, the contemporary creative industries have shown a little more foresight than those who sought to run the British film industry as a cosy duopoly in the 1950s and 1960s.

My central point is that our existing strengths will count for little if we do not actively embrace the evolution of the media, and seize every possible advantage it offers.

It has become all too obvious that the underlying business model for our industries needs to undergo some fairly radical changes if we are to take advantage of the opportunities that digital technology presents to maintain – and even strengthen – our creative industries.

For example, if the industry is serious about effectively enforcing its intellectual property, then it has to provide an equally effective means of delivering content to digital customers. It is here that, in my judgment at least, we have barely begun to scratch the surface.

We need to explore these possibilities in ways that are about far more than simply “permitting” various forms of passive consumption; but to see them instead as a massive catalyst for encouraging a whole new world of creative collaboration, sharing and learning.

Here is a cautionary tale, drawn from the archives of C-Span, the U.S. public service broadcaster: in 1994, Christopher Dodd, Democratic Senator from Connecticut, set out a thoroughly imaginative way of using the value of past intellectual property to support contemporary artists and scholars. The proposed “Arts Endowing the Arts Act” would have added 20 years to the term of copyright protection, and used a portion of the income from those extra years to underwrite current creative work. Under the rules then existing, U.S. copyright protected an individual's work for his or her lifetime, plus 50 years. Corporations with works “made for hire” held rights for 75 years.

Under Senator Dodd's proposal, at the end of each of these terms the rights to an additional 20 years were to be publicly auctioned, some of the proceeds of which would go to build an endowment dedicated to the arts and humanities. Tragically Dodd’s proposal failed; and four years later Sonny Bono’s proposal for the extension of copyright term by 20 years passed, but with none of the public benefits that Chris Dodd had attached.

This time around all the benefits from the Bono proposal simply accrued to the incumbent corporations and individuals.

So I’m suggesting that we dare to take a fresh look at the possibility of an environment in which “right owners”, when faced with difficult or challenging questions, look at each issue from the perspective of: “Why not?” rather than “I own it, therefore why on earth should I – after all, what’s in it for me?” Here I am suggesting a small shift; but a tiny shift that could, over time, begin to make an enormous difference.

I am not so naïve as to believe it will be easy to achieve a defensible, let alone sustainable, balance between rights and access – if for no other reason than that much of the debate has become so fractious and shrill that it is all but impossible to pursue a balanced and constructive discussion.

When “public resources” have been used to create content, the overwhelming objective should be to maximize the “public benefit” returned to those who helped pay for its creation in the first place. I could offer a blizzard of facts about the way in which the global appetite for content of all types has enlarged and expanded in the digital world. What is absolutely certain is that today’s global marketplace already offers more commercial possibilities for well-made content than have ever previously existed.

It is my belief that an economy based on our creative industries is considerably more sustainable in the long term than one based on credit default swaps.

Over more years than I care to remember I, and other so-called “luvvies”1 have been accused of promoting “fluffy”, or at best “marginal”, sectors of the economy like film, broadcasting and design, at a time when hard-headed “realists” were insisting that our true future lay in the area of ever-more sophisticated financial instruments and services. It turned out that those very “financial instruments” were the very first to give way when the global economic storms began to rage out of control. Our intellectual property, on the other hand, if we carefully nurture and develop it during these hard times, could well prove to be one of the crucial drivers of growth going forward.

All of us who care about the future of the creative industries need to step up to the plate and ensure that we really do seize the opportunity to maximize the economic and cultural benefits of the digital era.

1  An actor, actress or other artistically minded person

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