Risk and Reward in the Audience’s World

by Anna Higgs

n.b. This article was originally posted by the author on Medium. Anna will be presenting her Keynote on Wednesday 2nd December at This Way Up 16.

Ghostbusters is one of my favourite films, and not just because I’m a child of the 80s. It is a seminal genre mash-up between comedy, horror and sci-fi that has a good number of life lessons:

I will be at the This Way Up to to argue it (and some other gems of the 80s) contains some great lessons for the film industry too. Silly? Maybe a bit. But sometimes the boldest ideas are most effective at breaking through, so stick with me here.

In Ghostbusters, three very different scientists find themselves in a new business that is suddenly booming, perhaps a little too much. New York is awash with ghosts and ghouls and ghastly things when a portal to another dimension is opened in Sigourney Weaver’s ‘fridge.

Venkman, Stanz and Spengler are operating in some pretty high-risk territory. Their ghost capture systems they wear on their backs are essentially nuclear reactors — if you cross the “streams” (the beams the guns shoot out to lasso ghosts) you risk total protonic reversal, or as Spengler puts it “imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light”. Something to steer clear of then, right?

Well, yes, if all’s going swimmingly in life. Because the useful lesson for me in Ghostbusters is that things change. You canʼt stick to the same rules all the time. Risk and reward must be weighed. Then it must be acted upon. Small steps can be taken, but sometimes big risks pay off in bigger ways. Sometimes trying alone is the reward, because learning what doesn’t work can be just as valuable an outcome as success.

Let’s then use this part of the Ghostbusters mythos as an analogy for where film distribution and exhibition is today. The world is swarming with new ways for audiences to access films and video content — SVODconsolescable providersYouTubers etc., etc. — and (specifically major) exhibitors regularly state they’re in a perilous position. There appears to be no industry Ghostbusters to zap the pirates (that are the most cited threat), so windowing is argued to be the only way to protect what’s theirs.

But haven’t we seen from other major industries (music and publishing are the most common examples) that entrenching ourselves further in the traditional ways of working isn’t a solution? In a landscape that is increasingly audience-centric, if not at times entirely audience-led, we have to start to think differently, beyond a single simple fix.

So as the Ghostbusters realise they must break their cardinal rule to save the world, because crossing the streams is the most powerful weapon they have; we have to learn that we must always stay open to circumstances. We can make rules, but we must make them flexible.

By taking risks we can open ourselves up to the unexpected. Colouring within the lines is comfortable and most people like the neatness, but we donʼt get creation or innovation without trying something even when we are not sure what the outcome will be. For me, not knowing precisely how a film will “work” is one of the joys of the film industry. It’s a complex creative endeavour. Nothing is guaranteed.

In my talk at This Way Up 2015, I’ll look at some ways that filmmakers have crossed the streams and may well have shown us all some possible ways of saving our wonderful world of film.

All images created by loving Ghostbusters fans on the web. Original Copyright of course belongs to Columbia Pictures.

Manchester 2015TWU Team