What is responsible business in the film industry?

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To celebrate Responsible Business Week we will be posting a series of blogs on this topic. In this post, Reader in Marketing and Consumption Dr Finola Kerrigan examines the varying approaches to business ethics in the film industry.

I have recently returned from SXSW17, an exciting conference where the worlds of music, film and technology come together in Austin Texas. This brings together artists, inventors, policy makers, academics and business professionals to discuss significant issues facing those sectors and is a reflection of the intersections between the creative industries of music, film, television, fashion and design with new technology. It is an ideal venue to explore the idea of responsible business.

In writing about the film industry, I have always acknowledged that there are many ‘industries’ and that these industries may have little in common with each other. This difference can be viewed through the lens of responsible business, and poses the question; responsible to whom?  In 2002, I published a paper with Mustafa Özbilgin, which examined the UK film industry in terms of ethics. We argued that there were issues to address regarding social access, sustainability and diversity of choice. The paper acknowledged the need for public policy actions to support commercial film companies in addressing these issues. This highlighted the divergence between a stakeholder view of the film industry, which acknowledges the need to consider wider society in developing policy to support the film industry and the shareholder view, which focuses on the need for companies investing in the industry to return a profit to their own shareholders. This distinction was very clear as I moved from session to session during SXSW. Both stakeholder and shareholder views were represented, but rarely in the same room, and rarely addressing a common audience.

The shareholder approach

Those sessions driven by shareholder views were focused on trend spotting, catching the attention of consumers and ultimately making profit. For example, film and television companies pursuing YouTubers, who already have huge audiences, in order to minimize their financial risk. Other sessions outlined how film and television professionals could (and must) develop and exploit their brands in the social media age. This approach follows the ‘here is an audience, lets give them what they want’ strategy. Here, the ‘product’ follows the audience and the audience must be identifiable and quantifiable. Discussions of revenue were to the fore, with limited or no discussion of the product that was being marketed. After many years of studying the film industry, it seems that those pursuing a shareholder approach are still focused on young (male) audiences and how to provide them with entertainment to suit their expressed tastes. These sessions very much viewed film as part of an entertainment industry, governed by similar principles to fast moving consumer goods and a type of customer is king approach.

The stakeholder approach

Over in stakeholder territory, the nature of the product was front and centre of discussions.  These sessions took a more market driving approach to the film industry, with films being made due to a determination of the filmmakers to tell their stories or the stories of others.  Films were seen as having a more societal importance than merely making money. As many panelists were filmmakers, distributors or others with a financial stake in the success or failure of the film to make money, financial considerations were not absent from discussions, but the importance of the stories being told provided the motivation for the strategies being discussed. Discussions acknowledged what I have referred to in my book, Film Marketing as ‘marketing through film’ rather than ‘marketing of film’.

Two sessions merit specific attention in relation to the stakeholder approach:

Maximising social impact for films

This highlighted the role of dedicated social impact producers who work alongside a film’s release, to develop a series of events around the release or screenings of the film to raise awareness of the social, political, cultural or environmental issues highlighted by the film.  The film is viewed as having value beyond entertainment, and beyond ticket sales and is used as a cultural device to facilitate and provoke discussion and action around wider societal issues.

Airbnb of Movie Theaters: Free, Anytime, Anywhere

This showcased VIDEOCAMP, an innovative social film platform which allows groups to host cinema screenings where access to cinemas is not possible. This allows filmmakers from around the world to access audiences in remote places to screen their films and helps communities to host screenings of interest. Feedback can then be uploaded to the site and shared with the filmmaker. The platform is motivated by recognition of the value of communal film consumption and access to diverse films. It is possible to link film screenings to fundraising for the filmmakers or a related cause, and although the films are provided for free for screenings, success in this new circuit can be used as a proof of popularity when negotiating traditional distribution deals.  In both cases, non profit partnerships were put in place in recognition of wider social and cultural value of film.

So, what is responsible business in relation to the film industry? This depends on perspectives on film and what film is for. If film is viewed as entertainment only, then a focus on a customer centric approach and making money for investors may be seen as responsible.  However, the wider social and cultural value of film has long been established, and this requires a stakeholder approach which considers the wider social value of film.


Dr Finola Kerrigan is a Reader in Marketing and Consumption in the Department of Marketing at Birmingham Business School. She can be reached at f.kerrigan@bham.ac.uk.


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