Kevin Spacey’s MacTaggart Lecture 2013: an Insight response

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In the aftermath of Insight’s Education Event 2014, a fascinating discussion broke out among volunteers and workshop leaders over tea and cake at the Nexus Art Cafe about the importance and relevance of Kevin Spacey’s MacTaggart Lecture, delivered at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival on 23 August 2013. Christopher Norris, editor at Insight, decided to investigate further…

The event: Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival

Established as a charity in 1976, the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival [GEITF] is a world-renowned event where global television executives meet, network, learn from each other and mix business with pleasure. The MacTaggart Lecture has become a keynote moment in every edition of the Festival because it captures current trends and opinions from top people in the television industry. GEITF also runs two prestigious talent schemes: The Network practical training scheme; and the Ones to Watch intensive professional development course.

The video: MacTaggart Lecture 2013: Kevin Spacey (46.01)

The Guardian gives its video of the MacTaggart Lecture the following summary: ‘Kevin Spacey claims television has entered a ‘third golden age’, with the small screen now home to high-quality drama including Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Homeland and Breaking Bad. But the Academy Award-winning actor also predicts the end of the traditional television episode and a world in which every film is released in cinemas and on-demand at the same time.’

The speaker: Kevin Spacey

Spacey; House of CardsAt first sight, Kevin Spacey needs little introduction: he has been an A-List, Hollywood, award-winning actor/producer for several decades, having starred in and produced some of the best and most creative films and television series of the last 20 years. His latest hit is House of Cards, with Netflix releasing the whole second season at once on all formats on 14 February 2014 and fighting social-media spoilers vigorously.

Spacey’s hinterland is less well-known, as the man behind the character guards his privacy jealously, telling the London Evening Standard during an interview in 1998, ‘The less you know about me, the easier it is to convince you that I am that character on screen. It allows an audience to come into a movie theatre and believe I am that person.’

However, Spacey’s career does give glimpses as to his interests and enthusiasms outside the world of performance:

➤ History and legacy: He was appointed Artistic Director of the Old Vic Theatre in 2003 and is due to relinquish his post in 2015. He told the Telegraph in an interview published on 24 January 2013: ‘I can’t quite believe what has happened to the Old Vic’. He has been an active and dynamic fundraiser and cheerleader for the historic London theatre and says: ‘I am determined to raise £20 million [by 2015] as an endowment fund to make the theatre fit for the 21st century.’

➤ Education: He set up the Old Vic/New Voices programme at the theatre that aims to: nurture talent; engage with the local community; run clubs, workshops and develop curriculum material for schools across London; and devise bespoke programmes for specific commissions from the public or private sector. His charity, the Kevin Spacey Foundation, was set up to nurture and develop emerging talent through training programmes and grants. His production company, Trigger Street, facilitates Trigger Street Labs, a platform and online community for ‘exposure and discovery’.

➤ Politics: He has been actively engaged in US party politics as a Democrat supporter for many years. In an interview with The Washington Times about his political views (30 July 2013), he is quoted as saying: ‘I started working on my first presidential campaign when Jimmy Carter ran for president. I worked for other candidates in various races and ultimately became very close with former President Clinton.’

Kevin Spacey’s views on religion come under his definition of ‘private life’ as he has never publicly discussed his faith. There has been plenty of speculation on this subject, however. Although not himself Jewish, at a JW3 event he told BBC executive Alan Yentob how Jewish figures had influenced him at various stages of his career, according to an article in the Jewish Chronicle Online (28 November 2013).

The lecture: transcripts and an edited extract

The full transcript of Kevin Spacey’s MacTaggart Lecture is available online at the Guardian as an embedded ebook. The Guardian also published an extract of Kevin Spacey’s lecture (22 August 2013), given the title ‘The MacTaggart Lecture: How Netflix killed the watercooler moment – and breathed new life into TV‘.

The discussion: reaction to the lecture from an Insight perspective

Editor, Christopher Norris, uses the content of Kevin Spacey’s MacTaggart Lecture to express Insight’s reaction to the themes and trends identified in his speech. This discussion takes the form of a Question and Answer interview.

MacTaggart Lecture: In his 1990 acceptance speech for American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, director David Lean said: ‘We don’t come out of many new holes anymore. We try to go back and come out of the old ones. Okay, do the old things – Parts 1, 2 and 3 – but don’t make them a staple diet. This business lives on creative pathfinders.’ How does this sentiment relate to the Insight Film Festival?

Insight: It is impossible to have a neutral view about faith, and filmmakers are no exception to this rule. By making the subject of ‘faith’ the central theme of the Insight Film Festival, and all its wrap-around events and programmes, filmmakers and audiences engage with their innermost, personal views and opinions. Each film represents a personal expression of a journey. This makes every film a unique, relevant and original take on what it means for individuals to be alive.

MacTaggart Lecture: Jack Lemmon called the 1950s the ‘golden years’ of television. He said: ‘[Television] was a new medium and nobody really knew if it was going to last – so you could try anything…. There was a sense of total abandon.’ Is there any parallel you can draw with the Insight Film Festival?

Insight: The beauty of the theme of ‘faith’ is that it is not a genre, such as comedy or horror: it is a personal decision. This means this is no artificial barrier or limit to the scope or creativity of the films that are submitted to the Insight Film Festival. There is also no restriction on the genre of film that is eligible. For example, the Festival has received submissions in all the following genres and more: animation, documentary, true-life autobiography, talking head interviews, comedy, thriller, horror, action movie, history, romance. The theme of ‘faith’ allows filmmakers to experiment. The short format of the films and their subject matter takes away the need to fulfil pre-determined ratings figures or admissions targets. There is a sense that, in the best sense of the phrase, filmmakers can produce films on faith with ‘total, creative abandon’.

MacTaggart Lecture: The Old Vic/New Voices programme was set up to support people entering the ‘storytelling’ industry as a career. Instead of separating people into distinct skill sets, OV/NV brings them all together in groups, to help them learn to collaborate, to develop, and to produce and realise work. Is there a lesson here for the Insight Film Festival?

Insight: The Insight Film Festival is not only an inclusive film event that attracts directors, producers, screenwriters, cinematographers, editors and the like, it also explores the universal theme of ‘faith’ – which provides connections and bridges between filmmakers and audiences. Insight provides a unique opportunity to use the medium of film to explore personal and collective faith.

MacTaggart Lecture: The Old Vic/New Voices programme also has a social responsibility within the theatre’s neighbourhood in London: to schools, community centres, youth groups and other places of education. The programme is a force for social action and community cohesion. How does Insight engage with the community to be a force for good?

Insight: The core focus of Insight’s work is the biennial film festival. The short films that win our awards have tremendous potential for life and influence well beyond the duration of any given edition of the Insight Film Festival. The best of the films submitted to Insight ensure a rich opportunity for discussion and dialogue between people, whatever their views on faith. Such reaction to the films is first explored within the Festivals, but the genius of the format is that short films are portable and capable of being curated into faith ‘packages’. Award-winning Insight films have been shown around the world as strands within other film festivals (such as The Eyes Fell upon the Sacred International Religion and Film Festival in São Paulo, Brazil), within faith-based commercial environments (such as the World Islamic Economic Forum‘s MOCAfest arts festival), as awards within other film festivals (such as the Insight-PLURAL+ Award, a partnership at the UNAOC‘s youth video festival) and within educational events and programmes. On all such occasions, there is the opportunity to discuss faith issues at a safe distance by considering the stories within the films. So there is the chance to influence and educate hearts and minds in communities nationally and around the world.

MacTaggart Lecture: The Old Vic/New Voices programme also believes that storytelling helps us to understand each other by translating the issues of our times. The tools of theatre and film can be powerful in this quest. Can Insight relate to this ambition?

Insight: Absolutely. Stories told about ‘faith’ through the medium of film are among the most powerful agents for change imaginable. They touch on what it means to be human.

MacTaggart lecture: Audiences no longer make distinctions between television and other media. Let’s just call ourselves storytellers. Is this a concept that Insight can embrace?

Insight: The definition of ‘film’ is changing. It is less a format, in its digital guise, than a vehicle for content, for stories. Short films have more in-built flexibility in terms of platform when compared to feature films. While watching such films theatrically within cinemas and other viewing spaces will always be a valid and worthwhile experience, short films can now be experienced online on PCs and laptops, on smartphones, and on tablets – either as downloadable product or as live-streamed events  – due to the ever-increasing ubiquity and speed of broadband and WiFi services. Stories are now, quite literally, everywhere.

MacTaggart lecture: Netflix gives people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in – at a reasonable price – and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it. How does Insight respond to the Netflix model?

Insight: The Netflix model of distribution is becoming more prevalent in audience’s viewing behaviour, especially among young people. The ‘now’ generation relates to the opportunity to watch anything, anywhere, anytime. Many of the films submitted to the Insight Film Festival are freely available individually at websites such as YouTube and Vimeo. The added-value wrapping that Insight provides is the element of curation and quality assurance assigned to the films that win our awards: these shorts are given our seal of approval. In an age of unlimited digital content, there is a great opportunity for the cream to come to the top: purveyors of content want the best stories. Insight has the chance to get its stories – films on ‘faith’ – into many types of venue and on to a multitude of platforms, which includes the scenario of audiences wanting to watch a sequence of award-winning Insight films, as a package, on the Netflix model.

MacTaggart lecture: Audiences want quality. Talent wants artistic freedom. Corporations, studios and networks to make money. How does the Insight Film Festival see itself placed within this complex network of interests?

Insight: The Insight Film Festival’s focus on ‘faith’ as a theme gives filmmakers a vast palette of ideas to work with. It’s like saying, ‘Tell me a story about “life”‘. The best of these films, including the ones that win Insight Awards, are of a high quality and entertain, educate and challenge audiences. So, ‘quality’ and ‘artistic freedom’ are achievable goals. Making money comes further down the line. The Insight Film Festival does not have an immediate comparable need to meet audience targets and maximise profits, say via selling advertising space. However, as the quality of our award-winning films becomes more widely appreciated, Insight as a ‘brand’ becomes valuable: a kite mark for quality, creativity and cultural importance. In the future, Insight can become a trusted source of content for commercial partners.

MacTaggart lecture: Is it possible to create an environment where executives are emboldened and empowered to take risks, to experiment and to be prepared to fail, by aiming higher rather than ‘playing it safe’?

Insight: The nature of traditional storytelling in television and film is that is very expensive to produce. This leads to conservative decision-making by executives. The landscape is changing, however. High-quality films can now be made relatively cheaply and vibrant online communities mean that a niche story can quickly command viral attention if it touches a collective nerve or is in tune with the Zeitgeist. Executives within the film and television industries will come to realise that there is an overwhelming choice of content for viewers to watch, and most of it will not be available to see in theatres, in cinemas or on terrestrial television. Content will commission itself, because audiences will find the best stuff on the web and build a fan following that networks can pick up on. This is analogous to the continuing disruptive period at present in the music industry. Storytelling will thrive, however, as a ‘global-village, cottage industry’: stories will start small-scale, the best of them will gather momentum and find an audience. In the future, executives will not have huge decisions to take, as audiences will assume the power that the gatekeepers once had. The Insight Film Festival is part of the ecosystem that finds, nurtures, develops and rewards talent, giving the best stories an opportunity to be seen and heard around the world.

MacTaggart lecture: Networks and studios need to learn the lesson of patience – a virtue not found, as a rule, in executives. How does Insight contribute to this process?

Insight: The film festival circuit makes a virtue out of patience. The best films garner awards, profile and momentum: this is true of short films and feature films. As the complexity of the environment for watching films increases, the best short films will be in demand for theatrical and online release. As such films become well-received and valued by audiences, the filmmakers involved will get opportunities to make other films that are perhaps more expensive to make and more conceptually ambitious.

MacTaggart lecture: If an audience is bonding to a show, however small that audience is to begin with, isn’t it worth investing the time to help it find its true potential?

Insight: By definition, most short films will start with a small audience in the conventional sense. Short films have the advantage of length: they are short enough to be discussed in school, college and university classes. The best short films can shed light on and add meaning to academic curriculums. The growing prevalence of digital formats mean that films can be experienced across many different media. The audience for a film is no longer only the number of people who have paid to watch a movie on general release and/or bought a DVD copy of the film.

MacTaggart lecture: Technological advancement – the internet, streaming, multi-platforming – has coincided with the birth of TV as an art form. The paradox is that the medium is coming into its own as the technology for that medium is shifting. What is the effect on Insight of these trends?

Insight: The Insight Film Festival is relaxed about current shifts in audience-viewing behaviour. The punctuation that a film festival provides in a conversation between filmmakers and audiences will become increasingly valuable as ever more films are made. Film festivals showcase great films and bestow a benchmark of quality on award-winning stories. Film festivals are escrow partnerships at the interface of filmmakers and audiences: they are meeting places. The distribution methods for getting films in front of audiences are of most concern to people who own content, rather than those who curate it.

MacTaggart lecture: Given the changing parameters in differentiation between various media, what is the definition of film? What is the definition of an Insight film?

Insight: ‘Film’ is simply an audiovisual unit of content that tells a story, whether fictional or true to life. An ‘Insight film’ is a story that moves the viewer with its transcendental qualities of purpose, meaning and vitality.

MacTaggart lecture: We can make no assumptions about what viewers want or how they want to experience things. How would Insight respond to this statement?

Insight: Audiences want to consume media according to their own schedules of activity. At one extreme, people can ‘binge watch‘ entire television series in one, long sitting. At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘YouTube generation’ is used to watching very short films and trailers. Depending on mood, circumstance and opportunity, people will watch films of differing lengths, formats and types. There is a growing market for the ten-minute short film, both online and as theatrical releases combined with feature films. Short films fit into the attention spans of viewers at different points within any given day.

MacTaggart lecture: How do we support the trailblazers?

Insight:  We need to give filmmakers opportunities, platforms and the oxygen of publicity.

MacTaggart lecture: We all still crave shared experiences, but water-cooler moments have vanished. The discussion is now online. Is this a good or a bad thing?

Insight: This is a neutral development that has been shaped by the ‘message of the medium’. Water-cooler moments have now moved to the digital realm.  Viewers now watch films in the virtual company of many more people than they ever used to in the lounges of their physical families. Conversations at home and at work may now revolve less around media consumption; online conversations have taken up the slack.

MacTaggart lectureIf we are a diverse global family, we have to work hard to make sure media experiences can still be shared. How does the Insight Film Festival address this challenge?

Insight: The twin global families of ‘faith’ and ‘storytelling through film’ are vast and intersecting. The chances of large cross-sections of these two populations sharing the same media experiences are remote without the help of mediators. The traditional model of raising awareness of films and television series is a large offline marketing budget – comprising trailers, posters, advertising, appearances on talk shows, giving interviews to the press – to build audiences. Even this traditional model relies on ‘word-of-mouth buzz’ to spread the news about great stories. Large marketing spends reduce the number of films that can be supported via a conventional marketing and publicity campaign, so executives bet the farm on ‘safe’ projects. The Insight Film Festival relies on other means to build audience consciousness of films. Insight has global reach and is connected into many networks. We use a variety of methods in which to reach people – email, social media, blogs, forums, personal connections, relationship building, face-to-face meetings – that develop momentum for award-winning films organically and sustainably. From a standing start, it is possible to imagine films setting off avalanches of attention. Insight never forgets that our audiences are also our extended family.

MacTaggart lecture: Does Insight agree that ‘we must send the elevator back down’?

Insight: Yes, absolutely. But we must also build the lift shaft, maintain it in perfect working order, and signpost the fire exit clearly for when disruption strikes.

Insight’s guest blogger policy

The Insight Film Festival publishes articles to our blog from guest bloggers on an ad hoc basis. The Festival is delighted to publish a range of views on the themes of film and faith, but the personal views expressed in such blog articles do not reflect the views and opinions of the Insight Film Festival itself, which is an organisation that comprises individuals of many different faiths and none, all of whom have their own personal views and opinions on films, faith and other subjects.