The Educated Buyer

Although universities and colleges haven't yet realized the predictions of technology optimists - in which monitors replace chalkboards and computers sit on every desk - multimedia has made solid forays into the academic arena. Visual media, such as documentaries, that address...
May 1, 2000

Although universities and colleges haven’t yet realized the predictions of technology optimists – in which monitors replace chalkboards and computers sit on every desk – multimedia has made solid forays into the academic arena. Visual media, such as documentaries, that address educational needs are becoming increasingly relevant for teaching the new generation of students who were raised on a healthy diet of movies and television. The problem for educators is finding films that fit their needs.

Release the hounds

The system by which higher education institutions buy documentaries varies greatly from school to school and country to country. ‘There are huge differences in the collections,’ says Rick Provine, director of media at the University of Virginia’s Robertson Media Center. ‘There are huge differences in the budgets and the devoted resources, and there are huge differences in how collections are used at universities.’ If there isn’t an enthusiast advocating the medium, selecting knowingly and fighting for funds, chances are the money will be allocated to other resources (such as books), and collections will suffer, he says. The Robertson collection, which was initiated in 1985, currently consists of about 16,000 film titles, approximately half of which are documentary. With an annual budget of US$60,000, Provine is able to aggressively acquire titles.

Media Resources Center (MRC) director Gary Handman has worked at building an impressive film collection at the University of California, Berkeley, for more than 20 years. He has an annual budget of $69,000, sits on the board of advisors for the NY Film & Video Festival and is a founding member of the American Library Association’s Video Round Table. He is also a consultant with the Association of Moving Image Archivists, but he is – in his opinion – part of a dying breed. ‘There’s no question. Ten years after I retire, it’s all over. I think film is going to be important in teaching, but whether libraries continue to support it… Of the people I grew up with in this profession, probably 40-50% of them are doing different things now.’ Handman reasons that libraries are banking on convergence and investing in the Internet where they once invested in film.

Looking in a haystack for a needle

…that might not be there

A common complaint filed against the film and video market by educational buyers is the lack of cohesion within the industry. ‘Video is such a strange industry because there is no centralized way – especially with documentary film – it’s [catalogued],’ explains Provine. ‘There’s no equivalent of Books in Print (Bowker) where you can go to find stuff, which is why people like me have a job. It’s such a fickle industry, it takes somebody who understands how the business works, the tricks of the trade, how to hunt things down and how to be creative. You find yourself buying videos from strange places.’ A few publications such as the bi-monthly journal Video Librarian, try to address this need. Although buyers find bibliographies helpful, listings can quickly become outdated.

Kristine Brancolini of Indiana University’s Media Library finds searching for documentaries frustrating: ‘I’m sure there are really great things out there, it’s just hard to find out what they are a lot of the time.’ Indiana’s research library has a $65 million yearly materials budget. About $65,000 is allocated to acquiring film. In addition to this, each curricular subject has a library budget that can be used to help finance expensive series requested by lecturers. Brancolini estimates she buys 7,000 to 8,000 titles a year (titles range in price from $50 to $500 and up), approximately 70% of which are documentaries. As there are few opportunities to preview films, she often uses reviews to guide her choices – a common practice in the industry. ‘Librarians are fairly squeamish about parting with money,’ notes Handman. ‘If [a film] doesn’t get reviewed, it’s toast.’

Due to time constraints and convenience, librarians largely depend on distributors to buy product, but more creative methods are welcome. ‘Variety is one of the best things for video librarians,’ comments Philip Fryer, the media librarian at the Loyola/Notre Dame Library in Maryland. ‘I think it’s important if you’re doing this medium [you're] trying not to participate in the blanding of our culture. You try to find those companies, festivals and opportunities to find independent films.’ The reality, however, is that unless a film hits the festival circuit or the filmmaker or distributor contacts buyers directly, it’s virtually impossible to know it even exists, let alone discover how to buy a copy of it.

Jonathan Miller, president of First Run/Icarus Films, an educational distributor in New York, recently launched the web site, which he hopes will become a robust source of information for media buyers. Links to associations for video librarians, journals and online publications, film reviews, and other helpful websites are included. Two other distributors – Bullfrog Films in Oley, Pennsylvania, and Fanlight Productions in Boston – have already joined the site.

The right(s) stuff

Meeting the needs of faculty who are unaware of the nuances of buying educational films can also be difficult. ‘We are a research library so we buy things that people might not use now, but that they might buy in the future because video is fleeting,’ explains Provine. ‘It’s produced once and unless there’s a huge demand, chances are [distributors] are not going to do another pressing. You have to try to anticipate needs and go ahead and get it now while it’s available. Especially those things which are distributed by small distributors or single persons who might not be around when you need them. The out-of-print is really problematic in video. I’m fortunate to be able to buy over and above what faculty say they need.’

Films that are 10 to 15 years old, but still loved by faculty, are often shared among professors through pirated copies. With this in mind, Handman suggests that if a distributor revived ‘lost’ films, it might meet with interesting results. Brancolini also wants distributors to negotiate longer contracts with producers.

Another sore point between distributors and buyers is the issue of tiered pricing and public performance rights. Public libraries and secondary schools are often charged a price that is $100 less than that offered to universities and colleges. Prices for corporate educational divisions are higher still. Brancolini disagrees with the system and has passed on films she feels were priced beyond reason. ‘It’s a really unfair pricing practice and I don’t know where it came from, but it’s based on the faulty assumption that academic libraries have all this money,’ she says. ‘It’s not responsible for me as an agent of Indiana University, which is a state institution, to pay more for something.’

Handman’s main concern is that good films continue to be available. ‘Anyone who’s been around the block enough realizes two-tier pricing is inevitable. But, how are you going to squawk at someone who is probably selling 300 units over the life of a film?’ He adds, ‘I want this stuff to continue being made and I feel I have an obligation do what it takes to get [independent producers] their money. It’s not like anybody’s getting rich in this business.’

California Newsreel employs tiered pricing and co-director Lawrence Daressa, is candid about the alternatives: ‘If people really want to insist on single pricing, we’ll simply stop selling to public libraries and high schools because it’s not worth it. They generate very little income and it’s done more as a public service.’ The distributor generally charges high schools and public libraries $49.95 to $59.95 for the same programs it charges universities $195 (or five at $99).

Public performance rights are included in California Newsreel’s prices. Educational buyers for post-secondary institutions are often forced to pay extra for public performance rights they don’t necessarily need. Handman argues that demanding public performance rights is just another method distributors use to create tiered pricing: ‘Public performance rights are a non-issue. This is a huge bugga-boo of mine. Any distributor who hides behind public performance rights selling things to academic institutions is scamming the public. There’s absolutely no excuse. Public performance rights are simply not required in face-to-face teaching, which is 99.9% of what happens in an academic setting.’

Daressa agrees with Handman, but he warns that future price structures will address the issue of rights more closely. ‘What a college can do with a video now is considerably more than when I sold it to them ten years ago,’ he says. ‘They can deliver it by close-circuit to classrooms . . . they can digitize it and distribute it online. Colleges are blindly assuming they get all these rights automatically and that’s not going to be the case. People won’t just buy a video cassette, they’ll buy various uses of a cassette.’

The good news is, although most schools aren’t increasing budgets, buyers are benefiting from a fall in video prices. ‘My video buying dollar goes farther now than it did when I started this job eight years ago,’ claims Provine. Book and journal prices have increased in the last few years, however, and both Provine and Fryer acknowledge that media budgets benefited from the effect of this on library budgets as a whole.

The telly is a buyer’s best friend

A few years ago, distributors selling to schools in the U.S. had to compete with off-air licensing offers – a system which allowed programs to be legally taped off the television. This was aggressively pursued by PBS, but is

no longer common, as buyers were generally unhappy with the resulting quality and preferred to buy master copies of the films. In the U.K., however, this is the predominate method of acquiring factual programs for use in educational institutions.

‘It’s a handier way of doing it than consciously making an effort to seek out what documentaries publishers or suppliers can provide us with for a particular subject,’ says Joan Hetherington, assistant librarian at Sunderland University’s Chester Road Library. Hetherington decides which programs to record by flipping through televisionlistings and selecting programs relevant to the school’s curriculum. Cost is another factor. Explains Hetherington, ‘If we’re recording things off air, the only cost we’re incurring is the cost of the blank tape because the cost of the license is born by the institution as a whole.’

On August 1, 1988, the U.K.’s Copyright, Design and Patents Act gave educational institutions the right to record radio, TV and cable programs for educational purposes without infringing on copyright. The license granted to schools to record off-air is issued by the Educational Recording Agency (ERA) in London and applies to era members including BBC Worldwide, Channel 4, Channel 5 and the Independent Television Network. Schools are charged a tariff per full-time

student. The current tariff for further education institutions (colleges) is 82p (US$1.30). For higher education institutions (universities) it’s £1.32 (US$2.08). In a survey conducted by the ERA in 1998/99, 76% of educational institutions in the U.K. were recording off-air, with higher education schools reporting significantly higher levels of general programming use.

At Sheffield Hallam University, Linda Purdy, senior information advisor media services, has an annual media budget of £30,000 (US$47,400) to spend on audio, visual and multimedia. Even so, Purdy still acquires most of her documentary collection – approximately 100 per week – from off-air recording. ‘It’s cheaper [to record] and there’s different material available. Every documentary on television isn’t necessarily going to be available for purchase,’ says Purdy, adding, ‘Once we’ve paid for the license – it might be about £25,000 (US$39,500) – we can record as many television programs as we like.’

Programs in demand that are not included in the era’s licensing scheme are those aired on BBC2, which have been created in cooperation with the Open University (OU) (Hetherington has a £7,000/US$11,000 budget specifically for OU programs). The OU is a distance learning institution which was founded in 1971 and now boasts a student enrollment of over 200,000.

In order to meet the needs of both the general viewer and the student, two versions of a program are made. Paul Gerhardt, head of commissioning, BBC/Open University, explains: ‘The main difference between the two is how it’s developed editorially. If it’s for peak time for BBC2, we develop it for that audience. We think through what their particular interests are, what’s going to grab their attention and what’s going to hold it. At the same time, it’s important we offer them something distinctive. They’ve got to know that it comes from the OU, but at the same time they have to be reassured they’re not going to be sitting through teaching material. [Videos in learning courses] may contain some of the same information, but it will be structured in a different way. This time it will be structured by the tutors who design the course and it will have very specific learning outcomes every 5 or 10 minutes.’

The OU spends approximately £9 million (US$14.2 million) with the BBC annually. Projects originate through the OU’s curriculum, but both broadcaster and university are continually looking for programs that will be effective in peak time. These programs cost about twice as much as the course docs, but offer an excellent marketing opportunity for the university. ‘The share of BBC2 is around 10 to 12% of the television audience in the U.K.,’ notes Gerhardt. ‘When we show [OU] programs, we usually match that share. In other words, we don’t lose viewers. That’s even when we’re providing programs on things like quantum physics. They’re often quite challenging subjects, but we deal with them in a way that’s going to be very stimulating at that time of the evening.’

This is a unique example, however. Most documentaries used to enhance a school’s curriculum are not specifically structured to educate. ‘The films in this market are made predominately for broadcast, therefore, they are responding to the needs of the broadcaster rather than the needs of the academic market,’ says Daressa of California Newsreel. Educators agree and find films not only lack critical analysis but address popular subjects rather than those being studied. Approximately 300 to 400 OU course-related audio-visual products (audio tapes, course docs, about 20 peak time docs, etc.) are produced for OU programs each year.

Starting this month, 25% of the OU/BBC £9 million production budget will be commissioned to independent producers. Gerhardt says the budget was not affected by the recent Beeb restructuring, but adds the partnership agreement between the OU and the BBC is reviewed annually and will include the organizational relationship between the two bodies. The change will create access to a range of ideas and talent as opposed to depending on one source of production. Both Gerhardt and his team have set out the ideas they want commissioned and are inviting companies, including BBC productions, to submit proposals. Interested companies should contact Gerhardt by the beginning of the month. Coproduction opportunities are also available.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.