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Film: Blockbusters, IP, and risk

Russell Briggs, Director of Exhibitions & Collections, ACMI spoke at MuseumNext Melbourne in February 2017. In this presentation he looks at recent big touring shows, including ones created and being currently developed at ACMI, to see how risk was addressed and what it means for institutions who are thinking of either taking big shows or developing their own.

Russell Briggs: Hang on. Hashtag, museum, next, Tweet … OK, done. You all have to like that Tweet. I hope to do kind of a practical session here, although we’re going to do a bit of history first. So, I hope you all admire my clean and spare design aesthetic, to kind of emphasise the practical. Fortunately, the AV people upstairs have let me know that the 1990s have called, and they want their slides back. So anyway, I’m an old-fashioned guy. I’m going to talk about a few different things that are related to big-scale exhibitions. We will go through a little bit of the history of it, and then talk about what it’s like today. I want to give people a sense of what the different choices are to be made when your… if your institution is dealing with large-scale exhibitions, whether you’re producing things out of your own collections, looking for content out there in the world that you can create, something large out of for your own audiences, whether you’re bringing in someone else’s large exhibition, or what that means nowadays as opposed to what it used to mean … and maybe a little bit about if you’re interested in touring exhibitions out there, it’s an area that is quite interesting from a recent perspective, which makes it a good thing to talk about here.

So, we’ll start with a little bit of history first. I intentionally used the word ‘Blockbuster’ in the title of this, because museum people hate the word blockbuster, absolutely loathe it. And it’s interesting to look at the term itself for one second, so obviously, it didn’t exist … for some reason Google’s [n-gram] takes you all the way back to the 1800s … but it didn’t exist until the ‘40s, and nobody actually knows where the word exactly came from. It’s possible that it was a terminology that originated in the UK for bombs that were dropped during World War II attacks, like the Blitzkreig, and they were obviously blockbusters when the explosion … similar to a large-scale exhibition, that’s one big boom. The other, even worse, explanation for the word is from an American vernacular, kind of right around the same time, about non-white people that would move into a neighbourhood and ‘bust the block’, and send real-estate prices going down, and encourage white flight, and all that kind of thing.

So, from those two wonderful sources comes the term blockbuster, no matter … no wonder everybody hates them. But you can see, interestingly, in the graph how the usage of the word has just taken off over time, and we’ll take a look at what that meant historically. I did want to start out with one thing that does not show up on this chart at all, and it’s just such a strange, weird outlier, an anomaly, and it has to do with something that took place down here, and I just had to share it; so, this is a painting that some of you may have seen; it’s hanging in St Paul’s, in London, and it’s by William Holman Hunt, and it’s called The Light of the World. And it was … the original painting was painted in 1854, and it’s actually in Oxford, and William Holman Hunt was the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, but he found his fame and fortunate as well doing sacred, religious paintings, and this was the first one he did, and it gained quite a reputation, and I had no idea what kind of reputation it actually had gotten, but what happened was, in 1900, so many people had wanted to see it that he did a couple of copies of it, and this is actually a copy that … his eyesight was failing at that point, and he had somebody in his studio do the copy for him. So this isn’t actually even an original painting, it’s a reproduction of a painting, done in his studio, and it came down and it toured Australia and New Zealand and four million visits were recorded for this painting down here. There were only four million people in Australia at that time, and there were about a million people in New Zealand, so out of a total potential catchment of five million, four million visits. Now, I’m saying visits because I can’t believe that four million visitors came. Maybe they did, but that’s that museum trickery of visits versus visitors … but it’s still absolutely extraordinary, and even more so … this is how it was transported around Australia and New Zealand. Very impressive. Anyway, like I said, that has nothing to do with the actual history of Blockbusters, but I thought people would appreciate that.

The other … there’s a couple other pieces of prehistory that are pretty interesting. Some of you may have heard of this exhibition that was in 1930, at the Royal Academy. It was one of the largest exhibitions of a country’s artworks that had travelled outside that country at any point, and it was sent to London by Mussolini, who quite interestingly, was using it as a piece of propaganda, to show how wonderful Italy was, and 540,000 people in London bought into Mussolini’s scheme, and came and saw the exhibition, and it was one of the largest of the sort of modern exhibitions that had ever been held, at that point. We had one of our own, here in Australia; unfortunately, I couldn’t find any photos of it anywhere, so this is the cover of a book that was written about it. It was called the Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, and it was held in 1939, and only one public gallery was courageous enough to show this exhibition, and it was the Art Gallery of South Australia. The National Gallery here in Melbourne and none of the galleries up in Sydney would take it, because they were afraid of offending the current zeitgeist, which was largely promulgated by Hitler, [about degenerate] art, and so it was shown at the Melbourne Town Hall, and it was shown at the art gallery that was built into the [David Jones] department store in Sydney. Despite that, 70,000 people came out and saw it, and it was an absolute triumph, it was open until 10.00 pm every night, in both cities, and it did sort of set the stage for that sort of big-scale exhibition down in this part of the world.

The modern use of the word blockbuster, though, that actually doesn’t come in till about 1972, and these start to become quite familiar to you, I think, so this is the very famous Tutankhamun exhibition, this is the British Museum; the British Museum were the organisers of it, with the Government of Egypt. It was also fairly similar to the Italian example, it was a pivotal moment for the country of Egypt after the [Seven Days War], and very difficult problems for the government there, and bringing their treasures out meant a great deal. One point six million people came to see this exhibition at the British Museum; eight-hour long queues were not uncommon, but it really exploded when it went to the US. There you go. It attracted eight million people, because the US, this is in San Francisco … you can see the crowds there … and Tut exhibitions have done amazingly well, there was one at Melbourne Museum here in 2011, it was actually the one after this one, so it’s the one that followed it up. It did phenomenally well, as well. Again, the modern concept of a blockbuster really revolves around this first Tut exhibition. I put this one up because we’ve seen too many photos of the tangerine psychotic the last couple of years, and Aussies love to see a little bit of

[unintelligible 00:08:28], a good balancing act to Donald Trump, and the Modern Masters exhibition in ’75 was a big kind of a game changer for Australia in the ‘70s, it sort of put the blockbuster on the map down here, as well. And I have to mention this one, as well. For my New Zealand friends that are here, they’ll know what [Tinari] was. It was the first major exhibition of the sacred and spiritual treasures of Maori that had ever left the country before, and it went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and 300,000 people came, and it was a watershed moment for a very small country, and for the pride of the country and the recognition of the ability to take really, really important work, and indigenous work, as well, and find a giant audience for it. That was 1984.

Things went along in the ‘90s as you would expect; bigger and bigger, flashier and flashier, and then 9/11 happened, and it actually set the whole idea of travelling exhibitions back decades, mostly because the security clamped down, so it came in as a result of it, made getting insurance very, very difficult, getting indemnity very difficult, and freight costs just skyrocketed after that, so there was a real low for a while after 9/11 in terms of big travelling exhibitions.

The one that re-booted the concept was the first of the Terracotta Army exhibitions that came out of China, and again, it was the British Museum that instigated this; this was 2007 … 850,000 people came to see it, and it was a sensation, and it went on to tour many cities in the world, I think this one came to Sydney, and was huge. And today, after those mid-2000s, you’ve seen a gradual build-up of large exhibitions. This one’s the queues to get into the V&A to see the Savage Beauty, the Alexander McQueen exhibition. V&A plays it a little quick and loose with their stats, so it’s a little hard to tell which was the most popular one they’ve ever had, they said that about David Bowie … I think this one probably was ahead; 665,000 people, and over the first five months, it had the highest average daily visitation that that museum had ever had, and as you know, they’ve had some pretty large exhibitions. So pretty impressive.

So that’s what historically led up to the idea of big exhibitions moving around the world. Blockbusters have a terrible reputation in the press; people love them, and people come out to see them, and the art press and the art critics are always writing about either how they’re terrible or they spell doom for institutions, or they’re locking up giant gallery spaces that could otherwise be used for more salutary items. I know everyone in the room will have an opinion about this … but they continue to be made, and in fact, are evolving and changing right under our feet, a little bit. One of the ways that they’re evolving the quickest is that large commercial entities are rushing as fast as they can to lock up their content … this is something that Jason would have referred to in the opening [keynote] today … and that lockdown is something that’s probably only occurred in the last 10 years, but it’s getting more and more pervasive everywhere. This is a shot of the Warner Brothers archive, and this is the wardrobe from one piece of one part of one of the Harry Potter movies. It used to be that … you can actually see the … I think that’s a Gryffindor scarf in the front there … you … it used to be that these costumes would immediately get recycled, and it’s very difficult to find a historical movie costume, because they tended to just get ripped apart after movies were finished, and then reused for the next movie … and then there came a certain point where a lot of pieces started to get auctioned off, and as pieces were auctioned off, they largely went into private collections, and they couldn’t be accessed as easily by museums or anybody else that wanted to do exhibitions.

But the studios got wise, and now nothing gets recycled; everything gets saved. They need larger and larger warehouses in which to do it, because they realise they can monetise what they have. So this is Becky Kline, the head archivist at the Disney Archive; Disney has been very canny about this, they’ve saved decades and decades of their material, and there are a lot of treasures in the Disney Archive that are extremely difficult for mortals like you and me to be able to access, which is a terrible shame, because there are things that can be done, that are really creative, and that are cross-modality with content that are in archives like this. But that sort of cross-thematic type of use of this material is not the last thing that the studios want.

So what you now see is things like this .. this is the Hunger Games exhibition, which I believe is still on in Sydney, was just on in Sydney. Lion’s Gate are the owners of the IP for this, and they hired a private exhibition company to develop it and toured around the world, which mean that through the entire creation of the Hunger Games franchise, everything was saved, everything was locked up for one single use, and there were a lot of sort of like-minded institutions, [unintelligible 00:14:37] that would have loved to have had access to that, and created their own exhibitions about authoritarian governments, for instance, and we don’t have access to that stuff, as a result of it. Another one which is currently on in Taipei, which you may have read a little about it, is the Avatar exhibition, which looked … I haven’t seen it, but some of our colleagues have seen it, and it looks like a very, very large-scale, very immersive, interactive environment, that’s created directly with James Cameron, who also tends to save all his stuff.

So being able to access bodies of content and bodies of IP, if you’re a museum and you want to do something that’s outside the remit of your own collection, is getting more and more difficult to do. It’s not impossible, but it’s getting more and more difficult … I’ll go into a bit more detail on that now: you have to make some choices about what you want to do in terms of where you’re going to get your objects and get your content. The most obvious one is to use your own collection, and there are some museums that have collections that they can continue to mine and plumb for amazing content, and probably the most successful version of this in recent years has been the wonderful [Te Papa Whales] exhibition that has been touring and touring and touring, it continues to tour, and has been such a success, especially in the United States; and coming from, again, a very small country, relatively small museum by international standards, but with an incredible collection … but so canny of them to take one piece of their collection and create a mythos about it, and create a compelling story and, as you can see, a very beautiful immersive environment as well, and be able to have that and take that and take it to the world and have it be such a success … not everybody has the luxury of being able to do that with their collection. Often, collections work really well to create exhibitions for your local catchment, but not necessarily international audiences, and not everybody is the British Museum, who can send out 100 objects that change the world, or this part of the world, and another 100 over here, and another 100 over here, and they can just keep doing that, because they’ve got enough to spin those things out forever.

But this is a model that, if you can use, you’ve got a lot of control over your content, you have complete control over it in most cases, and it’s a great way to go. Another model that’s becoming increasingly common because it shares risk across multiple institutions, is partnerships to create one exhibition; so this is the Guillermo del Toro exhibition that was recently at LACMA, Los Angeles County Museum of Art … they were one of the instigators of it, but it was a partnership with Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Art Gallery of Ontario, so three really far-flung institutions, that actually have a heck of a lot to do with each other, they’re all contemporary art museums … and the body of work that they work with, which was Guillermo’s private collection, is not a fine art collection per se, as well … but they came together as a group, and they divided the responsibilities, curatorial versus publication of material versus scenography, and divided costs between them, and as a result, they were both able to spread the risk, but also share in the success of it, and it was a huge success at LACMA, and I’m assuming it’s going to do well at the other two, and they will be touring it to other places; I think SFMOMA is taking it, as well, and possibly some other venues.

So that’s an interesting model; there haven’t been that many examples of it out there, where risk is shared across international organisations. It’s something that I think a lot of museums are looking at right now, but because of the costs of doing these big, big exhibitions are getting more and more every year, especially if you have to pay for it outside part of your content. And that sort of leads to this point: there is a lot of content that can be found out there in the world that’s in the public domain … [unintelligible 00:18:46] Jason, but we’ve talked about this this morning a little bit … but you have to be very careful. So you see two images here: one is a book and one is a film still, and then you notice the book doesn’t have an attribution next to it, because Wizard of Oz is in the public domain. You can do a Wizard of Oz exhibition if you want. You’re a museum, you can do it. There’s no … the family of L. Frank Baum no longer has a monetary consideration for it. You might want to pay them anyway, but there’s no legal reason why somebody couldn’t do an interesting interpretive exhibition on The Wizard of Oz. However, in the film still, you see an MGM attribution, because you’re not going to get to be able to use that unless you pay MGM a tremendously large bucket-load of money, which could probably have a certain chilling effect on you doing a Wizard of Oz exhibition and that’s something that all of us are contending with right now, when you’re trying to pick a topic out of the public domain, how much of it is actually there, and how much of it is going to be locked up in buckets of IP and other places that you’re going to have to negotiate to try to use? There’s a really nice Sherlock Holmes exhibition running round, I think there may actually be more than one, but there’s one particular one that’s a very, very nice one right now; the Sherlock Holmes books that were originally written by Conan Doyle are all in the public domain, so the concept of Sherlock Holmes, hence why we have so many moving image iterations of it out there in the world, is free to use, but most of the ancillary content that’s been created around Sherlock Holmes is not. So, to be able to do a Sherlock Holmes exhibition of your own, versus paying to bring the touring exhibition version of it into your museum, you’d have to think long and hard about that.

[Unintelligible 00:20:43 talked about touring a little bit. There are museums that do have the wherewithal to be able to create exhibitions and then tour them themselves. It’s not that common. The science museums tend to do it more successfully than anybody, because they can create small, very hands-on exhibitions on topics that are well bounded, and they can send them out to like-minded science centres around the world, but big universal museums struggle with this because the upfront cash flow to be able to do this is quite high. Building exhibitions that have the infrastructure that can tour is very expensive. Te Papa, as I mentioned before, does it extremely well.

We’ve been very lucky that we’ve got two big exhibitions that are touring in the world right now: Game Masters, which is our history of video games; this is installed in the National Museum of Scotland, and it’s been touring since end of 2012, and it’s been to New Zealand, Asia, North America, Europe and now it’s back in North America again, and really with no end in sight right now, except the costs of upkeep and relicensing the material in it … [I think I’ve got] one more shot of it there … and we’re touring our DreamWorks animation exhibition, which was a partnership with DreamWorks animation studio; in that particular case, we were able to work directly with the studio, that allowed us to access their IP and their content. We had to pay for it; you always are going to have to pay for it, but if you can come up with a compelling argument to create something that’s mutually beneficial to both parties, you have a much better chance of actually being able to form a partnership, rather than going to somebody and just trying to do a straight payment for some IP, because most people won’t do it, at this point. They usually believe that they can hold on … if they hold on to it themselves, they can monetise it more highly.

So, we’ve been really lucky with our two. We’ve got another home-grown one that’s in development right now that will be touring, and we hope to be able to keep doing this. But besides us and Te Papa in this part of the world, there are a handful of others that will tour occasionally, but in terms of being able to run really large touring offices, it is a big commitment, and it’s a big risk, and it needs the support of government, if you’re a government-funded institution, and a very … a risk-friendly board, to be able to put that upfront cash into it.

There’s a few things that I think are really important to remember if you’re embarking in this area, and one is what you’re up against out there in the world. So, if you’re creating your own exhibition or you’re bringing in an exhibition and you need to market that exhibition against the best and the brightest that’s out there right now, there’s some very odd pockets of areas that are doing extremely well that are kind of your competition even if they’re not in the same city as you, because what’s happening in the world is raising the expectations of the visitor about what you’re going to be showing. How many people in this room have been to a Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum? Whoa. I thought there’d be nobody, I thought museum people would never set foot in a Madame Tussaud’s, I can’t believe there’s like 20%; that’s amazing. I literally thought I was going to be the only one that’s ever been to Madame Tussaud’s …

I went to the one in Times Square, so that I could see the Ghostbusters VR installation that was there, and because I had been told that it was the absolute state of the art of VR right now, and I think it probably was, from a commercial standpoint, it was amazing. It’s a short experience, about 20 minutes, and it’s quite expensive, as you might expect. The queues were very long to get in, and it had injected life into Madame Tussaud’s that I didn’t think they would ever be able to do again; the rest of that place is very scary. And the quality level of delivery [in this] is so high that what I brought back with me as a lesson learned was that we can’t assume that if we just produce something that we can afford, and it’s going to be kind of fun, that internationally, visitors are going to take to that, because they’re going to be comparing it to this kind of thing.

Another example is … a little bit more in our area … is the Iron Man ride at Hong Kong Disneyland. Now, you don’t necessarily think that you’re competing with Hong Kong Disneyland, but again, this is an absolute state-of-the-art piece of immersive theatre, and this is the kind of thing, actually, if you’re looking to do something that’s of this level, you need to be thinking of this kind of attraction right now, and if you’re not, you’re actually probably … you’re undermining your audience a little bit, or you’re not giving your audience enough credit about managing expectations. The last thing I’d say is to try to stay off that. The idea of bringing in big exhibitions, the idea of just bringing in somebody else’s, or creating your own, does tend to put you on a hamster wheel with your … especially with your funders, or the people that are keeping tracks of your KPIs, because they do bring in a lot of revenue, they bring in a lot of associated costs, and once you get on that cycle, it’s very alluring to continue to do it, and it tends to bring in new sponsors, and you can use it if you’re canny to bring in new audiences and to hone your audience development strategy, to really capture them … but you have to ask a lot of questions.

You know, what am I not doing in my spaces that I am doing by bringing somebody else’s content in, or creating something that’s sort of mass-marketed up to as large an audience as possible? Am I doing a disservice to my own collection, am I doing a disservice to the audience mix that’s in my city? Am I only focusing on one audience in order to get as much in … as it’s … these are the kind of very complicated questions that when you’re developing a strategy, you want to be asking yourself. We really enjoy being able to work both on the very intimate level, like [unintelligible 00:27:07] exhibition, and then creating really big things that serve really, really large family audiences and attract people in from all over Australia and internationally, because we think we’ve got a remit to do both, as the Australian Centre of The Moving Image … but it’s just something you want to go into with your eyes open before you decide on that big content, on that blockbuster. And that’s it from me. I’d love to answer any questions, if you [have them].

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