Reaching young audiences through digital channels

Adam Barnard's picture

Pass It On is a short film by Company of Angels, with a ‘target audience’ of children at primary schools – though hopefully everyone can enjoy it. We made it for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and it is distributed through YouTube.

The brief was to say to young people, ‘All walks of life should be open to you’ – that nobody’s gender, race or cultural background should preclude certain jobs. The other mission – for us – was to address this in a way that was artistically adventurous. In other words, not to churn out the sort of insipid, made-for-school video we all grew up being forced to watch.

There’s something quite touching about seeing children in adult personae – the Bugsy Malone device. We worked with 19 kids, aged 9 to 13, across one intensive weekend of filming. Most of the kids were local to us – we’re based in the London borough of Lambeth. Several came via the youth theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe. We shot the film a few streets from our office, which doubled as the young stars’ trailer and, by the end of the weekend, looked like the remains of a children’s party – food, toys, gadgets everywhere.

The decision to reference silent film came later, during the edit; text frames offered a clearer narrative. The success of The Artist, which introduced silent movies to a new generation, was also on our minds.

This is actually our fourth film for the EHRC. Last year we made a trilogy of shorts, aimed at secondary schools, exploring different aspects of discrimination. They were our first foray into filmmaking – we’re primarily a theatre company. Our core mission is to create bold and experimental new theatre for younger audiences, though we’re increasingly exploring a wider range of forms. All four films were made on tiny budgets – shooting with digital cameras and editing on laptops, filmmaking is more affordable than ever.

But what’s really made us think is the way these films are distributed. 

Schools seem to have undergone something of a revolution lately: almost every classroom now has an interactive whiteboard linked to the internet. Gone are the days of an old TV wheeled in on a rickety trolley, then a protracted battle with a wonky VCR. Now, teachers dip in and out of a worldwide library of content, staggering in its range, specificity and immediacy – with a mini-cinema in every classroom. 

Because our films are on YouTube, we can monitor their uptake. Our first film, Drowning, has clocked up more than 20,000 YouTube hits in a year. Since many of these hits represent a single viewing in a class of up to 30 young people, the actual young audience reached by this film must be six-figure.

It seems to us that new digital technologies, both in and outside classrooms, could offer young people unprecedented access to the arts. This needn’t just be about filmmaking: all manner of high-quality artistic activity – including live events – could find new audiences this way. Is there a more sure-fire way of reaching young people than through the school they attend? Indeed, we’re starting to wonder whether these new technologies could stimulate entirely new forms – forms we’ve yet to imagine. A new Company of Angels project, Virtual Empty Space, is exploring that by asking, ‘Could a genuine act of theatre occur in a digital space?’.

Meanwhile, Pass It On is being promoted to primary schools through an EHRC programme called Equal Choices, Equal Chances, which offers resources for teaching young people about careers and equality. For our part, we just want the film to circulate as widely as possible – among adults too. If it finds its way onto enough social media feeds, it will inevitably reach a fair few teachers – and parents – and employers – along the way. All you have to do is pass it on.

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