Diane Burgess’ advocates research on something known as ‘buzz’ to film festival and industry insiders. Three major points attracted my attention as an economic sociologist working similarly to incorporate arts non-profit value – including that of all the freely given labor – into valuation theory and practice in order to value the benefits of culture and make it more sustainable on the production side. Burgess claims that too little focus has been given to buzz as emanating from collective festival-event activities; that event dynamics generate valuable inputs for the moving-image value chain not yet acknowledged fully by these events’ key stakeholders; and that the different stakeholder perspectives on these dynamics create ‘serious methodological dilemmas’. I applaud Burgess for making plain these two first issues, but disagree with the last. Ahead of my exposition, let me stress that this debate could not have come at a better time, as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced many events to perform their exhibits and meetings online, thereby putting value from event buzz into a realistic scenario. I also wish to comment to underline the stated need for examining festival buzz as ‘blind spot’. Even economic sociologists of valuation still hesitate to consider festivals as actors in ‘the real’ economy. Unfortunately, Burgess does not present the social science literature that has been grappling with the organisational and, to some extent, labor value, and I want to point out its relevance to readers of this journal. I begin by emphasising where Burgess shifts the conversation to pursue this long-term agenda of research on the value of the festivals and discuss why I do not see a methodological dilemma. Overall, I will try to persuade the readership that research feasibility depends largely on more engagement with social science theory – and not just absorption of social science methods to quantify what has mostly been garnered on this most intriguing part of festivals in ethnographic and participant-observational modes.
Burgess maintains that buzz emerges from curated event sites in which particular social dynamics develop and potentially spill over into the surrounding field of activities (via field media). She makes a convincing claim that buzz is more ‘perishable’ than reputation-making outcomes which has been the focus of film festival scholarship. She also constructs buzz as a measurable concept based on a review of existing ideas and uses Bourdieu’s well-known capital typology to show how buzz is a discrete social category. This is only partly successful, as atmospheres and immersive environments cannot be arranged neatly within this sociological paradigm. She may be sensing this, however, as she attends to the bounding of the research object, noting that the festival site’s atmosphere and its ephemeral moments cannot be assigned straightforwardly. Given the already pre-pandemic ‘encroachment’ of digital technology upon the co-created, immersive environments of festivals and their forced online migration in 2020-2021, this must be highlighted as something researchers need to catch up with in both theory and methods. This includes the newer research frontier presented by perspectival shifts known as affective turn and spatial turn, which is a cross-disciplinary interest with psychology and sociology at its core and extremely sensitive toward questions like those posed by Burgess.
Given the well-published interest in cultural events by economists, organisational analysts, and sociologists (e.g. Bruno Frey, Joseph Lampel, Chris Rojek, or Charles-Clemens Rüling), I am concerned with the narrow review of existing performance research, especially as it relates to Burgess’ claim of methodological dilemmas. Burgess’ critique solely focuses on the design of policy instruments by private and public ‘market aides’ that routinely seek legitimation for films and festival participants as well as investment and subsidies. She discusses indexes from the Canadian industry and policy-maker reports as a case in point, finding both types inadequate because their measures only reflect the ‘static measure’ of prestige rather than the highlighted experience dynamics and therefore ignore the question of how such on-site atmospheric charge travels along the value chain to potentially leave its mark on circulated value. These policy actors focus, I would suggest, naturally on what is valuable to them as organisational actors, a circumstance that does not come close to a methodological dilemma or hindrance. Scholars on intermediaries in cultural economies have provided sound theory and much empirical research that can be used to build a framework for the study of buzz. Clearly, there is still much to do once the valuation puzzle has been pinpointed, but there is much more ground for optimism than Burgess is letting on.
To just name crucial research, Lucien Karpik’s ‘economics of singularities’ not only is a landmark economic sociological approach to markets and events of concern here but also provides concepts and hypotheses that are already at the middle-range theoretical level – thus ready to pick up and try out for valuation researchers. The understanding of intermediaries like festivals, as pursued by Burgess, in such a frame of valuation sociology is especially valuable in taking the study further beyond the Bourdieusian framework which Burgess and others (e.g., Marijke de Valck) have recognised as not fully adequate to their research phenomenon. Karpik’s approach also points to event spaces working as devices (or ‘judgement devices’), which like appellations, cicerones, rankings, and networks circulate across the economy and have become tremendously powerful and valuable. ‘Confluences’, just to briefly explain this type of device category, is usually referenced by a curatorial design of the space, while appellations, rankings, and cicerones (e.g., new ‘Wave’ labels, scores by jury competitions, and critics’ input in the order of the listed concepts) as well as social networks (e.g., master class and industry delegates events) are those typically receiving the attention. Confluences are exactly the ‘stuff’ of recent perspectival changes embracing the study of atmospheres and ‘collective effervescence’ (Durkheim), affordances, and arrangements.Buzz: Reply to Burgess As narrated for festivals by Burgess, they are those sites where ‘anxieties’, ‘word of mouth’, ‘gossip’, and ‘rumor’ turn up quite regularly. The worth of festivals as confluences to value chain actors has been lodged as a real-world concern long ago, as major film-project managers in downstream operational areas will carefully select whether and when they put a movie project into a festival program. That is because they had to learn that the presence of ‘critical devices’ can result in positive or negative attention for the film. Event buzz is one of the keys to understanding the production of our contemporary celebrative culture in the context of much absence of cultural success for many cultural producers.
To return to the alleged dilemma, policy and business sector performance reports are devices in their own right: they are crafted to persuade key actors on accountability for subsidies and worth of capital and entrepreneurial investment into what is treated as industry with high entrepreneurial and artist uncertainty. Having festivals in town matters quite often to the regional economy – a non-negligible factor in electoral politics at all levels and reason to establish an event in the first place. While indexes and other benchmarking data assist cinema industry stakeholders in their value chain-positionings, they provide little insight that corresponds with the theoretical and philosophical issues at stake in value creation, including what is perceived as representation of value. As I would argue, it is not a matter of incomplete measurement but of representing the aforementioned view of non-profits as outside ‘the production boundary’ of the economy. Aside from valuation studies, film performance modelling would be helpful to tackle such issues. The most advanced study of buzz to date still appears to be the modelling of information feedback in mainstream theatrical audiences by Arthur de Vany and W. David Walls. It can serve as exemplar for mediated processes of social interaction, and on a theoretical level, provide a useful bridge to valuation studies, highlighting what Karpik has designated as the ‘common opinion-regime’, by which audiences are entered into frames of economic action and valuation next to critical devices of the ‘authenticity regime’ and other expert-type of regimes.
I agree with Burgess’ critique of the way stakeholder organisations place festivals in the value chain but feel that the debate must be widened beyond measurement to go back to theory and methodological concerns. Clearly, value chain analysis can be roped in to elucidate how buzz is an emergent phenomenon along the value chain and is sustained by jockeying actors, or abridged by powerful contenders. In my view, however, there is no methodological dilemma here either as value chain analysis takes the viewpoint of the business that in a given scenario aims to understand its potential among other industry participants and in the competition for market power, shares, rents, and profits. But once the lens is opened to explore how value chains have been studied by sociologists before management scholars, especially Michael E. Porter, found them useful, and that particularly the economic-sociological variant interested in historical and global analysis may prove to be the right tool for the questions Burgess raises, the study of buzz may advance in bigger ways. The value and commodity chain frameworks are tremendously important analytic tools to inspect international trade and socioeconomic development problems (as in Gary Gereffi’s pivotal research), both of which are contexts to film festivals. More recently, some scholars have tried to integrate questions of civil society and non-profit actors in such chains into research frames, which makes this research frontier even more enticing for the inquiry into the role of arts non-profits in value chains. Similarly, studying the governance mechanisms in value chains would be particularly profitable by reconnecting value creation analysis to the questions of power and politics of great significance to the activists among the cinema and festival scholars. In addition, the study of buzz needs to be carefully constructed from empirical industry data and analyses of structure, and more broadly in collaboration with industry and market analysts’ modelling efforts and findings.
Overall, my response should probably be read as applause for this long overdue review of challenges to festival valuation research but also caution about both the idea that policy instruments are generally representative of sound social science research and the sole reliance on big data specialists, foregoing the opportunity to connect to accumulated knowledge by a larger community of researchers who care about both theory and methods.
Ann Vogel (Ph.D., University of Washington)’s research works include a doctoral thesis on the historical rise of US philanthropic fundraising, a book in press about festivalization of contemporary capitalism, and various articles on civil society, higher education, philanthropy, and migration. Vogel is currently affiliated with Humboldt University Berlin and does full-time social work with refugees.
 See exemplarily the works of Gernot Böhme, Andreas Reckwitz, Nigel Thrift, and Jan Slaby.