ACR Film Festival: Reflections on the First 10 Years

A Commentary by Russell W. Belk and Robert V. Kozinets


               In 2001, Russ held a special session at the North American ACR Conference in Austin, Texas entitled “Videography Versus Written Ethnography In Consumer Research.” That session involved a video Rob made on Burning Man culture, and one that Russ shot in Zimbabwe showing consumption by the nouveaux riches in that country. The session also featured some terrific insights added by Deb Heisley and Eric Arnould that comparatively discussed what we could and could not achieve using videography and ethnographic text. At the time Russ was living in the home of Sundance Film Festival and Rob was from the home of Toronto International Film Festival.  Our aspirations for the special session were nowhere near as grandiose as those world-famous festivals, but particularly after that special session we had certainly seen and believed in the potential of film. 

 Given the audience reaction to the special session, as well as our considerable enthusiasm for videography, we approached Dennis Rook and Punam Anand Keller,the chairs of the 2002 ACR Conference in Atlanta to propose holding a film festival.  They were gracious in approving the experiment. We created a procedure for a double blind review of films that has stood the test of time. Film submissions were collected in a method analogous to hard copy papers, i.e., we were sent five copies of films on VHS tape originally and eventually DVD discs. We approached reviewers with some film and consumer research experience—not an easy task at the beginning as  dealing with a very limited set. We sent out three copies to reviewers,and another copy to the other co-chair (in a different country at the time). Reviews were returned via email and we then wrote letters summarizing the reviews. We suggested improvements to just about every film, rejected some, and accepted films contingent on certain revisions. Clearly, creating a scientific film for ACR was not the same artistic project that Hollywood filmmakers dream about.

 When the first film festival finally happened, we began with evening showings, a big red popcorn machine filled with hot popcorn, and a People’s Choice Award.  And, of course, the nearly inevitable technical challenges occurred (conference hotels are simply not set up for smooth and easy film exhibition, we quickly discovered). We also learned three lessons from the Inaugural ACR Film Festival in 2002: 1) people would rather go out to dinner with friends in the evening, 2) conferences attendees don’t seem to like popcorn, and 3) conference chairs can get upset with makers of a film about culture jamming who do their own culture jamming by sticking a bunch of promotional stickers for their film all over the conference (as Jill Sharpe did)!. 

 We learned from these lessons. The next year, when the conference was held in Toronto, we moved the film festival to a regular spot on the daytime conference program and obtained a dedicated film room. We stopped the incredibly expensive popcorn delivery. And we offered the opportunity for filmmakers to display promotional posters to promote their films during the Thursday evening reception. 

 The second and third years we also approached the conference chairs to ask permission to hold a film festival and after that it seemed to have become institutionalized,because the ACR Presidents and chairs began approaching us and asking us to hold it.  After the first NA ACR FF, the tradition spread to the European, Asia-Pacific, and Latin American conferences,sometimes accompanied by a workshop or session on film-making. 

 Gary Bamossy and Alladi Venkatesh together with the Center for Consumer Culture, and the University of California, Irvine have generously provided a cash prize for a Juror’s Award at the NA ACR FF starting in 2004. The AP ACR Conference in Sydney was chaired by Marylouise Caldwell and Paul Henry—accomplished and enthusiastic filmmakers who have won both the People’s Choice and Juror’s Award several times.  Starting in 2011 they have also been instrumental in carrying on the Film Festival after we retired following 10years of co-chairing it.

                Along the way there have been more than 125 films accepted into the various ACR Film Festivals.  We suggested the four T’s of videographic criteria for juroring the competition in  Kozinets and Belk (2006). These criteria are:(1) topicality (the film’s topic is related to consumer research); (2)theatricality (the film is engaging and has dramatic flow), (3) theoreticality (the film offers a theoretical perspective or contribution), and (4)technicality (the film has good production values). We institutionalized these criteria in several iterations of evaluation guides provided to the many reviewers we have had for these films over the years. Distribution to jurors has evolved from VHS tapes and CD-ROMS to DVDs and finally to the Internet.  Previews for ACR attendees came first with hotel CCTV systems and then on the ACR conference website.  And both the cost and size of camcorder and editing equipment have shrunk as resolution and quality have risen.  The same is true of filmmaker expertise, although it is still true that the majority of ACR films are by first-time filmmakers, despite the presence of many who submit new films every year or two. 

 Together and separately, we have conducted a number of hands-on videography workshops in the US, Canada, Sweden, Australia, Mexico, and France.  Many of the films from the ACR FF have made it into special video issues of journals, university classrooms, and consumer behavior textbook supplements.  One thing that consumer researchers have called for since the start of the FF is access to the films without having to ask each filmmaker.  With the online submission of films and ACR’s involvement, this is finally becoming a reality. Currently, there is very serious talk about beginning an online journal specifically dedicated to consumer research and marketing-related videography. We are helping and hoping to make this dream a reality.

                Although professional conferences in anthropology, sociology, and psychology have had film sessions for many years, we are very proud to note that ACR is the first business and communications conference to institutionalize the practice. Many other conferences are now incorporating video into their programs in various ways.  We attribute the popularity and success of the ACR FF first and foremost to the creative and venturesome nature of ACR members who have created films and attended the film festivals.  Secondly, we have entered an era when anyone with a smartphone can film and edit in high definition on the same device.  Thirdly, consumer behavior research is quite limited when text, charts, and PowerPoint presentations are the only media employed.  Industry has also readily embraced video research, especially by ethnographic researchers and agencies.  Fourthly, the international character of consumption in a global age is vividly conveyed by videos from around the world. This is evident both in the diverse focus of the films in the FF and in the diverse distribution of ACR filmmakers around the world. Finally,we can thank the vision and openness of the ACR executives and chairs who have supported and encouraged this innovative venture in social science representation through the last decade. We are extremely grateful to have worked with such people of vision, and also to have forged strong friendships and collegial relationships through our involvement the ACR Film Festival.

                There is one thing we can conclude from our 10 years hosting the ACR Film Festival:the best is yet to come. We have watched with awe and admiration at the growth not only of the film festival itself, nor only of the institution of videographic film-making in consumer research as a legitimate field and form,but also of the growth of some simply magnificent film-makers. It seems as though every year or two, a new filmmaker submits a film of breathtaking vision and quality. It is these moments that have been worth all the extra effort that this festival has demanded of us, all the goodwill of the many generous academic reviewers, and all the missed sessions we have spent in darkened rooms watching films we have already seen multiple times before. With undampened enthusiasm, we eagerly look forward to the future as seen and heard in the magical darkened rooms at ACR conferences and the always-illuminating and lively Q&A with the filmmakers that follows the excitement of each first showing. We hope that all of you soon will join us in that darkened room, sit back, learn, and enjoy the show.



Kozinets, Robert V. and Russell W. Belk(2006), “Camcorder Society: Quality Videography in Consumer and Marketing Research,” in Russell Belk, ed., Handbook of Qualitative Research Methods in Marketing, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar,335-344.