Call for greater transparency in screen industry

19 March, 2015 by Don Groves

The Australian screen industry should set up a scheme to share information on local films’ global revenues modelled on the Sundance Transparency Project.

The scheme would enable Australian filmmakers to compare their work to similar films, identify all potential revenue streams and the distribution costs involved, and to guage how B.O. grosses co-relate to VOD and other online platforms.


The proposal has been floated by David Court, founding head of the AFTRS Centre for Screen Business, and producer Andrea Buck, a recent AFTRS Masters graduate.

The idea is being received enthusiastically by producers, directors,  distributors and federal and state agencies polled by IF, with some caveats.

In the US nearly 100 films, all budgeted below $US7 million and released from 2012 onwards, have submitted data to the Transparency Project website, a non-profit unit which launched in January.

“Filmmakers have few past films to guide them and limited capacity to gather the global market intelligence they need — who’s buying, what they’re buying, how much they’re paying and indeed whether they are paying; likewise who’s investing and on what terms; and what release strategies are working (or not working) in the ongoing “creative destruction” of the media landscape,” Court and Buck wrote in an article for The Conversation.

”For these filmmakers there’s no hundred years of data to draw on, no network of market contacts. For them every new film is a foray into the unknown. They are information-poor and too often their information poverty leads to wasted time and effort, poor decision-making – and eventually, in too many cases, to business failure.”

As an initial step they suggest a small group of filmmakers devise an information-sharing protocol, decide what information to share and then reach out to distributors and funding agencies. This group could then team up with Sundance and other international partners to share resources.

“I would like to see a movement created around the idea that financial transparency is empowering to independent filmmakers," Buck tells IF. "This is an idea whose time has come; data transparency is almost inevitable – it’s just a matter of when, and exactly how. It represents a generational culture shift – a movement away from top down control, to one of collaboration and sharing. So, will it emerge with collaboration, ease and flow; or have to become a generational conflict?"

Trish Lake, producer of Richard Todd’s Frackman and Michael Rowe’s Rest Home, is quick to embrace the idea. “I would be willing to do this,” she tells IF. “In both Rest Home and Frackman our teams are collecting data to share with screen agencies knowing the results will be made public.

“In the case of case of Frackman it is because it is an innovative project that was conceptualised for its capacity to impact, and we are going to share the data from our innovative release strategy.

"In Rest Home (a co-pro with Canada) the producers wanted to see how we could find a template for low-budget co-production."

Transmission Films’ Andrew Mackie said, “ I like the principle of it. Particularly given there is so much visibility on theatrical performance but little on VOD and EST.

“One of the issues may be that ancillary agreements preclude disclosing certain information. And I imagine many distributors wouldn't want competitors to know commercially sensitive information such as television license fees. However I'd be open to a discussion around contributing data on historical key Australian titles, with the consent of the filmmakers and various stakeholders.”

Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason points out the agency already publishes about 10 research publications, releases and infographics about production, policy levers, audience trends and performance every year.

"We are constantly looking at areas of information gaps and the ‘known unknowns’ of our industry to resource everyone with new information. Just last week we published two new infographics about online viewing habits and the business structures that deliver content online," Mason said.

"We are, of course, limited by deals struck by our partners in this space (and tax secrecy law), but despite these restrictions we work actively with industry within these constraints to release as much market intelligence as possible – for example we provide consistent annual data on where the money is coming from for drama and documentary projects, and in 2012 released a detailed report on how producers are cash flowing and using the offset.

"We are open to broader conversations with industry about making relevant information available. It also requires industry to take an active role in not only providing but also seeking this information.”

Film Victoria CEO Jenni Tosi said, "The potential commercial value of a film in regards to the various types of sales it may achieve, on whatever platform, is essential for filmmakers to know from the outset. It helps informs their budget, finance plan and potential investors. The sharing of information is therefore very important, particularly given the change in the current marketplace. I’m sure any program that could be set up, in which some privacy can also be respected where required, would be welcomed by the filmmaking community."

Filmmaker Bill Bennett said, “Our reluctance to share information holds our industry back. It shows a lack of maturity in our industry. Are we as producers scared that another producer is going to use our finance plan? Or go to our sales agent? Ultimately all that matters is that the scripts are good, the packages are good, and the project not only makes commercial sense to a distributor or sales agent, but that that they see it might hit the current zeitgeist. In other words, that it might connect with an audience.

“I believe we have the most secretive film industry in the western world. British producers are more likely to share information than their Australian counterparts – so too US independent producers. In London there's the Groucho Club in Soho, the heart of the film industry. where producers can have a drink and swap information. We don't have that kind of thing here in Australia, even though there have been attempts in the past to establish something similar. I think the reason those attempts have never really gotten off the ground is because we Aussie filmmakers don't wish to socialise and give up our tightly held info.

“But if we're talking about transparency, how about transparency from distributors? Full disclosure on home entertainment sales, for instance. Full breakdown of costs and income."