Creatives and industry execs ponder a better path for Australian films

01 November, 2019 by Don Groves

‘Ride Like a Girl.’

Australian writers, producers, directors, funding agencies and distributors should ask one key question when evaluating feature film projects: Does this warrant a theatrical release or is streaming a smarter option?


That’s among the most perceptive propositions put forward by a cross-section of screen industry professionals as IF sought suggestions on ways to maximise the potential of Australian films as the independent film sector continues to suffer in the cluttered theatrical market.

Some ideas proferred – such as filmmakers identifying their audience at the outset, spending more money on marketing – appear to be stating the obvious. But the fact that some execs see the need to re-emphasize these points suggests lessons have not been learned in some quarters.

The Australian features released in cinemas this year plus holdovers have grossed $37.6 million, trailing the $54.2 million collected in the same period last year, according to the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia.

So the calendar year total will fall well short of 2018’s $57.4 million. Universal Pictures’ MD Mike Baard notes that 12 local films opened on 100-plus screens last year, of which five earned more than $1 million.

This year 12 titles have been released on 100-plus screens, eight have made more than $1 million and six – Ride Like a Girl, Top End Wedding, Storm Boy, Palm Beach, Hotel Mumbai and Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan – scored above $3 million. “To have 75 per cent of wide releases achieve that level of success is a strong performance,” he says.

A common theme among the responses was the need to redefine the elements that projects need to justify a cinema release.

“There isn’t a theatrical marketplace for most films anymore, apart from a few very commercial exceptions,” says Kriv Stenders, the director of Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan.

“The real marketplace is emerging online with the streamers and VOD providers. Theatrical windows for most films now need to be seen as long form trailers that promote the online release.

“Once we can all embrace that, adjust our expectations and understand that a focussed theatrical release is only the very start of a film’s life, the sooner we can get on with the business of making and distributing Australian films that reach and connect directly with the hungry, dynamic and varied audiences that are out there.”

Transmission Films’ Andrew Mackie, who released Ride Like a Girl, Stenders’ Vietnam war movie and The Nightingale, says: “The broader shifts in the business and the impact on Australian independent films have meant that cutting through and simply being better are more essential than ever. I think the key question to ask of any potential project is does this warrant being a theatrical film?”

Michael Schwarz, who produced Danger Close with his brother John and Martin Walsh, observes: “As filmmakers we need to understand just how drastically the landscape is changing. The bar that success is measured by is not in the same place it was five years ago. And the way audiences consume movies changes so often that anyone who tells you they understand how it works, is going to probably be wrong within a matter of months.

“So we need to be open to the fact that a wide theatrical release is not necessarily the best option for every film. Can the right audience be found through streaming? Through VOD?”

Director Justin Dix, whose horror/comedy Blood Vessel will be released next year by Umbrella Entertainment, says: “Streaming is guaranteed maximum eyeballs on your product. I almost see theatrical as redundant, for if you only get a week or two run and not enough eyeballs on the screen, you pretty much could consider that a failure.”

‘Measure for Measure.’

Producer Lee Matthews, whose Neil Triffett-directed EMO the Musical was acquired by Netflix, believes there is a greater opportunity than ever before to tell niche stories for niche audiences released on a global scale through streaming platforms.

He advocates leveling the playing field by applying the 40 per cent Producer Offset to all feature-length works regardless of screen size and that screen agencies accept a global SVOD buy rather than a local theatrical deal at the financing stage.

Director/producer Paul Ireland plans a three months, slow-burn advertising campaign in the lead-up to Umbrella’s release of Measure for Measure. “Hopefully that will raise awareness of the film to a wide audience and also help to get exhibitors to open up slots in their cinemas,” he says.

Majestic Cinemas CEO Kieren Dell calls for more money to be allocated to script development and marketing and using local talent to do special events to help build awareness.

In a similar vein, Madman Entertainment CEO Paul Wiegard advocates a greater focus on introducing Australian talent to multiplex audiences and marketing events that help films break out beyond art houses.

Longer term, Wiegard calls for the introduction of a percentage rebate incentive on P&A spending, reasoning that offsetting some of the risk will further encourage a bigger marketing spend.

Tine Klint, whose LevelK handles international sales on H is for Happiness, Celeste and Guilty, urges Australian producers and filmmakers to be better prepared.

“Spend the time early on thinking of audience and reach and don’t target world,” Tine advises. “It can be having the best tagline and simple teaser material or even preparing a bigger campaign.

“Australian producers tend to wait for their local distributor and then they wait together for international recognition and then we all wait for materials.”

Damian Hill in ‘Locusts.’

Cinema Nova GM Kristian Connelly advises filmmakers to know and fully understand their audience and to work on budgets and marketing spends that reflects that audience.

Also he suggests building excitement and awareness through social media from pre-production rather than relying on a three-week campaign before the launch.

Celebrating the $10 million and rising BO for Rachel Griffiths’ Ride Like a Girl, he notes: “Its success in delivering an emotional crescendo that sends audiences out into the streets singing its praises has brought hundreds of thousands of people to cinemas across the country.

“As a nation we have a long history of audiences falling in love with unashamed tearjerkers (Red Dog, Lion, Last Cab To Darwin) so perhaps we might embrace that as a way to compete with the emotionally-distant blockbusters from Hollywood.”

Director Heath Davis (Locusts, Book Week) laments inadequate marketing, reasoning that without a decent P&A spend, Australian cinemagoers won’t go to films they have not heard about.

Davis also sees the need for a more supportive approach among filmmakers, observing: “Any industry doesn’t work when just a few succeed sporadically. Sadly, the only loyalty is to self-interest. Unless their name is in the credits, most filmmakers won’t go.

“We can’t expect the wider audience to embrace our films if we – the industry – don’t embrace them. I don’t know how to change this mindset or if you can.”

View the full scorecard here.