Australians are big fans of local screen content – they’re just not big fans of paying to watch it. While Screen Australia has previously estimated that Australian films were viewed more than 72 million times last year across multiple platforms, their share of the total box office remains embarrassingly low at less than 4 per cent.
So Screen Australia’s latest research into viewing habits should come as welcome news for an industry desperate to grow its paying audience. What compels someone to go to the cinema, watch a DVD, turn on the TV or download content online? And how can Australian producers use that information?
Screen Australia’s “What to Watch?” report highlights more than six million Australians it dubs “connectors” as the perfect target to drive advocacy or word-of-mouth. Three-quarters of connectors watch feature films, television drama and documentaries online on a monthly basis and one in five (or 1.2 million) hype this viewing online and via social media. “They are the leaders of online viewing and local content creators will find it hard to adapt to online distribution and convergence more broadly if they lose their home ground advantage by not better engaging with them,” the report says.
The biggest Australian films are invariably driven by word-of-mouth (Kenny, The Castle, Red Dog) so why isn’t social media, which amplifies and broadens traditional water cooler talk, already luring more people to see local films?
One explanation is that the ‘buzz’ many local films attract is not strong enough (or even positive) to prompt audiences to make the trek to their local cinema. Just how producers can change an audience's views by engaging online remains to be seen.
The other reason is access. More than half of Australian films released each year (typically 30-50 films) are shown on less than 20 screens. After a typically quick death at cinemas, they remain locked in the long-standing four-month theatrical window before their DVD/online release. It’s a strategy which has served the Hollywood blockbuster well (although even that remains under pressure as the home entertainment market declines) but will never provide a financial platform for local filmmakers.
Any positive word-of-mouth generated by those 1.2 million ‘connectors’ online and through social media is invariably lost: many cannot (or choose not to) attend one of those 20 screens while the buzz is lost during the long wait for the DVD/online release. This is not a criticism of local distributors: the carcasses of many strongly-supported local films punctuate the landscape: in recent times Wasted on the Young, The Loved Ones, Red Hill among them. It is a structural issue driven by audiences.
In the US distributors such as Magnolia and IFC have successfully mixed up traditional release windows: distributing online at the same time, or shortly after, a small theatrical run. Exhibitors are understandably opposed to a move they feel may threaten their extensive capital investment. Screen Australia, more bizarrely, has shown no public support for such as shift, despite audience engagement (and creative story telling) sitting at the heart of its charter. The report found that more than 57 per cent of online viewers now watch more feature films, television drama and documentaries than ever before.
Anyone who has had the depressing experience of watching an Australian film in a near-empty cinema – and returns for more – is making a real leap of faith. The most popular reasons audiences attend the cinema, according to the What to Watch? report, are communal: “socialising” (9 per cent), and “tagged along” (9 per cent) topped the list.
Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the exclusive four-month theatrical distribution window will never work for the vast majority of Australian films.
A Screen Australia online forum discussing the results (moderated by journalist Sandy George, who is also currently working for IF Magazine) was broadcast here.