Paramount’s Michael Selwyn on the distributor’s Australian strategy
Paramount Pictures has ramped up its support for Australian films in recent years. Paramount's vice president Australia/New Zealand, Michael Selwyn, spoke to IF magazine for its 'Aussie Rules' article, which analyses the performance of distributors' local film slates since July 2008. An edited transcript of the interview is printed below while the full article, which also includes the views of the other major distributors, can be found in the current issue (#143 Oct-Nov). A comprehensive table of local distributors' box office performance can be found here.
Q: First off, in that time [the past three years] how do you think the strategy has worked or hasn’t worked and what have you learned from it because it’s a very different thing to distribute an Australian film compared to a Hollywood blockbuster.
A: True. We’ve always, for quite a while before the [UPI] split, tried to release quite a few [Australian] films – but we just never had the volume of product. There’s no question of when you have that volume of product you need to get geared up in a very, very different way.
The single biggest change you have is the development of materials and I think one of the things that we have come to learn, particularly when you’re working in the mainstream, but when you’re working on the more specialised side, is the need to be involved very early in the process.
Tomorrow, When the War Began is the classic example – now pretty much everything that we do, we’re always aware of the need to kind of work on poster materials, trailer materials, early on. You won’t always get the chance as we did with that one to have a very early website, to have a teaser poster, teaser trailer, and then a regular poster and trailer than comes in later.
But if you want to really handle mainstream film you have to then view it in that way and that, I think, is where we’ve come to.
Q: What does that take? That would obviously require a much bigger investment on your behalf. Is it you picking that out as a bigger film or is it the difficulty in working with Australian producers?
A: There isn’t any difficulty in working with Australian producers but you’ve actually picked the major problem: it’s a question of making the commitment early. It’s funny, with hindsight, people told us after release that we’d been so brave – we never thought of it that way on Tomorrow.
Tomorrow, we always pegged it as being a broad mainstream film – it had everything to make it a broad mainstream film so we treated it like a broad mainstream film. I said last week when I was picking up the box office award [at the AIMC for biggest Australian film at the box office], it was as if we were handling Star Trek: we expected to have early materials, we expected to be working on publicity a long time in advance, we did set visits, we did all of the things you do with a mainstream film.
Now you can’t always do that with a film where you’re not sure how it’s going to turn out. It would not be appropriate to take a small film and throw that kind of investment at it early on, if you’re not sure how it’s going to turn out.
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Paramount Pictures Australia & NZ managing director Michael Selwyn accepts the award for highest grossing Australian film (Tomorrow, When the War Began) from Hollywood Movie Money director Richard Hewitt.
Q: When you do a greater volume you’re going to get some films which don’t work – have you learnt much from some of those like a Wasted on the Young or something else?
A: The only thing that you learn from films like that is the difficulty of handling smaller mainstream titles because they often tend to be the ones that are harder to get away because there are so many films released in the marketplace.
It’s nothing particularly to do with them being Australian or non-Australian I don’t think. Wasted on the Young I’m actually delighted that we did that one simply because there were so many talented people in it and then you see the actors – it’s funny how things work… Alex [Russell], who was the lead in that, is now turning up in Bait, and things like that, and you’re starting to see these actors coming through.
Q: Are you leaning these days towards particular sized films in terms of whether you always go towards the upper end, Tomorrow, When the War Began or right to the lower-end like Samson & Delilah, or the mid-size …?
A: I think it’s very much project-by-project. I think we’ve seen a certain style of film that does well and I think you’re seeing that now. We were very interested in the broad success of films like Beneath Hill 60 and Charlie & Boots and even Kings of Mykonos but particularly the first two.
When I say broad success I’m not just talking about theatrical – they both had very solid theatrical results but then their home entertainment numbers were very strong across the whole country. There really is a broad appetite for mainstream film and the perfect example now is Red Dog.
A: Very much so. Have you given much thought to the SPAA Distributor-Producer fund because there’s an idea which is aimed at delivering films that people want to see with distributors, knowing what audiences want, and helping Austraian producers deliver that sort of product.
A: As far as I can see the SPAA Producer fund is simply aimed at a larger budget – it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily films that audiences want. And where I’m going with that is every film, you have to look at it and asses it individually.
Anything that actually makes more money available is a good thing but you still have to spot the film and really want to release it. There are expensive films that actually haven’t been successful so it’s not just simply a question of putting money in but I agree with you that the concentration on films that are generally in the mainstream… there seems to be a genuine feeling that mainstream Australian cinema is coming back and then you’ll have more specialised stuff operating around it.
Q: Would Paramount be more keen to invest more heavily if the Producer-Distributor fund was available, ie. you’re getting a matched amount from the government.
A: It doesn’t really work like that. What you do is you look at the level of your investment and then try to assess the risk as well as everybody does. If that money wasn’t coming in from the government, then the producer would have to find it from other sources.
It’s not as if the distributor would be putting it in. So while it’s kind of nice to have the government matching, because it helps producers getting these films made, it doesn’t change the way you assess your contributions.
Q: I see, it doesn’t change your risk assessment.
A: Absolutely not. And the way that fund is structured, it actually requires quite a heavy investment from the distributor so it could well be that you’re talking about films that need to work on an international level as well as Australia and that can be trickier. You have to do a full assessment of the project.
Q: Finally, in terms of the content, as you say, I think Australian films have come back and there have been some really good films in the last few years but there was that patch before then where it turned down and the content was putting people off. Are you finding what producers are coming up with or the ideas – has that changed in the past three years particularly?
A: I think you’re seeing a broader range of producers. It takes me back to a number of years ago … where there was a lot of stress put on developing producers in France and there were some terrible films made, but then you saw from that a lot of good mainstream films.
People coming into the industry, or new producers – there seems to be much more interest in making what I would call genuinely mainstream films. Now that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some wonderful films being made that are edgy and I certainly don’t want people to stop making edgy films.
I think the problem was there was very little else being made. And I think once you see that broader spread of product then the industry will be on a much, much sounder footing.
Q: So your strategy is going to continue pretty much as it has for the last couple of years?
A: Pretty much so yes. We’re still actively looking at films… Bait is a straight Paramount acquisition but we did that quite a while ago. It took some time for the funding to come together. Most of the stuff we do we’re looking together with Transmission but certainly … we’re always happy to look at it.
Q: Is there roughly a number of local films you will do a year?
A: I think it's hard to handle more than three or four Australian films a year if they require a full marketing effort because they are very, very time consuming, often very heavily publicity-based and you really need quite a large organisation to put it together particularly if you’re in the mainstream.
You can argue that at the smaller end it can be a little more straight forward but not always.