Producers urged to tell universal stories, and better

16 September, 2014 by Don Groves

To have any chance of international sales, Australian films need to be original, bold, tell universal stories and be extremely well executed.

That’s according to some international sales agents whom IF interviewed as part of our ongoing series of articles on the state of Australian cinema and ways to reach audiences more effectively.


While their views may sound obvious, they say that too often Australian films are failing on most if not all counts.

Michael Favelle of Odin’s Eye Entertainment agrees with the premise that producers should go big or small and avoid middle budget films, as IF canvassed last week, but he sees a deeper problem.

“Yes there is a challenge in recouping and financing mid-range films but where we are failing more often is in original films with clear and compelling premises or stories with universal appeal,” says Favelle, the international sales rep for Canopy, Forbidden Ground, Foreshadow and In Bob We Trust

“Perfect execution is critical. It's not enough for films to be 'ok', they have to be great. It's an all or nothing market right now and just being 'ok' is simply not sufficient. Where you could make money and find an audience previously with being average that is no longer the case without genuine A list stars.”

Natalie Brenner, partner/head of sales at London-based Metro International, concurs. “The only films that have any chance of attracting distributor attention from the international territories are those projects with strong universal stories with key cast attached and a significant director at the helm,” says Brenner, who is selling Damon Gameau’s feature documentary That Sugar Film, in which he puts himself through a 'Super Size Me'- inspired adventure of consuming 40 teaspoons of sugar per day found in common food and drinks.

Ealing Studios, the forerunner to Metro International, handled Mark Lamprell’s Goddess. Brenner says she is only interested in pursuing high-profile projects such as The Dressmaker, Jocelyn Moorhouse’s 1950s-set comic drama that stars Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Isla Fisher and Elizabeth Debicki.

She might make the odd exception for a film like Josh Lawson’s sex comedy The Little Death, which sold to multiple territories after its TIFF premiere.

Of Lawson's film she says, “The reviews have been great so it should work in certain European territories as a specialist title but without names to market it has to find very strong word of mouth to cross over. Josh Lawson is now certainly a director we'll be tracking on what is a fairly limited list of Australian directors.”

Tine Klint, CEO of LevelK Film Sales, who is selling The Little Death and Tim Winton’s The Turning, says, “International sales expectations for middle budget films often don´t match the actual MG potential and local market value – therefore it will take longer to recoup. No matter the budget it is essential to have high production value and great story telling in order to be that one film standing out. A low-budget film can be without marketable cast but, considering the huge amount of films offered on the market, only one in a million makes it successfully.

“Direct to VOD releases are mainly a model because you have no other alternatives and without a marketing budget not a great one. Digital releases in coordination with exploiting other rights is a model that we see working and increasing revenues to producers; this should be exploited much more.”

Klint lamens that producers of low-budget films often forego the expense of hiring still photographers, which makes her job more difficult when there is a lack of promotional material. 

Andrew Hazelton, a former Roadshow exec who is now Director of Sales and Marketing at Leap Frog Films, believes Australian cinemagoers have lost trust in the Australian film ‘brand.’

Hazelton says, “A film regardless of quality is inevitably tarred with the Australia brush and that is a big hurdle to get over in the extremely fast moving exhibition business. To get over this hurdle most films need to start building a community around the film from pre-production onwards and this just isn't happening in most cases.

“Early building of this community would allow sufficient time to potentially convert awareness into actual want-to-see. This is not easy to do and requires a lot of work. Once this community has been created it can be utilised many times over, for ancillary sales, subsequent/previous films etc

“New distribution opportunities already exist like the Tugg platform, which can leverage these communities to create profitable screenings in cinemas as a complement to traditional distribution or as the sole cinema distribution mechanism. The latter allows for profitable, risk-free screenings in cinemas and bypasses any issues around subsequent release windows.”

Some filmmakers lament the power of sales agents in determining which films are financed and say it’s increasingly tough to get backing for original stories.

Producer Tony Buckley and director Ray Lawrence have spent six years developing Spinifex, a screenplay by Bea Christian (who wrote Lawrence's Jindabyne) about two sisters who are estranged for 20 years. As their mother is getting frail, the younger sister goes off in search of her sister, who lives in Alice Springs, aiming to bring her home and restore their relationship.

Despite the casting of Asher Keddie and Kerry Armstrong, the international sales agent rejected both and deemed the film is not bankable without recognisable overseas names.

“We were banging our heads against a brick wall," Lawrence says. “There is a large audience but no financial interest for original stories.”

The director has not given up on the project, hoping it may still happen “one day in a different time.”

Veteran producer-distributor Antony I. Ginnane suggests much of the industry’s current predicament derives from what he describes as “the unresolved 40 year plus schizophrenia in funding and filmmaking attitudes between culture and commerce."

He contends that almost $3 billion worth of subsidy has been deployed over the last four decades into our industry but producers have failed to craft an industrial business, unlike those in the UK, France and Germany, and have made consistently poor script and package choices that rarely had a theatrical want-to-see flavour.

He observes, “There are still strong theatrical audiences- particularly in the over 50s age group. We just don’t make pictures for them.

“The funding bodies fund what they believe to be the best of what goes in front of them- they have no choice- and so it goes.

“There is no real monetization yet out of VOD that can make a finance plan work or recoup anything other than pennies- that’s not a business yet- it’s a labour of love.

“We took the money. We did it our way so artistry prevailed. We destroyed the connection we built in the 1970s with Australian theatrical audiences and now we’re whining as we reap the whirlwind.”