Seph McKenna reflects on the highs, lows and challenges facing Australian cinema
After Screenwest announced Roadshow’s head of Australian production Seph McKenna as its new CEO, IF asked the exec to reflect on the challenges facing Australian producers and the highs and lows of his Roadshow career.
In nearly 11 years with Roadshow Films you have witnessed the ebbs and flows of Aussie cinema and numerous changes in the industry. My sense is the challenges facing independent films – including the vast majority of Oz titles – in securing screens and sustaining a release of more than a few weeks have never been greater, with a few exceptions like Ali’s Wedding. Thoughts?
I’ve been around the industry long enough to know that it never gets easier. I agree with your view that really credible but lower budgeted films, let’s say those without high profile cast or a high concept hook, are increasingly being drowned out. Peter Drinkwater had stats that said nearly 700 films were released last year. It’s easier than ever to get lost in the crowd. That said, I’ve never been more bullish on films of scale actually cutting through and finding appreciative audiences.
Look at Lion, The Dressmaker and The Water Diviner and on the family front Oddball, Paper Planes and (NZ’s) Hunt for the Wilderpeople. That world for independent films that know precisely who their audience is actually is getting easier. We have a much better sense of who are audiences are and where the opportunities are then we did five years ago. Exhibition recognizes this. Compared to 10 years ago, Australian film has a had a terrific resurgence in reputation and interest, even as the overall movie business deals with ever increasing challenges and competition.
Cinema-on-demand screenings, event screenings and the Dendy/Foxtel premium VOD initiative are emerging alternatives to traditional distribution. Do you think these and other models should be pursued?
I look at the incredible work David Doepel and Andrew Hazelton have done with Demand [Film] and think absolutely. There is a place for many types of alternative distribution. If it credibly serves an audience, it should be done. We just have to be cautious about scale. For the right projects such as Frackman, it is a terrific and audience empowering model. Where we have to exercise caution, however, is in commissioning films that don’t have a defined audience because you think we can generate one later through alternative distribution. That’s a trap.
Which films are you most proud of?
The two that surprised me the most were Beautiful Kate and The Daughter. They were made with such authenticity that you can point to them and say, ‘that’s extraordinary cinema’. But that wasn’t clear to me when they came in as screenplays. I see that same incredible authenticity in Simon Baker’s adaptation of Tim Winton’s Breath, which I believe is going to catch fire. You have two living Australian icons, Winton in literature and Baker in film colliding, and it just works.
What were the most pleasant surprises, including, I assume, Oddball?
Oddball was a triumph. But I go back to Bran Nue Dae as the most pleasant surprise. The screenplay just read like it would be a heavy film, and then we screened it and it Rachel Perkins had made a film that was pure joy. Joy with a message, joy with a point but joy. It was a real lesson for me as a still young exec that conversations around tone are the most important ones to be had early and often with the creative team.
The biggest disappointment(s)?
Oh Red Dog: True Blue from a box office perspective. A really lovely film that I still get such amazing feedback on from people who are still finding it but it got lost among a crowded Boxing Day line-up when we released it theatrically. In hindsight we were a victim of our own expectations.
Had you been to Perth before the Screenwest job interview?
I’d had fairly deep engagement with the West through our film releases (Red Dog, Paper Planes, These Final Hours, Bran Nue Dae) and regularly attending CinefestOZ in Busselton. Over the last 10 years I’ve attended at least seven Cinefests. I’d spent time in Karratha for both Red Dogs and we had WA premieres of a number of our films over the years. I was with Rob Connolly and Liz Kearney when Paper Planes took home the $100k CinefestOZ jury prize. The majority of our successful Australian films have been WA films. That’s no accident. Sydney and Melbourne films can sometimes come off as seeming local to the city. Films made in WA are national films, Australian films for the entire nation.
In the media release you said you had dealt quite a lot with Ian Booth and Rikki Lea Bestall at Screenwest along with many established and emerging filmmakers in WA, so you know the market pretty well?
I know the theatrical market, but of course, Screenwest has a mandate that started with documentary and children’s and now has significantly grown to encompass all aspects of screen content. I’m looking forward to getting into the broader world of screen.
Roadshow’s next Australian release is Simon Baker’s WA shot and co-funded Breath. What can audiences look forward to?
Winton’s work isn’t just quintessentially reflective of Australia, it goes further, it help defines who we are or who we were, it adds to the culture. Breath is the purest experience of that expression I’ve yet encountered in my career to date, wrapped up in an entertaining and accessible movie.
Aside from coming to grips with Screenwest’s structure and operations, can you spell out your vision for the agency and short-term goals?
Over the last decade Ian Booth and Rikki Lea Bestall have made The West an attractive place to come over and shoot film and TV. Broadly both short-term and long-term my job is to amplify those efforts while starting to exercise the tremendous partnership opportunities that the agency’s relatively new non-profit status afford it.
Objectives over the longer-term?
From our documentarians to our feature film producers, I want our practitioners to be running sustainable businesses that generate enough turnover not to be subject to the boom/bust production cycles that bedevil most of our bespoke practitioners, no matter where they operate out of. That comes down to questions of reliable funding, strong national and overseas commissions and developing a deep vein of talent that doesn’t have to leave the state to find work. I’m fortunate to be building on the rock-solid foundation Ian has put in place.