Producer/distributor Sue Maslin intends to pose some challenging questions at an industry feature film forum being organised by Screen Producers Australia.
Such as: Have we turned into a vanity publishing industry with little connection between creative ideas and audiences? If there is a future for Australian feature films, what would it look like?
If the old business models are broken, how can we work differently? Given the lack of development finance and back-end returns, how will producers be sustainable?
Who will put up the finance for films? What kinds of budget levels can be supported? How can budgets be brought down? And how can we get a better equation between risk/reward?
All that should make for a lively debate at the fifth annual Prism at Fox Studios Australia on July 25. Moderated by Simon Longstaff, the event will hear from executives from federal and state screen agencies, producers, distributors and exhibitors. The forum has been closed to the media; this time journalists will be invited but will have to abide by Chatham House rules.
Like many producers, Maslin worries about the generally low BO returns for Australian films, falling ancillary revenues, SVOD platforms dominating the market and audience attention and audiences moving away from the cinema experience.
She cites the recent Deloitte’s survey commissioned by SPA which found feature film production businesses are among the least sustainable.
Last year the vast majority of Australian features grossed less than $1 million and she fears that with the collapse of home entertainment and television markets for these films, most will disappear into the ether unless they can find an audience online.
“This year there will be even more feature films produced (the AFI is tracking 55), mostly in the low budget range. And once again it will be very unlikely that many will succeed at the box office,” she said.
“Who are these films being made for? Cinema attendances are falling. Available screens for Australian films average around 14 per cent of total screens and is dropping. Cinemas are forced to schedule sessions dictated by the major distributors that don’t always make sense for their audiences and make it difficult for Australian films to find screens to build an audience.
“At the same time filmmakers have unprecedented access to the means of production and too often I meet teams who have shot their feature and only then are thinking about the audience and asking, ‘What do I do now?’ It is starting to look like an exercise in vanity publishing and Australian audiences are the ones ultimately missing out.”
The producer of The Dressmaker, Japanese Story, Road to Nhill and numerous feature docs will urge Screen Australia not to flood the pipeline with content in development by lowering the barriers to entry without also giving proper regard to the necessary producer investment required to bring this work to market.
She will call for greater investment in development to bring work to fruition with the best possible collaborative teams and strategies to find investors and markets and connect with audiences.
Many small to medium production companies receive no direct financial support from the agency and often go heavily into debt during development as a result.
“It is not surprising that the majority of larger scale production companies in Australia with the capacity to carry this opportunity cost shy away from developing features. They have run the figures and seen that the level of risk is unacceptable,” she said.
In her view Screen Australia should persuade the government of the need for a feature film fund to provide non-recoupable loans for producers’ marketing expenses, both in financing and the distribution stage.
The agency could also lobby to remove the cap currently placed on the Export Market Development Grant, which has seen diminishing rebates payable to producers who have successfully marketed their films internationally.
Among her other proposals are new business relationships between producers, distributors and exhibitors and a more flexible film policy at cinemas.
“We need to reconnect with the spirit that was once the lifeblood of our film industry. We need to support filmmakers with talent and something to say and who are prepared to take bold creative risks. Every successful Australian film you can think of did not arise because a committee sat around deciding to play it safe. The Australian film industry needs champions right now,” she concluded.
SPA CEO Matt Deaner tells IF: “Prism has proved to be a valuable format in driving new ideas through the sharing of the multiplicity of perspectives in the industry. We can’t solve problems in isolation. We need to break down some silos in the supply that may have served us well in the past but may not be as relevant in the future.
“This year’s Prism affords the industry an opportunity to come together to explore innovative, market-driven solutions that will help to ensure Australia continues to produce quality feature films for Australian and international audiences. In coming together, we can learn from each other.”