The case for a new distribution model

23 October, 2013 by Don Groves

There is nothing inherently wrong with Australian films but for many, conventional theatrical release isn’t the answer, according to a new study of the film industry.

Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia’s film distribution problem makes a compelling case for the traditional structures to be abandoned. In its place, it proposes Australian films would be released in a variety of ways including, on occasions, simultaneously in cinemas and on DVD and Video-on-Demand, plus self-organised screenings outside the multiplex/art-house circuits.


The essay’s author Laura Carroll Harris argues that instead of requiring local films to have an Australian theatrical distributor as a pre-requisite for the producer offset, the definition of market attachment should be expanded to include DVD, Video-on-Demand and non-theatrical, alternative distribution. By this means, she says, “the distribution of small-budget releases would be diversified in circuits to which viewers are gravitating.”

Most of these ideas are not new but she makes a commendably detailed assessment of the distribution structure with numerous case studies, and a cogently presented set of proposals.

That 120-day gap between theatrical and home entertainment is unlikely to change while the major exhibitors and art house chains insist on it and no distributor is willing to defy convention. But Harris’ arguments are likely to fuel the campaign by producers and some distributors to make release windows far more flexible.

Screen Australia’s outgoing CEO Dr Ruth Harley points out the producer offset rules are a matter for the Australian government. She tells IF that if the government decides to apply the 40% offset across the board, as SPAA and others have advocated,  “I can see the merit in that.”

Harley doubts release windows will change in Australia until the windows are relaxed by the Hollywood studios and major chains in the US.

Published by Currency Press, Harris’ essay will be launched on November 7 on the opening night of the Australian Directors Guild conference at Sebel Pier One in Sydney. She will present her findings when she moderates the session entitled The Director as Distributor at the conference.

Speakers will include Bob Connolly, who successfully self-distributed with Sophie Raymond their documentary Mrs Carey’s Concert and Genevieve Bailey, who took a similar route with her docu I Am Eleven.

Lauren is working on a PhD on film distribution at the University of New South Wales, where she completed a Bachelor of Arts (with first-class honours in Film Studies) and Bachelor of Fine Arts.

“The cinema is no longer the key site for [Australian] films. Only nine per cent of viewings take place in the cinema, and 65 per cent of viewings are on DVD/Blu-Ray,” she writes, quoting Screen Australia research.

“Ancillary markets are no longer ancillary, they are the markets. It is the cinema that is supplementary. However, we are yet to catch up with this reality: Australian films are released stillborn into a theatrical system that is not designed for them and that therefore reduces their ability to compete.

“Small releases in art house cinemas send the message that local films are old-fashioned and lack broad appeal. And in the other, newer viewing sites, to which audiences are gravitating, Australian film is greatly under-represented.”

She is critical of Screen Australia’s primary goals of boosting development and production, contending that the agency should focus more on marketing, distribution and exhibition. “Funding agencies spend millions on film production, only to let films loose into a competitive marketplace with virtually no support for effective distribution," she writes. "The result is a random, inactive approach to distribution, with responsibility placed mostly on the shoulders of commercial distributors.

“An industry hooked on an addiction to production and development will always remain cut off from the market. The numbers are face-punchingly straightforward: finance is spent in production and regained in distribution. The box office is simply not where audiences are gravitating: online and ancillary markets are the real markets. Without that link to distribution, we will float adrift from the audience and the means of self-sustainability.”

Harris’ essay will be available through independent bookstores and University bookstores and via the publisher: