When was the last time you saw an Australian film? Where did you see it? What device were you using? How did you hear about it? How did you pay for it? Think about it. Because answering these questions is key to addressing the Australian film industry’s woes.
The supposed remedies prescribed to lift the audience for Australian films are too multiplex (in the real sense of the word) to count. It’s been said we need funnier films, shinier films, action-ier films, bigger budgets, better scripts, a rebirth of genre films.
Here’s my suggestion: It’s time to ditch the box office. Why? Because audiences for local films already have. The cinema is no longer the home of cinema.
Film is everywhere: on our smartphones, our televisions, our laptops. Only 9 per cent of first-run viewings take place in the cinema, and 65 per cent of viewings are on DVD/Blu-Ray. The number of great filmmakers making quality, long-form stories on television – with all the complicated characters, rich narratives and thematic depth that we’ve come to expect from cinema – continues to grow.
That means the question of how to lift up the Australian industry needs to be reframed around the question: where and how do viewers watch Australian film? And how can we increase the availability of local films at those access points that viewers are flocking to?
Australian audiences watch more local content on DVD, TV and online than they do at the cinema. But the focus until now has been on generating Australian content, not about accessing content.
Government-funded films are created with very few effective distribution pathways to the audience in mind – we’ve under-resourced distribution and instead settled for an unambitious approach to theatrical releases. Screen funding agencies continue to insist on having a commercial cinema distributor sign onto a film before greenlighting production funds – to the exclusion of DVD, video-on-demand or alternative distributors. This approach has failed.
This year’s horror-comedy 100 Bloody Acres, with Angus Sampson and Damon Herriman, is the perfect example of a film that could have thrived off a simultaneous online release that reached out to horror fans via their preferred digital consumption points – at cinemas as well as video-on-demand sites and special event screenings. Instead, it was lost in six small cinemas in the obscure second tier of the mainstream cinema distribution market. It took less than $10,000 at the cinemas.
It’s a familiar story, but an especially sad one given the New York Times critic Matt Zoller Seitz called the film “the best low-budget horror comedy since ‘Shaun of the Dead’, and one of the most assured first features in ages”. Haven’t critics of Australian film saying this is exactly the kind of film we need to be making – smart, funny, genre films aimed at young, active audiences? Here’s the proof we’ve been looking for: making great films isn’t enough without tech-savvy release approaches.
Why should we be taken aback when Australian films flounder when they’re barely present at cinemas, barely advertised and only available to watch at a few art-house screens? The answer? We have to create our own screens and our own paths to audiences. Finding alternative ways of making and distributing their films in the face of an increasingly tough mainstream cinema system just makes sense. What’s more, it’s the best use of the limited taxpayer dollars we have.
Luckily, traditional box office distribution is no longer as critical to success as before. Although some have seen the quickly changing digital movie-going landscape as a doomsday disaster for the film industry, I think it gives us opportunities to rethink how to reinvigorate an exciting local film culture. It gives us ways to work around a cinema system that is monopolised by Hollywood’s major distributors and was never really designed to support local films anyway.
Only a new approach to distribution, one that meets the challenges of the digital age, can solve these issues. That means ditching the cinema as the primary route to the audience, and rethinking how we distribute Australian content.
A good example is Magnet Releasing in the US, one company that's having considerable success letting platform-release-style films loose into VOD before theatres. Let’s pre-empt the pirates by opening up monetised streams of content. Closing the cinema-to-DVD/VOD window would provide audiences with convenient, inexpensive, legal options for take-home movies, and return revenues to producers more quickly.
A production-led approach to film funding and policy will never give us the sustainable, optimistic industry we need and deserve. The numbers are straightforward: finance is spent in production and regained in distribution, when audiences buy a ticket or a DVD or an online stream. That’s the way the film industry works. The box office is simply not where audiences are gravitating: online and post-cinema markets are the real markets. Without that link to distribution, we will float adrift from the audience and the means of self-sustainability.
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