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NOT AT A CINEMA NEAR YOU

Lauren Carroll Harris

Platform Paper 37

Lauren Carroll Harris

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Are Australian films really as bad as the press claims they are? Is their failure to compete with Hollywood the fault of the production team? Lauren Carroll Harris gives a resounding no: the cause is distribution. For too long, policymakers have considered only production and chronically ignored marketing, distribution and exhibition as key factors in creating demand for local films. Only nine per cent of viewings take place in the cinema, 65 per cent are accessed by DVD/Blu-Ray and VOD. Ancillary markets are no longer ancillary, they are the  markets. Today’s film industry has come to depend on distribution deals for funding but the economics of the big chains make profit unattainable. Harris shows how enterprising film and documentary makers have set up their own distribution, targeted their market, kept budgets low and retained control of the profits. Digital distribution, the author concludes, is the way forward, and she has the figures to prove it.

 

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About the Author

Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and artist. Her film and arts reviews have appeared in RealTime, Screen Hub, Time Out and online magazines like Das Platforms. She is currently working on a PhD on film distribution at the University of New South Wales.

 

Australian films are often produced by one-off, autonomous companies. The benefit of industrial integration between production, distribution and exhibition goes beyond the financial: there are practical benefits that affect which audiences see which pictures and where. With a consolidated approach to production, distribution and marketing, it is easier to control release cycles, to nurture films that require word-of-mouth and specialty publicity campaigns, and there is less pressure to pull a film off screens after a short and unsatisfactory run. A greater degree of clout and a larger stash of bargaining chips come with this kind of overall integration. 

Comments

GILLIAN APPLETON worked for all major Australian statutory authorities involved in broadcasting, the arts and film from the 1960s until the 1990s, in various capacities including as a researcher/editor, consultant, and board member.

The issue of inadequacy of support for the marketing and distribution of Australian films has been central to debate around the local industry for decades. Occasional government-backed initiatives to address the problem have met with limited success; hardly surprising given the massive amounts of money Hollywood is able to deploy for these purposes, as Lauren Carroll Harris records in her Platform Paper. From time to time, interesting individual producer/director initiatives such as four-walling gave a hint of what might be possible in an ideal world.

As someone once involved in film policy, I found the prospects canvassed in this paper exciting. Harris's examples of new approaches to reaching audiences, made possible by the spread of social media and other developments linked to the advent of digitisation and the internet-like special events, carefully timed releases in various formats, and file sharing-have shown what can be achieved when people think outside the traditional box, bypass the Hollywood stranglehold, and appeal directly to their target audiences. It's possible to conclude there is cause for optimism about the future of Australian film.

ANTHONY BUCKLEY, AM is a leading film producer, whose many films and TV series include Caddie, Kitty and the Bagman, The Palace of Dreams, The Harp in the South and Bliss. His service has been acknowledged by the AFI's Longford Award, the NFSA's Ken G. Hall Award and the BIFF Chauvel Award.

There are aspects of Lauren Carroll Harris's Platform Papers that have to be addressed because of the misconceptions she has about our industry. Australian films don't necessarily have a distribution problem-they have a problem, period. Harris displays a total misunderstanding of our audience and a PhD is not going to solve it. 'Blokes' don't decide what a dating couple, or just a couple, see at the pictures. The man will always defer to his partner about the film they are going to see.

Harris writes (pp.17-18), The main argument for retaining the current theatrical requirement is that cinemas give Australian films the best first chance in the market, but this is becoming harder to maintain: 2013 has seen footy drama Blinder, cricket bromance Save Your Legs!, rom-com Goddess and surf movie Drift sadly underperform amidst a torrent of better marketed releases. A poor box office performance can unfairly and prematurely see a film labelled a dud.

Did Ms Harris see these films? They're labelled 'duds' because that's exactly what they are: not even Sam Worthington could save Drift, and who would want to pay $18 to see a footy drama? Cricket perhaps has a broader chance but not in the mainstream. 'Nice cricket-obsessed Aussie blokes'? Who exactly was the target audience? (p.29). Well, certainly not the cricket-obsessed blokes, who don't go to the pictures anyway.

'It is not a question here of the amount of the marketing budget, but of the kind of marketing needed to find an audience.'(p.28) Really? I would have thought the subject matter, plot, and don't forget the title, play the first important role in catching the potential audience's attention. Remember you can lead a horse to water-but you can't make the bloody animal drink it!

Let's do a quick case study re our women's audience and 'blokey' films. Not Suitable For Children, the opening night film of the 2012 Sydney Film Festival. Handsome production values with a superb cast of young, mature women, and a cast of dorky 'blokes' that women would run miles from. It was a box office disaster. If the male lead had been a mature, young, suave arrogant bastard, the women in the film-and the women in the audience-would have gone for it. Whilst the title is a clever play on words, the potential audience took it literally and stayed away in their thousands. Fifty per cent of the chance of a film's success lies in the title.

'The value and popularity of films is not falling'(p.65); 'The box office is simply not where the audiences are gravitating.'(p.70) Well, the last statement is true, the first not so. The box office has been dropping a steady 9% over the past two years, only bolstered by the admission price for 3D, which is also falling away now, particularly in America which is a movie-going nation.

Might Screen Australia sponsor streams of new Australian films in the major festivals, films that are unsuitable for commercial release, but would find an enthusiastic, niche festival audience? Might assured festival release qualify as a type of market attachment?

God forbid! We cannot afford to make more noncommercial films, and in any case, elitist festival audiences are not going to tolerate boring, navel-gazing art-house films.

The best part of this paper is the analysis of crowd funding and the future platforms opening up for our films. However, crowd funding doesn't build an industry and the crowd funders themselves may be waiting quite some time for their returns.

Julie James Bailey is founding head of Research, Australian Film, Television and Radio School; a member Australian Broadcasting Tribunal; retired Professor of Film and Media Griffith University.

Lauren Carroll Harris and Currency House have made a timely intervention into the continuing debate about how to break the Hollywood-dominated film distribution for Australian films. As Harris points out, the game plan changed when digital film distribution replaced expensive 35mm film. She provides strong arguments for Screen Australia, the funding body for Australian films, to change with the times, to look at innovative ways to get Australian films to Australian audiences.

Government funding for the resurgence of the Australian film industry in the early 70s became part of the Whitlam Government's arts funding policy. The Australia Council was established with the Film and Television Board, along with boards for the theatre, music, visual arts and crafts, where the emphasis was not just on production but on finding audiences, particularly for the performing arts. Performing arts centres and concert halls were built; subscription seasons were introduced; and as these Australian art forms became popular, they started to tour country venues. Art forms which didn't crack the mainstream, particularly popular music, developed their own ways of getting to audiences via alternative venues such as clubs, pubs and outdoor venues.

But mainstream feature film production did not come under the aegis of the Australia Council and therefore missed out on the Council's emphasis on developing audiences. Instead, local film producers tried to break into the deeply rooted, vertically integrated production/ distribution/exhibition Hollywood system. Since the 1920s Hollywood has successfully muscled out the exhibition of most other films.

It has dominated the cinemas and the distributors in order to guarantee the market for their own films. The heavy investment in exhibition that was required once sound arrived-and the cost of film prints-enabled US operators to lock out Australian independent distributors and exhibitors. A move in the 1930s to institute a quota for the exhibition of Australian films was strongly resisted by the American distributors and exhibitors and never properly regulated. When a similar approach was suggested in the 70s the distributors pointed to the lack of audience for Australian films, ignoring research showing that Australian films were grossly disadvantaged by lack of promotion, poor scheduling and being locked out of holiday screenings. As Harris quotes Screen Australia's CEO Ruth Hurley, 'distribution is a policy-free zone'. Hollywood representatives were quick to fly to Australia in 1974 when the resurgence of the local film industry looked like threatening their interests. They have continued to duchess politicians and bureaucrats, and buy off producers with trips to international festivals and talkfests.

Harris's paper provides useful international policy models for distributing local films, and two interesting local case studies on alternative distribution. More ideas for cross-pollination between television and live audiences would be worth exploring. What about viewing rooms for Australian films in hotels, art galleries and museums? Or screening Australian shorts and promotional trailers in airports, railway and bus waiting rooms? Low costs associated with digital exhibition offer significant possibilities if more producers were to take on the responsibility of finding audiences for their films. I would therefore suggest a vital preamble to Harris's four recommendations for a handmade distribution model: producer training in alternative approaches to domestic distribution.

Antony I Ginnane is President of IFM World Releasing Inc. and a veteran producer of Australian films over 38 years. He was head of the Screen Producers Association 2008-11. His popular exploitation film Patrick (1978) was remade in 2013 with Rachel Griffiths and Charles Dance.

Lauren Carroll Harris's treatise on the state of distribution in Australia for locally produced feature films is a timely and provocative analysis of the existing distribution, exhibition and financing structures and a powerful argument for adjustment and change in this post-digital world. She focuses on the way US-driven programming selection by distributors-and as a result by exhibitors-has proved an embargo and roadblock to the potential traditional cinema exploitation of the majority of Australian feature films.

Of course it is not just Australian films that suffer from this structural gatekeeping, it is the vast majority of independent English language films that are not distributed by the US Majors or the key Australian independent distributors, and non-English titles. This is because the extraordinarily high average production cost of a major studio, coupled with the huge marketing and distribution costs, have made it impossible for these entities to involve themselves, other than, unusually and occasionally, in low-budget independent productions-into which category most Australian films fall.

At the same time theatrical exhibitors, both mainstream and niche, are drawn by first-week box office results and candy bar revenue turnover. Harris acknowledges this and (notwithstanding Screen Australia's Producer Offset Unit requirement of a theatrical release to trigger the producer offset) considers the potential for Australian films in the non-theatrical market and their equity investment.

The difficulty in pursuing this approach right now-despite the examples of The Tunnel (via digital) or Mrs Carey's Concert (via circulated specialty theatrical release)-is that there is no real monetisation yet in the former and for the latter not every producer wants to or can be essentially a one-or-two-person distributor.

Are there other ways for Harris's goals to be achieved? She theorises about a Screen Australia more significantly focused on distribution outcomes than on production. Could SA, for example, rent screens in capital city and key provincial art houses one week per month to serve as a de facto circuit for the majority of Australian productions? She muses about various policy adjustments traversing quota, exhibitor obligations and various government interventions. Most, if not all of these suggestions would probably run up against the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement and other potential regional treaties in train-as well as invoke push back-both legal and political-from the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).

She does not address what I have always considered to be our industry's real reason for failure: viz our refusal, over forty years and $2 billion plus of subsidy, to seriously engage with the top end of the international film financing and distribution market with films that are aimed at worldwide audiences; and compete, as Luc Besson in France or Constantin in Germany have done (successfully) on a world scale. Our actors and directors have done so but we as producers have failed to do so-confused by the always conflicting signals of art versus commerce from the subsidy bodies.

If we had taken a different path, Lauren's paper might well be moot.