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How Do You Solve A Problem Like The Australian Film Industry?

Australia's failure to compete with Hollywood is not the fault of our actors, writers and production teams. The problem is distribution.

‘Weak scripts, depressing subject matter, art-house films.’ That’s the stereotype of an Australian film, right? For years, we’ve been told that Australian filmmakers’ obsession with failed comedies and “miserable, suicidal, preaching tragedies” — in which, say, a housing commission resident in Redfern gets an abortion, goes on methadone, and converts to Islam — is the problem with our film industry. We’ve repeated this mantra to ourselves and to each other, and read it in countless op-eds to the point where it’s barely questioned.

In our attempt to lift revenues and audience numbers up for our beleaguered film industry, we’ve asked how we can increase production budgets and tell more entertaining, mini-Hollywood-style films. But we’re asking the wrong questions. The problem with Australian film is not about the quality of our content. Great films fail financially all the time, and terrible films make stacks of cash. After all, can you really say that Save Your Legs! – one of this year’s Australian box office crashes – was really worse than the ex-Borat director Dan Mozer’s God-awful rom-com I Give It A Year?

It is all very well for films to tell a spell-binding story, to feature exceptional performances or extraordinary cinematography, but to make an impact, they have to be seen — and for that to happen, they have to be effectively distributed. That’s where we’ve gone wrong. Australian films aren’t worse than other films. It’s just that theatrical releases don’t work for them.

Though it didn’t rate in the Top 10 of  last week’s box office figuresTim Winton’s The Turning has successfully pursued an alternative distribution strategy of touring special events, which have made more than $625,000 (an incredible figure given how few screens the film played on, and a great base from which to launch the DVD), and expanded its presence across the country. But our outdated audience measurement system doesn’t recognise that film’s very successful approach to distribution – by focusing just on ticket sales, it falsely pits a small but culturally relevant film like The Turning against a hyper-marketed behemoth likeGravity, and renders thousands of highly engaged cinema-goers and lovers of local films invisible.

For too long, Australian films have been zombied through cinematic releases. The focus until now has been on generating Australian content, not about making that content accessible to where audiences are at: online and outside the cinema.

Beyond The Cinema: The Movies Move Online

Get this: only one in ten first-release films are now viewed at the cinema. 65% are viewed on video-on-demand and DVD/Blu-Ray. Audience behaviour is changing. While physical space for cinema screens is scarcer than ever, online paths to distributing and sharing films continue to open up. The internet has opened the floodgates to inexpensive film production: anyone with enough talent can now make a movie. But how to screen it? What can digital distribution do for Australian films?

If we don’t catch up soon, Australian films will continue to be released stillborn into a theatrical system that is not designed for them, damaging 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 like video-on-demand, to which audiences are gravitating, new and old Australian film is massively under-represented. The cinema system is dominated by the six major international studios; it is almost impossible to get local films booked at multiplexes, where the bulk of viewers flock.

What’s more, at the cinema, even economically successful films are actually ‘loss leaders’, which break even only later in their post-theatrical afterlives. The largest film distributors are in fact vertically integrated subsidiaries of media companies that produce movies’ extra-theatrical appendages — games, music, sequels, Happy Meals. A film is not just a film: it’s a loss leader designed to sell paraphernalia way down the cinema line. Hollywood knows that. Yet these further products are usually absent from or else under-exploited by Australian movies, which are effectively stand-alone productions with DVD and television licenses. Only very rarely do local titles benefit from the spin-off merchandise, product placement, soundtracks, international sales and other ancillary products that make films profitable. That’s not just because Australia’s local market is smaller; it’s because the cinema system is designed for different kinds of movies than the ones we have the budgets and integrated media companies to produce. It’s designed for Hollywood super-movies.

For too long we’ve been trying to compete in a film system that wasn’t made for us. So, let’s make our own.

Who Is Doing It Right?

A few enterprising filmmakers have experimented with lo-fi release tactics and made them work: setting up their own distribution systems, targeting their market, keeping budgets low and retaining control of the profits. Digital distribution allows them to do it. Carlo Ledesma’s cult horror thriller The Tunnel was crowdfunded, then released in 2011 primarily on torrent sites: it profited from being given away freely. The filmmakers used the BitTorrent giveaway as free, viral, word-of-mouth publicity to sell tickets to special screenings, DVDs and merchandise. That’s a pretty different story to the one we’ve been hearing: piracy can be good?! Rather than fearing piracy, The Tunnel filmmakers commandeered file-sharing to effectively reach their identified audience and drive interest in ancillary products. They reached over four million viewers, sold over 25,000 DVDs, over 800 000streams, and also released their film as an iPad app – a much more effective and expansive model than the traditional box office route. How else can we hijack peer-to-peer systems for the benefit of our industry?

Webisodes are being used by filmmakers to attract audiences and self-generate a portfolio to help them get more work. Directed by Alyssa McClelland, One Step Closer to Home is a low-budget, high intelligence, first-rate comedy about the culture-less oddity of Australian, middle-class suburbia. It’s funny as hell and really well-written. It’s also easy to view, because it’s broadcast on YouTube. That’s where we, as audiences, are all at, right?

Increasingly, filmmakers are able to share advertising revenue with YouTube and other online broadcasters. Audiences need to commit to supporting the local artists who they adore — and when given inexpensive, easily available online payment options (whether through soliciting donations or crowdfunding), they very often do.

What Can We Do?

I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but they need to be asked: by filmmakers, audiences and policymakers. Think about it: when and where was the last time you viewed an Australian film, and how did you pay for it — as a download, on television, or at the cinema? And how did you find it — was it recommended by a friend, shared on your newsfeed, the result of a good review?

Knowing more about how we consume will help us lift up the industry and support filmmakers. The box office is not where audiences are heading for local content; online and post-cinema markets are the real markets. We are wasting public funds on production if films, no matter how good they are, never reach an audience for lack of effective distribution support.

Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and artist. She does research at UNSW on the Australian film industry and distribution. Her forthcoming publication, ‘Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia’s Film Distribution Problem’, is out through Currency House on November 1.