Netflix Australia Is Dominating The Competition, But Is It Doing Enough For Australian Films?

This week's figures prove just how fiercely Netflix Australia is dominating its competitors. But with only 34 locally produced films in their 1000+ database, they could be doing better.

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The figures are in, and Netflix Australia is a hit. Duh.

Launching with 475,000 site views and peaking 820,000 on Easter Sunday (nearly double the numbers of ABC’s iView; leaps and bounds over Stan and Presto), it’s hardly surprising given the sort of coverage its brand gets simply by being the most prominent.

In all of Netflix’s success, though, have Australian filmmakers been shortchanged?

Local Films On Netflix

A recent search of Netflix Australia revealed a pitiful total of 34 films. Not including comedy specials by Jimoen, Carl Baron and the likes, that doesn’t sound too bad, especially when articles with headlines like ‘What’s Wrong With the Australian Film Industry’ pop up annually.

But consider that, according to the database website, the local streaming service currently has approximately 1000 film and documentary titles waiting to be viewed including Bring It On: In It to Win It (2006), Space Chimps 2: Zartog Strikes Back (2010), and From Prada to Nada (2011) with Paris Hilton. Consider that industry resource Inside Film tallied 33 local film and documentary releases in 2014 alone. Consider that Netflix’s flagship American arm holds twice as many Australian films, from classics like Bush Christmas (1946) and The Man from Snowy River (1982) to cult horror like Howling III: The Marsupials (1987) and local box office titan Red Dog (2012) – a film that didn’t even receive an American cinema release.

Most of the Aussie films on Netflix Australia are fairly well known — Moulin Rouge! (2001), Happy Feet (2005), Animal Kingdom (2010), and Rabbit-Proof Fence (2000) — but some are small or obscure: Closed for Winter (2009), Cane Toads: The Conquest (2010), and Mad Bastards (2010). There are more Tyler Perry movies than there are winner of Best Film from the Australian Film Institute (My Brilliant Career (1979), Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), and Animal Kingdom (2010)). There are only four pre-2000 titles. And the figures for New Zealand films are even lower. Do they need suggestions? I can give plenty of suggestions!

Netflix Played A Role In The Decline Of TV; Should They Help Preserve What’s Lost?

It’s undeniable that Netflix has played a big part in the rapid increase of what I call immediate entertainment. Further enhanced by illegal torrenting, Netflix and its streaming kin have seen network television ratings plummet, and DVD rental stores go bankrupt. That’s especially a worry in Australia, given these have typically been the two areas where Australian film fare has performed best. Recent impressive television ratings for The Water Diviner (868k), Carlotta (811k), The Sapphires (643k), and even Mystery Road (543k, despite not even grossing $300,000 in cinemas) suggest TV is still the best place to reach local audiences. So much so that some filmmakers are fighting for timeslots. While local filmmakers make less money from television (although in The Water Diviner’s case, Channel  7 was a financing partner, as are ABC and SBS on other local cinematic product), TV is an important platform to get a film seen, and ultimately an effective tool in negotiating future projects and financing.

It’s clear, then, that as more audiences abandon their TV screens, Australian filmmakers will feel the heat; and it’s also clear that Netflix could do more to help them. The recent release of locally-made, digitally-released sci-fi action flick Infini (2015) – it was in the top five of iTunes’ rental charts after its first weekend – suggests there is definitely an online audience for easy access Aussie films. Other Australian films to attempt digital releases include The Mule (2014), Fell (2014) and the upcoming queer musical Super Awesome! (2015), and all show encouraging results from the new age of distribution — which makes the argument for a larger representation on Netflix a no-brainer.

Umbrella Entertainment is without question the most dedicated to bringing Australian films to Australian audiences, restoring classic films and releasing them both physically on DVD, and also digitally through YouTube. “Part of our philosophy is to bring these films back to the public, and we are seeing the results of this”, Umbrella’s national sales manager, Scott Harding, tells me. He agrees that the demand for Australian content is there, and that the continued financial success of Umbrella’s back catalogue of Aussie titles proves a worthwhile incentive. “I wouldn’t say it’s a question of whether a platform owes [local creators]. I’d like to think that a service of any territory would represent films that are made in that country.”

With some of their films already on Presto, and having pitched their library of films to Netflix as well as Stan, it’s hopefully only a matter of time that more of their large roster of locally-made films becomes available to the streaming public. “You want to make each title as commercially profitable as you can, and [streaming is] one of the best platforms to do that.” And with licensing agreements causing hassles for subscribers, and an estimated 200,000 people accessing the international Netflix (which has roughly 7000 more films), it can’t happen fast enough.

What Can Netflix Do?

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has admitted that hosting more local Australian content is something his company plans to address — although unlike Netflix America, which has moved into film acquisition and production (and been rewarded with multiple Oscar nominations and a multi-year partnership with Leonardo DiCaprio), so far Netflix are only looking at Australian production in terms of TV series. And even that could take a while. “In terms of Australian Originals, it’s not the first thing we do when we open,” he told Business Insider in March, before suggesting that we should look to Netflix to “find great stories to tell that are set in Australia with Australian talent but are global phenomenons.”

Now, don’t get me wrong; the Australian film industry has plenty of other issues to navigate when it comes to getting people to watch local film content. The main problems come down to marketing strategies, and somehow convincing cinemas to actually play Australian films through event programming services like Fan-Force, Tugg and CinemaPlus. It shouldn’t be up to an American company like Netflix to carry the entire burden on their backs. But while “rampant piracy” still troubles filmmakers and denies them revenue – like those behind the gruesomely giddy zombie flick Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead (2015), Australia’s “most torrented” movie – Netflix have the perfect opportunity to bring Australian films to an audience that has proven they want content and are willing to pay for it if it’s fast and effectively delivered. It’s a win win.

But what it ultimately comes down to is simply wanting better coverage of Australian films across the board. Surprisingly, SBS’s free On Demand service currently has one of the better selections, with classics like Angel Baby (1995) next to indie genre flicks like The Horseman (2008) and cult oddities like Windrider (1986), with Nicole Kidman. Does Netflix owe Australian filmmakers? No, they probably don’t. But it wouldn’t hurt to see them give a little something back.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer from Melbourne. He also works as an editor and a film festival programmer, and tweets from @glenndunks.