Lauren Carroll Harriss
November 25, 2014
Local films may flail at the box office, but new indie film The Mule proves Australians are keen to watch online
• The Mule review – toilet humour elevated to fiendishly smart art
A low-budget Australian film, with minimal marketing budget, has become the No 1 independent new release on iTunes. How did crime-comedy The Mule achieve this? By skipping cinemas and going straight to viewer homes via video-on-demand (VOD) services.
In other words, by offering a product that deserves remuneration, with a delivery system that is more convenient and inexpensive than a movie ticket, thus breaking through the box-office inertia.
At a time when the market share for local films in theatres has fallen to grim new lows, and the quality and popularity of digital storytelling is reaching new highs, is going online the revolution Australian cinema needs?
The Mule is written around one dopey drug importer, and not only has it impressed online audiences but many critics too. It takes a classic Coen Brothers premise (an everyman makes one bad call and falls out of his depth in the crime world), adds dark laughs, real plot twists, a seedy 1980s Australiana setting, sharp writing and dead-on performances that combine for a smartly entertaining Friday night film.
There’s sense behind cutting cinemas out of the picture. Despite the bad-news narrative haunting the industry, it’s untrue that Australians don’t want to watch local films, they simply do far more on DVD and TV than at the cinema. Indeed, The Mule’s preorders for DVD have already seen remarkably high numbers.
In theatres this week are the Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Interstellar and Gone Girl – in other words, Hollywood heavyweights that are part of an entirely different economic model of globally marketed franchises, adaptations and blockbusters, in contrast to a local industry producing small-to-medium budget Australian films.
It’s hardly a fair playing field, so why try to compete? The Mule’s team banked on the idea that instead of hitting up the cinema for $20 each, viewers might get together at home, order pizza and drinks, and instead purchase-to-own on iTunes for $25 – including featurettes, and in high definition.
Cinema is changing in a big way, quickly and for good. Screen Australia’s first major report on the subject has just revealed that VOD viewing is growing, and that it is popular across all demographics (be it gender or age), and that half of all viewers of Australian content now watch films online.
Case in point: local films The Babadook, Galore, Charlie’s Country and Canopy are also on the best-sellers list on iTunes this week.
A straight-to-digital release might not be perfect for all titles, but it’s ideal for The Mule, whose core viewership – young men – also happen to be one of the biggest segments for online viewers. It also features one of Australian film and television’s most familiar faces, Angus Sampson, as a lead actor, co-director and producer. Joining Sampson is the proven commercially successful filmmaker Leigh Whannell, of the Saw franchise, as a co-writer and star, and Hollywood A-lister Hugo Weaving in a rare comedic turn as a gloriously evil cop.
With co-director Tony Mahony, this team has blitzed the press circuit in the past week, using a few special-event screenings in cinemas as a media launch. Online and social media have been a part of the campaign, including a live Twitter session with Sampson planned for 7 December. Considering that most Australian films have a small marketing budget, these carefully considered opportunities makes for a switched on business plan.
VOD is a growth market, and while nobody’s certain that it can provide the same revenue that conventional cinema distribution used to, many Australians have anticipated the use of services not yet on offer. It’s been estimated that 150,000 Australians have used virtual private networks in order to access Netflix – a service not officially available in this country – and as such are being reconsidered by thrifty film producers: from pirates to an unfulfilled market of online film consumers.
By making long strides online, The Mule has taken control of its own media narratives, skipping past the inevitable doom and gloom reaction to the many great local films that have struggled to cut through the tide of supersized box-office blockbusters. Instead, its proven audiences don’t look down on films that skip cinema release, and suggest that perhaps digital can provide the same cultural prestige.
More smart Australian films deserve such smart release strategies. And VOD might just offer us the shift we need by following audiences where they’re watching, online.