November 2, 2013
Australian movies appear to be doomed by their distribution strategy. Could the solution be found online?
About once a year, an Australian film becomes a hit in cinemas. Sometimes it’s a Hollywood-backed movie such as The Great Gatsby, Australia or Happy Feet. Other years, it is a smaller-scale film like The Sapphires, Red Dog or Mao’s Last Dancer.
Could we have a legal file-sharing website that makes Australian films accessible and available? We need to start thinking in this direction. If we’re not online, we’re just not going to exist.
But while all these movies screened in mainstream cinemas – Event, Village and Hoyts multiplexes – many still get an almost invisible release at fewer than 40 of the country’s 2000-odd cinemas.
The Tim Winton adaptation The Turning, seen as a success for cracking the $1 million mark, is screening in just 25 cinemas. The acclaimed western Mystery Road is in 16. The year’s best reviewed Australian film, The Rocket, opened in just 11.
Even Hollywood flops are released on many more screens – the dismal R.I.P.D was on 254 – and, not surprisingly, sell many more tickets.
Now a new Platform Papers quarterly essay is sparking debate about whether Australian films get a fair go from distributors, the dozen or so offshoots of Hollywood studios and independent Australian companies that are vital to a film getting made and released, and whether many should just skip a cinema release altogether.
”There is simply very little space or time for Australian films at the cinema,” Lauren Carroll Harris writes in Not At A Cinema Near You: Australia’s Film Distribution Problem. ”They are unavailable to mass audiences: buried beneath a mountain of intensely marketed Marvel comic adaptations … This lack of accessibility contributes markedly to the widely held belief that Australian films are niche and elitist.”
Harris, a writer and artist who is working on a PhD on film distribution at the University of NSW, says the industry should be looking at more innovative ways of releasing films, including filmmakers doing it themselves to reach niche audiences. She cites as successes the documentary Mrs Carey’s Concert (which targeted music lovers) and The Turning (which had ”special event” screenings with filmmaker Q&As and an interval).
Harris says the 2011 horror film The Tunnel, which found an online audience via file-sharing, shows the potential for filmmakers in digital distribution. ”Not all films need a theatrical release,” she says.
She believes it’s time to think laterally. ”Should [film agency] Screen Australia’s website actually just be a portal to making its archive available for pay-per-view streaming? Could we have a legal file-sharing website that makes Australian films accessible and available? We need to start thinking in this direction. If we’re not online, we’re just not going to exist.”
The problem is that video on demand (VOD) services are lagging in Australia compared with the US, where Netflix not only produces and distributes content but has also succeeded with bold initiatives such as releasing the entire first season of the TV series House of Cards simultaneously.
”Of the dozen VOD providers in Australia, most of them are pretty niche,” Harris says. ”To be honest, I do pirate quite a lot and the lack of legitimate services encourages that.”
But how can watching films on a small screen compare with the experience of seeing movies at a cinema?
”Some films are more suited to the big picture experience than others,” Harris says. ”Why can’t a film debut online? I’m pretty certain that’s where things are headed.”
But Screen Australia chief executive Ruth Harley does not agree that Australian films are doing badly in cinemas.
”The audience in cinema is alive and well,” she says. ”And in the last five years, the audience for Australian films increased by 64 per cent.”
Dr Harley says a policy of encouraging Australian films that can open on more than 100 screens has succeeded, even though the local box office share is likely to again be just 4 per cent to 5 per cent this year. And she is not sure online distribution will necessarily help Australian films.
”If there are more Australian films, there is more of every other kind,” she says.