Distribution in Australia


Having already gleaned that many business film people were at MIFF at the opening night party, it was no real surprise to see so many distributors in town even early on a Saturday morning. And with a requirement of the producer offset being a deal with a local distributor, the session attracted a good turnout considering the hour of the morning.

Speakers were Tait Brady from Screen Australia, Rachel Okine, Production and Acquisitions Executive from Hopscotch, Mark Gooder from Icon, John Simpson from Titan View, Joel Perlman from Roadshow, Richard Payten from Transmission, Hanneleh Salonen from Beyond International and Alan Finney from Disney.

Key takeaways from the session?

Alan Finney said it’s a hundred times more difficult to release an Australian film than a US one, which will arrive complete with trailer, poster and marketing plan. The Aussie release will need all these things to be created from scratch, over a fourteen month period.

The panel gave the impression that there are a lot of good films about to be released – new work from the likes of Jane Campion, David Elfick, Sarah Watt, Adam Elliott, Scott Hicks, Nash Edgerton, Bruce Beresford, Rachel Ward, and of course the forthcoming Australia from Baz Luhrmann. It makes you wonder what happened in 2007- 08 to produce such a sparse array of Australian releases.

Alan Finney told the group at one point there are 38 distributors in Australia at present competing for product, producing stiff competition for the top titles to release.

The bottom line from the panel seemed to be that there is competition at all levels, but this provides opportunities for filmmakers as well as challenges. For example, the competition between distributors has changed the landscape to a prebuy market again, where they have to commit to a project at script stage, or risk it going to another distributor.

There was a general consensus from the panel that they wanted big ideas that were capable of standing out within the marketplace. Australian films tell small stories, so the wisdom goes.

It was also clear that it is easy for a distributor to take on too many projects, and then find themselves scrambling to do justice to them all with limited resources. Richard Payten said his company was trying to limit the number of films they were trying to do to avoid this very problem.

Mention was made of new platforms like video on demand and internet sales, but it seems its early days at present for these markets in Australia. Apparently video on demand is big in Europe, but here it will probably have to wait until our broadband becomes in line with the rest of the world, in terms of speed and cost. “The new streams are small and the revenue is negligible,” said Mark Gooder, of the Icon group.

Reference was made to the keynote speech in Los Angeles recently ‘Yes, The Sky Really Is Falling’ by Mark Gill of The Film Department about how the market is saturated with too many films to fit into global cinemas. But Richard Payten commented that it was important to Gill’s speech all the way to the end, which provided hope.

“Since leaving Palace I was amazed how quickly the distribution market changed,” said Tait Brady. “Audiences have fragmented and we’ve been inundated by different platforms.”

Children’s films were mentioned at one point and Joel Perlman pointed out that a children’s film would have to be released in school holidays where there is the maximum competition for screens, with a big release from Pixar, Disney and other studios co-inciding with the school holidays. “Kids would rather go and see a big film like Kung Fu Panda four times before trying another one,” he said.

John Simpson said he was the rogue on the panel. He worked on Razzle Dazzle, released The Jammed via his company Titan View, providing it with a lot of release and some quite nice box office too on a small film. “I’ve got a particular interest in Australian films, not only for the industry but film culture. I’ve been inundated with 45 titles in the past six months, I do a lot with teams particularly in post production, keen to get in early.” Simpson said he was releasing Men’s Group in September, which is independently produced, using a unique funding model which involved starting production on day one with zero dollars.

Hanneleh Salonen flagged a change in direction for Beyond International, which is returning to feature film distribution.

Joel Perlman commented that there wasn’t a lot of revenue to be gained from the new platforms as yet; they’ve got a lot of media space but there needs to be a recognintion that the reality is the cusp of substantial change, video on demand exists now but it is not a big revenue stream. “We have a very healthy theatrical market in this country as well as DVD, and pay TV has a market for theatrical films. They will deliver the most bang for your buck in the near future.”

Alan Finney commented that the market in Australia is oversaturated, with 38 distributors. He said that few years generated more than ten per cent of the box office to Australian films, but noted 1994 as an exceptional year when Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert were both released, and each generated more than $16 million at the box office.

Mark Gooder said that all the distributors present know how to market films. “We’re sophisticated about doing that but it’s the idea of the film that is going to drive them into the cinemas. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a really good film fail, as the word of mouth triggers success.”

However Joel Perlman cautioned about building a campaign built on word of mouth. “If your film isn’t great, but only good, then people will tell their friends the film is good, not great, and a word of mouth campaign might not help you.”

John Simpson put forward some interesting ideas about releasing a film locally. He told the audience how in the theatre they use a technique called ‘papering the house’, where they give away tickets to give the appearance that the show is doing well. He said he was shocked in the film world how a film opens on Thursday and it’s all over by Monday, whether it’s a success or failure, that result becomes set in concrete.

“Maybe we should hold back and platform the release sometimes,” said Simpson. “There are reasons for a simultaneous national release such as getting national TV coverage, but on the other hand you can build a ripple effect by going State by State. It worked beautifully for The Jammed.”

He mentioned another release, As It is In Heaven, which ran for 22 weeks, breaking records and impressing the shock jocks. What they didn’t realize was that the film was screening only once a week. “It’s a way of cutting through and looking successful,” he said. However other distributors on the panel bristled at this kind of approach, suggesting that those films were exceptions to the rule, and this kind of release wouldn’t work for the majority of films.

Simpson replied that sometimes you have to see what is right for that product. “You can’t apply a one size fits all distribution system for all films,” he said. “I’m not saying every film should be released in that way as that would be absurd. But maybe you sometimes have to think out of the box.”

Rachel Okine said that  the local audience has a certain apathy to local product, but  an audience can be engaged like Bra Boys which took her company by surprise, and young people went to see it, which is unheard of.  “What we’re really looking for is genuinely unique, concept driven cinema. We’re trying to find those concepts where there is something different. To find source material that no-one’s seen before. Wolf Creek was so successful because Australian audiences haven’t seen that sort of thing for some time,” she said.

Several speakers mentioned that the DVD market has matured, and Finney said that to launch a DVD these days you need to spend a lot of money to get the title out there into the marketplace. Joel Perlman added that at the beginning of DVD, people wanted to build up their library of films, but now the market has shifted towards TV series on DVD.

Hanneleh Salonen said that distributors have to exploit every window in this market, and the emerging technologies like video on demand are very established overseas, and iTunes and Sony’s platforms are going to become big, and make the competition even tougher. “The films that we pick up are going to have to work across all these platforms,” she said.

Mark Gooder said that the big idea films are what is required – something you can pitch to someone and they engage with it straight away – especially if the film is going to travel overseas. A discussion ensued where people wracked their collective brains attempting to identify when the last Australian film did well overseas. Tait Brady reeled off a string of recent titles that had been released in several overseas territories but failed to do well, but reminded everyone that this was what Mark Gill was referring to in his article.

Joel Perlman alluded to the forthcoming Lurhmann picture Australia, which has deals in all the major territories and is a $150 million film, suggesting that perhaps it will be the next great Australian breakout success. We certainly hope so.


Screen Hub.

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