|Distribution: are Australian filmmakers simply wasting their time?
by: Sandy GeorgeScreen Hub
Friday 30 August, 2013
|With three key Australian distributors on the podium, a CinefestOz audience played with some honest facts and some ghastly fears. Do you have the courage to read Sandy George`s report?At CinefestOZ on the weekend representatives from Madman, Hopscotch and Roadshow, three distributors who are supportive of Australian film, answered questions about the type of projects they responded to and why Australian films don’t do better at the box office. What they said was utterly sobering which is why everyone who is developing features should read this report, then ask themselves if they’re wasting their time.
“It’s competitive and we are an English speaking market up against the Hollywood juggernaut, which puts incredible amounts of money into film,” says Roadshow Films head of production Seph McKenna in response to the question of why Australian films don’t do better at the box office. “If Australians had $150 million to spend they could compete against Hollywood films, but we don’t have, we can’t afford it.
“On the (Australian) features that Roadshow acquires, which are budgeted at $8-15 million, we spend an average of $40-$50,000 on the trailer and one-sheet. The studios are spending $6-8 million on their trailers and their one-sheets. We are outgunned, a speedboat against aircraft carriers. Which means that when we do have films that find an audience – like Red Dog, Bran Nue Dae, The Sapphires and Animal Kingdom – it really is an incredible achievement. The bad and good news is that we have to be twice as good and work ten times as hard as the people in Hollywood … It’s hard to make films of that calibre, hard to tell stories that good. You’ve got to be at the top of your game and you have to have a little bit of fairy dust sprinkled on top.”
Madman’s Nick Batzias, responding to the same question, noted that filmmaking is a numbers game.
“There’s a lot of great films out of the US, France, the UK, and they make a shitload more than us. We’re not seeing the shit French films – well we are at markets, we act as a filter between those shit films and you guys. The 10-15% rule of what works (in Australia) is about right. If we are making 25 here, and you run those numbers, two or three pop theatrically and that’s it.”
Batzias seemed to be channelling Screen Australia marketing spin when he added that there was far too much emphasis on theatrical in terms of financing, tax breaks and the assessment of success.
“By the time they’re two years old a lot of Australian films will have had two millions sets of eyeballs on them but that happens across TV, DVD, Pirate Bay as well as at the cinema. And they’re all equally valid ways of consuming content although they each return different amounts to the producers – The expectation that two or three of those are going to work theatrically is probably a bit unrealistic.”
Acquisitions executive at Hopscotch Entertainment One, Rachel Okine, agreed with the other two and also mentioned the heartbreak and tension that’s created when an Australian film doesn’t perform well, in part because of the media’s regular habit of revelling in other people’s misfortune.
“In light of that (and some poor performances) we recently talked about whether we should pull back on the number of Australian films we were releasing. It is so much easier to go to a market and buy a film from another country- But we looked at Hopscotch’s history and the two most successful films we’ve ever released theatrically are both Australian (Mao’s Last Dancer and The Sapphires) – so we sat down and did some homework and I urge all of you to do the same – We printed out the top 100 Australian films of all time from the Screen Australia website and broke them down into the sorts of films that really excite Australian audiences from a cinematic perspective, and a pattern did seem to emerge.
“It is not necessary for them to be made for a big budget like The Great Gatsby but there was a certain scale of ambition in terms of the scope of the themes that they were exploring and the emotional response they were trying to elicit from their audience. Over and over we saw that these stories had a big heart and an element of exuberance – and pace too.”
Okine also drew attention to the high number of true stories in the list, including true crime, films adapted from well-known source material, whether a television series or a book, and material that tugged at the heart strings, whether because of a wedding or a dog. There is also a “certain kind of prestigious film” that people respond too, she added.
“Look at the other end of the spectrum and the films that flounder often aren’t very defined in the kind of emotional response they’re trying to elicit. It happens everywhere, not just here, but we are more aware of it when it’s a home-grown film.”
She also noted that films that played strongly in the regions – and Red Dog is a perfect example – were more likely to be box office gold, yet regional areas were underserved in terms of what projects were developed, perhaps because most filmmakers are in cities. McKenna agreed, noting that he regards The Great Gatsby as a better film but Baz Luhrmann’s previous picture, Australia, played on and on and on in regional cinemas and the final gross reflects that.
“Good films do badly all the time and bad films do well all the time so I don’t think it’s anything to do with the quality of the film,” said Okine. Batzias agreed, saying there were any number of reasons why a film that deserved to do better didn’t: “Timing, the zeitgeist, people not wanting to go and see an Australia film, competition on the opening weekend, footy finals, an election, it rains, or it doesn’t stick early enough. If the multiplexes are on board and you’ve put a film out on 80 to 100 prints you have got 10 days, that’s all. It’s as cut-throat as that.”
All three distributors are clearly very wary about which Australian films they support because of how much they drain resources – time, money, emotional energy – and how long it takes to get a return on the investment. With the average cost of prints and advertising at $7,000-$8,000 per screen, which adds up very quickly if a film is going out on 100 plus screens, the distributor bears a lot of risk.
All made the point that they don’t have an Australian film quota – after all they are most beholden to their shareholders. Australian and international films are judged side by side and the films they see or that are pitched to them at Cannes or AFM or other markets have already got a choice of trailers and artwork. Especially finished films are a much safer bet.
“It’s one thing to hear that a film grossed $6 million and say wow that sounds good but if the distributor has spent $2 million releasing the film you’re not seeing a cracker of it because a third gets returned to the distributor and is split with investors,” says Batzias. “Some of our most profitable films, Australian and otherwise, grossed $500,000 at the box office but we only spent $70,000 each releasing them. Some have grossed $2.5 million but cost $800,000 so don’t come home to rest until they’ve been sold to television and some DVDs have been sold.”
Asked for what she looks for when projects are pitched to her by first-time filmmakers, Okine says Hopscotch has to fall in love with their previous work and the team has to be people that Hopscotch wants to work with.
“It is a pitfall when people go into their first feature too quickly and they haven’t done enough shorts, or enough television. Having that assurance in terms of a first-time directors’ previous work is one of the big things we look for – and life is too short to work with people that you don’t like. They are the two big things outside the audience question.”
Counting everything on the slate – whether Australian films, international projects that they’ve signed for in advanced, finished films at festivals, and projects they are tracking – she estimates that 1000 projects are on the radar each year. Yet they only have capacity for 30. Effectively that means turning down 970 films per year – or being beaten to them by their competitors.
“Whenever we think a film is great we make a play for it. We might turn them down because the script isn’t good enough, the director’s work is not good enough, there is not enough money available to make it well or the cast isn’t saleable enough, or it’s a genre that audiences aren’t interested in. Will only do four Australian films per year or less because they are a big strain on the whole distribution team.”
It is sobering to think that if not enough films are going through the system the chance of creating hits decreases decreased.
Batzias said Madman had a “no dickheads policy” too when deciding which two or three films they decided to support per year out of the two to three projects that land on their desk every week. He has other criteria too though: “It has to have a strong script that can be realised on the screen and a unique voice. We have to love the team and want to work with them for five years, and we have to feel the budget is appropriate.”
First timers have directed nine of the last 10 Australian films connected to Madman. Like with Hopscotch, prior body of work was a key factor in deciding who to work with, so too was personality and preparedness, and whether they were surrounded with the right people.
“I’m happy to delight and shock (audiences). It’s about having great projects that make sense. If it isn’t great on paper, there’s a really slim chance of being great at the end. Projects have to be incredibly compelling and how that is assessed varies from genre to genre.”
McKenna says Roadshow gets about 150 Australian projects on its doorstep per year. When he reads scripts he “pays attention to his pulse” and to his emotional response – and whether that emotional response correctly matches the genre! But there are other factors at play too.
“We might get the best horror script and it’s terrifying, but we know we are not a horror market in Australia. If a horror film makes a $100 million in the States; it makes 2-5% pro rata here, when the average for most films is 10%. You’ve got to be aware of where your audience is and what we see from the data is that the audience tends to be older, at least in the first instance, and female driven. If you see something for young adults you know you have to be that audience’s first choice at the cinema or you lose. You don’t get a second chance. Hollywood is never going to give us Red Dog, so when I’m looking for Australian material, I’m looking for something that Hollywood is never going to give us, because if they are going to give it to us they are going to do it with bigger stars and more money.”
McKenna described himself as a dinosaur on the question of whether it was desirable for the simultaneous release of films at cinemas, on DVD, as video on demand purchases, and so on. “On a gut level it’s terrifying because we really don’t know what that’s going to mean for cinema. It could mean the decimation of the exhibition industry – it could just mean that films are only shown at festivals. I don’t think about the collapse of windows lightly, despite the desire to have the choice that the collapse would engender, I’m cautious about that.”
Next to him, Batzias sounded like he was itching not to have to wait 120 days after a film had released in cinemas to exploit it in other ways – only airlines are the current exceptions – and drew attention to how some territories now charge, say, $17 to see some films in cinemas and $25 to see the same film at home on the same night.
Relaxing the windows would allow distributors to leverage the p&a spend more effectively, he says, especially in the case of customers who are not within reach of cinemas or cinemas showing films they’re interested in.
“I hope it (the window system) does break down but at the moment it doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon in this country.”
While acknowledging Okine’s point that Australia was very well off in terms of government finance for film production, Batzias had some suggestions for improving the current system. He’d like to see: more pressure applied to broadcasters to screen Australian films; 5-10% of all box office revenues going towards the development of Australian films; and, in the case of some films, a relaxation of the rules around having a distributor in place in order to access the 40% producer offset. He also noted that it was better not to release some films in cinemas because all it does is give them a bad reputation.
McKenna questioned the need for both a sales agent and a distributor to be attached to a project in order to secure Screen Australia funding: “We might have been deprived of Red Dog and The Sapphires because they didn’t get an international sales agent and that makes me profoundly uncomfortable – I would require an international sales agent or a local distributor, one or the other.” (And with considerable frankness, he said he passed on Bran Nue Dae. Not The Sapphires as we reported earlier today).
At the very end of the session, Screen Australia head of development Martha Coleman stood up and said that 50 of the 81 films supported by Screen Australia since 2008 have been invited to A list festivals. It was a powerful substantiation of the high regard with which Australian films are held overseas. She then asked the three distributors what they would like to see happen within five years.
Batzias said he wanted to directors who had recently earned success and recognition be given the opportunity to make “bigger and brighter and shinier” second and third films.
Okine said she was interested in seeing the industry “play around more” with financing and release models, including on digital platforms: “Lets see if we can come up with some sort of recoupment and audience reach model that would work for an iTunes or Quickflix exclusive model. I think there’s a lot of scope there.”
McKenna said he would like to see young people excited about Australian films, but admitted it would take a lot of work.
“We’ve made a series of uplifting films that have connected with audiences – We are on the right track. I want to see us continue to release high quality films and five or 10 years from now to see excitement when an Australian film is coming out from all demographics – not just older audiences. That would make all our jobs so much more exciting.”
And to Martha Coleman`s stat on Australian films and international festivals, follow it up with sales stats to those territories – high regard means squat if its not backed up with dollars and sense…unless of course producers are happy with kudos alone.
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