Thursday 5 September 2013

Distribution of Australian films

Sandy George
There are three major distributors of Australian films in Australia: Madman, Hopscotch and Village Roadshow

Representatives from each of these took part in a Q&A at CinefestOZ in Western Australia on 24 August 2013. The event was reported in Screen Hub by Sandy George, the venerable film journalist.

Here are a few quotes from that session.

Seph McKenna (Roadshow Films):
It’s competitive and we are an English-speaking market up against the Hollywood juggernaut, which puts incredible amounts of money into film. If Australians had $150 million to spend, they could compete against Hollywood films, but 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.

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. The average for most films is 10%. You’ve got to be aware of your audience. 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.

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.

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 ten years from now, to see excitement when an Australian film is coming out
from all demographics, not just older audiences.

Nick Batzias (Madman):
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 filmswell, 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.

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.

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.
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. 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.
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.

Rachel Okine (Hopscotch Entertainment One):
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. 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.

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.
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, 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 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.

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.

Here are a few other comments from the session.

  • Okine also drew attention to the high number of true stories in the Top 100 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.
  • 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 under-served in terms of what projects were developed, perhaps because most filmmakers are in cities.
  • All three distributors are 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. The average cost of prints and advertising (at $7,000-$8,000 per screen) adds up very quickly if a film is going out on 100 plus screens.
  • All three made the point that they don’t have an Australian film quota. Australian and international films are judged side by side, and the films they see or that are pitched to them at Cannes, or the American Film Market, or other markets, have already got a choice of trailers and artwork. Finished films are a much safer bet.
  • Counting everything on the slate—whether Australian films, international projects that they’ve signed for in advanced, finished films at festivals, or projects they are tracking—Okine estimates that 1,000 projects are on the radar each year. Yet they only have capacity for 30.
  • 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.
  • Batzias said Madman had a “no dickheads policy” 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.
  • Madman have other criteria, too: 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.
  • 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.
  • At the 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.

Read the entire article here.

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