Thursday 8 May 2014

My low-budget film? I don’t need money, I need a distribution deal

Aaron McLoughlin is a lecturer in Media and Communications at RMIT University. On 11 March 2014 he published the following opinion piece in 'The Conversation,' which is an Australian independent news and commentary website, written by academics and professionally edited by journalists.


Earlier this year 'The Conversation' published an article by Rebecca Mostyn about the audience for Australian films.

The article includes useful stats pertaining to Screen Australia’s slate of feature films, budgets and outreach to Australian audiences. The thing is, I’m not making much of an addition to those audience statistics. I simply don’t get the opportunity to see the vast majority of these films at my local cinema.

It got me thinking about what practical assistance I require as an emerging filmmaker.

How much does it cost to make a movie?

According to Mostyn’s article, which cited Screen Australia figures:

43 Australian films screening at cinemas in 2012 earned a total of A$48 million.
A few taps on my trusty calculator reveal that A$1.1 million is to be the average feature-film budget (including distribution and advertising) – if our film industry is to break even. The average budget per film must be less if it aspires to turn a profit.

As part of my ongoing interest in economically sustainable Australian filmmaking, I wrote a screenplay in 2010 for a feature film that could be produced on a budget of only half a million dollars. But I had great difficulty peddling it around town – as the first assumption I encountered was that a film with that low a budget must be B-grade shit.

Which comes first: the money or the distribution deal?

The largest hurdle for a low-budget filmmaker such as myself isn’t raising the money – it’s getting an upfront guarantee of distribution so that raising the money is easier. It’s still going to be difficult but not as difficult.

Distributors who read my script were pleasantly surprised – but unfortunately they were nervous about taking on a low-budget project that wasn’t a sure thing – or, as I read the situation, a project that didn’t remind them of the Red Dog (2011) slam dunk.

In my experience, local distributors are too nervous about taking on Australian films because they perform poorly at the box office and present a financial risk. And rightly so.

I believe that if the average Australian film was being produced for under a million dollars and theatrical distribution was guaranteed, the money would be much easier to raise. Why? Because I could tell an investor that audiences will get a chance to see the film. Without that, the investor would be foolish to invest.

I don’t necessarily want Screen Australia’s money to make my film (although, it would be nice) as I don’t have a problem with the notion of having to raise half a million dollars to make a film. If I can’t interest a room full of potential investors in my project then maybe it’s not worth the paper the script is printed on.

Cutting through at your local cinema

Where I do need substantial help is in putting a distribution deal together beforehand. I would much rather draw on Screen Australia’s resources to help secure the theatrical distribution of my film. After all, does a film exist if nobody is there to see it? A pertinent Zen koan for the Australian film industry, methinks.

Each time I go to the multiplex, I see posters, cardboard cutouts, fibreglass displays and trailers up to 12 months before a Hollywood film’s release. Australian filmmakers need help cutting through to audiences.

Rather than funding for my film, I would prefer Screen Australia to four-wall the theatrical distribution – renting out the theatre the film will be showing at, and taking the profit from the ticket sales – put up some posters and guarantee the screening of my film.

This in turn would help facilitate raising money for the film. We are talking about raising relatively low sums here. Remember that films that cost more than A$1.1 million to make run the high risk of losing money – and should probably be avoided unless one can convince investors there is a new cash-cow on the block.

Bargain film-making

What of the objection that it’s hard to make films on the cheap?

Who cares. Find a way. We simply don’t have millions to spend on each film unless we sucker an investor to pay for them – and currently the sucker is us.

By turning off the tap to over-inflated budgets we may even encourage some innovative filmmaking and lure audiences back, the same audiences whose trust we lost by spending millions on films that they don’t want to see. Remember the innovative low-budget film Kenny, in 2006?

A modest proposal

If Screen Australia stopped funding the production of films and instead funded theatrical distribution a number of things could happen.

First, Australian films would cost much less per ticket. If theatrical distribution were to be four-walled then Screen Australia can set whatever ticket price they want. They can price them to sell. If audiences knew that Australian movies cost less to see then it may just be in their tight-arsed nature to start supporting them again.

Second, theatrical exhibition could be tailored around films that Australians actually want to see.

How much financial support a film receives in terms of screenings can be assessed on the genuine merits of the completed film, avoiding the fundamentally flawed script-based assessment process.

In my mind, the abysmal hit-and-miss ratio by government funding bodies has proven beyond reasonable doubt the ineffectiveness of this process, that arming bureaucrats with Hero’s Journey speak isn’t enough.

Just my opinion? After reading through the statistics on how many Australians see Australian films, it’s fair to say we are voting with our feet on this issue. Many feel that the same mistake is being made over and over, that the same film is getting funded over and over.

Funding theatrical distribution would be fairer for the filmmaking community because the usual gatekeepers wouldn’t get to say what does and doesn’t get made. Instead, they’d get a fair go at assessing the finished product, they’d get to try it out in front of real audiences and decide how long to run it for.

With a model like this, over time, distributors and investors may become less fearful of local content. They would gain confidence from the fact that a certain number of screens across the country are quarantined from Hollywood films, that screens in multiplexes have been bought out to guarantee the screening of an Australian film.

A little help to ensure our films actually get seen would make a world of difference to the Australian film industry.


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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Aaron McLoughlin sounds bitter and desperate and I don't blame him. I have been repulsed by shallow boring Australian movies made without heart. I would love to see more Australian movies, just not more of the ones that are usually churned out.

The only thing I would say about his initial cost calculation is that he has not allowed for cinemas to have any takings from the movie.