Posted Sunday 30 Nov 2014
Yep - they have the same issues as us -albeit on a larger scale sometimes, but as Erin Free tells us in this article quality Australian films are continually disappearing quietly from cinema screens, and distributors and filmmakers are looking at different ways to get local movies in front of audiences. Sound familiar? Read on...
by Erin Free | November 13, 2014 12:29 |
"Australian films don't work in cinemas." "Nobody wants to pay nearly $20 to see an Australian film." "Australian films are no good." These are phrases muttered ad nauseum by commentators on the local industry. The stink around Aussie films is apparrently so bad that local writer/actor/director, Josh Lawson, chose to publicise his daring black comedy, The Little Death, by saying to journalists, "If you are an Australian who doesn't like Australian films, this is the film you should watch, because neither do I." It was a cruelly dismissive marketing ploy, instantly discounting the strong work done by the makers of films like Charlie's Country, Felony, Son Of A Gun, The Babadook, These Final Hours, The Rover, Healing, Tracks, and Wolf Creek 2. Sure, none of them made the kind of money that Red Dog or The Sapphires did, but all are bold, energised, well-crafted, and highly original works.
"There are much, much better films being made now than back in the heyday of Australian filmmaking," Hugo Weaving - the star of recent Aussie crackers like Mystery Road, The Turning, Healing, and this month's The Mule - tells FilmInk. "There really are, but the perceived wisdom is that that's not the case. Well, I beg to differ. There are good films being made in this country, and the apparent fact that people are turning away from Australian film is something that I don't necessarily buy. They're turning away from films all over the world, apart from the biggest blockbusters. There are lots of arguments. But in terms of the quality of the films being made, there are finer films being made than there were back in the seventies. There were great films made back then, but the landscape is shifting enormously and rapidly, and everything - the way in which we view films, the marketing of films, the distribution - has changed.
"There are so many good films," Weaving continues, "but it's almost like they're disappearing into this great big swamp, and no one can see what to do with them once they're there. It's very hard, and it doesn't mean that those films are bad because they're not seen. I see those films, and some of them are fantastic. Success at the box office isn't the marker of a quality film. It's a shame that they can't coincide, and it's a shame that we can't find better ways of doing it. I still feel very engaged when I read a great script and have the opportunity to work with terrific directors. It's the script and the people that you work with that keep you going. There are great people on the landscape, so I'm hopeful about where that all goes."
Seemingly bowed by the lack of response at the box office, some distributors are now choosing to send major Australian films direct to digital, DVD, and Blu-ray. In order to qualify for the Producer's Offset, they're often booked in for a few pre-release cinema screenings to achieve big screen distribution status, but they are essentially direct-to-home-entertainment releases. The distributors of this year's drama, Around The Block - which stars US import, Christina Ricci, and deals with indigenous issues - took this route with what could be considered a high profile Aussie release. The snappy, richly imaginative horror film, 100 Bloody Acres, meanwhile, was dumped into cinemas like an unwanted child on the steps of an orphanage by parents who took one look at it and didn't know what to do with it. Whether this is a case of local distributors lacking the imagination and daring to properly market Australian films, or an unwillingness from cinema owners to give them a decent chance, is impossible to determine. A straight answer from either party would be highly unlikely. But the fact that the makers of this month's Australian film, Love Is Now brought on partner, Nikon, early in the production, and have struck a deal with Hoyts Cinemas to come on board as an exhibitor for a national release of their film on December 4 would seem to show that thinking outside the box can pay off.
According to Jon Hewitt - the writer and director behind this month's low budget but highly inventive action thriller, Turkey Shoot - cinemas aren't even a viable option for Australian films anymore. "Theatrical is over for 95% of Australian product," he tells FilmInk. "As it is for 95% of American product. No Australian film is going to do any business until Russell Crowe's film, The Water Diviner, comes out. In this whole conversation about how Australian films are tanking at the cinema, one of the things that people don't remember is that all those American and European films that used to have a theatrical release five or ten years ago don't have them anymore. We try and flog everything that gets made here in a cinema. Theatrical doesn't work that way anymore; it's all about tentpole movies. It doesn't matter how great you are - you still won't do any business theatrically because theatrical isn't about that anymore. Obviously, we are propelled to go theatrical on Aussie films because of the way that things are financed, which is cool, but I'm completely unsurprised that most Australian theatrical films do not work anymore."
With this climate in mind, Turkey Shoot will be getting "a small, focused, very sensible theatrical release, which obviously satisfies the Producer's Offset by having a cinema release to garner some reviews. I'm not going to pretend that Turkey Shoot is going to kick arse at the box office, but it's a national release, and we'll give it a red hot go. Obviously, if it's hugely successful, it will be. A theatrical release for films like Turkey Shoot and most other Australian films is about holding focused, special, event-type screenings where you focus all your efforts into a few festival screenings and event screenings. I'd love Turkey Shoot to have one night at Open Air Cinemas, but it won't, because it's got an MA rating. Films can gross as much in one of those screenings as they can in their entire fucking theatrical season. That's the theatrical climate that we're working in."
The special event style of release was tried by the distributors of the portmanteau film, The Turning, who toured the film to a certain degree of success with accompanying filmmaker Q&A sessions. Could this be tried with other films? Could Ewan McGregor have been contractually hooked into a few strategic post-screening Q&As for Son Of A Gun? FilmInk remembers a full house at Sydney's late, lamented Valhalla Cinema fifteen years ago for a screening of the actor's unreleased, not-very-good James Joyce biopic, Nora, after which McGregor engaged in a wonderful, hour-long slice of audience interaction. One-off, large-venue screenings of Son Of A Gun in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane with a Ewan McGregor Q&A at, say, $30 a pop could have added enormously to the film's box office. A similar strategy with stars, Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson, for The Rover could have worked equally well. Obviously, timing and scheduling could be tricky, but these would seem to be solid ways of raising the profile and box office possibilities of Australian films. The active, on-ground marketing approach taken by the makers of the Aussie comedy classic, Kenny (with star, Shane Jacobson, appearing at screenings in character), certainly played a part in turning that film into a hit.
The distributors of the new Aussie black comedy, The Mule, have opted, however, to go for an inventive non-theatrical release. The film - which stars Angus Sampson as a hapless drug mule trying to hold onto the big, wobbling stash of gear-laden baggies in his guts, while the cops sweat on him to, um, release it - is an absolute belter. It's funny, tense, original, and nail-bitingly involving, and rates as one of the best Aussie flicks of the year, despite not boasting the cache of many more fancied releases. The Mule, however, won't be seen in cinemas (apart from a couple of Q&A screenings in major cities), but will instead receive a digital release on November 21 in the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, which will be followed by a bow on DVD and Blu-ray on December 3. It's getting an elevated home entertainment release though, with its major players - co-writer/co-director/star, Angus Sampson, co-writer/co-star, Leigh Whannell, and co-star, Hugo Weaving - all doing media interviews, and getting behind the film. On December 7, Sampson and Whannell, along with surprise guests, will be live tweeting the entire The Mule feature, offering insights from both sides of the camera as well as hosting trivia and giveaways. Consumers just need to press play on their digital, Blu-Ray or DVD copies of the film at 3pm AEDT, and follow @themulemovie on Twitter, tagging tweets #TheMuleLive to join in. It's an engaging strategy, but as with many Australian films, it's a case of the film's makers driving the push.
Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell believe that the digital release strategy is one that could work for The Mule. "In the US, the day-and-date model is an accepted thing," Whannell tells FilmInk. "That's a godsend for independent films. The independent film scene is changing because of technology. I spent the nineties going to small theatres to see independent films, but I haven't seen an independent film in a movie theatre in three or four years. I watch them now on iTunes, and pull it up on my TV. Just in the past couple of weeks, I've watched Obvious Child, Blue Ruin and Felony in my living room. I bought them on iTunes. The living room is the new place to discover independent films, and that applies to Australia in an even bigger way because there's a smaller amount of cities with real urban centres, and not many people have access to that. If they're only going to open your film at the Dendy Newtown in Sydney, how many people actually have access to those theatres? You're talking about a few inner city people. Anyone who has an iTunes account or access to a computer will be able to view The Mule, and in Australia, that's a great model.
"I'm not saying that it's going to work for every movie," Whannell concedes, "but it seems that every year, the same debate comes up about where Australian film is headed. It's just this endless debate, and there's not an answer for it. The answer is that if a movie's a hit, then it's magic. It's not a formula that you can ever bottle, because we're talking about art and commerce mixing. If I could predict what made a film popular, I wouldn't be talking to you right now�I'd be writing a movie! I'd be looking into my crystal ball and predicting what next year's trend is. Because we can never do that, all that you can do is make the best film that you can, and try and make it accessible to as many people as possible. The best way for us to do that was by going the digital route."
Says Angus Sampson: "I didn't want to be complicit in releasing this film in a handful of cinemas, and then have someone report that it was a flop in comparison to The Avengers. It's not meant to be measured against The Avengers! We made a film for an audience. We don't know where that audience is, but they sure as shit exist outside of the Dendy at Newtown! They live in rural Western Australia, they live in Alice Springs, they live in Toowoomba, and they live on Norfolk Island or in Tassie. They're nowhere near The Cinema Nova, where they can pop along on a Friday night at 9pm. Even still, I haven't had all my wishes come true with this film in the way that I'd want to release it, but we're getting it out there. Releasing it simultaneously in cinemas and digitally is a step toward how I originally wanted to release it. Yes, we wanted to have a theatrical season, but you know what? There are people in the industry who insist that if you release it theatrically in this country, then you are not able to release it on any other platform - be it VOD, Blu-ray, or DVD - for four whole months. That makes no sense. The audience is not at the forefront of that thinking. You know what? The audience breaks the law. That's how much they want to see things. They break the law to see movies!
"They persist, whoever these people are, in blaming the audience for not paying unjustifiable amounts to see a film at a time that isn't convenient to them, and then pull it off screens a week later, or don't advertise on the level that everybody knows you need to advertise to engage somebody on that level. We'd love to have The Mule at the cinemas, but the reality is that it's not going to have the marketing support that is required to get people there to justify it staying on there. So in the absence of that, why would we tarnish this brand? Why would we do that to the 150 crew members and cast members that contributed to elevating this material? Why would I knowingly push this film out there, just to have people say, 'Well, it was a box office failure'?"