State of the industry: IF talks to local players about the challenges ahead

27 March, 2017 by Jackie Keast

Elizabeth Debicki in 'The Kettering Incident'.

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While local films were quiet at the box office last year, Aussie TV drama boomed. IF catches up with industry leaders to reflect on 2016 and canvass the challenges of the year ahead.

Off the back of a record year in 2015, Aussie films totalled only $24 million (1.9 per cent market share) in 2016 compared to the previous year’s $88 million (7.2 per cent share). 

However, the last couple of months have seen something of a surge. Lion is now the fifth highest grossing Australian film of all time at the local box office, and Australia films earned 13 Oscar nominations across Hacksaw Ridge, Lion and Tanna.

This year holds further promise with Breath, Dance Academy, Sweet Country, Three Summers, and Hotel Mumbai expected for release. 

According to Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason, the industry needs to look at local box office performance over a three year cycle. 

“The reason we talk about three years is because of timing,” he says, pointing to Lion, which came out in January, and Red Dog: True Blue, whose Boxing Day 2016 release meant a majority of its earnings fell in 2017.

“Both of those films could have come out in ‘16, because they were both ready, but for reasons of distribution they were moved to ’17.”  

StudioCanal head of sales and acquisitions Greg Denning says we need to compare local films to the performance of similar titles hailing from the UK or USA. 

“Obviously Hacksaw Ridge ($8.[2]m) was the broad mainstream standout for the year for Aussie cinema, but films like The Daughter ($1.75m) and Goldstone ($815k) also performed well for the type of film they were, and for the audience they were aimed at. The Daughter grossed $350k more than Room, for example.”

Transmission MD Andrew Mackie agrees that given the length of time it takes to finance, make and release a film, it makes more sense to work off three to five year averages. “If we'd released Lion when the US did, November 2016, then the outlook for 2016 would look different again.”

A strong marketing campaign has arguably boosted Lion locally. “We screened the hell out of it,” Mackie says of Transmission’s approach. “Before we'd even opened we'd banked $800k in paid previews, plus conducted extensive national, free word of mouth screenings to extend the audience beyond the core, particularly targeting under-25s.”

If the local industry could have five films like Lion a year, confidence would be greater, says Film Victoria CEO Jenni Tosi, but that’s hard to achieve when we only make 30-35 films a year. 

It’s sometimes fine to make a film with an awareness it isn’t necessarily going to be a hit theatrically, but will tour international festivals and launch careers, she says.

In 2016, three Aussie films went to Venice, and five to Toronto. This year six Aussie films were at Sundance, and nine in Berlin.  

Despite opening on only 52 screens, The Daughter (which opened internationally in Venice 2015) finished third at the local box office and made 29 per cent of its total BO overseas. 

The challenges of the independent space are not unique to Australia, says Mason. “Arthouse film is in a different place distribution wise than I’ve seen it in the 25 years I’ve been doing this.”

Putting bums in seats is difficult when streaming options are so much cheaper, Tosi says. “That’s really starting to impact on the marketplace for Australian and foreign feature films in the independent cinema exhibition space.” 

Denning says StudioCanal always knew an film like Down Under could polarise, but the theatrical release “ended up falling between the cracks in some ways.”

“We are seeing this with edgier films from other territories too. By and large, people are avoiding these more confronting films in the cinema, and perhaps seeing them in other formats.” 

The days of films screening for six to ten weeks until they find an audience is over, says Mason. “It’s naïve to say that’s just [because] we don’t have the P&A budgets…The competition for viewers is so intense now; if you don’t find an audience quickly in a cinema, it’s gone.”

Filmmakers need to work out how their target audience will find the film via other distribution means available down the line, he says. 

Screen Producers Australia CEO Matthew Deaner says that the requirement for films to have a bricks and mortar release in order to obtain the Producer Offset “is now at a point where it’s broken.” 

“That is not a sensible thing in a world where audiences go to the cinema for very large, expensively marketed films. And they do watch a lot of films  but they watch them on SVOD platforms and on their home entertainment systems.” 

“You see it with small films not being able to get distribution advances, then without the distribution advances you don’t trigger the finance, and you don’t get a lot of really worthwhile films off the ground.” 

True stories

Feature documentary performed well theatrically in 2016, with three  Sherpa ($1.27m), Embrace ($1.1m) and Chasing Asylum ($576K)  ranking in the top 10 grossing Australian documentaries of all time (excluding IMAX). 

Mason says their success is worth noting, as each started with an audience interested in the topic but was able to build to a broader base. “There’s a key lesson there for our narrative feature film creators,” he says. 

Embrace's release strategy saw it go out via a traditional release as well as cinema on demand. It’s an approach Mackie says can work brilliantly. 

Embrace had a passionate existing following. Taryn [Brumfitt] was the ultimate advocate,” he says. “It’s not the right approach for all films, but for Embrace we tailored the strategy for the film and found the perfect fit.” 

Transmission released David Stratton: A Cinematic Life earlier this year, and has Whiteley on the way. “I wouldn’t say we go out of our way to acquire docs, it’s a gut reaction to the material first and foremost. And often the documentary pitches are simply more compelling than traditional narrative-driven features,” says Mackie. 

The small screen

In terms of how to make distinctive content, Mason says that the success of TV drama and digital last year might offer lessons for filmmakers. 

Screen Australia’s Drama Report for the 2015-16 financial year showed that an unprecedented 58 TV dramas had entered production across all networks, and expenditure was a record $376 million. 

Shows such as The Kettering Incident, Glitch, and Cleverman have had success overseas. Molly, Wanted, The Doctor Blake Mysteries, The Secret Daughter and Doctor Doctor each attracted an average of 1.5 million viewers or more.  

Mason says the volume of content coming through is testament to the networks. “Both the commercial and public broadcasters are the unsung champions of our whole sector – culturally and commercially,” he says.

Matchbox Pictures’ managing director Chris Oliver-Taylor says that at the moment, “you’ve got anyone who can commission drama, commissioning drama.” 

“It starts to perpetuate a good strong, Australia drama brand regardless of genre and regardless of network; I actually think those things are secondary. There’s great allegiance by our audiences to Australian stories,” he says. 

Deaner says TV drama was “a standout” last year. “It’s achieving strong audiences for the commissioning platforms, it’s getting international pick up, international interest, in the investment stages and then the resale stages.” 

Mason says the quality of the output has also increased to a level where shows “hold their own with the best of the world.” 

“Whereas maybe a decade or so ago, you watched [Australian shows] because that’s what there was, now you watch them because you want to.”

Oliver-Taylor credits the increased quantity and quality of local drama in part to the emergence of SVOD platforms. “With that increased competition, you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got something to offer – and I think Australian stories are what it’s all about.”

Matchbox recently partnered with Netflix to produce the second season of Glitch. From a production perspective, Oliver-Taylor says SVODs entering the Aussie market is a positive thing, with the caveat they don’t get “so big that others decide to say it’s all too hard”. 

“I think that’s always a risk in our sector. The response from a lot of us – and networks included – has been to try and find ways to partner and find clever ways of sharing content – recognising audiences will engage in different way.” 

At a recent media launch in Sydney, ABC director of television Richard Finlayson said the broadcaster was seeing “a lot of overseas money flow into the finance plans, particularly our dramas and also our factual shows.”

Oliver-Taylor says reliance on international money is only going to increase. While he doesn’t predict this will change storytelling – he says Matchbox’s shows are “unashamedly Australian” in their focus – there is likely to be increased pressure to attract a “big name” cast.

Trends and concerns

The trend towards shorter-run TV dramas is clear: Home and Away and Neighbours remain the sole long-running series on Aussie TV. 

Increasingly directed by one director – such as Emma Freeman on Glitch, or Shawn Seet on The Code – minis allow creatives to work on what amounts to “a six hour movie”, says the ADG’s Kingston Anderson.  

“It provides the creators of the work… the opportunity to do a level of drama that we haven’t seen here before,” he says.

That trend is also a double-edged sword: “It’s unfortunate in a way, for directors, because we don’t have those long-running series where so many people have learned their craft.” 

Tosi says broadcasters and production companies want to minimise risk on minis by using the best people available, but this limits their ability to nurture the skills of the next generation. 

“I think smart broadcasters and smart businesses recognise that if we don’t all work together to address this problem, we’ll find ourselves in a bit of pickle.” 

Oliver-Taylor agrees short-run series limit opportunities for rising talent. “But I do think that it shouldn’t just be on Home and Away and Neighbours to be the only place where you can train up.”

“We do a lot in kids’ drama, on Nowhere Boys and our new one [Mustangs FC]… But again, that’s just a risk thing for a network. Those shows are not going to air at 8.30pm on a Sunday and expect to get a 1.3 million audience.”

According to Deaner, the question ultimately is whether digital platforms are enough of a training ground compared the long-running series of old.

“My concern is that it’s probably not the same; that there is a stability of structure that a long-running television series gives, and the type of kudos, the opportunity to work in a team, and discipline that comes from those series,” he says. 

He also sees recoupment as an issue, and one that might affect the sustainability of minis, which are typically more expensive to make. “You cannot take a two part mini-series and sell that internationally in the same way you can take four or five series of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.”

Another key challenge, says Deaner, is children’s television. With a fragmented audience and commercial networks’ investment “negligible in certain cases”, kids TV is the industry’s “canary in the coalmine." he says.

One area Mason is keen to bring into sharper focus is content created on digital platforms – like The Katering Show and YouTube’s RackaRacka, whose channel boasts 3.5 million subscribers. He argues the industry ignores digital, and the younger, growing demographic engaging with it, at its peril. 

“The traditional players here, both in terms of production and even distribution, haven’t yet cast their eye enough on that enormous talent pool,” he says. 

“Our film and tele output – which is doing brilliantly – skews significantly older than our digital. People like the RackaRacka boys are talking to a younger demographic that aren’t reached by most of the other content which is made here.” 

Looking ahead

The changing way in which content is viewed is creating both opportunities and challenges, says Screenwest CEO Ian Booth. “There are structural changes going on in the industry at a time where the finance, regulation, support mechanisms, rights and all of the underlying frameworks of the industry are catching up.”

Deaner underlines the importance of maintaining the momentum. In particular, that there needs to be some flexibility in guidelines so the industry can reach bigger markets internationally. He says the speed of change means that screen regulations require constant adjustment by government; “set and forget” policy won’t work. 

Tosi says there are “out of date” regulatory and policy factors impeding the industry’s increased success.

“It’s time there was a holistic review done by government to look at how these things are inter-related, and how, by tweaking a few of the regulatory and legislative aspects, we could really give the Australian industry a well-needed kicker that could increase our capacity,” she says. 

In early February, the government announced a House of Reps inquiry into the growth and sustainability of Australian film and TV.

Overall, Mason describes an industry that doesn’t stand still. “It’s moving in every way, shape and form. If you still want it to be like 2011, let alone 2001 – get out of Dodge.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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