2020 outlook for Australian filmmakers: challenges and upside

‘H is for Happiness.’

For producer, director, writer and distributor Robert Connolly, the clear challenge for Australian filmmakers is to create cinema works that speak to the issues the world is facing.

For writer-director Kiah Roache-Turner and his producer brother Tristan Roache-Turner, the solution to the declining indie market lies partly in developing multiple projects with various producers.

Coupled with that is the brothers’ willingness to spend hundreds of hours working with distributors to sell each film and push for more screens.

Producer Julie Ryan laments the increasing trend by some government agencies to encourage producers to pitch feature projects to streaming services rather than via the traditional sales agent/distributor model.

“I am not against having my film released on a streaming service but there isn’t any incentive for them to invest upfront and replace the market funds that were traditionally covered by the sales agent advance and Australia-New Zealand distribution guarantee,” says Ryan, whose latest film, John H Sheedy’s family film H is for Happiness, opens on February 6.

Ryan, Steve Jaggi and Lee Matthews are among many producers who want the Federal Government to amend the Producer Offset rules so films for streaming services which bypass cinemas are eligible.

“It continues to frustrate us that the dialogue in Australia revolves around theatrical releasing. Audiences no longer discern between theatrical and streaming,” says Jaggi.

There is widespread support among filmmakers for a flexible window for the vast majority of Australian films, which typically are released on a handful of screens and disappear after two or three weeks. The major chains are fiercely protecting the traditional 90-day window and any change is unlikely unless and until the US studios opt for a shorter window.

Matthews suggests a 6-week window for smaller releases, which would allow enough time for exhibitors, distributors and producers to earn a decent return and then take advantage of the momentum by being embraced by the watch-from-home audience that never pays to see an Aussie film in cinemas.

Connolly hails the success of Korean films such as Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (which this week garnered six Oscar nominations) and Chang-dong Lee’s Burning as examples of films that are both political and provocative.

In addition he cites the mantra of Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media – “changing the world one story at a time” – exemplified by films such as Green Book, ROMA, Dark Water, RBG and 99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film.

Eric Bana and Robert Connolly.

“Australian documentary makers have done tremendous work in this regard, championed and supported by initiatives like Good Pitch. Let’s see what happens in 2020 with narrative fiction,” says Connolly, whose crime thriller The Dry, starring Eric Bana, John Polson, Genevieve O’Reilly and Keir O’Donnell will open on August 27 via Roadshow Films.

Last year Arenamedia’s Connolly predicted 2019 would see filmmakers start to use innovative means to create films that demand to be seen in cinemas. That’s happening with technical innovation in cinematography and using large format cameras from Panavision and ARRI.

“The best way to get people to go to the cinema is to embrace the point of difference from television, enhance the cinematic scale of the work and create narrative experiences that are immersive,” he says.

Like many filmmakers, Kiah Roache-Turner acknowledges Netflix productions like The Irishman and ROMA, which both had limited cinema releases, are impacting moviegoing.

“The playing field has changed and I think the rules need to change with it,” says the director of Nekrotronic and Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead. “The problem is that the industry is like the Titanic; it’s huge and quite unwieldy and takes a long time to turn. The question is, can we turn fast enough to avoid the icebergs?”

Among the projects the brothers are developing are the Wyrmwood sequel Wyrmwood: Apocalypse with Bronte Pictures’ Blake Northfield, two horror films with See Pictures’ Jamie Hilton, a drama with writer Nicole Dade and a vampire road movie with Chris Goldberg of LA-based Winterlight Pictures.

Also, Kiah is partnered with Tim Nagle for commercial directing work and in creating a post-production facility through Nagle’s company Apostle Digital. “Pushing post for my films through a company that I am attached to makes sense from a quality, budget and creative control perspective,” he says.

Ryan expects only a select few filmmakers will get funding from the streamers unless there are incentives or quotas imposed on them. “Netflix and Stan seem more interested in commissioning series than one-off feature films,” she says.

“When Netflix has commissioned feature films it has only been for filmmakers who have built solid reputations over many years. That makes it harder for new filmmakers to break in.”

That said, Netflix has just acquired first-time director Owen Trevor’s GO! after buying Grant Sputore’s I Am Mother last year and before that Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling’s Cargo.

She has high hopes for H is for Happiness, which had sell out screenings and standing ovations at the Perth Festival earlier this month after winning the CinefestOZ prize and premiering at MIFF.

Adapted by Lisa Hoppe from Barry Jonsberg’s young adult novel My Life as an Alphabet, the film stars Daisy Axon as 12-year-old Candice Phee, who is determined to bring her dysfunctional family back from the brink.

Wesley Patten plays Douglas Benson, her friend who claims he is from another dimension, with Richard Roxburgh and Emma Booth as Candice’s parents, Joel Jackson as her rich uncle Brian and Miriam Margolyes as her teacher Miss Bamford.

Co-distributors Universal Pictures and R&R Films shifted the film out of January to avoid the cluttered market. “Our target audience is predominantly female skewed – 9-to-15 year-old girls with their parents and guardians,” says Ryan, who produced with Tennille Kennedy and Hoppe. “Our feedback has shown we also have a particularly strong 50+ audience.”

Cindy Busby and Tim Ross in ‘Romance on the Menu.’

Kennedy and Ryan are developing several features including a follow-up to H is for Happiness, an adaptation by Shane McNeill of Barry Jonsberg’s book A Song Only I Can Hear to be directed by Sheedy, and a sequel to the Cairnes brothers’ horror movie 100 Bloody Acres.

Also Ryan has joined the producing team of Genevieve Clay-Smith’s Shakespeare in Japan, based on her 2018 short film Shakespeare in Tokyo, the saga of an Australian Shakespeare fan with Down Syndrome who sets out to discover Tokyo in order to get away from his over-bearing older brother and prove his independence.

Jaggi, who is producing Rosie Lourde’s debut feature Romance on the Menu, a romantic comedy starring Canadian Cindy Busby (Heartland) and Tim Ross, has a bullish outlook, seeing significant opportunities in under-served genres in both film and TV.

“The outlook for Australian content producers has never been stronger – with global demand at an all time high,” Jaggi says. “Australian content makers will need to ensure they are not handcuffed by the Producer Offset and Screen Australia regulations, which are from an era now well and truly extinct.

“Survival in the SVoD era will be predicated by scale and turnover – which will be a struggle for lone content producers. The mantra for 2020 is grow or be left behind.”

Matthews acknowledges smaller films can no longer command cinema space when there’s minimal P&A, fewer Australians interested in watching indie films in cinemas and there is ever increasing competition from noisier, more attractive, bigger budgeted US productions.

“Just because an Aussie filmmaker has an ambition to create a story to be watched on the big screen, doesn’t mean there’s a business case for it to be produced,” says Lee, who is developing three features, two TV comedies and two web series, in tandem with such collaborators as Enzo Tedeschi, Jason Christou, Steve Kearney and Lisa Wang, Chas Fisher and Mithila Gupta, Naomi Mulholland and Gina Lambropoulos.

“With 34 local features films all vying for shortlisting for the AACTA Awards in 2019, many of which as an industry we aren’t even aware of, something’s gotta give. That’s a whole heap of deferred payments and credit card debt that’ll never be repaid.

“Australian stories have often been seen as niche. But niche isn’t a dirty word online – particularly in the heightened story world and genre spaces. SVoD platforms can service niche audiences throughout nearly every country in the world now, with one broad release, and that enables us to reach enough volume to make a project worth financing.”