Analysis: Screen Australia’s report on feature film audiences

Australian audiences watched 100 local features films more than 101 million times across multiple platforms in the three years to 2009, according to Screen Australia’s Beyond the Box Office report.

It’s research that backs the cultural imperative of the local film industry even if three films – Australia, Mao’s Last Dancer and Knowing – attracted almost half (45.7 million) of those viewings.

However, the research also shows that a disturbing majority of Australian films released during that period were not watched at cinemas, but rather on TV screens, while very few of those viewings were converted into profit for filmmakers, prompting some important public policy questions as the government conducts its convergence review.

The top 20 local films (which all earned more than $1 million) at the box office during the three-year period accounted for 87 per cent of viewings at the cinema.

The report shows that while strong box office performance tends to lead downstream viewings, the top 18 films that had screened on either free-to-air or subscription TV (Knowing and Mao's Last Dancer were yet to screen) achieved lower cumulative ratings than the 60 films which had screened from the bottom 80.

To put it another way, 62 per cent of viewings of the worst box office performers were on television compared to just 13 per cent for the top 20 box office performers. This is not good news for filmmakers.

Universal McCann boss Mat Baxter told a Screen Australia panel in Sydney that even media agencies have little bargaining power with networks. “They’ve got the asset base to deliver those eyeballs and they don’t pay anyone very much money."

There are plenty of stories of networks paying incredibly low rates – below $20,000 – for the first rights to an Australian film. Bran Nue Dae – held out as an interesting case study by Screen Australia as it outperformed Baz Luhrmann’s Australia in terms of TV ratings – is an exception, albeit a rare one.

The ABC was involved in the development of Bran Nue Dae for many years and it provided a large proportion of the film’s funding (understood to be a substantial pre-sale commitment of less than $700,000). A key requirement of such deals by the ABC is minimising the time between the theatrical release and free-to-air screening.

Bran Nue Dae's free-to-air screening still followed Roadshow’s DVD release, although the film bypassed the traditional pay-TV route. The ABC’s other recent feature film investment – Samson & Delilah – was shown on the ABC just three days after its DVD release, also achieving strong ratings.

Again, the ABC made a substantial financial commitment at an early stage of development – an unusual situation. Pay-TV channels like Showtime largely ended their investment in Australian features some years ago, preferring to invest in their own programs, such as upcoming mini-series cloudstreet.

ABC director of television Kim Dalton told IF magazine last year that investing in feature films at an early stage costs it between 10 to 15 times more than buying an Australian film after its theatrical and DVD run.

So while Bran Nue Dae has certainly reached audiences (it also grossed $7.6 million at the box office), it is disturbing that the film’s writer-director Rachel Perkins says she has not made any money – “not a cent” – out of the film.

It prompts questions about the sensibility of an uncapped Producer Offset scheme, which encourages film production with a 40 per cent rebate compared to 20 per cent for TV. Would many local films attract just as high an audience (and a higher license fee and revenue) if they were aimed directly at TV screens, at a lower cost to taxpayers? Are many Australian films, effectively, telemovies?

Concerns remain around the level of regulatory protection already received by broadcasters (although the Screen Producers Association of Australia’s concern about increased in-house production by networks doesn’t appear to have happened).

Nonetheless, the questions remain, at least for as long as sustainability remains one of the government's goals for the local feature film industry.

  1. For more than a decade now many of us who have pondered the question long and hard have argued that for most (especially emerging) film makers and for the industry generally it would be far better if people got off their high horse and primarily made “films” for television / DVD in the first place. The limited funding available would arguably go a lot further and more people would actually see the product.

  2. Producers are at the end of the food chain, not the good end, the scraps end.

    We need to move our model to VOD distribution direct to the fan base for a film rather than the traditional model.

    We can still achieve theatrical releases via direct agreement with exhibitors. They want to move to EVENT style sittings so why not do that? Why not make viewings EVENTS for fans. Better to have a batch of fans turn up to a limited showing of a film than spend a fortune on P and A and have 15 people fill up 10 cinema sessions. We cannot make any money out of that old model.

  3. This doesn’t surprise me at all – the cinema-going experience is now so appalling that many people chose to watch films on DVD simply so they can see them a) in focus, b) in the correct aspect ratio and c) with sound. My last trip to the cinema the projector was constantly flickering due to a faulty bulb but the cinema wasn’t going to replace it because it would take too long and they’d “have to lose a session”. I’m looking forward to seeing Griff The Invisible, but I’m happier to see it on DVD rather than at 11am in a cupboard at the Nova.

  4. Realistically, almost the only thing that puts many bums on seats consistently is star attachments.
    However the implementation of the current “Australian” content processing is so long and arduous that no respectable talent agent would allow their cast to be booked to an AU project that “might” get green-lit one day at some as yet indeterminable date.

    So AU films are left backing “new” talent that has no mainstream audience pull, and consequently fail to generate revenues at the box office …
    and what is most surprising … is that all and sundry seem “surprised” !!

    Screen Australia needs to streamline their system so that offset eligibility status for AU films and coproductions can get the all-ok BEFORE casting commences – WHICH IS TO SAY BEFORE A DISTRIBUTOR COMMITS, let alone an investor.

    Only then will real casting agents take AU films seriously.

    Not like the current situation whereby co-productions (which we are all pushed to do as the favored means of raising finance etc) cannot obtain offset status until ALL the funding is already contracted.

    Only then will they begin their 9 month process of 1) approving copro status, 2) approving offset status, after which the producer can finally 3) apply for funding, by which time their cast has been booked to another show, so one’s distribution falls over – so I wont even address 4) another couple of months of contracting, prior to a first drawdown being achievable.

    Just plain stupid.
    The system is flawed.

  5. WTF? $7.6 million at the box office and Rachel Perkins says she has made “not a cent”? My film got nothing like that box office but global sales kept me in the average wage for a couple of years. Maybe don’t get ripped off is good advice here too. Also make your films for a global audience. The Australian audience doesn’t give a shit about your film unless the rest of the world likes it first.

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