StudioCanal’s Elizabeth Trotman.

In IF’s most recent issue, we touched base with three of the nation’s distribution heads – Madman’s Paul Wiegard, StudioCanal’s Elizabeth Trotman and Village Roadshow’s Joel Pearlman – to get the lowdown on the year’s hits, the misses, and what they’ve got coming up.

How’s the year been for you?

Trotman: It’s been a positive year. Obviously I started in my role in March, so [I’m] still relatively new to the Australian landscape. We’re pleased with our results on Our Kind of Traitor. We’ve had a number of successes with our French films playing at the French Film Festival this year. We released Mother’s Day the week before Mother’s Day back in April, and it took $5.7 million in Australia. It took 17 percent of the US result; usually Australia is tracking at ten percent of the US, so 17 percent was strong. A Bigger Splash took $700,000 here, which for a limited arthouse film was a positive result. We’re pleased with the year and looking forward to next year as well, with the lead-up to Paddington 2 and a film with Liam Neeson called The Commuter. Across Australia and New Zealand we’ll have Pork Pie as well. Pork Pie is obviously the remake of [1981 Kiwi film] Goodbye Pork Pie, so we’ll release in New Zealand first and then look to release in Australia as well. Feeding on from the success of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, there could be strong potential for that title also.

Pearlman: We’re certainly very pleased with the last couple of months, driven primarily by how successful Suicide Squad has been commercially, and more recently Bad Moms, following on from some other very strong performers like The Conjuring 2, which performed above our expectations.

Wiegard: We had a pretty slow start to the year. A few films that we liked a lot, but that fell between the gaps. They were smaller, really targeted arthouse films. Disappointments were Sleeping with Other People, which has subsequently done great across all of the ancillaries; 99 Homes, which is a really fabulously well-made film and enjoyed a great festival run. And Learning to Drive, the Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson film. Very well made film. We thought we had a pretty clearly defined audience in mind. Shot in New York so had all the elements that might get people out and into the cinema, but it didn’t fire. It did respectably at about $450,000 but just didn’t do quite do the business we had hoped. And then the tide turned and we’ve had a really good run since probably December onwards, [starting] with 45 Years, which played particularly well. And timed to perfection with the Oscar run for Charlotte Rampling. It was a scenario where the anticipation built and it was terrifically well supported by upmarket cinemas around the country and took about a million. And then [in] the past six months we were pleased with the results for A Month of Sundays, sort of niggling at about $900,000 in Oz.

The success of Hunt for the Wilderpeople must be gratifying.

Wiegard: Just a juggernaut in anyone’s language. Rarely do you get a film that can hold screens through the full holiday period, despite the big blockbuster tentpoles releasing every week over the course of six weeks. It’s funny, watching the way in which audiences responded to it. At first it was very concentrated in Victoria and in WA, interestingly enough. I think there was a big Kiwi population over there, clearly out of work from the mines closing down, [with] nothing better to do than go and watch one of their local films [laughs]. They came out on en-masse and the Grand cinemas did a great job supporting [it]. As each week went along, you could see it start to light up in certain regions, and it’s still on screen.

Madman’s Paul Wiegard.

What went right?

Wiegard: We were fortunate in having a bit of a run up. Not to forget that the NZ release commenced about six weeks prior [to AU]. So the best call we made was to bring the release forward. We initially had it penciled in for a mid-year release, and we made a call to bring it forward and actually put it on screens three to four weeks prior to the school holidays. We just thought the word of mouth was going to be terrific and it’d play well. It’s a great time of the year to have a film on screen: total box office takings are up and it’s a heavy cinema-going period. Having that run up and that word of mouth coming from NZ, where the film turned into an absolute phenomenon, was a huge boon for the film.

The blockbuster season has been considered a bit of a bust, at least in the States, with a bunch of films underperforming. What’s the sense in Australia given we had such a great year last year?

Trotman: It really comes down to how the national admits are trending. The box office is not that far behind what it was this time last year. In fact, it’s probably trending on par with last year. So I wouldn’t say that it’s a bust year. Obviously it depends how the rest of the year takes shape and it’s always difficult to measure admissions in Australia as well, because people tend to report on box office. [In] European markets, they do tend to look at admissions, [but] the industry standard in Australia and NZ is to report by box office rather than admissions. There’ve been some pretty solid results. Suicide Squad, Jason Bourne. I think nobody thought Ghostbusters would do over $10 million. And Finding Dory, I mean – that result’s crazy.

Pearlman: I think a lot of the bigger films that didn’t perform domestically [in the States] haven’t performed here either. But Suicide Squad is going to gross well over 30 million in this market; that’s nothing if not a remarkable success. But there’s no question that there were a number of films that were anticipated over the US domestic summer, our winter, [that] didn’t perform to expectations. If there is a cause for concern, it’s that when movies aren’t working they’re really not working. I think that points to the incredible awareness people have now of certain films and the unbelievable expectation that exists for blockbusters. Looking at the performance this year of Suicide Squad, Finding Dory, Deadpool, Civil War, and Star Wars at the end of last year, it’s certainly been a very robust period for blockbusters. I think perhaps the note of caution that we all have to understand is that if a film is really not special, then audiences are choosing to do other things. That’s the challenge for the market.

I wanted to ask about Down Under, Elizabeth. I thought that was one of the best Aussie films in years. The word ‘brave’ gets tossed around a lot but Abe Forsythe really really went for it. 

Trotman: We’re committed to releasing Australian films. Releasing local films in Australia and New Zealand is challenging, because it’s not a surefire guaranteed hit, and you’re not receiving all of your marketing materials out of the UK or LA, so there’s a lot more work involved. Obviously you’ve got the talent here and they want to be across what’s happening, which is fantastic but takes up a lot of time. I always say that releasing a local film takes up about five times as much time as releasing, say, an American film, so you have to be committed.

Has the box office for Down Under been disappointing?

Trotman: It has been disappointing. We had forecast that it would take more than it has. But equally it’s a controversial subject matter and a uniquely Sydney story, so to speak. Although there are themes that resonate internationally. I’m not sure whether or not some people thought it might be a documentary. But equally there was tough competition in the marketplace with Sausage Party and Suicide Squad, Star Trek, Jason Bourne. There’s always going to be a lot of competition from the big American tentpole films, and that does make releasing local films difficult. Increasingly the punter is getting a lot from their news feed, with sites like Facebook and IMDB, and they [blockbusters] tend to have these big global campaigns, so it’s harder to get traction.

Down Under wasn’t just beaten by the behemoths, though, but also by smaller local films, such as Transmission’s doc Embrace

Trotman: Maybe the subject matter wasn’t something that people felt like they wanted to embrace in the cinema environment. They felt they were getting enough of that from their news feed, from watching the news, and they didn’t necessarily pick up on the comedic tone of it. It could be that people didn’t want to go to something with that rating. We were never forecasting that it would make millions, so naturally we needed to monitor our spend in such a way that was going to reflect what the box office was going to do. Otherwise we could potentially lose a lot of money releasing a local film, and that doesn’t do us any favours when we’re trying to convince the powers-that-be in Paris that we should be releasing more local films.

Village Roadshow’s Joel Pearlman.

Are you developing local projects in house? If not development, on what basis do you make the call to come onboard an Australian film early?

Trotman: We are starting to move into development, and wanting to move into development and production for 2017, and looking at establishing a development fund.

Pearlman: We have a view about what best suits the type of film we’re looking for, and for us we’re looking at a combination of things. The material, the filmmakers, how effectively we can add to the process and bring it to the marketplace and what we believe the response will be in the event that the project turns out well. We obviously consider each film on its own merit but for us, we’re seeking films that have the potential to be wide releases in the marketplace. That being said, there are on occasion films which are more limited in scope which we’ve embraced and taken on at a very early point. Films like The Dressmaker, because it might be a filmmaker we really want to work with. So there’s a variety of factors that will go into the decision.

Wiegard: We’ve got a team of four who are working away in development: [Madman Production Head] Nick Batzias, [Head of Creative] Veronica Gleeson, [Production Coordinator] Suzanne Walker, [Head of Production] Virginia Whitwell. There’s a Kiwi film which we’ve got called Spookers which is in the can now. And a bunch of other things they’re developing. A couple of feature docs which we’ll see in June next year. We’re deep into development on one larger project, which is positioned for television.

And that would shoot locally, in Australia?

Wiegard: No. Veronica Gleeson is the principal behind it. Titled Deep Field. The subject and the material just necessitates that it be shot abroad.

Have the streaming platforms created more pressure on you in terms of theatrical?

Trotman: We’ve never done market research, asking punters to what extent they’re now waiting for a film to become available on Netflix. Bear in mind Netflix is now receiving a film quite a long way down the track. You’ve got your three to four month theatrical window, then home entertainment, before it hits the Netflix platform. So if people really want to see something, especially kids, they’re not going to wait four, five, six months. So I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily impacting the big blockbuster titles, but I would imagine it is hitting the mid-tier films.

You do a lot of docos, Paul, which are big business on VOD.

Wiegard: I just hope that it’s more of a virtual cycle than one platform cannibalizing another. Streaming platforms and frankly all those second and third channels on the broadcast networks that are playing a lot of feature documentaries – I hope that’s driving an appetite for feature docs. And certainly they’re a big component of film festival going. One thing that should be pointed out about feature docs is that there are very few that will cross over. In fact, none will. Hunt for the Wilderpeople was a film that played to all corners of the market – old, young, male, female. It hit that very rare four-quadrant release.

These interviews were conducted separately, edited and condensed.

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