By Brendan Swift

Feature film distribution strategies have followed a well-worn path in recent times: theatre, DVD, pay-per-view, pay TV and, finally, free-to-air. Indigenous drama Samson & Delilah changed that.

After taking $3.1 million at the local box office last year, it debuted on ABC TV three days ahead of its DVD release.

“Historically, people have said that’s going to kill your DVD income: you’re not going to make any money on DVD if you play on TV,” co-distributor Robert Connolly says. “But we’ve had exactly the opposite [experience].”

About 1 million Australians watched the ABC broadcast and the Madman-distributed DVD has already sold more than 30,000 copies.

The release strategy is a by-product of the ABC’s return to feature film investment, which saw it effectively buy the broadcast rights to Samson & Delilah before production had even begun.

“The first broadcast will be on the ABC, that is the fundamental condition otherwise we’re not interested,” ABC director of television Kim Dalton says of its future film investment.

“We want to minimize the space between the theatrical release and the broadcast.”

Dalton says investing in a feature film at an early stage costs the ABC 10 to 15 times more than buying it after its theatrical and DVD run. (It is understood the ABC’s pre-sale commitment for Samson & Delilah was slightly less than $700,000 although Dalton will only say it was a “significant amount”.)

However, reshaping entrenched distribution strategies is not easy, especially as the stakes rise for distributors.

Despite also being an early supporter of Bran Nue Dae – which Roadshow distributed on more than 400 screens – the musical will be released on DVD before being broadcast on the ABC next year.

“In order to take that level of [P&A] commitment, they wanted a DVD window to exploit prior to use putting it to air – and we were happy with that,” Dalton says.

Nonetheless, others are continuing to experiment in an effort to re-connect with local audiences, albeit treading lightly.

Connolly says he considered distributing his own film, last year’s epic Balibo, on a premium pay-per-view platform simultaneously with the theatrical release.

“I think there’s a market in that because often the ancillary costs of going to the movies are quite high – especially for couples with kids,” he says.

SHOWTIME Australia chief executive Peter Rose has similar views about tapping into the pay TV audience to increase promotion ahead of a DVD release. SHOWTIME was an investor in several Australian films last year including Balibo.

“If a film hasn’t been a box office success, being wedded to this notion that there’s some sort of automatic cycle that it should go to DVD … I think it’s preposterous,” Rose says, pointing to spikes in DVD sales of high end TV shows such as The Sopranos after they are rescreened on TV.

“I think a lot of our shows would probably have dramatically more sales than a lot of Australian films would have on DVD and the point is visibility,” he says.

“If you haven’t been visible theatrically, it’s hard to enthuse the retail business to hold stock and sell those films in video stores and the public to go in and see them.”

Madman Entertainment co-founder Paul Wiegard says a well marketed DVD release in tandem with broadcast maximizes DVD sales.

“Consumers have more control over viewing habits than ever before and expect to be serviced,” he says. “Therefore it becomes a question of how best to service the public after awareness has been created.”

Distributors in the US have been less cautious about mixing up release strategies.

Connolly says international distributor Magnolia released another of his films, Romulus, My Father, simultaneously across a small number of theatres, as well as video-on-demand and DVD.

However, the allure of the big screen remains as strong today as it did a hundred years ago. “I still love the theatrical window,” he says.

This article is from the current issue of INSIDEFILM, which is on sale now.

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