Indie distributors hang tough as cinemas continue to suffer

Roderick Mackay's 'The Furnace' was shot in WA at the end of last year.

‘The Furnace.’

Most independent Australian distributors are doing it tough, forced to postpone releases while the exhibition business languishes with Victorian cinemas closed and seating capacity restricted in the rest of the country.

They fear the Federal Government’s media reforms, which will lower the Producer Offset for films to 30 per cent and double the minimum qualifying Australian production expenditure (QAPE) threshold for features to $1 million, will lead to fewer narrative features and feature documentaries.

Another concern is that removing the obligation to release films in cinemas will further deplete the number of titles available to distributors next year.

However most are confident the cinema business will rebound from Boxing Day onwards with the launches of Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984, Universal/DreamWorks Animation’s The Croods: A New Age and Sony’s Peter Rabbit 2, and that 2021 will be a strong year.

“Business is not what it used to be but at least we are in the game. Naturally we are losing money and are very grateful for JobKeeper, which has allowed us to look after our staff,” Natalie Miller, executive director of Sharmill Films and joint exec director of Cinema Nova, tells IF.

“We are appalled at the situation in Victoria and look forward to opening soonest. It is ridiculous that the rest of Australia is open with few COVID-19 cases yet we are closed down.”

Transmission Films’ Andrew Mackie said: “It feels like we’ve seen a decade of change in a six month period. It’s head-spinning but we’re remaining optimistic for the long term.

“As always, global players tend not to have a local point of view, and it’s in those gaps that opportunities lie for nimble indies.”

Back in April, Label Distribution’s Tait Brady decided to postpone all theatrical releases to 2021, including Jonathan Ogilvie’s Lone Wolf, Adam Dolman’s I Met a Girl and Samuel Gay’s A Guide to Dating at the End of the World.

One motivating factor was the collapse of local and international festivals, which Brady regards as crucial launch platforms for Australian films.

“Without them our films were left in limbo, without a marketing launch, without critical momentum, industry buzz, awards and word-of-mouth,” he said. “Even those that went ahead – virtual or not – had such reduced impact this year as to be of little help to the films that are trying to release now.”

Madman Entertainment decided to push back Stephen Johnson’s High Ground from the third quarter to next January, but, seeing a gap in the market left by the US majors, brought forward the releases of Made In Italy, Savage and I Am Greta.

“Despite the headwinds, Madman has viewed this time as an opportunity for the independent distributors to shine,” MD Paul Wiegard said. “The broader Australian and New Zealand industry needs active independent distributors as they are less often beholden to global release dates.”

Umbrella Entertainment is launching Roderick MacKay’s debut feature The Furnace on December 10. MD Jeff Harrison is confident of its prospects in light of the critical acclaim after the world premiere in Venice.

Umbrella’s 2021 slate includes Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, a comedy starring Mads Mikkelsen about four friends who test the theory that they will improve their lives by maintaining a constant level of alcohol in their blood, and Ben Lewin’s Falling for Figaro.


Studiocanal took a punt by launching Derrick Boorte’s Unhinged when cinemas re-opened, paying off as the road rage thriller starring Russell Crowe and Caren Pistorius grossed $3.5 million, in line with its target

MD Elizabeth Trotman said: “We are very happy that our commitment to the theatrical window has generated the returns that justified the investment in content.”

JobKeeper helped the distributor to reduce overheads and employ 10 people while cinemas were shut. The company hopes the first project from its local development fund initiated three years ago will shoot next year, although Trotman said the lower Offset makes the finance plan more challenging and will reduce the amount of local content on screens.

Its next major release, Misbehaviour, a British comedy-drama about a group of feminists who set out to disrupt the 1970 Miss World beauty competition in London, starring Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, Keeley Hawes, Phyllis Logan and Lesley Manville, opens on November 26.

Roadshow Films’ MD Joel Pearlman laments the cut to the Offset but said: “The demand for great Australian content is only going to increase across all platforms and so presents incredible opportunities across production and distribution of home grown content.”

With its five decades-old theatrical distribution deal with WB ending on December 31, Roadshow will be more reliant on Australian and other indie titles. Pearlman has high hopes for Glendyn Ivin’s Penguin Bloom, which is dated for January 1, and Robert Connolly’s The Dry (April).

Transmission’s Mackie said: “We’re still coming to grips with the triple hit of pandemic, quota adjustments and now the Offset changes, and how the feature landscape will change.

“Like many, I worry about low budget features and talent escalation under the new guidelines. Australian films are so vital in more than the obvious ways.”

Among the Transmission titles held over for 2021 are Roger Michell’s The Duke, starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, and Francis Lee’s Ammonite, a romantic drama featuring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan.

Brady is concerned that doubling the QAPE threshold will be challenging for lower budgeted films and especially feature docs. His biopic Suzi Q cost $920,000 so he would have had to increase the spend to more than $1 million to qualify. That’s not viable on films that are budgeted at or below $600,000.

Wiegard fears the higher threshold will limit how many new filmmakers are able to enter the screen industry while Harrison doubts the streamers will be able to absorb the high volume of Australian films that are seeking outlets.

The Father.’

Miller expects more local films will go straight to streamers but that many producers will still seek a theatrical release. “With the unfortunate delays in releasing the big studio films, the gap remains open for independents to get more release space,” she said.

“Most cinemas need the studio films to survive. Hopefully the independent distributors can use the time to make a noise for their product.”

Towards that end, the Australian Independent Distributors Association is staging a webinar presentation in mid-November to showcase their films to exhibitors.

Sharmill Films is launching Florian Zeller’s The Father, a hit at the Sundance, Toronto and San Sebastian Film Festivals, on Boxing Day. The drama stars Anthony Hopkins as an aging Welshman who struggles with worsening memory loss, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots and Rufus Sewell.

“I am a strong believer that cinemas will bounce back post Boxing Day if the virus is contained and we learn to live with it,” Natalie said.

“We must learn to live with it or our economy will be destroyed. Audiences love the big screen experience so I have full confidence in our recovery.”

Mackie is less sanguine, predicting: “We could be COVID-free in Australia but the mess in the US will still limit the much-needed supply of big movies.

“I’d love to see the Federal Government step in with a theatre/venue-specific rescue package at some stage. But the signs of the past fortnight don’t suggest I should hold my breath. It’ll be a gradual return and that vaccine can’t come soon enough.”

Bonsai Films’ Jonathan Page, who works on a lot of smaller-budgeted films, sees the higher QAPE threshold as a big loss, compounded by the COVID-19 disruption to production.

Page added: “I’m optimistic that audiences will come back. We need big content but also eased restrictions and once we get both, it will be all on.”