Screen Australia’s Head of Business and Audience, Richard Harris, talks to IF about the year that’s been, what’s ahead and the risk of betting big on blockbusters alone.
How’s this year looking to you as compared to last year?
Last year was pretty remarkable. One of the problems I have, and particularly after a big year like last year, is the kind of short-term-ism of trying to guess how things are performing. One of the things you get with a big year like last year or a really poor year the year before is [people say], everything’s terrible or everything’s great. We [Screen Australia] are looking at reporting things on a longer term basis. Last year, for example, we got great results that came through from The Water Diviner but it didn’t actually recognize that The Water Diviner had released over two years. It released after Boxing Day. This year the ultimate results for the year won’t necessarily be as good as they would be because, you know, they had actually previously released Oddball last year when it was actually originally scheduled for this year. And then Red Dog [True Blue] is going to release at Christmas and play over January. So we’re looking at trying to capture things in a three-year cycle as opposed to a single-year cycle. I think this is a broader concern that we have: [that] this kind of spike and ditch [mentality] doesn’t necessarily reflect the way things are.
Last year was always going to be hard to top.
Last year was actually a funny year because we had a record year but in June that year we’d actually written in our distribution paper that this is the most challenging time ever for Australian independent films. And then suddenly we had this record year. So it was a bit strange (laughs). Here we are claiming it’s all going to hell and high water, and then we turn around and a whole bunch of films kick a bunch of goals – which is great. But even though the year was great, the underlying challenges in distribution remain. And they particularly remain for independent films. What we do know just from that paper and from the research we did, is that there are slightly more screens than there were five years ago. The number of screens increased but actually the number of films taking up the majority of screens has reduced. So if you look at the total amount of screens, the bigger films are taking more of them. The impact of that for the smaller films – and I think we drew the line at less than 100 screens – is that there are now less screens available and more films being released into those slots. This is a fundamental ongoing challenge that we’re going to have with Australian feature films because many of our films, if not most of them, play in that [smaller] space. Last year we had films like Mad Max and Dressmaker and Last Cab to Darwin, all of which played on more than 100 hundred screens, which is fantastic; the distributors felt they could find an audience and they all played well. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that most of our films are playing in these smaller zones and there’s more competition in that zone. More films, less screens. I think the other thing that’s happening is that theatrical is not going to be necessarily the place for those films as their main place out into the market. They might do a marquee screening here or there to get some publicity and to get a red-carpet effect, but more and more I think you’re going to see films going direct to either an iTunes release or perhaps to a VOD release. Stan is very interested in finding films that may not have a theatrical home but actually create a good thing for their brand in terms of being a disruptive sort of film. That’s just a reality that we’re all looking at, because that’s the way audiences are watching.
Speaking of small films that might be disruptive and provoke social media chatter, a film like Down Under perhaps could have been a perfect film for that platform.
I think that’s exactly the sort of thing [we should do]. Hopefully smart distributors will go: rather than spending some money on P&A and having a film that goes out to not many – we hardly even recoup that P&A – maybe we should just do a direct sale to Stan and allow them to have a disruptive film that builds the brand. [Down Under] Is a good film but not a theatrical film. There seems to be three broad areas that are working for films in cinemas at the moment. Theatrical has a challenge in that it’s coalescing into about three areas: one is kids – people are still taking their kids to see Pixar films, Secret Life of Pets – or they’re going to blockbusters. Although this year has been weaker than last year because a few of them have come out and absolutely tanked, but nevertheless that’s a theatrical space that people are still going to watch films that they feel they have to watch on the big screen. Then there’s the older-skewing and female-skewing films. So if you look at the Australian films that worked last year, you look at Dressmaker, that worked in the older-skewing, Last Cab worked in the older-skewing, Mad Max worked in the blockbuster space, and the kids space was Oddball, Paper Planes and Blinky Bill. And Water Diviner also played well in the older skewing space. All of those films really landed where theatrical audiences are going now.
A film like Down Under didn’t have the IP like Mad Max or the star power of The Water Diviner. What do you think happened there?
I think the thing about Down Under is that it’s challenging because it’s a challenging film that fits in a much more arthouse space. It’s not fitting into those conventional spaces. So in terms of getting those really strong numbers it has to really stand out, and that’s its challenge. In terms of where theatrical is working, there are some arthouse films that can work but even last year the best performing film we had in that space was Holding the Man, which took just over a million.
Given how many sequels have underperformed this winter, is there any trepidation about Red Dog: True Blue, which opens on Boxing Day, especially as it’s a few years since the original?
I think this is different. And [that’s] something that theatrical exhibitors have said [to me]. I first started in this job eighteen months ago and I was meeting with a few exhibitors, and having come off such a poor year, I was trying to work out: have they given up on Australian films or are they still thinking that they play? And actually, they all felt Australians responded to films when they worked. Their view was [that] when Australian films work they actually over-index. I think Red Dog has such a broad family appeal: it plays firstly into the space of what is a classic space that theatrical audiences are still going to. It’s a film that plays young but can play across to families. I think the response so far to the film has been that this film can really appeal. And it is a bit of a prequel, so I think that also works for it. It’s hard to make generalisations based on whether a film like Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass doesn’t work. I don’t think that there’s an obvious thing that says sequels don’t work. Just look at Finding Dory. You can find examples of films that do work and films that don’t, but ultimately it’s the strength of the film that matters rather than whether it’s a sequel or not.
Stan are looking to get into the longer-form space, as you mentioned before. Does Screen Australia have any sense of whether the streaming platforms are putting any pressure on theatrical?
I certainly don’t have any data. I think they’re keen to find ways that they can actually get films earlier and have films that might do a small screening and then be allowed to have a shorter window and get onto Stan. What that release is allowed to look like is a continuing conversation with exhibition and exhibition is naturally and quite justifiably concerned about the integrity of those windows. It’s between 90-120 days. It was 120 but there’s been a bit of slippage on that. 90 days generally. So Stan I’m sure would be keen for a film to have a small release or a couple of marquee screenings and then head straight into the platform. There have been some films that have done those sorts of releases but they’ve tended to go straight to transactional. How happy the exhibitors are with the idea is another question.
Outside of streaming platforms themselves nabbing theatrical films, do you think those platforms are putting more pressure directly on cinema-going because people are staying home watching on their laptops?
I don’t think so. I think the challenge on exhibition has been there for some time. The fracturing of all of those platforms is an ongoing thing. It’s a challenge for everyone. Foxtel is challenged by streaming as is the free to air [networks]. Everyone’s place in the ecosystem has been challenged and the general sense I’m getting is that the arrival of the streaming platforms has actually increased overall viewing rather than cannibalizing everyone [else]. Having said that, I think there are absolute challenges, particularly for free to air. I think there are bigger challenges to linear watching than there is to the exhibition space, actually. What’s happening to the exhibition space is that there’s going to be continuing pressure on really making those small films work, and that’s the challenge. If I was in theatrical, I’d be concerned that if your diversity of offering is reducing, and you’re actually putting your bets on those three areas, then your capacity to keep getting audiences is at risk. We’re seeing it a little bit this year when the blockbusters don’t work. What other films do you have to actually get people in to your cinemas? But I don’t think there’s anything that says that Stan turning up has meant less people going to your cinema. Overall there are a series of thing happening in the home which Stan and Netflix have just added to. To leave the house, to pay money for babysitting, for parking – all of that now means that I need to make a conscious decision about whether I’m going to see something on the big screen or stay at home and watch something else. That’s the challenge that exhibitors face, and why they’re putting these bigger bets on these things that you must go out and see on the big screen. That or you have to make it some kind of event, like Palace do with festivals and other things. This challenge for arthouse films is one that’s worldwide. You only have to look at the collapse of Metrodome in the UK or Fortissimo, the sales agent. These are small signs of just how difficult it is out there in the world of pure theatrical to actually make those films work and find audiences and get revenue.