Megan Riakos navigates the tricky challenge of releasing an indie amid a pandemic

Kaitlin Tinker, Megan Riakos and Jub Clerc at CinefestOZ.

For many in our industry, 2020 was an incredible challenge. From the cancellation of film shoots and festivals, to the shutdown of cinemas and theatres. From the shake-up of the Producer Offset, to the initial suspension and then watering down of Australian content sub-quotas. For those of us releasing an independent feature in this changing and unpredictable landscape, we’ve had to become even more flexible and innovative to ensure our films not only reach audiences, but that we remain viable in a market where the obstacles continue to multiply.  

This time last year we were in the midst of a successful festival run for my second feature: Australia’s first women’s horror anthology Dark Whispers – Volume 1 featuring 11 women directors from across the country. The project combined my love for dark genre with my passion for advocacy for gender equality in the screen industry by spotlighting female voices in horror. I became the lucky caretaker of the incredible films directed by Angie Black, Briony Kidd, Isabel Peppard, Janine Hewitt, Jub Clerc, Kaitlin Tinker, Katrina Irawati Graham, Lucy Gouldthorpe, Madeleine Purdy and Marion Pilowsky.

Created without government support, it was always going to be a challenge to release. But I had learnt a lot from my first indie feature Crushed, which completed a solid festival run, followed by over 40 cinema screenings across the country and acquisitions by Channel 10 and Qantas. My producing partner Leonie Marsh and I had developed a Dark Whispers release strategy for 2020. We’d finalise our festival run, then embark on a slate of event-based theatrical screenings, followed shortly after by a digital release. With tiny marketing budgets we tried to keep each stage as compact as possible, so we could sustain a natural momentum while building audiences. But we all know the true story of 2020 and that even the best laid plans mean nothing in the midst of a pandemic. The festival run came to an abrupt halt while I was presenting the film at Cinequest in the US and all our subsequent screenings cancelled one after the other like dominos.

Katrina Irawati Graham’s ‘White Song’, one of 11 shorts featured in ‘Dark Whispers’.

We considered soldiering on with some kind of theatrical release once cinemas started to reopen, especially with the extra room for Aussie content made by the lack of US films (Brazen Hussies is a great example of a film that was nimble enough to take advantage of the climate). But just as we were making our decision, the Melbourne lockdown began and we were spooked. We were just too small to bear the risk of a wider outbreak curtailing the screenings. Our projected income pre-pandemic was no longer reliable and we still had outgoings to meet with no fat to spare. After discussions with our international sales agent Evolutionary Films, we started to plan for a Halloween digital release. But with theatrical off the table for most of the world, it quickly became apparent that Halloween would be a tsunami of horror content jostling for the market.

In the meantime, we got involved with a few virtual festivals including horror favourite Horrible Imaginings Film festival. Amidst a year where the arts were sidelined and undervalued, zooming with the festival team and audience was a beautiful reminder of the importance of the film community and the online event was a salve for the soul. Not long after, our sales agent locked in a deal with SP Releasing at the American Film Market for our North American rights and then confirmed our January 2021 release for the AUS and UK markets. It was all systems go!

This week, Dark Whispers finally begins her digital release and is now available on all major TVOD platforms in Australia and UK. Although we bypassed the silver screen, we have developed a new strategy that encompasses more than just the film itself. Via my production company Hemlock & Cedar Films, we were lucky enough to secure City of Sydney funding aimed at cultural organisations impacted by COVID and are using this to create the ‘Female Voices in Genre Filmmaking’ program. This includes a Dark Whispers filmmaking panel tied into International Women’s Day in March, the creation of an educational package, Female Voices in Genre: Dark Whispers Case Study, aimed at universities, libraries and schools and a suite of filmmaker workshops lead by several of the Dark Whispers creative team. The program not only generates marketing and awareness for Dark Whispers and can be delivered online should another lockdown occur, it has the additional benefit of promoting women and advocating for gender equality in our industry.

Everyone knows that making indie films in Australia is no easy feat. We are often considered too small and too risky by the industry systems and are therefore even more vulnerable to the slightest change in the market. But we persevere because we are compelled to tell stories and we love to connect with our audience. We persevere because of our generous community, to whom we give enormous thanks. This includes our cast and crew, our key collaborators Deadhouse Films, Stranger With My Face International Film Festival, Goldhawk Productions and supporters of our work including Women in Film & Television Australia, Actors’ Centre Australia, Screen Vixens, Film Fatales, Gold Coast Film Festival, Monster Fest, Cinefest Oz, Cinequest, Screenwave and many others along the way.

Although it’s been a bumpy road, Dark Whispers – Volume 1 stands proudly alongside a number of Aussie indies in the midst of their 2021 releases (including two impressive films: Unsound and The Witch of Kings Cross). So when you switch on the box this weekend, consider loading up an Aussie indie gem. Who knows, it may well help create a Dark Whispers – Volume 2.