Mystery Road takes a new path

Ivan Sen’s new film Mystery Road, which will open the Sydney Film Festival, is bypassing the established theatrical distributors in a rare departure from the usual distribution model.

Producer David Jowsey and writer-director Sen have decided to release the murder mystery on August 15 via Dark Matter, a company they own with Michael Wrenn.

The rationale: If the film turns a profit, that will go to the filmmakers, not the distributor. The producers are paying for the marketing costs, avoiding the standard 25%-30% fee charged by distributors. 

They’ve hired the Melbourne-based Backlot Studios to negotiate terms with exhibitors for a flat fee. Distribution veteran Alan Finney is a consultant and Tracey Mair is coordinating the national marketing and publicity campaign.

The film stars Aaron Pedersen as an Aboriginal cop, Detective Jay Swan, who's called on to investigate the murder of a young Indigenous girl and realises a serial killer is at work. The cast includes Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten, Jack Thompson and Tony Barry.

The $2 million film was financed by Screen Australia, Screen Queensland and the ABC. Gary Hamilton's Arclight Films has world sales rights outside Australia. 

Jowsey envisions a release of 15-20 screens. In an interview with the AFTRS quarterly LUMINA, Sen said the film is aimed primarily at art house audiences while also "pushing hard at the fringes of the multiplexes. It will have commercial bones but it will also have an Aboriginal and a cultural perspective."

Wrenn worked for Curious when Screen Australia’s indigenous branch agreed to co-finance the film. At that time the branch’s guidelines did not require producers to have a deal with an approved Australian distributor; the guidelines have since been changed to include that provision. Curious later dropped out and Wrenn launched Greenlight Releasing. 

Jowsey told IF, “While we are making quality, modest-release films, we thought, ‘Why shouldn’t we get involved in the distribution?’ There is a risk but there is an upside (if the film succeeds.) We do the trailers, the posters and the marketing so this ensures we keep control of the look and the feel and the creative elements.”

The producers of Blinder self- distributed the Australian footy-themed drama, using the services of Backlot, and the film flopped. 

Genevieve Bailey achieved a very good result by self-distributing her documentary I Am Eleven.

Filmmaker-distributor Robert Connolly has set out to create a new paradigm for releasing Australian films that don’t warrant a wide cinema release and playing up to six sessions a day with his CinemaPlus initiative. That venture got off to a promising start with Connolly’s Underground: The Julian Assange Story. 

If it works, the Jowsey/Sen/Wrenn gambit on Mystery Road may encourage other producers to take a similar route. Asked if he’d be willing to try that avenue again, Jowsey said, “It may take a long time to break even. Let’s see what happens by Christmas and I’ll let you know.”