Australian cinema’s bright start to the year with The Water Diviner, Paper Planes and That Sugar Film should not distract attention from the structural problems facing producers and independent distributors.

“The theatrical sector is under stress for producers and distributors of specialty films,” Richard Harris, Screen Australia’s head of business and audience told IF.

The Water Diviner has grossed $15.8 million, Paper Planes made $9.6 million and That Sugar Film is a sleeper hit with $1.4 million, while nationwide receipts through the end of April were up by more than 13% on 2014.

“I think it will be a big year at the box-office but that doesn’t disguise the sector’s structural problems,” Harris said. Since his appointment in March, he and CEO Graeme Mason have implemented changes in marketing and are seeking closer engagement with filmmakers.

“Around the world, not just in Australia, specialty films have to adapt and change,” Mason said in their first joint interview.

Harris said, “We can’t vacate the theatrical space but some films should not be made for cinemas, some will have short runs while others, like Last Cab to Darwin, will have a wide commercial release. That’s the new reality.”

The agency has freed up the guidelines of its P&A fund to allow for more flexibility. It supported the straight-to-digital launch of The Mule; Wyrmwood: Road to the Dead, which Studiocanal released on more than 70 screens; and it will back Kim Farrant’s Strangerland, which opens at Palace cinemas and select regional locations via Transmission on June 11 after its Sydney Film Festival premiere.

Mason urges filmmakers to think more about making digital content, observing that online content creators who have been funded by the agency collectively have had more than 1 billion views.

Harris’ department combines the teams from marketing, communications and state and industry partnerships including the Enterprise program.

With Harris in place Mason wants the agency to become involved with filmmakers at an early stage, explaining, “If Richard had been here before The Babadook was filmed he’d have met with Jennifer Kent and the producers from the get-go and talked about all the options for the project.”

Similarly, Harris and head of production Sally Caplan have been working with Wyrmwood creators Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner and will champion the brothers  when they meet with agents and managers at the Cannes Film Festival.

Traditionally the agency has allocated much of its marketing spend to taking stands at markets and festivals and supporting filmmakers at those events. While that will continue, Mason said the marketing efforts will be “much more focussed.”

After he returns from Cannes Harris intends to meet with producers, distributors, exhibitors and others to glean their views on the issues confronting the industry.

“I want to hear what they think about the challenges they are facing and collectively work out some ways forward to benefit everyone,” he said. “During this time of disruption Screen Australia can take a leadership role and help to drive changes.”

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