Sue Maslin on releasing ‘Brazen Hussies’ amid a pandemic and the future for feature docs

'Brazen Hussies'.

Back in July, when every cinema around the country was shut, Sue Maslin took a leap: she committed to a three month marketing and P&A campaign for feature documentary Brazen Hussies.

Today the film distributed via Maslin’s Film Art Media stands at $103,000 at the box office.

Directed by Catherine Dwyer and produced by Philippa Campey and Andrea Foxworthy, Brazen Hussies follows the Women’s Liberation Movement in Australia, piecing together archival footage, photographs, memorabilia and personal accounts from activists. 

Reaching this point theatrically has been the result of a platform release, driven by a 11-woman team, and founded on grassroots campaigning, targeted publicity (led by Nicole Hurren) and strong word-of-mouth.

It’s the kind of campaign Maslin argues has been almost impossible for years, given the dominance of Hollywood blockbusters and a mindset that opening weekend is everything.

Designed in consultation with Sasha Close and Kylie Pascoe, the release strategy saw Brazen Hussies begin on 12 screens in previews, build to 22 including regionals a week later, and then 38 screens once Victoria reopened.

“When we designed the campaign we focused on between 10-12 selected screens at the outset that perform well with independent Australian films (Cinema Nova, Dendy Cinemas, Luna Leederville, State Theatre Hobart, Palace Cinemas),” Maslin tells IF.

“However the shortage of US releases created an incredible opportunity as many cinema chains turned to independent product as COVID restrictions gradually started to relax across the states. This coupled with strong reviews and word-of-mouth following the October festival premieres at Brisbane and Adelaide, together with Antenna screenings in Sydney, led to other cinema chains booking the film (Event, Ritz, Wallis, ICA).”

The P&A budget was modest, totalling $60,000. Half was underwritten by producers on the basis of securing the Producer Offset. With the other $30,000 at risk, the goal was $95,000 at the box office in order to recoup.

“We expect the film to run up to Christmas in selected cinemas and will happily make way for the next batch of terrific Aussie movies slated to drop from Boxing Day onwards. A final gross box office of $110,000 would be a terrific result for a social issue documentary release at any time, let alone in the middle of COVID restrictions,” Maslin says.

Exhibitors have been incredibly supportive of the film throughout its entire journey; indeed, it was the Sun Theatre Yarraville who enabled the filmmakers to produce a cinema trailer to drive donations to get the film financed.

Event screenings have been key, with Dwyer doing Q&A events in every state via Zoom. Many have been sponsored by women’s organisations such as the Victorian Women’s Trust, YWCA, WIFT, Dame Changers, Feminist Writer’s Festival and Broad Agenda.

The ‘Brazen Hussies’ marketing team (L-R from top): distributor Sue Maslin; impact manager Diana Fisk; publicist Nicole Hurren; social media assistant Sam Kwan; director Catherine Dwyer; theatrical bookings manager Sasha Close; producer Pip Campey; marketing consultant Kylie Pascoe; website and social media manager Kim Summer; producer Andrea Foxworthy.

Without the budget for a traditional advertising campaign, the Film Art Media team instead ran Facebook ads, spread across exhibitors. As Maslin notes: “Exhibitors are our gateway to audiences and social media is the best means by which we can reach their subscriber base.”

Social media marketing manager Kim Summer was brought on to design a campaign across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that reflected that Brazen Hussies was not a “dry historical film”, but one that would appeal to a younger audience. That meant content that was a mixture of “the celebratory, the informative and the inflammatory”.

The team also realised if they were serious about reaching a younger audience they needed to be on TikTok, and so brought on film school grads Sam Kwan and Chloe Graham to produce shorter content.

Marketing focused on strong visual assets, multiple trailers and clips, as well as T-shirt and comp passes giveaways.

While some filmmakers and distributors have opted for a straight-to-streaming approach during the pandemic, the Brazen Hussies team regarded the cinema release as critical. This was as it would help to build the publicity, editorial and public awareness that would drive ancillary revenue streams and help their impact goal – supporting the fight for gender equity.

Maslin is convinced that the future success of Australia independent film lies in producers, distributors and exhibitors all coming on board together at the development stage and then working strategically to connect films with their bespoke audiences.

“Exhibitors have not had to do this in the past and could simply rely on a glut of US product and ready-made US campaigns to bolster their business. But the game has changed and it may not be so easy to book US movies going forward given the hybrid streaming/cinema release models that have emerged during COVID,” she says.

“If we are to have any Australian films in the cinema in the future, exhibitors must have a stake in the greenlighting process, more skin in the game and producers need to become a whole lot more savvy about the role the exhibitor plays in accessing audiences.”

Yet with the Federal Government proposing the film Producer Offset be lowered to the 30 per cent and the QAPE threshold doubled from $500,000 to $1 million, Maslin fears that documentaries like Brazen Hussies may not even get off the ground into the future.

“A film like Brazen Hussies simply will not qualify for the Producer Offset going forward given it has a budget under the $1 million threshold being proposed. This will put an incredible pressure upon Screen Australia to fill the gap which they were not able to successfully meet when the Producer Offset only had a threshold of $500,000. It will make it exponentially harder for producers to finance their documentary films.

“Finally, it will also mean that there is no capacity for producers to use some of that rebate to underwrite a theatrical release for their films. This will be a blow for audiences given television has largely walked away from documentaries in recent years in favour of factual entertainment formats. Cinemas and film festivals are one of the last places audiences can see well researched, meaningful, political, creatively ambitious and deeply impactful documentary films and Australian culture will be all the poorer for the loss of feature documentaries.”