The case for a new distribution model

There is nothing inherently wrong with Australian films but for many, conventional theatrical release isn’t the answer, according to a new study of the film industry.

Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia’s film distribution problem makes a compelling case for the traditional structures to be abandoned. In its place, it proposes Australian films would be released in a variety of ways including, on occasions, simultaneously in cinemas and on DVD and Video-on-Demand, plus self-organised screenings outside the multiplex/art-house circuits.

The essay’s author Laura Carroll Harris argues that instead of requiring local films to have an Australian theatrical distributor as a pre-requisite for the producer offset, the definition of market attachment should be expanded to include DVD, Video-on-Demand and non-theatrical, alternative distribution. By this means, she says, “the distribution of small-budget releases would be diversified in circuits to which viewers are gravitating.”

Most of these ideas are not new but she makes a commendably detailed assessment of the distribution structure with numerous case studies, and a cogently presented set of proposals.

That 120-day gap between theatrical and home entertainment is unlikely to change while the major exhibitors and art house chains insist on it and no distributor is willing to defy convention. But Harris’ arguments are likely to fuel the campaign by producers and some distributors to make release windows far more flexible.

Screen Australia’s outgoing CEO Dr Ruth Harley points out the producer offset rules are a matter for the Australian government. She tells IF that if the government decides to apply the 40% offset across the board, as SPAA and others have advocated,  “I can see the merit in that.”

Harley doubts release windows will change in Australia until the windows are relaxed by the Hollywood studios and major chains in the US.

Published by Currency Press, Harris’ essay will be launched on November 7 on the opening night of the Australian Directors Guild conference at Sebel Pier One in Sydney. She will present her findings when she moderates the session entitled The Director as Distributor at the conference.

Speakers will include Bob Connolly, who successfully self-distributed with Sophie Raymond their documentary Mrs Carey’s Concert and Genevieve Bailey, who took a similar route with her docu I Am Eleven.

Lauren is working on a PhD on film distribution at the University of New South Wales, where she completed a Bachelor of Arts (with first-class honours in Film Studies) and Bachelor of Fine Arts.

“The cinema is no longer the key site for [Australian] films. Only nine per cent of viewings take place in the cinema, and 65 per cent of viewings are on DVD/Blu-Ray,” she writes, quoting Screen Australia research.

“Ancillary markets are no longer ancillary, they are the markets. It is the cinema that is supplementary. However, we are yet to catch up with this reality: Australian films are released stillborn into a theatrical system that is not designed for them and that therefore reduces their ability to compete.

“Small releases in art house cinemas send the message that local films are old-fashioned and lack broad appeal. And in the other, newer viewing sites, to which audiences are gravitating, Australian film is greatly under-represented.”

She is critical of Screen Australia’s primary goals of boosting development and production, contending that the agency should focus more on marketing, distribution and exhibition. “Funding agencies spend millions on film production, only to let films loose into a competitive marketplace with virtually no support for effective distribution," she writes. "The result is a random, inactive approach to distribution, with responsibility placed mostly on the shoulders of commercial distributors.

“An industry hooked on an addiction to production and development will always remain cut off from the market. The numbers are face-punchingly straightforward: finance is spent in production and regained in distribution. The box office is simply not where audiences are gravitating: online and ancillary markets are the real markets. Without that link to distribution, we will float adrift from the audience and the means of self-sustainability.”

Harris’ essay will be available through independent bookstores and University bookstores and via the publisher:

  1. Good article, Don, and am looking forward to reading Lauren’s Currency Press publication. Certainly for one particular filmmaker (myself) the model suggested would make viable a whole raft of film projects (low budget) that otherwise have a snowflake’s chance in hell of being produced.

  2. Yes, a long overdue, detailed analysis of situation is a good thing.

    The Offset is a blunt instrument. SA has had an incorrect foucus for too long, as we know from anything from the GFC to privatisation of public infratstructure, soley foucssing and then expecting the ‘market’ and private enterpise to solve things only works for those who are already in the position to capitalise on it.

    Yes, a very socialist approach you may say but that is not what I’m saying. Only when a pluralist approach is taken – the more dificult approach – that encomapsses the power of ecominocs and the market along with strategically targeted support, is then we will get better outcomes for the industry (as well as many other things in our nation).

    From the outset, the Howard Government’s approach to the merger of the governemnt’s film entities was based on their philosphy of smaller governmnet is good and let the market deliver. Rudd’s haste to keep things rolling at a furiuos pace didn’t help either. This lead to a new entity created that was dystfunctional for its first 12 – 18 months (i was there and witnessed it), and many a baby was thrown out with the bathwater.

    There were many opportunities to address issues such as distribution but they were dropped or ignored. Another inherent problem was the industry’s own insular nature. Many a person in the industry will pride themeselevs on the teamwork needed to turn out a product, but say something that goes against what has always been done, such as Robert Connolly’s paper for AFTRS several years back, and the bitching and the knives are out. Until the industry is equally ready to embrace change and accept difference then, and only then will we make some headway with issues such as distribution.

    Our industry might be small, our market is also small, so why keep pursuing a model that is based on a different size and kind of industry and market (the US) than ours. We need to play to our own strengths.

  3. Congratulations on the article, Don.

    After the recent AIMC I came away wondering what our funding bodies could do differently about marketing and distribution.

    And what producers can do differently, apart from make a better product of course.

    Currently producers almost need a magic wand to get theatrical release.

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