Three recent Australian movies have experimented with unique distribution models. But will the rest of the industry pay attention?
1 Nov 2013 - 2:57 PM  UPDATED 1 Nov 2013 - 2:57 PM

In the vigorous debate about how to get an audience for Australian films in an age of radically changing viewer habits, it's intriguing to look at the experience of other countries. Spanish cinema just saw a temporary but almighty box office increase of 633 percent over the same period a year ago thanks to an annual cinema festival, called Fiesta de Cine, in which ticket prices were dramatically slashed from the usual 11 Euros to 2.90 Euros for a week.

That promotion included US blockbusters like Gravity but also benefited the audience for a Spanish hit, Witching and Bitching. This raises the question, would something like this work for Australian films? If it did work, it would be temporary, presumably leaving local films in the same hard place for the remaining 51 weeks of the year.

There's no denying that high prices have made a visit to the cinema an especially expensive and often prohibitive experience for many families – solitary individuals too. Rocking up to a Hoyts cinema recently to see the Hollywood action film 2 Guns a couple of weeks ago, this viewer was alarmed to be asked to hand over $22.50. The film was not in the 3D or IMAX formats. It was screening in Xtremescreen, which is not so much extreme as larger than the norm.

The positive experience of one local film, Tim Winton's The Turning, however, suggests that lowering ticket prices might be looking at the problem the wrong way. As counter-intuitive as it might sound, in certain circumstances it might make sense to even increase the price of entry, thus creating an aura of exclusivity for a 'boutique' release.

On the face of it, The Turning presented a huge marketing challenge: a 3-hour film consisting of 18 loosely linked shorts. Yet it has achieved box office earnings to date of $1 million by charging viewers a premium price of $25 to get in, and it's still earning. While its box office is small beer compared to the $28 million raked in by a blockbuster like The Great Gatsby, they're more than double the income each taken by 12 of the other 16 other films released in 2013.

In the face of often grim box office results for local dramas and genre films, The Turning's results prove that an Australian drama (as opposed to potentially broad-appeal musicals and comedies such as The Sapphires and Red Dog) can attract a more than desultory cinema audience if they're presented in an innovative way. What distributors and filmmakers need to do, however, is devise specialist strategies that break down the old open the old release routines.

Paul Wiegard, managing director of The Turning's distributor, Madman Entertainment, acknowledges that Australian cinema ticket prices “are high compared to the rest of the world” but still thinks they offer good value, though he adds, “when was the last time you paid for a live performance that went for three hours?”

For their extra dollars, The Turning's viewers were handed a glossy brochure about the film and there was a personal element to many of the screenings. Obviously the film had to be sufficiently unusual to justify its 'event' release strategy – it was based on fiction by a popular author, Tim Winton, and its cast included some well-known actors including Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving. “It comes down to how you involve the talent,” says Wiegard. “That's the single defining element of event cinema, and we had an enormous amount of Q&As, and introductions, including [author of the source material] Winton. That was unusual.”

Initially, there had been much discussion about how to release the film. Different ideas were kicked around, including releasing it as two parts, each on screen for a fortnight. But in the end, he says, releasing it in its entirety for a fortnight season was the simplest way to go.

Specialist Australian film release strategies come under the microscope in a polemical monograph just published by Currency House, 'Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia's Film Distribution Problems'. Author Lauren Carroll Harris examines a number of case studies including the music school documentary Mrs. Carey's Concert, and the crowd-funded digital horror film The Tunnel.

The latter provides a different insight into radical pricing strategies by getting rid of a viewing fee altogether. While the film had a few cinema screenings, it was made available online for free, via authorised file-sharing, an iPad app and streaming services ABC iView and Sydney Morning HeraldTV. Crowdfunding not only helped attract financial partners such as Andrew Denton's Zapruder's Other Films and Screen NSW, but also helped to create an audience of people invested in the film's success. A sequel is in the works with Screen Australia funding.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Carey's directors, Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond, decided to release the film themselves – a strategy that ultimately resulted in box office of $1,158,281, making it the fourth highest-grossing non-IMAX local documentary to date. Here pricing was not part of the strategy. The film was booked initially into only 9 cinemas but then expanded to 70 screens over 17 weeks as the positive word of mouth spread.

A key to this success was a marketing plan that involved direct approaches to the target audience: classical music fans, school music teachers and suchlike. Says Raymond, “We met people who knew our audience, who had greater access to the audience, and no distribution company was going to have those classical music connections that we had developed.” Breaking the standard 'release window' pattern, where DVD and VOD (video on demand) are held back until 120 days after initial cinema release, the team sold DVDs at screenings.

It's all very well treating a film as a special event, but if everything becomes an 'event', then nothing is. South Australian Film Commission CEO Richard Harris (no relation to Lauren Carroll Harris) says he's “excited about all the new possibilities” for releasing films, but he points out that not every film is suitable for event status.

The inevitable way of the near future for relatively small Australian films to reach an audience – both local and international – is to be released on VOD and DVD at the same day as their cinema release (called 'day-and-date'). This is becoming a popular solution for independent films in the US, but Australia is in a twilight zone where the old world is dying but the new world is yet to be born.

Our cinema chains, having invested in digital projection, see day-and-date releases as a threat to their business, and for obvious reasons distributors are desperately keen not to get cinemas offside. Richard Harris, who wrote a 2007 booklet called 'Film In The Age of Digital Distribution', says “the cinemas continue to protect their turf, which is their right, but that doesn't serve the films.”

Digital TVs with flat-screens are no longer the future, but the norm. Apple TV, a small device costing only $120, makes it possible to stream content onto high-definition TV screens direct from our computers, smart phones and tablets. Apple TV also has its own rental and film-buying service. At the moment it's sticking to the windows system: its cinema titles are only made available at least four months after their release.

Troy Lum, managing director for distributor Hopscotch Films, says that while he doesn't believe ticket price makes any difference at the cinema – if people want to see a film, they'll go – pricing strategy will be important online when the windows system collapses. Viewers will have to pay a premium price if the film is also screening in cinemas. That price will then drop after a certain period.

That the windows will collapse he's certain as “we're in the middle of a revolution,” he says. “Kids growing up now don't understand the concept of not being able to see something when they want to see it.” All it will take is “one big picture” to break the system, says Lum, “and then it will be broken down for ever.”

Clarification: this article has since been updated to more accurately reflect the distribution discussions between Palace Films and the makers of Mrs. Carey's Concert.