Australia’s longest-serving distributor runs on passion, and prudence.
7 Feb 2011 - 11:25 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 7:30 AM

For nearly 45 years, Natalie Miller has prospered in the often fickle and risky business of buying and distributing independent movies.

Ask her about the secret to that longevity and the founder of Sharmill Films replies, “I have a passion for what I do, and I'm extremely careful. I've never stepped up to buy films I couldn't afford.”

In recent years she wishes she'd pushed her price boundaries for just one title – Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine – and she was in the bidding for the movies based on Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy of novels until Rialto snaffled the Australian rights.

After serving as publicity director of the Melbourne Film Festival for 16 years, the affable Miller launched Sharmill in 1967 (three years before Roadshow was founded), which makes her company Australia's longest-established indie distributor and Natalie one of the industry's longest-serving executives.

She was one of the first distributors to see the value of taking advantage of the digital revolution by acquiring special event programming such as the Metropolitan Opera, Britain's National Theatre Live, Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris and The State Academic Bolshoi Theatre of Russia.

Typically these shows will play on around 25 screens nationally. As for the box-office results, she observes, “Some (locations) are fantastic, others less so.”

Complementing her distribution business, Miller is a significant player in exhibition as the Co-Managing Partner of Cinema Nova. Last August, the Nova flagship in inner-city Carlton expanded from 11 to 15 screens. Typifying the robust health of the market for quality films, the Nova enjoyed three consecutive records weeks from Boxing Day, playing a mix of titles including The King's Speech, Black Swan, The Fighter, Sarah's Key and National Theatre Live's production of Hamlet. “Exhibition is the much stronger arm of my business now,” she says.

A fervent believer in giving back to the industry, she served on the boards of Film Victoria for 16 years and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image for nine years. She has three sons, one of whom, Shaun Miller, is a prominent film lawyer.

Among the titles she's distributed are Mademoiselle Chambon, Soul Kitchen, The Edge of Heaven, Moolaade, Osama, Tais-Toi! and The Dinner Game, Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table and Australian films Innocence, In Search of Anna and Crackers.

Her upcoming line-up includes Italian director Gabriele Muccino's Kiss Me Again (which opens March 10), French import film La Rafle (The Roundup), which stars Mélanie Laurent and Jean Reno (May 5), and the Metropolitan Opera's Nixon in China and Il Trovatore.

Among the titles that didn't live up to her expectations were Eden is West, Amreeka and Aussie film Summer Coda. Miller served as co-executive producer as well as the distributor of Summer Coda after awarding its director Richard Gray the annual Nova prize to a VCA graduate for his short film Yellow Brick Dreams and employing Richard as a ticket seller at the Nova.

She says those who saw Gray's feature really enjoyed it but not enough people turned up, not helped, she believes, by generally poor reviews.