The headline figures in a report commissioned by Screen Australia looked impressive: The 100 Australian feature films released between 2007 and 2009 achieved a total audience of 101 million viewings.
But dig a little deeper and the stats aren't so flattering. More than 50 million of those viewings across all media were for just four titles: Australia, Mao's Last Dancer, Bran Nue Dae and Knowing. Arguably, Baz Luhrmann's Australia, which had 27.1 million viewings, inflated the total way beyond what would be achieved in a normal year.
Moreover, the top 20 films accounted for 76 million views, which means the 'bottom' 80 movies were watched by the proverbial three men and a dog in any media.
And all that has to be viewed in the context that the total box office share of the 41 Australian films released in 2010 was a meagre 4.5 per cent at $50.6 million, continuing a grim pattern that prevailed for most of the past decade.
“The 101 million audience figure is not an excuse for poor performance of Australian films at the box office,” Screen Australia chief executive Dr Ruth Harley told SBS. “We wanted to answer questions about the relative performance of these features throughout their life cycle and to raise questions about what signs there are for the future and what supporting frameworks must be maintained.
“The research is about improving our knowledge of market penetration in a world in which the delivery mechanisms are converging around fast broadband yet the access points are diverging.”
Screen Australia trumpeted the findings in its report, Beyond the box office: understanding audiences in a multiscreen world, as “never-before-published information.” But Brian Rosen, who was chief executive of the agency's predecessor Film Finance Corp., said the FFC was producing annual eyeball estimates as part of its KPI reports to the government when he joined in 2003.
According to the report, 91 per cent of all viewings came via distribution points after theatrical release, with DVD and Blu-ray rental and purchases accounting for 61 per cent, free-to-air television 16 per cent, subscription TV 10 per cent and online video 4 per cent.
Veteran producer Tony Buckley, a former FFC board member, challenges the veracity of the total viewings figure. “The only Aussie flicks which make it to Free to Air are the successful ones and those on Pay TV would have had a pre-sale and none of this adds up to 100 million,” said Buckley.
On that issue Harley responded. “The deals may be better for more successful films but 60 of the bottom 80 films when ranked by box office had either/or a free/subscription release. So 60 films made it to television from that three-year period with gross box office of less that $1 million each. These are not deemed as financial successes.
“In terms of recent Australian films which achieved a very poor box office not receiving a DVD sale, that may be the case and we do state that there is a close correlation between box office and DVD viewings.”
Rosen believes that the potential number of eyeballs for films will have dropped in the past couple of years because Australian pay TV and free broadcasters are buying far fewer Oz films.
Harley acknowledges, “This may be the case as the metric is not a measure of potential or interest by broadcasters in showing films, it is a measure of what happens when they do. However, it could be suggested that the multi-channels are altering this space as there are now plenty more opportunities to be screening Australian films given the recent expansion of the multi-channels, but then there is another issue in potentially not getting a good sales deal.”