The Mule is an Australian movie which is bypassing cinemas and going straight to online release. Is this the future for independent film? Marc Fennell talks to its stars, Hugo Weaving and Angus Sampson, and producer Troy Lum.
Wednesday, November 26, 2014 - 19:30

The box office results for Australian films are generally weak. However audiences are watching more than ever before, they’re just not doing it at a cinema, with both legal and illegal download and streaming sites constantly increasing in popularity.

The Mule is an Australian release taking different approach. It stars Angus Sampson as a drug mule, who is locked in a hotel room with a stomach full of heroin and hugo Weaving, who is desperate to try and make the deal ‘go through’.

“He’s got constant supervision both by criminals wanting their gear and by cops wanting their man.” Angus Sampson.

Sampson starts as a drug mule who refuses to, um, drop off the cargo.

What sets this film apart is its distribution model. You can buy and watch the film online in Australia, the US, New Zealand and Canada, bypassing cinemas entirely.

“Instead of going to Pirate Bay, typing in The Mule and click, why not make it easy for the audience to find it elsewhere. If you hear about it and you like it, you should be able to pick up your device and watch it then,” says Sampson.

“I think the way we have watched things have changed a lot, but not many people can read the landscape yet,” says Weaving.

Troy Lum from Entertainment One and Hopscotch has made his fortune backing hits like Amelie and the Blair Witch Project. “I don’t think people are price sensitive about movies. I think it’s all about accessibility, the opportunity to see what they want to see when they want to see it. I think if we released this film traditionally piracy would be really rife.

“We did an audit on The Sapphires, an Australian film we released a couple of years ago, and the illegal downloads were around 125,000, or a million dollars. And that’s why I’m desperately trying to change the model.”

In the US and the UK any attempt to close the gap between cinema and online release (usually about 120 days) has been met with threats of boycotts from cinema chains, but there are some organizations which are trying new ways.

Streaming service Netflix is about to start production on Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon 2, and are planning a simultaneous release on both Netflix and IMAX, spanning the methods associated most with convenience and price-sensitivity, and big budget blockbuster spectacle. The majority of the exhibitor market (mainstream cinemas) is resisting this model as they cannot participate in it.

“We would have liked to have a theatrical release for The Mule, a short one, and then go straight on to digital platforms but the cinemas here wouldn’t accept that,” says Lum. “I strongly believe that the 120 day window from theatrical to home video for a lot of entertainment is just too long for people to wait.”

“You can’t keep talking in the same way,” Says Weaving. “You need to think very differently and we’re going through a great period of flux. “

Lum remains hopeful that the industry will eventually embrace the digital age. “What it’s going to take is one big movie that’s going to come in and say ‘no more windows’.  It’s going to come in and it’s going to revolutionize the marketplace like Avatar did. And we’ll see how resistant the market is to that. It’ll take one, they’ll make a buckload of money, and everyone will say ‘wait a second – that’s what we should be doing’.” 

Hugo Weaving's probably not the good cop.