Cinema-on-demand: Can it change the fate of indies? Metro

Metro #185, Winter 2015

It was about as anti-multiplex as you could imagine: more than a hundred people – mostly same-sex couples on dates, and young women – gathered at Sydney’s Bondi Junction Greater Union cinema on a weeknight to watch an ultra-low-budget drama about homophobic violence in the very macho world of surf lifesaving. The film, Dean Francis’ Drown (2014), had sold-out screenings at queer film festivals across Australia, and was adapted from a Queensland Theatre Company play. How did an unconventional film get into such a conventional location?

Cinema-on-demand has been operating in Australia for about a year. Its mandate is to let fans request screenings of the films they want at their local theatres and, in doing so, reclaim a patch of the multiplexes for the indies. If enough other fans buy tickets, the screening goes ahead; if not, payments are refunded, and there’s no cost to either the filmmaker or the cinema. It’s one of the newest forms of disintermediation, the process in which middlemen between filmmakers and audiences are made redundant by new technologies. Though this process has previously manifested in peer-to-peer file-sharing and direct online distribution via streaming services, cinema-on-demand brings disintermediation out of the digital sphere and into theatres.

It’s a twenty-first century truism that independent Australian films don’t make it into multiplexes – which is where most films are seen. Is cinema-on-demand enough to save indie films from vanishing into the sea of aggressively marketed multiplex spectacles?

Cinema-on-demand is not just about allowing fans to nominate what films should screen in their local cinemas. It also replaces expensive advertising budgets for films with social-media buzz, using a kind of consensual fan labour to generate organic word-of-mouth (though, if this is cinema-on-demand’s advantage, it’s also its disadvantage – as powerful as social media is, ‘shares’ and ‘likes’ may not be enough to rival the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on multiplex films’ marketing). This process has sustained Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead (Kiah Roache-Turner, 2014) and That Sugar Film (Damon Gameau, 2014) through their respective several-months-long cinema-on-demand runs across major cities this year via the site FanForce. Cinema-on-demand can also boost screenings through introductions and Q&A sessions with filmmakers – value-adding components that offer viewers experiences they can’t get at home. The cinema-on-demand screenings I’ve attended feel different; there’s a sense of like-minded togetherness. For instance, the Drown event, enabled by the platform Tugg, was a more politicised screening, with publicist Drew Lambert telling the audience, ‘I’ve been a lifesaver since 1992 at North Bondi Surf Club. Homophobia definitely still exists in surf life-saving today […] A lot of the things that you’ll see in this movie tonight still happen in surf lifesaving today.’ All of these factors could mean that cinema-on-demand can change, not just what we watch at the movies, but also how we watch them.

The current tidal wave of rehashed comic-book adaptations may well inspire a counter-tide of alternative programming in cinema. Although the potential for this kind of indie programming may not be Marvel-massive, the pursuit of niche markets can indeed be a healthy and viable business model – if the right structures are in place to support them. There may not be enough demand to sustain a full theatrical release for a film like Drown, but there’s evidently enough for a stream of special-event screenings. And, if those screenings are full, they’ll provide a better audience experience. ‘The vision for Tugg,’ said Francis at the Drown screening,

is that we can take control over this beautiful room that we’re in, which is the cinema, which is where I grew up and which shaped so much of my life, and we can have a bit more control over what plays here. The filmmaking process has been democratised over the last fifteen years, with the advent of cheaper production technology, but that hasn’t been the case with distribution up until now. So it’s about audiences really deciding what happens next.

In Australia, Tugg has been franchised by Leap Frog Films, a boutique distributor that agrees to take on a select number of films for cinema-on-demand release and uses the Tugg brand name. Admittedly, it’s not the same open-slather process as the original Tugg, which connects filmmakers directly to open screening slots at theatres (this, after all, is cinema-on-demand’s great egalitarian, middleman-free promise). But films approved for distribution do benefit from Leap Frog’s experience in supporting small films and delivering them to the market.

Leap Frog managing director David Doepel echoes Francis’ observation that theatrical releases no longer work for small films. He tells me:

Currently, it’s still too expensive to find and activate the target audience for Australian films [in theatres]. There is, however, a segment of the population that is loyal and supportive of Australian cinema. If we can find that list [of viewers] and it becomes repeatable, then there is great opportunity for Australian films being released in a fiscally responsible way […]

Cinema-on-demand has changed the barrier to entry [to theatres], but that doesn’t mean that it automatically generates an audience. In traditional releasing, that is achieved via marketing campaigns, which raise awareness about a film for the general population, or targeted marketing to a particular demographic. The cost, of course, of finding your audience out of the general population and then convincing them to come to the cinema to watch your film is incredibly expensive and very hit-and-miss. And then you hope word-of-mouth kicks in to sustain a season.

The Tugg model works in the opposite way. It starts with word-of-mouth. Individuals are empowered through the Tugg tools to use their own networks to influence colleagues, friends, family to come to a special event.

When it comes to hard figures, Doepel estimates that filmmakers can take A$600–700 from a sold-out Tugg screening, and adds:

there is also a very strong source of secondary income as, the more success a film enjoys in the cinema, the more opportunity is created for ancillary sales and potentially a better deal can be negotiated for such rights. In some cases in the US, real success in Tugg screenings has led to a subsequent regular theatrical release.

The biggest leap has been Screen Australia’s 2015 policy shift to recognise cinema-on-demand screenings as a legitimate distribution strategy that can replace a traditional commercial theatrical distributor and satisfy the funding body’s distribution requirement to trigger production funds. That means filmmakers now have the means to get a small run of theatrical screenings through Tugg, and the possibility of getting their film financed by Screen Australia on that basis. Let’s see if that’s enough to make cinema-on-demand a mainstream rather than marginal proposition – enough to make some kind of disruption to the blockbuster monopoly and bring back small films to big screens.

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