It seems that film-streaming services are about as abundant as film festivals at present. The latest VOD platform to enter the market is Ozflix <http://www.ozflix.tv>, set to launch this year; its mandate is solely the provision of Australian screen works. Most Australian titles are entirely absent from digital shelves, a problem that has been compounded by the closure of DVD stores and remained mostly unacknowledged in media discussions of Australian cinema’s predicament and popularity. It is difficult enough being able to find new Australian films after they’ve finished their theatrical runs; older Australian films are even harder to access. The issue, then, is much bigger than the announcement of a new streaming channel. Underlying the Ozflix initiative is the larger question: how can we support Australian storytelling in the digital age? How can intelligent and artistic films get the audiences they deserve via the right kind of marketing and distribution support?
What we know at present is this: upon its launch, Ozflix will include only feature films, with a long-term plan to eventually include documentaries, television series and short films. Ozflix CEO and co-founder Ron Brown tells me that Ozflix will create two of its own programs, including At the Flicks, a fifteen-minute Margaret-and-David-style film-review show. Each week, At the Flicks will discuss a bundle of five curated films to be featured on the site – for instance, five films from a particular era, or five Nicole Kidman films. In this way, a degree of specialist curation, packaging and recommendation will structure and market the catalogue. There will be no advertising, except for on the Ozflix-created content.
An ambitious directive, to say the least – ‘every Aussie movie ever’, Brown puts it. Is this possible? Brown told me that Ozflix is in negotiations with all the major and independent film distributors, saying there is ‘no difficulty in accessing titles’. Further, Brown says Ozflix is working with the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia as well as federal and state film-policy bodies to access and digitise relevant titles, despite what he describes as a ‘lukewarm response’ from policymakers during the project’s early stages. The issue of film policy should come into play here: digitising the back catalogue of Australian films is surely a public project, something that is in the national interest and worthy of taxpayer expenditure. So far, the task of enabling the digitisation and online distribution of Australian cinema has been left to the market, and the results have been dreadful. Further, the process of digitising and building a library is curatorial – Brown says this process is about ‘making sure we’ve got the right mix’ of titles and genres for the site.
What about the proposed business model? In the all-you-can-eat Netflix era, is a pay-per-view streaming site – which Ozflix promises to be – the best way to provide content to viewers? Issues of access, convenience and cheap digital distribution are crucial to ensuring Australian films can reach audiences in a diffuse and expansive media landscape. Many viewers have already established the expectation that paying to stream individual films is clunky and costly compared to paying a monthly price to choose from a huge library of films. Brown says that, although the pricepoint of the films is still confidential, the company’s market research found ‘an overwhelming response from audiences that twice as many people in the survey wanted to access Australian films online from a pay-per-view model’ rather than a buffet-style approach.
Is adding a new service to an already scattered and hyper-competitive film-distribution market the way to go? The market’s tendency is towards big monopolies amid a sea of smaller services that easily get lost. The iTunes and Netflix brands are already established, and their platforms, already installed on the laptops, televisions and phones of millions of users everywhere. Central to the success of Ozflix will be whether it can delineate a clear ground for itself to stop good films from sinking in the online swamp. Brown makes clear that the business model is to pursue the long tail of a neglected boutique market:
“We don’t have to be a giant; we have to be a well-run niche. We don’t have the agenda of iTunes or Netflix. Copyright owners [of Australian films] would be happy to see the films out there and available. Our business model and the desires of our audience align.”
In this sense, having all Australian films in one place actually demands a new platform: the existing players have no desire to embark on such a project. In terms of the bigger context, it’s still unclear whether VOD has helped or hindered Australian cinema so far. Ozflix could be a game-changer in this regard: a project that puts the question of access at the heart of Australian film distribution. The difficulty of just trying to find an Australian film in such a splintered VOD media-scape is a major problem to overcome. Say you want to watch Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne (2006); you can get it on iTunes and Stan but not Netflix or Presto. The same director’s debut, Bliss (1985), is nowhere to be found online, and must be ordered directly on DVD from its distributor, Umbrella. And say you’ve been inspired by George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) to revisit the rest of his dystopian series. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (co-directed by George Ogilvie, 1985) is on Google Play, PlayStation and Xbox; Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) is on the same platforms as well as iTunes, while the original 1979 instalment is only on Google Play and PlayStation. None of the earlier three Mad Max films are on Netflix – a rather shocking oversight. Even something like Two Hands (Gregor Jordan, 1999), a popular film in the Australian canon, is totally offline. Brown says there are ‘hundreds more of films in this category – entertaining, worthy films that have faded because of time, disappeared without a trace’.
The reality of even just searching for Australian films to watch online is messy and difficult. If Ozflix can centralise local titles and offer them in the one place, and audiences can be assured that what they want can always be found there, it might have a chance of succeeding. Digitising and distributing every Australian film ever through a single platform will prove difficult – but it’s necessary for Australian film culture to thrive.