Ozflix: Every Australian film ever?

Metro #187,  summer 2016

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.


More than Just Tomorrow’s TV: Does VOD Support Australian Film?

Metro #186, summer 2015 – click for pdf

‘Should not those who benefit from films contribute to the investment in them?’

These words were spoken by Tom Clarke in the British House of Commons on 3 March 1999. Then a Labour member of parliament, he was discussing how the UK film industry might be restructured to support the country’s own national cinema. His words were prophetic. They apply just as well to the issue of the new digital-streaming economy in Australia today, and how VOD providers are contributing – or, rather, not contributing – to Australian storytelling.

To date, most commentary dealing with US giant Netflix’s entry into the Australian market, and with the VOD sector as a whole, has focused on whether cheap streaming services can undercut piracy. That question obscures other, much more pressing ones: What does digital distribution mean for Australian stories, and how might Australian cinema thrive in the new streaming economy? Exactly how much local film is represented in VOD libraries? And how is Netflix, the giant of the VOD industry, going to support Australian film?

In today’s on-demand and cloud-dependent era, Australian film continues to face what we might call an access gap: a lack of availability on convenient viewing outlets. In the US, Netflix has a number of under-recognised Australian classics that are almost impossible to see here. The beautiful High Tide (1987) by Gillian Armstrong, a critically applauded and criminally under-seen drama starring Judy Davis and a teenage Claudia Karvan, is one of them. US critic Bilge Ebiri has called High Tide a ‘forgotten film’ with ‘one of the most haunting cinematic climaxes of all time – to one of the greatest films of the 1980s’.

Even though cinema can now reside in iPhones and laptops, the only way we in Australia can see High Tide is by purchasing it directly by mail order on DVD from its distributor – a ridiculously twentieth-century state of affairs, and a sign of how anachronistic our film-delivery systems are. By incorporating older and otherwise-neglected classics into its impressive library, Netflix Australia could bring local films to a new generation of viewers. But its present geographically based digital rights system means High Tide is not available to Australian Netflix viewers. This forms part of a bigger problem: we’re in a situation whereby Netflix is now critical in enabling or preventing films from slipping in and out of distribution – and, thus, the canon and the national conversation.

Currently, a total of 161 Australian films are available on Australian VOD services. On Netflix, there are only twenty-four local films among a library of thousands. Though that pitiful figure changes periodically as new titles are added and older ones retired, it hasn’t changed substantially since the website’s launch. Of those twenty-four titles, there are a couple of new and old classics, including Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971) and David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom (2010), and some great arthouse titles, like Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979) and Robert Connolly’s Balibo (2009), that are increasingly hard to track down in Australia with the closure of DVD stores. All of these films are important in the history of Australian film.

Clearly, the digital revolution has not arrived for local cinema – for the most part, VOD providers are just reselling the same multiplex fare. And, clearly, Netflix’s investment in the local industry that it is changing is currently very surface-level: limited to purchasing temporary online screening rights for a tiny handful of films, some ABC series like Jack Irish, and a small range of local stand-up comedy specials. Given the popularity and quality of Australian long-form televisual storytelling, this could be a huge area of online growth and a promising way to engage local audiences via local stories. Meanwhile, VOD providers have funds and access to audiences, and are unencumbered by the need to perform in terms of ratings and the box office; some even have links to traditional broadcasters and cinemas. Local long-form television could be a wise area of investment for a burgeoning media company like Netflix.

So far, Netflix USA has rebooted its production company, funding independent American films for simultaneous online and theatrical release. In Australia, other new VOD providers like Stan and Presto have already commissioned and funded new local television programs – most of which are comedies, with the exception of a series related to Wolf Creek (Greg McLean, 2005). This is significant, as it evidences the transition of these VOD providers from distribution companies to production companies – a range of new, online-first studios that could deliver the big digital promise of a new way of making and viewing films online. It’s the development that the old-world film industry has feared. As Netflix and other VOD providers enter the market, they not only offer templates for online television of the twenty-first century, but also enable the funding and production of local stories by local filmmakers.

What are Netflix’s obligations, in a foreign market such as Australia, to invest in the local industry? This is not clear yet, nor are even basic considerations like what sort of tax it will pay domestically. The issue of content quotas – that is, treating VOD services like TV broadcasters and applying the same minimum quotas for local content – is fast becoming a touchstone for bridging the access gap for Australian content online. Unfortunately, although Netflix has announced it is funding Michôd’s next project, War Machine (co-produced with Brad Pitt’s company Plan B, to be made exclusively available to Netflix members and released in select cinemas), the feature film will not be shot in Australia with an Australian crew. (Netflix’s public-relations agency did not respond to requests for comment.)

So far, nimble state funding bodies are leading the way. Screen Queensland recently announced it is partnering with Stan to finance and distribute a A$1 million feature film. The ‘Queensland Originals’ project will receive development, production and marketing support, as well as ‘event’-style theatrical and festival release on top of its VOD availability. As Screen Queensland’s program is only open to writers and writer/directors with no more than one feature-film credit, its aim is to unearth new talent, connecting new local stories with audiences through popular distribution online.

The future of Australian cinema relies on plugging the access gap by making films available online, conveniently and inexpensively. The discussion about how Netflix and other VOD providers can be partners in getting Australian film online is of top priority.

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.

Going It Alone Online: DIY Digital Distribution Platforms, Metro

Metro #184, Autumn 2015

In the past year, the Australian VOD market has moved from being radically embryonic to oddly crowded. As the online space has grown and matured, VOD providers Stan, Dendy Direct, Presto, Quickflix and, of course, Netflix have risen up as the new wave of gatekeepers between filmmakers and audiences – all pursuing very similar business models, and all keen to cash in on the 11 per cent leap in online home-entertainment product sales reported by the Australian Home Entertainment Distributors Association last year. Meanwhile, sellers like iTunes, Google Play and Amazon have become sites of first-run Australia cinema: well-reviewed comedy-crime film The Mule (Tony Mahony & Angus Sampson, 2014), for example, skipped theatres and garnered positive press and fan support to debut on these platforms – a first for a local feature film.

But beyond this first layer of VOD providers, an alternative way to reach audiences online is developing: do-it-yourself (DIY) digital distribution. Without costly gatekeepers, filmmakers can now install a player on their own websites and give viewers convenient access to their new films on various devices. This kind of direct distribution has been something of a dream for enterprising filmmakers hoping to keep costs low, avoid the increasingly impossible theatrical market and break out online on their own terms. So how viable is DIY digital distribution, and where is this market headed?

Kasimir Burgess’ slow-burn arthouse drama Fell (2014) was the first in Australia to significantly utilise DIY digital distribution, using its film-festival showings to launch a short online run. Though it was limited by its very short marketing lead time and its incremental, geoblocked release strategy (the film could not debut nationwide due to previous agreements to premiere at festivals), producer John Maynard explains that the experience was an important and useful experiment in how to enter into the online market while maintaining a presence in cinemas. Fell employed the online platform Spondo, which has also been used to screen the Australian films The Jammed (Dee McLachlan, 2007) and 2 Degrees (Jeff Canin et al., 2013) and takes a very reasonable 25 per cent cut from all sales.

Another title that has been of interest to local producers is independent American drama The Ever After (Mark Webber, 2014), featuring Australian actor Teresa Palmer. The film, which debuted online on its own website in February 2015, uses the VHX platform and can be viewed for US$10. That it was available in a high-definition stream as well as a digital rights management–free download is significant, suggesting that DIY digital distribution can allow filmmakers to experiment with business models that enable users to more freely share content in a way not possible on a platform like iTunes. It also offers further revenue and monetisation opportunities, with Alexandra Marvar of VHX telling me that filmmakers who’ve used the platform have gone on to package the film ‘how they want – sell bonus content, bundle with physical goods’, and so on. Incidentally, VHX is also American distributor Drafthouse Films’ platform of choice for screening the seminal Australian title Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971); however, getting online at the right price is still a largely untapped strategy to bridge the ‘access gap’ on our shores, with VHX currently barring Australian viewers from availing of its services.

The real missing link, however, is marketing. Marketing was and remains the factor that journalist Chris Anderson neglected to truly consider in his 2006 bestselling techno-booster bible, The Long Tail, which prophesies that ‘the future of business is [in] selling less of more’, and that the most capable way of delivering niche content to dispersed audiences is online. The Mule’s distribution strategy – in other words, its audience-engagement strategy – was bolstered enormously when it reached the top spot on the iTunes ‘Independent’ chart in the week of its release. The film was given a ‘brick’ (promotional image) on the iTunes front page, was listed in the ‘Top Movies’ and ‘Thriller’ sections, and was searchable in the massively popular store’s engine. In this way, the film was not just distributed but also promoted on the platform, and could be easily discovered by home viewers. Its massive success and active promotional drive would scarcely have been possible without the infrastructural boost provided by iTunes.

Ludwina Dautovic of Spondo explains that the marketing question can be viewed positively: ‘We have the technology to give content creators full control over where their content is sold and, more importantly, where their community is already engaging with them.’ Indeed, DIY digital distribution works best when filmmakers tap into their own fan bases – for instance, through crowdfunding platforms that have already pre-sold the film to donors. Dautovic continues:

“Why not give [filmmakers] the power to sell their content directly from their own website and Facebook page along with other destinations. It’s not an either/or scenario; it’s ‘as well as’. By all means, sell your content on iTunes as there is a customer base there already, but let’s not forget the existing platforms where many producers have built thriving communities who are actively engaging in the now. Why send them away elsewhere when they can purchase the film right there and then?”

“Marketing definitely needs to be considered and implemented to ensure sales. That’s the same with any content that’s for sale. However, when considering how much the distributors take from the producers, if they took a small portion of that cost and used it to market their films, they’d still be ahead. Marketing also becomes an easier exercise when content is sold from sites with a very specific audience.”

Beyond the need to market effectively, a second concern is that filmmakers opting to go it alone online risk falling off the indices through which film impact is usually measured, not least of which is the box office, as well as the often-reported top spots on the iTunes mantelpiece and front page. And, lastly, DIY digital platforms do not finance film production; they merely license their software technologies to filmmakers who wish to self-distribute their completed films.

Depending on how it is utilised, by whom and for which project, DIY digital distribution offers many advantages – though these are also its disadvantages. Without signing with gatekeepers like iTunes, filmmakers can indeed take control, lose expensive middlemen and directly access their own revenue sources. But the price of independence is the need to work on harnessing savvy promotion. The home-viewing market will only continue to gain prominence, and, for filmmakers looking to find a way into that market, DIY direct distribution is becoming an increasingly viable – if untested – option.

Window of Opportunity: The Future of Film Distribution in Australia, Metro

Metro #182, Spring 2014

If you are going to use public subsidy to support Australian storytelling for wide audiences, why insist on the hardest possible medium to distribute it?
— Ian Robertson, entertainment lawyer and deputy chair of Screen Australia (2008–2013)

Does the film-distribution sector play an enabling or limiting role in terms of allowing Australian cinema to reach larger audiences and financial viability? Film distribution in Australia is undergoing a rethink. Prompted by ruptures in the global film industry and the movement from analog to digital systems, film culture is migrating out of the cinema and into a dizzying range of devices, channels and viewing sites. Parallel to this, discourse in Australia is also moving outwards: away from production-centred discussions regarding perceived deficiencies in subject matter, budgets and script development, and towards how audiences and revenues can be heightened using innovative delivery techniques in addition to the theatrical ones we’ve relied on for so long.

Currently, Screen Australia funds are secured when a cinema distributor acquires a film. Platform-neutral market attachment would allow for video-on-demand (VOD) or alternative distributors to take on a film and break away from the theatrical mould into which films are currently forced – a straitjacketing mould that was inherited from the twentieth century and is increasingly untenable today as films reach audiences in and outside of the cinema space. This is the very heart of Australia’s film-distribution problem, which this article will speak to.

Read the rest here.

VOD Distribution Won’t Fell Through, Metro

Metro #183, summer 2015

“There’s been a massive and sudden falling-away of the box office for independent films in theatres in the last five years. I don’t think exhibitors would have ever predicted that we’d be in a situation where audiences are in control [of how they access content]. Consumers are running the game.”

This is producer and distributor John Maynard of Felix Media, speaking to me three months after Kasimir Burgess’ revenge drama Fell premiered in competition at the 2014 Sydney Film Festival (SFF) and simultaneously on video-on-demand (VOD) for a weekend-long window.

This is also his justification for the decision to launch the arthouse film online rather than in cinemas, though it did screen at last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and in some regional centres for a limited run.

What’s the potential for Australian films on VOD-streaming circuits? It’s a bigger question than it may initially seem, but, for the producers of small-budget films that are being squeezed out of theatres, Fell has some interesting lessons to offer. What do the economics of Fell say about the future of film distribution, and is VOD enough to bring the change that’s needed to the Australian film industry?

Fell’s viewing figures are finally in and, although Maynard is reluctant to reveal them publicly, he says the true value of the combined VOD–festival release was not financial.

“It’s a bit of a trial, a bit of a stunt. We put in 106 hours of marketing for a 48-hour release, using the 24-hour news cycle to see if we could make that work. We got a huge amount of support from the industry. It’s a positive way to make exhibitors believe that day-and-date releases could be a benefit to cinemas. They’re fearful. We know we have to include exhibitors in a constructive way. We all know – and, I think, exhibitors all know, all of the parties know – that there’s going to be a big change.”

A full-scale theatrical release would have rendered Fell’s simultaneous-streaming release impossible, with exhibitors wary that online debuts will eat into their share of movie ticket sales.

Maynard pitched the idea of a simultaneous-streaming launch to SFF as ‘a way to spread the festival around the country’. The VOD window did nothing to undermine festival sales, (both SFF sessions sold out, and MFF sales were strong, too), but the festival presence was key to generating steaming sales and hype around Fell as a unique cinema event. The core of the strategy was to utilise the festivals’ press reach, passionate subscriber bases and high-traffic websites to stimulate buzz for the subsequent VOD and DVD releases (with distributor Transmission signed on to take care of the DVD release). This has allowed Felix Media to spend almost nothing on advertising (apart from mere hundreds of dollars on hyper-targeted Facebook ads), resulting in a high conversion rate for those exposed to the marketing and those who followed through on spending A$9.99 to stream the film.

That the VOD market in Australia is still a great unknown is partly to do with the opacity of the online sector – Maynard admits he ‘had no idea if we’d get two viewers or two thousand viewers because there is no public information for VOD in the business’. That leaves strategising on the prospects for other low- to middle-budget prospects in the online space largely speculative, and makes the experience learned from trial-and-error VOD experiments like Fell essential.

Neither streaming revenue nor festival fees are filling the black hole left by dwindling cinema tickets. That means distributing Australian films is still an exercise in devotion and caution, particularly as Fell has not yet made any sales to international festivals or territories.

Without those revenue or distribution paths, Maynard saw his main task as increasing the film’s cultural currency, its resonance and its social capital, which meant avoiding the damaging news stories of yet another local box-office failure in a year that saw good reviews of films like Son of a Gun and The Little Death drowned out by media biopsies of their poor commercial performances. The VOD–festival launch certainly built a soapbox for the film, resulting in 400,000 trailer hits, hundreds of adoring Twitter reviews by viewers, and critical cheer from The Hollywood Reporter, The Sydney Morning Herald and ScreenDaily. But the question still remains: is VOD a ‘relevant alternative’ to theatrical releases, as Maynard puts it?

“Would this create a desire for theatrical [distribution] and not take away from it? I’ve never, ever wanted to cut out theatrical. But normally you’d spend A$600,000 on prints and advertising, or A$10,000 a print, for a theatrical release.”

Despite these costs, the returns on film investments are diminishing by the year for specialty films. ‘Fell still could have a theatrical release, but I have to find a way to do it.’ Maynard still has business faith in the cinema despite the ‘multiplex’ of phones, laptops and tablets that are now assuming the role of exhibition space; by way of analogy, he explains: ‘Everybody has a kitchen but people still go out to eat.’ The big lesson for launching small-budget films? ‘You have to create an event. It can be a small event, but there has to be excitement around it.’

Which Direction? Metro

Metro #180, Autumn 2014

‘Unfortunately, film is dead. Sorry. Film is history. There’ll be no cinemas showing film shortly. Is this a bad thing or a good thing?’ This question from veteran filmmaker Fred Schepisi’s keynote address was a provocative, if not foreboding, blast-off into the Australian Directors Guild Conference 2013. With the theme of ‘Directing in the Digital Age’, the conference emphasised the transition from analog to digital film production and projection. The message from two days of panels and discussions was that the implications of this seismic transformation unfold on three levels – narrative, legal and business – and that the opinions swishing around these three arenas are as splintered as they are forceful.

Within the narrative arena, what does the digital shift mean for Australian storytelling and for directors as storytellers? ‘Digital was meant to make things quicker, more convenient [for film production],’ said Schepisi. ‘That’s horseshit. It’s made things more complicated.’ But rather than glorifying analog and harping on about what’s wrong with digital, he contended that we should ask, ‘What’s right with it? What can you do with it? How can you maximise it? Where can we take it? How can we bring to it the advantages that film had?’ Ultimately, he seemed optimistic:

“The medium actually doesn’t matter. What matters are the ideas, and the voice that you bring to the idea. How can we fit digital and CGI to fit creativity and story and mood, rather than the other way round? Use the medium, don’t let the medium use you.”

Despite the clearly rhetorical nature of a panel entitled ‘Do we really need directors?’, it became apparent that the director’s role has actually diminished in recent years. Does the internet – with its democratisation (whether perceived or actual) of the filmmaking process – belittle the singular expertise formerly owned by directors? What does the current renaissance in high-end television mean for the profession now that the showrunner keeps the vision alive as opposed to the film director? Producer Michael Thornhill was absolute: ‘One thing I know is [that] I cannot make a film without a director who has a vision and holds onto that vision. As far I’m concerned, directors are here to stay.’ But Michela Ledwidge, who works across platforms and disciplines, pointed to the complexity of the newly expanded definition of ‘director’ in an age of media convergence as well as to the abundance of directors working outside the feature-film format.

As for the legal arena, what does the digital switch mean for directors as rights-holders in an age in which piracy is very much socially acceptable? There were two main passages of thought here. Senator the Hon. George Brandis, Attorney-General and Minister for the Arts, represented the old guard when he said he wanted to see intellectual property (IP) rights ‘even more strongly protected’. He added that proposed reforms to the Copyright Act ‘will not impinge on the rights of content creators and intellectual-property owners, but will be designed to further secure and protect those rights’. In a later session, entertainment lawyer Ian Robertson advocated a change of tack – and, indeed, a change of logic – when endeavouring to meet the challenges of piracy and IP:

“There is increasing evidence that technology will defeat regulation, and that the only solution to piracy is for widespread day-and-date availability of audiovisual content to Australian consumers at sensible prices… Regulation may not solve the problem.”

And finally, the third arena: the business of distribution and exhibition. Schepisi underlined the continued dominance of Village Roadshow and other major exhibitors in blocking filmmakers’ access to cinema screens and audiences – something that the near-revolutions in digital distribution have barely affected. ‘The marketers and distributors don’t know how to get our stories out there. They try the Hollywood formulas, which don’t work for us,’ said Schepisi, directly criticising the lacklustre, robotic approach used to ‘sell’ his recent film The Eye of the Storm (2011). He added that ‘there aren’t enough specialist cinema houses around anymore for us’.

Many conference speakers berated a funding system that requires the finance and input of theatrical marketers and distributors whose twentieth-century and cinema-first release tactics are holding back local titles. The frustration was tenable, and extended into the discussion about documentary making. In the ‘Tell us the truth’ panel on documentaries, Trevor Graham of Ronin Films urged a ‘trial separation’ from Screen Australia and television pre-sales, which enforce exclusive broadcast. Instead, he argued that film-festival releases and alternatives such as DVD and digital (ABC iView, SBS on Demand and video-on-demand) releases should be seen as pre-sales that allow producers of government-funded content to distribute more widely in markets where audiences are abundant. More generally, the prospect of collapsing or at least relaxing release windows was seen as far-off but eventually inevitable, and it seems many hope that the new Screen Australia regime will address this increasingly vexed issue.

Many questions, many debates and only two days later, there were few answers definitively proffered. The answers, of course, could only be found outside the conference doors – in practice. Meanwhile, the digital divide continues to widen, and its implications on Australian content and storytelling can only be seen in time.