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Stories valued: 'Horses for courses' in backing Australian films

How can we ensure local stories continue to be valued? A strong cross-section of Australia’s film industry came together last week to discuss how to retain the value of feature films amidst changing audience behaviours, including high levels of piracy and a changing distribution market.

Producers, exhibitors and distributors in Melbourne and Sydney discussed challenges, risk and innovation opportunities at the ‘Stories Valued: Audience and revenue in the new distribution landscape’ events hosted by Screen Australia, the IP Awareness Foundation (IPAF), Screen NSW and Film Victoria.

Speaking at the events, UK distribution expert Peter Buckingham noted that for independent features everywhere, the value chain is under pressure. He cautioned against a one-size-fits-all model for distribution: while new distribution models can work for some films, the rush to have every film available on all platforms can push prices down. Peter was optimistic about potential growth in demand for local films to meet local appetites as studios focus on rising markets in a changing global marketplace.

The lack of published data about performance on video-on-demand services and the small overall revenues from these platforms were cited as challenges in the evolving distribution system. The events also featured recent research on online audiences and a resource on VOD deals by Screen Australia as well as research on piracy trends by the IPAF, alongside panel and Q&A discussions with local industry practitioners.

In Sydney, the panel included Greg Hughes (Dendy/Icon), Jude Troy (eOne) and Jamie Hilton (See Pictures), and in Melbourne, the panel featured Seph McKenna (Roadshow), Katharine Thornton (Sharmill Films) and Eddie Tamir (Classic Cinemas) alongside Robert Connolly (Arenamedia).

The panels discussed the importance of audience access to local films, including via theatrical release – which was still perceived by many as the ‘gold standard’ viewing experience. New models were also discussed including:

  • a tiered model for theatrical release of different kinds of films, with agreed scaled release windows prior to availability on home entertainment/VOD
  • See Pictures’ Ticket to Ride low-budget production which may include digital first release
  • Screen Australia’s digital distribution pilot supporting features through digital first release
  • experiments by distributors around releases for projects such as The Mule
  • more direct relationships between producers and exhibitors
  • filmmakers starting to ‘think like distributors’ about their films
  • advocating for amendments to Producer Offset legislation to enable a platform neutral approach to feature film release and remove the market distortion.

The conversations highlighted the need for the industry to innovate, take risks and to accept some failure in order to be able to experiment with new approaches for certain films. While Screen Australia does not hold all the levers, and needs to work closely with industry in this area, the agency can take a leadership role in facilitating conversation, supporting innovation, advocating around legislation and experimenting with new models.

A strong understanding of the audience experience, as well as understanding the potential of any individual film to generate interest via bespoke release strategies, will be essential to ensure films retain value and continue to be valued by local audiences in a changing and crowded distribution market.

Screen Australia will be releasing a ‘state of play’ overview on feature film distribution in the coming weeks.

Stay tuned for further events and conversations on these issues.