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Go big or go small

Rob Connolly explains his multipronged approach to tackling the worldwide decline in independent cinema.

Robert Connolly on the set of Barracuda

The theatrical market for middle ground independent movies around the world has virtually disappeared. So how should Australian filmmakers respond?

According to seasoned producer, director and distributor Rob Connolly, there are several solutions.

“We’re seeing a polarisation of movies,” Connolly says. “They either have to be big and bold or small, innovative and adventurous. You can’t make middle-ground dramas for theatrical release. TV is now a better place for that kind of drama.”

The founder of Arenamedia is pursuing all three avenues as well as continuing to mentor emerging talent and pursue alternative release strategies.

Arenamedia’s development slate consists of film projects both big and small and the firm is readying its first TV drama, an eight-parter, which will be announced soon.

Meanwhile, Connolly’s latest effort is directing Barracuda, the four-part Matchbox Pictures drama for the ABC based on the Christos Tsiolkas novel. This is Connolly’s second time directing a Tsiolkas adaptation, following The Slap.

Connolly says he is delighted with the performances of newcomers Elias Anton and Ben Kindon in Barracuda. Both actors were discovered by Mullinars’ Jane Norris (Rob’s wife).  Elias plays Danny Kelly, a Melbourne teenager who yearns for a gold medal in swimming at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Matt Nable plays his coach and Kindon his teammate and rival. Rachel Griffiths and Victoria Haralabidou play the boys’ mothers and Tilda Cobham-Hervey is Kindon’s character’s sister.

Tsiolkas was involved in the script development but trusted the screenwriters, Blake Ayshford and Belinda Chayko to adapt his novel. Connolly is a fan of the four x one hour format, figuring most people prefer to watch TV in one hour chunks (although plenty also binge on entire series).

Emerging actor Elias Anton stars as Danny Kelly in Barracuda

It’s not the only adaptation Connolly has tackled – after producing Tim Winton’s The Turning in 2013, which comprised 18 short films each helmed by a different filmmaker.

Connolly proudly points to The Turning as a springboard for some people to get their first crack at feature directing. Bangarra Dance Theatre artistic director Stephen Page went on to direct Spear for Arenamedia, Simon Stone shot The Daughter for producers Jan Chapman and Nicole O’Donohue, David Wenham has just written and directed a film and Jub Clerc is in advanced development on a feature.

Arenamedia and Andrew Myer (who executive produced Last Cab to Darwin, Paper Planes and The Turning) invested in Wenham’s film, which was shot under the radar. Connolly expects to release the film under his event screenings banner, CinemaPlus. CinemaPlus debuted with Connolly’s Underground: The Julian Assange Story, followed by The Turning (co-distributed with Madman Entertainment), Michael Kantor’s The Boy Castaways and Paul Cox’s Force of Destiny. Screen Australia has supported the CinemaPlus initiative.

CinemaPlus will next release Chasing Asylum, Eva Orner’s documentary which chronicles the raw personal stories of asylum seekers who were sent to live indefinitely on Manus Island and Nauru, and the impact on people who worked at the detention centres.

Connolly says these event screenings enable films to run much longer than would be possible in a conventional cinema release and are serving as effective platforms for ancillary markets. Spear, for example, is having a theatrical life stretching over six months, including outdoor screenings in remote communities using an inflatable cinema provided by Bangarra.

It’s a different cinema landscape to when Connolly started his filmmaking career.

Connolly produced his first film, the Rowan Woods-directed The Boys, in 1998 when he was 27, after serving as associate producer with producer John Maynard on writer and director Gerard Lee’s All Men Are Liars. Ever since, Connolly has been keen to give emerging producers and directors opportunities.

John Harvey, who produced Spear and one of the short films in The Turning, joined Arenamedia under Screen Australia’s Indigenous internship program. Harvey is now collaborating with Arenamedia via his firm Brown Cabs. And Liz Kearney came on board after producing These Final Hours, thanks to Screen Australia’s Enterprise People program.