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94 films: a commercial analysis

Making profit from film is a long game.

Overview

This analysis aims to open up discussion about the commercial performance of film by drilling down into all the films that Screen Australia has invested in that have been released. (See the names of the films in the sample; read about the nature of the sample).

The analysis identifies which films have excelled – in Australia, internationally and overall – and delves into various factors that help explain why. Each film is different and nailing why one and not another appeals to buyers at the time of financing and to audiences at the time of release can be elusive and subjective. The producers of the stand-out financial performers also provide comment.

Let’s begin by getting a truth out of the way. As of 14 March 2017 not one of the 94 films had returned all its production costs and gone into profit. A couple are very close though.

This truth may be misleading. Just because the budget of a film hasn’t been paid back doesn’t mean no one is making money: exhibitors may have earned a handsome sum; there’s little doubt lenders would have come out ahead; sales agents and distributors may be earning significantly from commissions; and certain investors may be in profit because they provided funding on the promise of being paid back first. Also, making profit from film is a long game and this analysis is just a moment in time. In other words, all 94 films continue to attract revenue however small the dribble, because of the so-called long tail.

This truth will be startling to some. Many don’t understand the film business or wear rose-coloured glasses about the general profitability of independent film.

This truth is uncomfortable but not surprising for Screen Australia. Making money is not Screen Australia’s key motivation: more important is ensuring Australia has quality local content that connects with audiences and the industry is sustainable so that films keep getting made.

Home grown films have significant cultural value. They are shaped by Australia and can also shape Australia.

This analysis concentrates on commercial value only and some may argue that this brushes aside cultural worth, a principal motivation behind Federal Government subsidies. But commerce and culture are all tangled up in the film space. For example, if a film is reaching large numbers of people and is the talk of the town, not only is the value of the cultural subsidy significant but a good deal of money is also changing hands. Assessing success based only on commercial performance is therefore not as narrow as it might at first seem.

Making and distributing films directly contributes to the strength of the economy through jobs and economic activity; and the creativity, collaboration, innovation and technology that underpin work practices can indirectly and positively affect the whole business sector. Film can also serve as a soft diplomacy tool internationally and be a major drawcard for tourists.

Many filmmakers find it challenging to survive financially. There are very good reasons to pay close attention to how and why revenue flows from the exploitation of films because it can have a direct impact on a filmmaker or production company’s ability to keep producing.

A lot of data held by Screen Australia is confidential and cannot be used without permission. Big thanks to the producers who co-operated and the colleagues who provided input.

The ultimate measure of commercial performance used in this analysis is “percentage recoupment to budget”. This is the amount of net revenue earned by the film as a proportion of production costs. Cinemas take a big slice of theatrical revenue and every sale delivers a commission to the distributor or sales agent. Taxes, marketing and distribution expenses, interest and other charges have to be paid before production costs can be paid back. There may be some discrepancies between Screen Australia’s calculation and the records of other investors due to differing currency exchange rates and to bank charges that other parties may incur and Screen Australia is unaware of. The exchange rates used were those applicable around the date of each transaction. All figures are in Australian dollars.

ABOUT THE SAMPLE

The 94 feature films are those that were made available to the public before 14 February 2017 and have investment from Screen Australia, which opened for business on 1 July 2008. (Note that the data was updated on 14 March prior to the publication of Part 2.) It takes some time to get a film to market: the most recent films in the sample were financed in 2014/15.

Most of the local features that the Australian public were aware of during this period are in the sample. The exceptions are those with bigger budgets, Hacksaw Ridge and Mad Max: Fury Road for example. They didn’t get production funding from Screen Australia but, according to the producers, both accessed indirect Australian taxpayer funding via the producer offset.

Screen Australia’s recoupment division doesn’t have access to financial data on films the agency doesn’t invest in. The budgets of the films in the sample range from $560,000 to an unusual $28.7 million – the second most expensive film cost $21.6 million.

An additional 15 features received Screen Australia assistance up to and including 2014/15 but have been excluded from the sample because the support was in the form of grants and full financial reports are unavailable. Documentary features were also excluded irrespective of whether they were supported with investment or grants.

Not included are Australian films: funded by predecessor agency Film Finance Corporation Australia; the low-budget pictures that get made each year without Screen Australia support; and, as mentioned, big-budget films backed by the Hollywood studios or others.