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Podcast – Feature film Q&A: production, audiences and data

Hear from Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason, producer Sue Maslin AO, marketing and distribution expert Courtney Botfield and much more ahead of the Australian Feature Film Summit.

Headshots of Sue Maslin, Courtney Botfield and Graeme Mason.

Sue Maslin AO, Courtney Botfield, Graeme Mason

Find this episode of the Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Pocket Casts

In October 2021, the first stage of the Australian Feature Film Summit took place and as producers, distributors and exhibitors came together to discuss the future success of the industry, one major topic emerged: data.

“If there’s one thing the streamers have taught us, is that data does matter,” says producer Sue Maslin AO of Film Art Media. “That we [need to] have a much, much more sophisticated understanding and access to data going forward so that we can use some of the tools to identify some very specific audiences and what is required in order to reach those audiences.”

Data will be a key focus for the second stage of the Feature Film Summit on 12 May in Sydney, and ahead of that, on the latest episode of the Screen Australia Podcast, Maslin and Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason run through points and commonly raised questions about feature film. This ranges from questions around how Screen Australia assesses feature film applications, where you can access data and trends.

Maslin says the industry needs to think about what actually makes a project a theatrical feature film.

“Is it the event, is it the experience of it, is it spectacle… is it the scale of emotion? What is going to bring people into a cinema for a shared experience? All of these things are on the table and the one thing I do know is we cannot assume it’s the same as it has operated for decades. We have to rethink: what makes theatrical.”

Mason says active collaboration and empowering producers is key.

“Producers talk to distributors a lot, and distributors talk to exhibitors, and exhibitors sell tickets to the audience, but that circle is not closed, so I think one of the ambitions we’ve got and certainly I endorse what Sue’s trying to do is get producers more actively in that loop,” he says.

Also joining Mason and Maslin as guests on the podcast is distribution and marketing specialist Courtney Botfield who talks through things like comparative titles and marketing hooks. In addition, previous podcast guests including Andrew Mackie from Transmission Films, director and producer Robert Connolly, and Madman Films’ senior marketing manager Michael Matrenza, each speak to how data on audience, box office and sales inform their business and creative choices.

Connolly speaks specifically to how he has used Screen Australia’s free Marketplace intel data in the financing and exploitation of his feature films. Hear more about how you can use this resource specifically on a separate podcast here, by emailing the Marketplace team here, or visiting the Sales and Distribution Support page here  

Find out more about the Australian Feature Film Summit, whose in-person event is being held in Sydney on 12 May, by visiting their website here


Screen Australia’s Fact Finders pages provide comprehensive statistics on the production and release of feature films, TV drama, documentary and other screen content in Australia. They also explore audiences and markets, and provide reports and analysis on industry issues. Pages referred to in the podcast include:

Box office data

Cinema audience data

Production data

Other links

Subscribe to Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Pocket Casts

Audio Transcript

[00:00:05] Caris Bizzaca Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast. I'm Caris Bizzaca, a journalist with Screen Australia's online publication Screen News. Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the countries we meet on. Regardless of where you're listening in from, we are joining from the unceded lands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The work of producing this podcast has been on the lands of the Gadigal people who are of the larger Eora Nation, and I'm grateful to be a visitor and to be able to work on this land. Always was. Always will be. On the podcast today, I'm very excited because we have a number of guests and they're going to be talking to the feature film space in Australia. Why? Well, in October 2021, the first stage of the Australian Feature Film Summit took place. It was virtual - thanks COVID - but the second stage will be an in-person conference taking place in Sydney on the 12th of May. The summit is all about bringing together the sometimes siloed parts of the industry: producers, distributors and exhibitors and strategizing how to create films that are commercially successful and culturally relevant. First up, Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason and producer Sue Maslin will be discussing a number of points that were raised during that first virtual event, covering everything from Screen Australia's approach to assessing feature applications to key trends. One topic that comes up over and over again is data. Not necessarily the most glamorous term, but so crucial for producers, distributors and exhibitors. To show this we'll be joined by distribution and marketing specialist Courtney Botfield, who will talk through things like comparative titles and marketing hooks. From there, we'll hear from a few previous guests on the podcast, people like Andrew Mackie from Transmission Films who distributed the likes of Lion and Ride Like a Girl. There's director and producer Robert Connolly, who made the box office hit The Dry and has Blueback coming out, and Madman films Michael Matrenza, a senior marketing manager who worked on the likes of High Ground. They each speak specifically to how things like audience data, box office data and sales data inform so many of their business and creative choices. Now, Graeme has been generous enough to join this podcast a number of times over the years, but Sue is a first time guest and so a bit of background first. Sue is director of the Australian Feature Film Summit, as well as an incredibly successful screen producer. Many of you would have seen her smash hit feature The Dressmaker, which released in 2015 and became one of Australia's all-time highest grossing films. Sue is not only a producer but also works as a distributor through her company Film Art Media. She has distributed numerous documentaries, including Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible, Brazen Hussies, and most recently, Anonymous Club: Courtney Barnett. Sue's contribution to the screen industry has been recognised in numerous ways, including in 2019 when she was appointed as an officer of the Order of Australia. Just quickly before we get to the chat with Graeme and Sue, remember to subscribe to the podcast through places like Spotify and iTunes, send feedback to [email protected] and subscribe to Screen Australia's fortnightly industry eNews for the latest from the local industry. Now here's producer Sue Maslin and Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason.

[00:03:32] Caris Bizzaca First of all, Sue, can you talk us through what the summit is and its purpose?

[00:03:38] Sue Maslin Well, the Australian Feature Film Summit is a forum that brings together all parties that are engaged in the theatrical feature film space. And it's the first time for many decades that we've had in the same room the exhibitors, the distributors, producers, the creatives, the investors and the screen agencies and everybody focused on the one question, and that is: how can we grow the success of Australian theatrical features?

[00:04:07] Caris Bizzaca Fantastic, and so Graeme, you know, on that point, distributors and exhibitors collaborate all the time, but how can producers perhaps engage more?

[00:04:17] Graeme Mason Well, I think you hit it there, Caris, that basically producers talk to distributors a lot and distributors talk to exhibitors and exhibitors sell tickets to the audience, but that circle is not closed. So I think one of the ambitions that we've got, and certainly I endorse what Sue is trying to do, is get producers more actively in that loop.

[00:04:37] Sue Maslin We're trying to get to a point where we get producers more savvy about audience and audience needs, and they can't do that unless they've got a dialogue directly with the coalface, that is, the exhibitors who day in, day out are dealing with audiences and moreover are collecting really extensive data on those audiences. So we've got to close the loop at that end and then equally bring exhibitors into the space where they have more invested in the success of Australian films. And you can't do that if you're just leaving it to the tail end, when the film is finished, the exhibitor gets to look at a completed film, a trailer, and at that point deciding whether it works for the audience or not. We want to bring exhibitors into the conversation much, much earlier. So as Graeme says, it's closing the loop.

[00:05:26] Caris Bizzaca Mmm, and so was there anything, you know, topics or comments that emerged from that first event that, you know, either excited you or surprised you?

[00:05:35] Sue Maslin Well, it was just a really exciting that exhibitors were really up for it. They want to be part of this space and they want to understand more about where ideas and why particular ideas come to creatives that they feel work for that theatrical space. And equally, producers and creatives want to understand more about audiences because at the moment everybody is thinking about pathway to audience, but in a very unsophisticated way. And producers and filmmakers often have very blunt instruments. That is, they might get to look at the box office, the gross box office performance of certain titles where they can get access to data, but they don't have any of the nuanced information that distributors and exhibitors have about demographics, about audience preferences, about genre preferences. This is the kind of information that producers need to have if they're going to have a much more business savvy approach to the kind of films that they've got on their slate.

[00:06:40] Caris Bizzaca Hmm, and we'll get into some of that data stuff in a little bit. But before we do, Graeme, when a film doesn't work, there's a lot of blame. So distributors are blamed for a lack of spend, exhibitors are blamed for dropping screens, producers are blamed for a film's quality or lack of audience. Who do you find is most often blamed in these situations?

[00:07:08] Graeme Mason I think everybody blames everybody else, and that's not just here. This is in life generally. But I think that's one of the reasons why we're so keen to be doing this podcast today and doing the film summits, that to try and make sure people understand what's happening, because I think that is the biggest thing that came out of the sessions that Sue and Lori and Gino put together is it was very exciting looking, people want to collaborate, but the level of understanding of each person in the chain was quite surprisingly flawed to me.

[00:07:39] Caris Bizzaca In that like each group was kind of only looking inward as opposed to collectively.

[00:07:45] Graeme Mason Partly inward, and partly obviously it's a question of, which is why we're all doing this, is it just about information? Because if it's about information well, then we all need to fix it. If it's about understanding that, you know, how do we make people be clearer? I mean, that central line is producers are helping something get made. They're keen on the cultural and creative result - that's their driver. Exhibition don't really worry about what's on the screen, they worry who's buying a seat to watch something on screen. So they're fundamentally different positions. Distribution's in the middle. So can we even make sure that people understand that - two diametrically opposed things, how do we join up in that middle space?

[00:08:27] Sue Maslin And even something as simple as producers have had years of experience, probably too much experience of pitching to screen agencies and to understanding how guidelines might work and what the particular emphasis may be at the time that drive those guidelines. But very, very little experience of actually sitting and seeing how distributors pitched their films to the exhibitors, which is really what happens at the Australian International Movie Convention every year. And there's a vast, vast difference in how you position work, you know, when you're pitching to those two different markets. So for instance, what we're wanting to do is see producers become much more savvy in understanding what the genre, what the proposition to an exhibitor, how they look at it. Because when an exhibitor looks at a film, they're thinking about their audience behaviours, their cinema clubs, their audience preferences, the kind of demographics that might be attracted to a particular film. And also, they're relying on research that tells them some really, really interesting observations. For instance, and we probably know this intuitively, is that if you look at the top performing Australian films consistently, they seem to tick a few boxes that keep being repeated: they are authentic stories. They're often comedic. They often say something about the Australian character. They often have really unique and distinct landscapes or backgrounds or settings. So these are the kind of things that exhibitors keep saying to us: we want more films that tick these kind of boxes because we know that these are the sort of films we can sell to our audiences.

[00:10:11] Caris Bizzaca And you mentioned pitching there Sue, and there is a pitch event. What are you hoping that filmmakers participating in that pitch event will take away from the experience?

[00:10:26] Sue Maslin Well, the first thing I want to say is we're not trying to reinvent the wheel here or in any way get in the way of the normal business practise of distributors who, of course, have a very unique and important space in between working with creatives and then pitching those projects and building a case for them to the exhibition sector and getting them into cinemas, on screens and into sessions. What we're trying to do is give exhibitors an opportunity to hear what's coming down the pipeline much earlier and give the filmmakers the opportunity to test those ideas before they put huge resources of time and energy and money into developing up ideas if there's actually not a place for those ideas to reside. And of course, we have an incredibly vibrant exhibition culture which ranges from independent cinemas which take up around sixty to seventy percent of all of the screens that are in this country. And then of course the majors and in between we've got some mini majors. So there's horses for courses, if you like. So it's helping filmmakers understand where does their film sit and what is a realistic expectation that sits around that.

[00:11:38] Caris Bizzaca Great, so the next portion of this podcast, I was hoping to run through some of the points and comments from all corners of the industry and frequently crop up at these types of events like the Australian Feature Film Summit. So I'm going to try and be the voice of people in the industry. I'm not going to put on a voice, but, you know, just ask some of the things that seem to come up a lot and think about it as like rapid fire questions. So, you know, short, sharp answers. First things that come to mind. And Graeme, we'll start with you. So, first of all, is Screen Australia moving out of the feature film space?

[00:12:22] Graeme Mason We are definitely not moving out of the feature film space. We've been in there. We're consistently in there. We have huge successes every year. It's an urban myth.

[00:12:31] Caris Bizzaca And so Sue, what is more important, do you think, local or international audiences and success?

[00:12:38] Sue Maslin That both important and important for quite different reasons. So a local success does not guarantee international success, and it's really important that our films resonate with our local audiences. But equally, international success can drive greater awareness here locally, which is why we often have films premiering at the A-list international festivals to get that branding, get that cachet, get that excitement. They're not directly correlated at all, but they are both important.

[00:13:10] Caris Bizzaca Okay, so Sue, should the industry be aiming for greater local share of the total box office, say something like ten percent?

[00:13:20] Sue Maslin I think we should have a goal and I think that goal should be ten percent. I mean we've recently seen what the conditions that are put in place to actually get a box office percentage of sixteen percent which was actually in the middle of COVID. Not repeatable, of course. We wouldn't want it to be repeated, but we saw what happens when Australian films are quality and they are backed and they have campaigns and they find their audience, you get a very significant audience share. Equally, our long term average is around four point nine-five percent. We've got to find something mid-way there that we can all aspire to and then say if we're going to have that goal, how are we going to work together, do business differently and actually hit that goal?

[00:14:03] Graeme Mason Aiming for a bigger box share, absolutely. People have got to recognise though we're never going to be like many non-English speaking territories because inherently we have a problem. We have American and British content which is in the same language as ours. So that's one of the many things that I'd just like producers, distributors, exhibitors to remember and research - what are the unique aspects of Australia, both good and challenging?

[00:14:28] Caris Bizzaca Great, and so Graeme, how much input does Screen Australia have from distributors and exhibitors in the funding decision process?

[00:14:39] Graeme Mason We have almost no direct correlation or invocation with exhibitors in the processes and that's obviously something we're keen to explore further. Most projects that come in to us in any form, whether they be theatrical in this case or television or small screen, have local distribution because that's a pre-requisite of Screen Australia funding, it has to have a route to Australian audiences.

[00:14:58] Caris Bizzaca And Sue, what makes a film theatrical and do you think that that theatrical bar is higher?

[00:15:05] Sue Maslin This is the sixty-four million dollar question and a really important one now in the landscape where we've seen the streamers completely transform the business that we're engaged in and transformed the way that audiences engage with screen content. So we have to rethink what makes something theatrical. Is it the event? Is it the experience of it? Is it spectacle? Having things on the big screen that cannot be replicated so easily on the small screen? Is it the scale of emotion? What is going to bring people into a cinema for shared experience? All of these things are on the table, and the one thing I do know is we cannot assume it's the same as it has operated for decades. We have to rethink what makes theatrical.

[00:15:48] Caris Bizzaca And so you mentioned the streamers there, one for both of you - how do you feel that the streamers have been affecting cinemas?

[00:15:58] Graeme Mason So I guess one of the things, obviously the the whole landscape has changed during COVID. We had cinemas shut, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales. It's changed viewer behaviour, it's accelerated and accentuated what was probably already happening with viewers. So as Sue's describing, you have to think through, not do you want your film to be theatrical, but is it theatrical? What is going to make someone get in the car or get on the train or get on their bicycle and pay to sit in a cinema? There's something special about that shared experience sitting in a darkened room with others you don't know and hopefully friends. But what is it that is going to make an audience pay to see your project in a cinema?

[00:16:40] Sue Maslin The other way that it's transformed the business is that the way that we used to finance films now has been severely challenged by the rise and rise of the streamers. So in the sense that, and this is not just in Australia, it's worldwide, in the sense that distributors used to be able to put up significant amounts of money in many cases against titles that you could then raise additional finance on the back of that market attachment that is really, really pulled back because the distributors are not able to offset that risk in the same way that they used to. There is not a home entertainment market in the same way. There isn't a pay TV or a free-to-air television market. And then they can't necessarily just go to the streamers because the streamers are actually their direct competitors in many cases. So we also have to work out a way that we can work with the streamers going forward if we're going to have a viable theatrical and well, just generally feature business in this country.

[00:17:40] Graeme Mason Sue just raised a couple of really key points that I would love anyone listening to this to be thinking about, particularly producers, but even people in the value chain. It's not just distribution which has changed audience, finance has changed, everything has changed. So if you are trying to participate in the theatrical landscape, you have to do your homework. You have to understand all elements involved. As I said, in the financing and distribution, including long tail, it's totally different than it was three years ago, let alone ten years ago.

[00:18:11] Caris Bizzaca But in that respect, Graeme, do you think Screen Australia is tougher at assessment on theatrical features?

[00:18:17] Graeme Mason I don't think we're tougher. The difference for us is that when we're working with broadcasters or streamers or online partners, we have a distribution partner very actively involved and often putting up almost as much money as we, the federal government, are. So it's very different if I'm working with the ABC or Channel Nine or if I'm working with Instagram. We know what's going to happen with the audience. Theatrical, we're not tougher, but we're just asking questions always about who is the audience you think you're aiming for and how will you get to them? And it cannot just be the answer 'I want to make a film because I want to make a film.'

[00:18:52] Caris Bizzaca And Graeme, another question that crops up is why Screen Australia doesn't fund more commercial features like The Dry instead of art-house films. What would you say to something like that?

[00:19:04] Graeme Mason Look, we're delighted to be part of The Dry success, or The Dressmaker success - Sue's film - or Lion. It isn't like we're turning them down. We are reactive to what comes in to us. We don't-- We're not a studio, we get accused of it, but we literally respond to what comes over our desks. Now, one of the things that we are looking at is how can we be more engaged with all parties to try and find projects of scale of audience. Doesn't mean scale of budget, scale of audience expectations or ambition. So we're looking at that absolutely, to work on that.

[00:19:38] Caris Bizzaca And from your point of view, what are the key trends, whether in feature film development, financing, production, distribution? What are those key trends and what should producers be mindful of?

[00:19:53] Graeme Mason I think some of the key trends that you look at over the last years is, it's been a spectacular moment for Australian content. It's resonated incredibly well in cinemas. The Our Summer of Cinema campaign had brilliant content to showcase, but audiences really wanted to go see it. They love seeing and hearing themselves on screen, there's no question. But we have to deliver content that the audience wants and that they want to consume in a cinema. It's a very different proposition than turning on your computer or the television at home. So trends that I would think of is- it really worries me that more people do not do what we're talking about here, do their own research and keep up to date. I think people have to do that because development, financing, production, distribution have all changed. What audiences want to see in cinemas at the moment, cinema numbers are going back up and they look really pretty good, but they are skewed by a couple of huge blockbusters. We're never going to be in those blockbuster spaces. Unfortunately, exhibition always ask us that. We don't have the three hundred million dollars to make a Marvel film, so we need The Dressmaker's, and The Dry's, and the Penguin Blooms to break out. And hopefully coming up, we've got Blueback, and there's other ones that I think really will resonate. But if you continue to make very tough dramas, which maybe in the current climate, people are more attuned to watching at home than paying to go to the cinemas. And I'm not saying absolutes because we fund everything and every different platform. But think about what is special about your project that will make people want to help you develop it, fund it, and take it to audiences all the way through.

[00:21:42] Sue Maslin One of the trends we are seeing at the moment is the bifurcation of the tent poles, the big Hollywood pictures that Graeme's talking about that are performing extremely well and are bringing audiences back into cinemas. But equally, the independent films, both here in Australia and internationally, around thirty to fifty percent down on normal box office at the moment. We hope that this is a trend that will reverse over time as people get more used to coming back to cinemas. But it is disproportionately affecting older demographics and equally we've now got younger audiences who are, quite frankly, out of the habit, if they even were in the habit of going to the movies, because they've had two solid years of getting the best quality content available on their streaming devices. So not only are we competing there, but we're competing with all live entertainment and all other forms of entertainment that young audiences currently enjoy. So this goes back to the question of, and I know how hard this is because I also work as a distributor, how hard it is to sell every single individual movie ticket. And that comes down to what makes this film theatrical and what is the overall experience that you're going to give any individual audience member attending. So think very, very laterally about it all.

[00:23:09] Caris Bizzaca And so talking then about genre, and in particular horror. So some producers are adamant that horror is underserved in Australia, but then distributors and exhibitors are claiming that horror doesn't work. Why do you think that is, Graeme?

[00:23:27] Graeme Mason Now it's very hard to say absolutes because there's always exceptions to rules, but something again, Sue and I talked about this after the first day, there was a lot of very energetic and passionate people who were talking about their desire to make particular horror films. Traditionally, Australia and New Zealand have not been friendly to those in cinemas. It isn't like the US or Korea or Germany where there's been huge appetite for those. So what we've seen traditionally is genre projects sell very, very well offshore, but don't do great business here, especially in cinemas. So one of the things out of the last sessions where there was many, many vocal people talking about, we needed more horror films, they need to work with us and exhibition because that audience is not paying in cinemas like other parts of the sector. So if they firmly believe there really is an audience there for cinemas, they need to work with distribution and exhibition and us to activate those people.

[00:24:27] Sue Maslin It does actually raise the question, okay, well, what are audiences wanting to watch? And that research has been done and it's clearly demonstrated that the preference is for well-made dramas, comedies, Australian themes, thriller and mysteries, and action adventure stories. They are the genres that rate most highly for Australian audiences. Now that covers an incredibly wide gamut. So that's not to say that any filmmaker has to sit down and in fact you would be destined to fail if you sat down right now and made a film for what you thought the market wanted right now. Because by two or three years or four years, when the film comes out, you'll be by definition out of date. So we're not arguing that filmmakers should start suddenly making different kinds of films for whatever the current market trends are right now. But it is incredibly important to think about what audience attitudes and behaviours and preferences are leading towards and incorporate that into your business plans and into your slate plans.

[00:25:34] Graeme Mason And Caris, another thing that we try and do, obviously, is ensure that there's a range of content that's being made. So we have made films like Little Monsters and Relic and Wyrmwood, obviously Cargo. There's been a whole selection of things that cover different genres. Also, we've got an interesting thing, we've just done the Racka Racka's first feature film and obviously they're the most successful content creators in the country. Now we've all got to work out how we can see, is their online audience going to follow them into cinemas? We've had good exposure behind that because obviously we've done all the Superwog stuff which moved very successfully online into partnership with series' on the ABC. So there's a model there. Now it's in all our interest to ensure that audience is between like say, fourteen and forty, who's currently not serviced by just about anything anyone's making except that online, how do those people, as they move into longer form, how do we take their audience with them and serve them? That's a huge opportunity, I think.

[00:26:35] Caris Bizzaca And, you know, speaking to kind of reaching audiences, with things like marketing, can Screen Australia support marketing to the same level as development, Graeme?

[00:26:46] Graeme Mason So you're asking about how we get involved in distribution and exhibition. One thing obviously worth mentioning is we did just recently give out twenty million dollars to the exhibition sector, particularly the independents, to ensure independent cinemas kept functioning during this period. You know, we were delighted to be able to facilitate that because we recognise not just that they're helping people like Sue get their content out, they're often cornerstones in smaller communities and regional communities of the whole fabric of the place. And again, one of the things we find with Australian films is they over index regionally compared to domestically. Often they play much stronger and much better there. So we're very keen to actually begin to work out in distribution terms, how do we help all those projects, including films, find or best get out to their intended audience. So obviously Ant Grundy has worked here for some time and he already works in this space. We're looking to expand that, give it more assistance, and not just necessarily adding on to work that already distribution do, but working with exhibition and distribution to fund different means of hitting that audience.

[00:27:57] Caris Bizzaca And you know, then continuing to talk about distribution, Graeme, why does Screen Australia require a distributor and sales agent when a producer can go direct to market? Do you think that that traditional model is broken in some ways?

[00:28:14] Graeme Mason I think what people also have to understand is that, well, for our funding, we have to know there is a route to an Australian audience. That is the fundamental reason we all exist. It's about production, but production for an Australian audience, not production for production sake, on its own. So one of the reasons we need a distributor is we need someone to also back up the producers assertion that there is an audience for their film and the distributors in the business of it is showing them and us what that route might be, what it might cost. Because we see a lot of people saying, my film is going to be a four quadrant film. Well, there's almost none of those. We see people saying, I'm going to have sixty thousand dollars' worth of P&A. Now, you can do a lot with that if you've got the right PR support and you know all the levers to pull. But if you're just someone just starting out. I said it before, you may as well stand on the street and rip that money up. You know, to get the big successes, you've either got to do something again, Sue does very well, pressing all the levers with an enormous amount of work and knowledge, or you have to spend hard cash and we're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, which is what studios spend and also successful Australian film spend. It's all about audiences.

[00:29:31] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, you can see that with, you know, something like The Dressmaker, which clearly had an audience. But then from that audience, to be able to hit the numbers that it did in the box office would have spilt over into other audiences from there.

[00:29:43] Sue Maslin Well, you can say clearly had an audience, but right at the outset, none of us expected the level of audience that it did have. And equally, I was consistently told the audience would be limited because at the time and this was back in 2011, 2012, women were not regarded as a commercial demographic. So our ideas about audiences shift. But equally, we have so many more tools at our disposal now. And if the one thing that streamers have taught us is that data does matter, and that is a really central plank of the upcoming feature summit, that we have a much, much more sophisticated understanding and access to data going forward so that we can use some of the tools to identify very specific audiences and what is required in order to reach those audiences. And it's not just a matter of looking at the gross box office performance of a whole bunch of films that may or may not be relevant to your film. So that's one. And then secondly, a big focus of the upcoming summit is how can we better build audiences over time? And the tools that we have available to us now through social media, through impact style campaigns, through to thinking about our films on the screen as only one part of the overall experience. There are so many other aspects to the experience of any given theatrical film, whether it's the experience of bringing audiences and the cinema clubs that give them something to get together before they see the movie through to what happens after the film when it's released. This is the kind of entrepreneurial thinking that we're really wanting to encourage young filmmakers to embrace.

[00:31:30] Caris Bizzaca And so that finishes our rapid fire portion of the podcast. Just moving into a couple of quick questions about data. So Sue as you said, it was a big part of the first event, and there will also be a dedicated panel discussion about data at the second stage of the Australian Feature Film Summit coming up. But how can producers use data to help inform smart business and creative decisions?

[00:31:58] Sue Maslin Well, if you have any given film, it's going to work within a given genre, you need to know how that genre plays to specific demographics, whether it skews more female or male, which particular age groups it's skewing. But more importantly, what are the learnings that we can get from exhibitors who regularly, routinely survey their cinema clubs and survey their audiences to understand what kind of things they look for in Australian films? And we find, without being prescriptive at all, there are certain key elements that keep coming up. Authenticity is one of the number one highest rated values that audiences want from Aussie movies. They want it to speak truly about the Australian experience and not rely on stereotypes. They want films that often are unique, that are surprising, comedic comes up very highly, quirky, which is a term I hate, but having made a film that gets lumped under that category, they like things that are uniquely Australian. So these are the kind of things that are not prescriptive as to how you know, how a specific story may be told. But they are kind of touchstones that as filmmakers we need to be reminded of. So it's getting access to more detailed and more nuanced data. So that is a number one priority of one of the outcomes we want from this Australian Feature Film Summit.

[00:33:29] Graeme Mason And Caris, one thing I think that'll be really important about any data that we get is what we'd need to see is producers and distributors using and listening to that data because what we see unfortunately a lot is someone says, Oh, well, that isn't going to be the case with my project. I think that would be what we're told permanently. And now you can always buck the trend, and that happens all the time. But as Sue is saying, if exhibitors and we, can share a whole lot more information, you have to take it on board and make some very hard decisions about some of your projects.

[00:34:03] Caris Bizzaca And while you're saying that there's a hope that there's more access to data, for the data that is already currently out there, what is both of your advice to producers to stay up to date and to actually engage with the information that's out there?

[00:34:19] Sue Maslin Well, one of the first things I'd encourage producers to do is attend the Australian International Movie Convention, because this is one of the most valuable ways that you can see how our films get pitched up the line to the exhibitors and how they're sold. And the more you can learn about that, the better equipped you are in developing your own pitch, your own proposition, if you like, to the market, to the distributors, because you hear them do exactly what you're trying to do in getting the film financed and picked up by the distributor.

[00:34:54] Graeme Mason And something I suggest, Caris, I'd really think anyone listening to this or attending the feature film Summit: do your research. There was an enormous amount of information on Screen Australia websites, in the trade magazines, both local and international, other entities like the film schools. There is an enormous amount out there, and the onus is on you to stay up to date and learn what's going on in the marketplace.

[00:35:18] Sue Maslin One of the best resources I find is actually the Screen Australia website. There's, you know, really, really significant data and research and thinking that is available publicly. And we hope that the Australian Feature Film Summit website likewise will become a go to place to get additional information and insights. We have all of the recordings of the previous summit available freely on our website now and we expect to have the same for this upcoming summit in the months to come.

[00:35:51] Caris Bizzaca Fantastic, and Graeme, can you talk through what data Screen Australia can share and then what can't be shared?

[00:36:00] Graeme Mason I mean, we have so much data up on our website again, so we've got lots of box office things. Obviously, we do the drama report, we do analysis, we've got information on what deals look like and where people are selling to. What we can't share and we won't share for anyone is commercial in confidence information. So if you're listening to this and you're thinking you get a call from one of the Screen Australia staff saying, 'hey, can we get the data on this?' know that we're going to treat that in confidence. Now, one of the things that we are looking at is how can we further, how can we protect our information and use it for other people going forward? But again, there's lots of other simple things like you can look at the box office twice a week. You can look at it daily, but you don't-- you know, that is available now. Back in the day, it was really hard to find. That's really clear now. You have to be looking at all the bits that we've got, the distribution association's got, exhibition have got, and really think through what that means for your project.

[00:37:00] Caris Bizzaca And just lastly with data, can data be problematic at all? A question for both of you. Sue, maybe you first.

[00:37:09] Sue Maslin Well, yes, it can be problematic if it's used in a blunt way and it's used in a way that doesn't really delve into the analysis and the meaning of that data. So it's not enough just to, for instance, with comparative titles say, oh, this is my genre. Here's a whole bunch of films that are performed extremely well in the genre, they are comparative titles. It needs to be far more nuanced than that, and I've always found in my career it's far better to talk to the people who actually understand how to read that data in a very sophisticated way, which is why I spend a lot of time talking to distributors and to exhibitors about why do certain films perform? Why are they not performing? What do you think about what has happened here? What's not working? What's working, and getting a much more nuanced reading of that data. I think that's really, really important.

[00:38:00] Graeme Mason I think the most important thing about data is exactly that, looking at it coldly and calmly. Don't go in trying to prove what you wanted to say and be prepared to make really tough choices. You know, you have to think through what is the data actually telling you.

[00:38:21] Caris Bizzaca We're now going to hear from some people who do analyse that data all the time, and they use it to make business choices and creative choices for a wide variety of projects, including feature films. One of those people is Courtney Botfield, a film distribution and marketing specialist with over twenty-five years of experience in independent film. She's worked across development, production, distribution and exhibition in Australia and the UK for leading film outfits including Roadshow Films, Transmission Films, Palace Cinemas, Bunya Productions, and the Edinburgh International Film Festival. She has managed distribution campaigns, including those for The King's Speech, Samson and Delilah, Balibo, Boy, Romulus My Father, Sherpa, The Eye of the Storm, Shame and Jirga. Courtney now consults for clients including Kismet, where as head of audience and events, she is spearheading their new national film community focused on positive cinema. And she's also a producer on two Australian features currently in development. Courtney talks through things like comparative titles, otherwise known as comp-titles, which Sue mentioned, but here she is first explaining her process and identifying potential audiences or marketing hooks.

[00:39:34] Courtney Botfield So I have a few different processes depending on the project, because my work as a distribution consultant or a marketer works across films that have a commercial intention. Or films that also have an impact or social change as their core goal. And then looking at how to identify potential audience or what the marketing pathway used for that film. So for a film that is like, working towards a release date at the cinema and then has its ancillary life-cycle after that, one way I look at it is looking for potential brand partnerships or brand integration. So looking at a script and identifying the potential audience for a film and what other marketing channels would apply to that audience. All of this is in, I would say in the lens of like, it's not compromising the editorial or the artistic intentions of the film. These brand partnerships have to be truly authentic from the start and through their life. So you can tell when someone's like on-screen holding up a Coke with the logo right in front of you and you're like, oh, there we go, that was obviously so overt. But it's looking at partners that, you know, that the finished product of that film will be a really good marketing tool for them, and the partnerships have to work hand-in-hand. The other way I work is on films that are looking to achieve social change as their goal. Now, these are not just documentaries that overtly kind of work in one particular topic or theme, but it could be a drama where that issue is more integrated into the narrative of the film. So it's about partnerships with organisations that are also focused on that particular topic and knowing that the film for them could be a really good advocacy tool. So it's all about identifying pockets of potential audience and where they can sit authentically and respectfully with the film and the marketing partner.

[00:41:50] Caris Bizzaca And when you said something like brand partnerships before, can you think of an example of a title that you've worked on where, say, one of those partnerships was really- it worked really cohesively with the script for benefit for both parties?

[00:42:05] Courtney Botfield Yes, so one of the really successful marriages we had with film and the brand was working on Sherpa, Jen Peedom's beautiful film, and we worked with Kathmandu to come and support the film, and that was a really interesting and probably an unusual case study in that in the film Sherpa, it was already filmed, so we brought Kathmandu on in post-production and, you know, in the lead up to the release of the film. But Sherpa actually had a whole load of other brands featured in the film because of all the brands that the different mountaineers were wearing, and that was slightly challenging to propose to Kathmandu because they were like, well, there's other brands in there, why would we want to do that? But the film as a whole was going to speak perfectly to their audience, and because it was a film, what it was actually tackling and what actually - the incredible event that happened in that film and how it turned out, it was an authentic story for them to align with because it was about the kind of bravery of the Sherpas and the respect of what they sacrifice, and Kathmandu very much had a corporate social responsibility line to support the people that do that. So we did a national campaign with them where they did screenings and we did promotions in the stores, and Jen Peedom did particular messages for Kathmandu to use across their socials, so it was a really perfect marriage of the film and that brand because the film just spoke that brand's brand values. So I would say when you're looking to bring on partners for that, you deep dive as much as you can, you make sure that what you're proposing, and often if it's coming earlier on in script stage, you don't have a finished product for them to see, so it's a big risk for a brand to come on to something that's not actually finished. But if you can put together a really good pitch deck and you've got the key package of director, producer, the key creatives, production company, key cast locked - as solid as package as you have, and you have identified your audience, where your marketing channels are going to be, where people are going to see the film - are they going to see it at the Palais in Cannes? Are they going to see it on Netflix? Are they going to watch it on YouTube? When are they going to see it? And how you can make it work for that brand at every single touch point that an audience will get to see it.

[00:44:35] Caris Bizzaca And when do distributors make box office projections?

[00:44:41] Courtney Botfield They make them really early on, so distributors are meeting with producers to discuss their upcoming films. They're reading scripts, they're going to markets and watching stuff at a market. They're looking at a sizzle reel. As long as the key components of a film package is really firm and strong, which is a good script, that they've got the key creative team locked in, a good director, producer, the production company is reputable, there's key cast attached, then a distributor can start to identify where that film will sit in the marketplace. And now more than ever, it's not just looking at its theatrical performance, comp-films theatrically, but where it sits in its entire lifecycle. So the more that a producer can come to a distributor with that lens of, I mean, distributors will have their own opinion, but if a producer is thinking like that and comes to the distributor and says, 'this is who I identified the market is and this is where I know they are. And whilst so many films, yes, they have universal themes and audience is not universal now. They are niche, they are everywhere and segmented. And you have to identify every nook and cranny in the content consumption landscape of where they are, how to get to them, how to maximise that reach. That's the way a distributor is looking at something. So I think if you come to them with that, you're speaking their language, it's really going to help.

[00:46:12] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, and you mention 'film comping' there. What is 'film comping' and when is it used, like, how would you approach it?

[00:46:24] Courtney Botfield Yes, so it really is looking at where a film sits in the marketplace. If it's a finished film, it's much easier because you can- you've seen the finished product, you can assess if it's achieved everything it was trying to. But, you know, as distributors they're looking early on as possible so they can be competitive in the marketplace. It's looking at that really kind of clichéd thing of 'it's Alien meets Ghostbusters' or, you know, so it's looking at film going 'these are the comp-films,' either it's looking at genre or is it comparable to other festival premier films or where is it going to launch its life? What's its pathway going to be? And looking at the box office performance of those comp films, so looking at Comscore or Box Office Mojo. There's easy ways to pull box office data internationally from some of those sites and do an analysis based on those performances in different territories - internationally or just Australia, and looking at its performance across VOD, rental, potential streaming, as well as theatrical.

[00:47:37] Caris Bizzaca And I've heard of 'film comping', so there are some of the ways where film comping is used where it's looking at the film itself. So yeah, like you said, you know, it's 'Aliens meets Jaws' and using kind of box office and things like that. But then I've also heard of people thinking about film comping in terms of not what's going to be playing on the screen, but who is going to be sitting in the chair watching it. Have you heard of that approach? Could you talk through it if so, and how it's useful?

[00:48:10] Courtney Botfield I think they go hand in hand. So what is handy is being able to say 'it's a film like Ghostbusters and this is the audience that came to that.' Then you can look at that audience and break down that audience into a data set, and that's a really effective way of then being able to articulate who your audience is, because as much as you can say, 'Oh, a film could potentially make this', it's also- you need to know in order for it to make that, how are you going to get to them? So in all the strategies I do for films, it's looking at not only the demographics but the psychographics of potential audiences and then looking at the revenue streams that that film can bring in.

[00:49:01] Caris Bizzaca And so, yeah, you mentioned their demographics, psychographics. What data sources do you use?

[00:49:10] Courtney Botfield Yeah, well, for the nuts and bolts of theatrical performance in the box office, there's, you know, Box Office Mojo or Comscore, Numero and you're looking at all the other trade sites, IMDb and Deadline, to kind of draw box office analysis of those comp films - be it by territory, its lifetime performance or its opening weekend or its opening day, and you can really drill down into that. For me, because I come from that marketing and audience lens as well, whilst I have done a lot of acquisition stuff in my time, my input is coming from that marketing audience lens. I just research the hell out of everything from looking at other film campaigns and what they've done on social and what they've done in their cinema release and their marketing campaign and what their key art looks like. And, you know, it's bringing all those elements that I know make up the three-sixty of a film campaign, and for me it starts to go, okay, I'll take a little bit of that, I can take a little bit of that, always knowing that a film is its own unique property. And as much as we all would love to be able to predict what a film's going to make, the beauty of film is that you sometimes get those completely out of the box hits, or something that's so surprising, and then the thing that you think is really going to work, it doesn't for whatever reason, but there really is so much open source data out there, and interestingly in the impact work that I do, so the films that, again, are trying to - their goals is not as purely commercial as other films, but they are trying to, they want the film to make some kind of social change. There is a wealth of information about other existing campaigns out there and what they did and how they approached it. I would love to see that happen a little bit more in the kind of commercial sense because I think it's, you know, we could only help each other, but yet there is a huge amount of information out there.

[00:51:21] Caris Bizzaca Some of that information, as Courtney noted, is around box office data. Historical box office is the most commonly used data point for exhibitors and distributors. As a bit of an exciting announcement, Screen Australia will be working with Numero to publish some top line Australian box office data on our website in the coming weeks. This will capture films released over the past ten years and include title, release date, distributor, widest screen count, and total box office. Filmmakers will be able to use this data to understand where their project fits in the theatrical landscape, as well as support stronger applications for production investment funding and also inform better decision making at script development stage. But speaking of box office, here's Andrew Mackie, the joint managing director of Transmission Films, who distributed hits like Lion and Ride Like a Girl, explaining why every filmmaker should learn how to read box office data.

[00:52:18] Andrew Mackie I always recommend that you look at the box office chart every week, understand it, get a grasp of how it works, and even before films open, start to play in your office: bet what films are going to make, try to refine that skill, and it is a skill and some people are great at it. It's thinking like a distributor or an exhibitor and it's sort of like watching stock prices, you know, it's understanding what's going on in the market and it tells you the sort of temperature or health of certain genres, types of film, what they can do. So I'd say study box office, as boring as that sounds.

[00:52:56] Caris Bizzaca And just based on a couple of things that you said then, I just wanted to check with the box office studying - when people look at box office results, there's, you know, the final number for that weekend, but I've been told to typically look at the average per location?

[00:53:15] Andrew Mackie Yeah, that's a great point. So yeah, what you should look at is how many screens it's on and the per-screen-average. So as a general - I mean, just to get you started - as a general rule, when a film opens on a Thursday, it's taking for the day, we tend to multiply by between eight to ten to get the week result, like the total first week box office. So, you know, if you get the first day's results, you can kind of guess what the first week will be. And then you say, okay, well, if it drops, is it going to drop fifty per cent in its second week like a big studio movie? Or is it going to hold and maybe drop twenty, thirty percent, or not drop at all and these are the kind of, this is the analysis we do. And you know, per-screen-average is important because if it's a very low per-screen-average, it means a lot of cinemas are probably going to take it off the next week. So yeah, I think if you're going to drill down into box office, they're the main numbers, you need to look at, the main fields: per-screen-average, daily gross, weekend gross, and total gross, and number of screens.

[00:54:17] Caris Bizzaca Another recent podcast guest was Michael Matrenza, a senior marketing manager at distributor Madman Films, who worked on the likes of High Ground. Here's Michael explaining how Madman films use data, in relation to marketing spend, box office expectations, and tracking audience engagement in the lead up to release.

[00:54:36] Michael Matrenza You know, the main things that we look to when trying to sort of predict what sort of investment we're able to make on a film's marketing campaign is really around data. So our sales team spent a lot of time looking at comparative titles. So, you know, we try and really do our best to, I guess, get as much predictive data in the mix there as to what the sort of range of opportunity looks like. You know, we try and build out scenarios of a low, medium and high box office scenario and from there, you know, determine where this film might be sitting. Of course, we look at seasonal trends. Obviously, it's so important for a film to get the date right of release. And so we definitely look back at how films that have released at that particular time of year have performed previously. But one thing, and that's obviously things that have been happening for decades in the industry, but one thing I guess that's a bit of a newer opportunity for us is we can get a lot of live data now during our campaigns and so we try and be as dynamic as we can. You know, we might have set out budgets and plans early in campaign, but we keep an eye on a lot of metrics like audience engagement, traffic to websites, social media engagements and of course, some of the more anecdotal feedback that we're getting from our exhibition partners and that sort of thing, and try and look at those really on a weekly basis in the sort of three to four months leading up to release to try and determine if things are tracking as we'd expected. A lot of Australian films that are sort of much broader release can use market research tracking data that gives insights into audience anticipation for films. But we tend to find that's a little less relevant for medium sized releases - they are only really necessarily relevant for, sort of, the larger scale two hundred screen plus releases. But the data that you can get that's sort of live and, you know, sits on dashboards that we can look at any given moment, in any given day can really sort of act as a really good barometer for how things are tracking for a release. So that enables us to, from those early, I guess, estimates that we make based on historical and comparative data, that enables us to sort of be dynamic and assess how things are going throughout and potentially adjust some of those figures, both with regards to box office expectations, but also with regards to spend.

[00:57:02] Caris Bizzaca Another type of data that is available for Australian filmmakers and producers to use is something like Screen Australia's free marketplace intel data, which can help with the financing and exploitation of titles. Here's Robert Connolly, the director, producer and co-writer of features The Dry and upcoming Blueblack, explaining how it's helped him.

[00:57:23] Robert Connolly  I've been using the marketplace intel and help right throughout my career, even if I go back to my first film, The Boys, with the Australian Film Commission and then many of my other films with the Film Finance Corporation and now with Screen Australia, it's kind of got this incredible department and like a kind of opportunity to be a sounding board for where the marketplace is sitting, to have intel, to follow things up, to help be strategic about how we finance and then exploit our work. So I guess the tricky thing is always as a producer, that you're only ever working on your own work. And I remember, I think it was the Sundance Institute for a while had a project called The Transparency Project, and the whole idea was what if we were all transparent, what if we just shared information with each other about what territories are selling for and what you can expect, without ever giving the specific details, just help each other out. And I think there's a lot to be said for a market like Australia being very aware of its value in the world and all of us helping each other. And I think that's been a wonderful thing that Screen Australia has been able to help with.

[00:58:34] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, okay, and so in terms of the way that you would use Marketplace, would it typically be in that financing stage of a production or later on in the production's life?

[00:58:45] Robert Connolly I think it's all through it, actually. Definitely later on, you know, when you have a film completed and then you're working out how to sell it and exploit it, or in the case of our current film, which is pre-selling really well, you know, talking about what the market expectation is and Screen Australia's always had a massive amount of research and intel about where the world's at and where markets are emerging and where innovative opportunities might arise. So no, I think definitely down the track, I mean, early on, I've always found Screen Australia very helpful when you're financing the film too, because, you know, they've kind of very aware of what the opportunities are that are becoming available or what the value should be. But that's the trickier end and I think the further exploitation of a film, the taking the film to the world and knowing the value of it and getting the best value for it is something that, you know, Screen Australia is really being critical in helping us navigate.

[00:59:45] Caris Bizzaca And so just as a kind of, you know, kind of paint a picture of how it might work, so is it in the financing stage or in the kind of stage where you're getting pre-sales or sales coming through, you're calling up Marketplace to try and get an idea of how that deal might look compared to other deals. Is that correct?

[01:00:06] Robert Connolly Yeah, it's also getting a sense of trying to value your work, you know, like trying to value what you've created in terms of the international potential of it and not really being able to value your work in the bubble of your own experience. It's always been a trick for Australian cinema, particularly to know how to value ourselves in a current market with no real comparables. You know, there's always been this sense of well, cinema is just about one film in every blue moon comes out and it's a success and all the others don't work. And that's not what we're finding. What we're finding is that they all can be successful to a point if you're careful and realistic and if you work with the right partners and if you're willing to accept the commercial value of your work and with some expertise and help and obviously, you know, Screen Australia's got a big overview over many years of a massive big sample films and can look at things in a more holistic way than a smaller independent company like ours can.

[01:01:15] Caris Bizzaca Do you mean in terms of like, say there are a few feature films, but maybe the film that you're working on is of a specific genre, or it's for a certain demographic, like a children's or a family film or something like that, that you can get a better gauge of how it sits internationally. Is that what you mean?

[01:01:33] Robert Connolly That's right, yeah, and the more collective knowledge gets around those kind of markets, so you can kind of say and discuss with Screen Australia specific sales company, are they a good sales company for this type of film? And you know, and how is that track record kind of helped or how is the market responding to a particular type of cinema coming out of Australia. You know Screen Australia has specific markets like can talk to me about, well, this distributor in France has offered this amount of money and can share information about that specific territory, which can be very helpful, for example. And it's an incredibly complicated jigsaw puzzle, putting together the international life of a film in a creative endeavour where risk and adventure is always rewarded at the extreme when work is excellent and sublime. So it's really tricky because you're kind of looking you're looking to mitigate risk when you're financing a film, but you know that that film needs to take a big risk to be truly successful.

[01:02:41] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, to have the pay off.

[01:02:43] Robert Connolly That's right, so you've got to navigate those two things.

[01:02:50] Caris Bizzaca For anyone interested in accessing that free data Robert was talking about, you can contact the team at Screen Australia through the email [email protected] or checking out the sales and distribution support page on the Screen Australia website. Also, visit the Fact Finders section of the website to look into trends across factors like: how many screens and cinemas Australia has, how many people go to the cinema and how often they go, their lifestyles, their values, and of course there's also box office data and data about production as well. We'll place specific links to all this in the show notes. A huge thanks to all of our guests on the podcast today, Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason, producer Sue Maslin, producer/director/writer Robert Connolly, and distribution and marketing specialists Courtney Botfield, Andrew Mackie, and Michael Matrenza. Remember to subscribe to the fortnightly Screen Australian newsletter to keep up to date with new initiatives, opportunities, videos, articles and more. Thanks for listening.