Is there a case for Australian films on the big screen?

Sue Maslin, director of the Australian Feature Film Summit, a producer and distributor, says there is a theatrical future for local features if the industry starts doing business differently.

In March, I attended the Screen Forever conference, which provided a first glimpse of what “business as usual” might look like for screen producers after COVID. In a busy three-day programme, there was only one session dealing with theatrical productions. (One and a half if we count the excellent course on feature documentaries across all platforms, including theatrical.)

At the conference, a senior executive from one of the regulators that heavily influences Australian content on our screens asked me: “Is there really a case for Australian films in cinemas?”

The Australian Feature Film Summit defines this case, and based on the 480 creators, distributors, exhibitors and investors who registered and attended the Virtual Summit in October 2021, there is significant support for local features to continue on the big screen.

However, there is no doubt: the world has changed and the public continues to move forward. The notable drop in movie box office grosses this year shows audiences are slow to return to movie theaters, the exception being the obvious studio poles.

And if Screen Forever is any clue, the work has moved on, too.

The explosive growth of content on streaming devices and subscription numbers means that it is more important than ever to clearly define and communicate the point of difference and value that cinemas and theatrical feature films offer.

For this reason, the theater sector is looking closely at how we would do business differently moving forward and everything is on the table.

The value proposition to audiences is not strong enough unless the films are great, cinematic, good value for money and possibly linked to event offerings. Australian films cannot compete on the same basis as studio pictures in the absence of meaningful marketing expenditures, no matter how good the films are. A one-size-fits-all approach to release schedules, where the opening weekend is the only determinant of whether a film can retain its screens and sessions, mitigates the longer creation time that local films require.

The lack of data available to creators about what movie audiences want means that we have a pipeline of development that has nothing to do with the market or at all. Of course, broadcasters don’t share this data either, but it’s broad, complex, and informs every commissioning decision they make. Unless we know better, broadcasters will always be on top in terms of customer behavior and information. Exhibitors are the end of our retail business, yet they do not commission any commissions, and so far have had little say in Australian films that are shown until very late – when the full movie is shown to them.

There is no denying that this is a high-risk business. The bulk of the 50+ feature films produced in Australia each year never find their audience as a result of our combined failure to address a system that simply isn’t working. But some films are resonant and backed by enthusiastic distributors and exhibitors. We need to make more of them every year and that’s where the top Australian feature films come in.

The Summit has one primary objective, which is to grow the success of the Australian feature film sector and to enable all players, including audiences, to benefit from this success.

So let’s take off the gloves and ask “what if?” Questions:

• What if producers could learn more about audience trends and what would tell them to choose audiences from those closest to them – exhibitors and distributors?

• What if exhibitors were more ‘invested’ and could be motivated to improve Australian films’ performance with audiences?

• What if we pushed together for a massive injection of money so that marketing was given the same importance as film development and production?

• What if Australian films had a preferential set of terms related to the number of screens, sessions and flexible programming that enabled good films to find their audience?

• What if we had a more complex understanding through everyone Parties in relative risk/reward profiles and how do they need to balance against each other in the future? This means that we study the inversely proportional value chain according to which those who invest early and take the above The degree of risk (equity producers and investors) receive the least Reward by redemption, while those at the end of the series, the showrunners, take the least amount of risk, but receive the largest share of the box office in Australian films.

• What if producers, directors, and writers thought more deeply about the types of projects suitable for a theatrical release in this new environment?

• Finally, what if we could find more mutually beneficial strategies between theatrical and theatrical performances that led to greater returns for all stakeholders?

I have tremendous hope that all players – exhibitors, producers, distributors, screen agencies – are ready for those tough discussions and have come together in one space with a common focus on building the success of the local feature film sector. What is working? What is missing? And how can we work together more effectively moving forward?

And as for answering the question “Is there really a case for Australian feature films in cinemas?”

Yes, but not unless we have the courage as an industry to do things differently moving forward. If we keep sitting on our hands and go back to “business as usual,” the audience will answer that question for us.

The second stage of the Australian Feature Film Summit will be held on May 12 at the event George Street cinemas, with some sessions available to watch online.

This article originally appeared in IF Magazine Apr-May #205. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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