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Digital agitation: Time To Go John

Catherine Gough-Brady

Rod Quantock, Time To Go John Rod Quantock, Time To Go John
Time To Go John (TTGJ) represents a new incarnation of cinema on the net and DVD. It is also part of a new documentary genre. In the bar of the 2004 Melbourne International Film Festival, Pip Starr and I whined about the lack of Australian documentaries critiquing the government. There was Tahir Cambis and Helen Newman’s Anthem (RT62, p18), but it seemed unlikely to attract distributors. Otherwise there was a dearth of brave filmmakers willing to critique their principal patron, the government. After Pip left, I realised it was possible to create a documentary critique of Howard’s government and get it onto screens before the next federal election. The key was to create a compilation of 5 minute works by individual filmmakers. There was no way the TV broadcasters would have the stomach for this, so it had to go into the cinemas.

For years now the film schools have been training documentary makers, and at the same time TV hours for screening documentaries have been dropping. This has created a crisis. Baby boomers (bless their radical souls) have addressed this by lobbying the broadcasters and the funding bodies. But generation Xers have, on the whole, been quietly discussing for some months the possibility of bypassing the limited TV hours and moving into the cinema and onto DVD and the net.

Meanwhile, in America new laws have restricted the use of campaign money. To deal with this the political parties have set up arms-length web sites and organisations. Robert Greenwald (director of Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War Journalism) has been commissioned by to make a series of films about what’s wrong with America under Bush. Greenwald’s team have taken underground techniques into the mainstream. They combine direct sales from the internet with copyright free versions of the films, so people can burn and distribute them themselves. The audience then watches the DVD at home with their friends. I was handed a home-burnt copy of Greenwald’s recent doco on the Iraq war, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War, at a party in Melbourne in mid-2004. Here was a distribution network that thrived on the increasingly fragmented nature of modern cultural consumption.

Back in Australia, John Howard represented a common ‘enemy’ that united a group of producers, editors, distributors, post-production facilities, cinemas and filmmakers from around the country who would never normally have co-operated. In 8 weeks the TTGJ team created a feature film from conception to opening night. No mean feat. Thank you John!

The production team used old activist techniques that they probably hadn’t employed since their uni days, the difference being that everyone was now professional, and very capable. Kate McCarthy headed up the production team who organised the shooting of the linking segments featuring Rod Quantock. With no budget she sourced a set, studio, crew, a top post-production facility and audio mix. Philippa Campey became the liaison with the filmmakers who submitted segments, and she kept track of the money. While it was a no-budget production, DVDs were selling at quite a pace. Carmela Baranowska teamed up with HT Lee to coordinate the theatrical release. Jennifer Hughes had already begun the process by securing seasons at the Lumiere (Melbourne) and the Mercury (Adelaide). The sweetener for the cinemas was that TTGJ wouldn’t take any box office; in return cinemas had to show a film they wouldn’t see until they turned on their projectors for opening night. It hadn’t been cut at the booking stage, so no-one could tell them how long it was going to be or which filmmakers would be in it. They were also asked that they slot it into schedules normally booked months ahead.

Carmela brought Gil Scrine’s film company on board to help with marketing and distribution. Gil pulled screenings of his own so that TTGJ could hit the screens in Sydney. The theatrical release team identified all the marginal seats and heavily promoted small screenings in these areas, using the Greenwald distribution model. Buyers of the DVD registered to have literally hundreds of classification-exempt screenings. Andrea Foxworthy liased with the censorship boards in each state to organise the classification, pushing the bureaucracies to the limit.

Meanwhile the website was constantly growing. It started as a call for entries and internet guru John Pierce together with Keren Flavell worked with a Sydney designer to transform it into a fully fledged site containing all the films in download versions. The site was a winner. DVD copies of the film were sold before it was edited, let alone burnt, and that funded the initial DVD production and post-outs. Here was a national release film self-distributed and funded entirely from internet DVD sales.

John Pierce created a full version of the film using ‘bit torrent’ technology and people from around the world started to download. There are over 1,190 mentions of TTGJ on the internet. At the same time emails were sent out by everyone involved in the film. These emails generated an audience for the screenings, the site and DVD. Keren Flavell headed up marketing and promotion. Drive-time ABC radio and a lengthy review in Le Monde produced the biggest spikes in sales. One of the marketing ploys developed by the team was to organise other people to endorse the film. Margo Kingston, who was touring with her book Not Happy, John, was more than happy to promote screenings in each city that she visited. This helped enormously. Unexpectedly, a large percentage of the audience for the film were baby boomers. The only part of the chain that didn’t link up to the project were Australian film reviewers. TTGJ challenged the ‘sacred cow’ view of cinema, and sadly on the whole critics ignored it.

The election has come and gone but the film still has legs. Kate McCarthy and Keren Flavell are working on a new version of the DVD to be released by Madman in time to challenge Howard’s takeover of both houses of parliament. It includes interviews with the filmmakers about the process of making TTGJ and a commentary track by a range of comedians.

TTGJ is a success story. The filmmakers loved it because their work was out there. The cinemas loved it because it attracted sell out crowds. The audience went because it was immediately relevant to their situation, proving that viewers are prepared to open their wallets to see a documentary—and they don’t expect it to look like a million dollar flick.

Time to Go John, various producers and directors,

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 18

© Catherine Gough-Brady; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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