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Radically re-thinking film distribution

Tina Kaufman: Lauren Carroll Harris: Not At a Cinema Near You

There’s been quite an upsurge in discussion recently on the distribution and exhibition of Australian films, both in the traditional and online media and in sessions at various conferences. It’s a debate that’s been driven in part by continuing concern about the failure of many local films to reach their audiences, and in part by the potential for new and innovative methods to reach those audiences through digital distribution.

Now there’s a new entry into the debate, the essay Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia’s film distribution problem, which argues that “digital and innovative distribution can haul Australian films from the cultural margins into the mainstream,” and makes a cogent case for substantial change to the traditional methods, proposing instead “a new distribution model that can allow local films to expand their audiences and their revenues.”

In her essay, Lauren Carroll Harris argues that instead of requiring local films to have an Australian theatrical distributor as a pre-requisite for production funding, this stipulation should be expanded to include DVD, Video-on-Demand or non-theatrical, alternative distribution. This way, Harris says, “the distribution of small-budget releases would be diversified in circuits to which viewers are gravitating.”

As she says, “our film culture does not live in the motion-picture theatre, but in the audiences utilising it. . .other circuits are largely invisible because the mainstream media continues to measure Australian cinema solely according to box office sales and ratings.”

The essay contains a brief but sharp and focused history of film distribution in Australia, painting a rather depressing portrait of the current state of affairs in which, as Harris says, “not a single filmmaker or company has figured out how to distribute a film both widely and inexpensively, even with the near-revolutions in digital distribution.” She goes on to detail “the obstruction that Australian films face at the cinema, not to whinge, but to show the necessity for energetic online and non-theatrical distribution. Ancillary markets,” she writes, “are no longer ancillary, they are the markets. It is the cinema that is supplementary. However, we are yet to catch up with this reality: Australian films are released stillborn into a theatrical system that is not designed for them and that therefore reduces their ability to compete.”

As Harris explains, the federal government’s funding body, Screen Australia, has a policy which consists “almost entirely of efforts to boost production and development through direct investment and tax rebates for private investors,” requiring the involvement of “a theatrical distribution company to provide both a massive injection of production funds and to release films into the market on completion.” This, she argues, “hands a disproportionate level of control to distributors who, despite their expertise, are innately conservative and risk-averse in predicting audiences’ desires.”

While Screen Australia has a “sorely needed” Innovative Distribution Program (set to expire this year with so far no plan to replace it), films that signed with non-traditional distributors who are part of this program are precluded from support—“an obvious policy contradiction that is yet to be resolved,” and one that an increasing number of lower-budget, innovative filmmakers are complaining about.

“Rather than leaving distribution to commercial distributors,” Harris asks, “might not an independent committee of distributors (theatrical and non-theatrical), publicists and expert policy makers advise on film projects, from pre-production onwards, on how to build market attachment packages aimed at reaching increasingly dispersed audiences? This distribution advisory board would provide information and experience that right now is mostly in the private sector, create estimates of potential box office and ancillary market performance, suggest the best release platforms for titles in development, offer advice on marketing schemes, and generally be a source of concrete knowledge on industry innovation in forward-thinking distribution.”

The essay provides a detailed assessment of the current distribution structure and provides case studies of films that have been successfully released theatrically and films that have failed and why, and compares and analyses these examples. It looks at self-distribution and at the bewildering possibilities offered by digital distribution, with detailed examples of success stories involving a number of different methods. There is, Harris believes, “a powerful case” to be made for “looking beyond the theatrical horizon towards a ‘handmade’ approach to distribution and marketing that takes equal account of non-theatrical circuits. The goal of a handmade distribution approach is to grow audiences for local content, increase filmmakers’ revenue share and refocus release strategies on the question of accessibility.”

At the recent Australian Directors’ Guild Conference, the session on “The Director as Distributor” looked at the opportunities and problems presented by the variety of means of self-distribution currently available. Moderated by Lauren Carroll Harris, the session highlighted self-distribution by two filmmakers: Bob Connolly, whose successful theatrical release of Mrs Carey’s Concert has become almost a legend (see Dan Edwards, p21), and Genevieve Bailey, a successful maker of many short films, who self-produced and self-released her feature documentary I Am Eleven, which screened for 26 weeks in Melbourne and in 46 cinemas nationally. “The most important element is the audience,” she said. “I really believed we could reach that really diverse audience that was out there, but you have to be willing to work like a crazy person. The reality is that a lot of excellent films are made and never get into a cinema, never get seen.”

Bailey explained how she’d timed the DVD release for Mother’s Day this year, and waited until she was happy with the website. The film had sold 2,000 copies in two weeks (it’s since sold a lot more). Bob Connolly released Mrs Carey’s Concert through Madman, “but we controlled the packaging and the production. And we got a very big advance! But we also put a lot of money into our website, and we’ve sold a lot of DVDs ourselves. We also put our other films on the website, and they’re ticking away very nicely.”

Also on the panel was Thomas Mai, formerly a producer and sales agent, who has been touring the world for five years, talking about the new tools available for filmmakers: crowd funding, social media networking and alternative means of distribution. Now settled in Australia, he received an Innovative Distribution Grant from Screen Australia, with Josh Pomeranz, to help filmmakers with these new tools. “We believe the answer lies with the audience, that you acquire this database of fans. (US doco maker) Robert Greenwald has 2.2 million people in his database. It’s fan dependent—you keep building that database from film to film. Find these people and keep them!”

In this essay, Lauren Carroll Harris has made a timely and important contribution to the ongoing and increasingly necessary debate about old and new film distribution. As she says, there is a “pressing need to re-think distribution as the vital way in which we conceive and reach out to our audience—and an urgent problem requiring a solution for Australian filmmakers.” Let’s hope her essay assists in achieving that solution.

Lauren Carroll Harris, Platform Papers, No 37, Not At a Cinema Near You, Currency House, Sydney, 2013. Platform Papers are available online at

Courtesy of Currency House, RT has 5 copies of Not At a Cinema Near You to giveaway.

RealTime issue #118 Dec-Jan 2013 pg. 20

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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