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

Australian Feature Film Summit director Sue Maslin, a producer and distributor, says there is a theatrical future for local feature films 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 post-COVID screen producers. In a packed schedule spanning three days, there was only one session dealing with the theatrical feature film industry. (A year and a half if you count the excellent session on documentary feature films on all platforms, including theatrical ones).

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

The Australian Feature Film Summit is laying that case out and judging by the 480 creatives, distributors, exhibitors and investors who registered and attended the virtual summit in October 2021, there is tremendous support for local feature films to continue on big screen.

However, there is no doubt: the world has changed and the public has evolved. The sharp decline in cinema gross box office this year shows that audiences are slow to return to cinemas, except for the obvious studio tents.

And if Screen Forever is any guide, the company has evolved as well.

The exponential growth of content on streamers and subscription numbers means it’s more important than ever that we clearly identify and communicate the point of difference and the value that theaters and feature films in theaters offer.

For this reason, the film industry is looking closely at how we are going to do business differently in the future and everything is on the table.

The value proposition to the audience just isn’t strong enough unless the films are exceptional, cinematic, value for money and possibly linked to event screenings. Australian films cannot compete on the same basis as studio pictures without significant marketing spend, regardless of the quality of the films. The unique approach to release schedules, where the opening weekend is the sole determinant of a film’s ability to retain its screens and sessions, mitigates the longer build time required by local films.

The lack of data available to creatives about what cinema audiences want means we have a development pipeline that has little to no relationship to the market. Of course, streamers don’t share this data either, but it’s vast and sophisticated and informs every go-live decision they make. Unless we know better, streamers will always be ahead of rooms in terms of customer behavior and information. Exhibitors are the retail outlet of our business, but they don’t order and to date have had little or no say in what Australian films are shown until far too late – when the film is finished was offered to them.

There is no doubt that this is a high risk business. The bulk of the more than 50 feature films produced in Australia each year never find their audience due to our combined failure to tackle a system that just doesn’t work. But some films resonate brilliantly and are backed by passionate distributors and exhibitors. We need to do more every year and that’s where the Australian Feature Film Summit comes in.

The summit has one overarching goal, which is to increase the success of the Australian feature film industry and enable all stakeholders, including the public, to benefit from that success.

So let’s take off the gloves and ask the “What if?” questions:

• What if producers could learn more about audience trends and what informs audience choice from those closest to them – exhibitors and distributors?

• What if exhibitors had “invested” more and could be encouraged to improve the performance of Australian films with the public?

• What if we lobbied together for a major injection of funds so that marketing has the same priority as the development and production of the film?

• What if Australian films had a set of preferential conditions relating to the number of screens, screenings and flexible programming allowing good films to find their audience?

• What if we had a more sophisticated understanding of everything parties on the relative risk/reward profiles and how they should balance in the future? In other words, we are looking at the inversely proportional value chain in which those who invest early and take the upper degree of risk (producers, capital investors) receive the less reward via recoupment, while those at the end of the chain, the exhibitors, take the least risk but receive the biggest share of the box office on Australian films.

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

• And finally, what if we could find more mutually beneficial strategies between streamers and theaters that resulted in better returns for all stakeholders?

I am extremely hopeful because all of the players – exhibitors, producers, distributors and film agencies – are ready to have these difficult discussions and have come together in one space with a common goal of building the success of the local long-term sector. footage. What works? What is missing ? And how can we work together more effectively in the future?

And as for an answer to “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 in the future. If we keep sitting on our hands and getting back to “business as usual”, the public will answer that question for us.

The second stage of the Australian Feature Film Summit will take place on May 12 at Event George Street Cinemas, with some showings available to watch online.

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

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