Delivering films to the biggest audience

The distribution strategy for UK film A Field in England offers Australian film-makers a revolutionary alternative, says Ed Gibbs, in a piece that first appeared in Encore

This year’s Melbourne International Film Festival gets underway in a fortnight. Among the impressive line-up is an intriguing film from the gloriously twisted minds behind underground hit Kill List and its darkly comic follow-up Sightseers. It’s called A Field in England and what makes it so fascinating beyond its barmy premise – a black-and-white surrealist period drama, set during the English Civil War, confined to a single field – is its roll-out strategy.

In a world-first, the film has been simultaneously released in cinemas, on DVD and Blu-Ray, on VOD and screened on free-to-air television in the UK, following a much-anticipated premiere at the 48th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic. Director Ben Wheatley, an affable Englishman with a strong core audience, will be off to Hollywood soon to develop the HBO series Freak Shift. Before he does, he had a brief window, he said, to do something completely out of the box with his writer-partner Amy Jump and very little money. A cross-platform, simultaneous release was swiftly developed to ensure he could become part of a wider domestic cinematic zeitgeist before he hits LA.

“With our other movies, we’d put them out in the traditional way – festival, theatrical, DVD and then finally you end up on telly,” he told me last week. “Each time the audience gets bigger by the power of 10. So this [festival] audience is a thousand, then your theatrical will be, say, 30 screens, then the DVD goes up – with our films, it’s 50,000 to 100,000 units. Then when Kill List got to TV [in the UK], it was a million people. The TV audience leads to a spike in DVD sales, but that spike is when the DVD is at rock bottom [price-wise], because it’s already been out. You have to sell it by the truckload before you make any money back. So the crux of it is, why go out to the general audience right at the end? Why not go to the general audience at the start?”

Of the unique distribution strategy applied for A Field In England he adds: “This way, it happens all at the same time. You get all the publicity at the same time. It’s all about the big culture, the general culture. And if you can get into that and be part of that conversation, then everyone is looking at your stuff. If you’re not part of that because you’re too niche, you’ve got nothing.”

It’s an interesting argument. As is Wheatley’s point that, for him, having his work pirated is better than not, since it indicates an acute awareness. Fortunately, the cult director’s core fan base are more prone to owning product than downloading it. So far, the strategy appears to be paying off.

A Field in England enjoyed substantial social-media buzz on its opening day last Friday, with the film garnering positive reviews from the London press. Additional sessions were booked to meet demand (its initial theatrical run was limited to 30 screens). Figures so far released are impressive, with each platform supporting rather than damaging the other.

Over the unseasonally hot weekend, where most people in the UK were glued to the historic Wimbledon Men’s Final, A Field in England snagged 2,213 cinema admissions (across 17 sites), with a screen average of £1,259 (A$2,068).

For those watching at home, 357,000 tuned in on TV, 1,462 DVD/Blu-Ray units sold (on Saturday and Sunday) and there were 285 buys on Channel 4’s video on demand platform Film4OD, with substantial sales via iTunes and Virgin still to be confirmed.

Of course, Wheatley’s gamble was a relatively safe bet. The film cost little to produce – it was shot briskly in under two weeks, for just £300,000, with significant industry players (Film 4, Protagonist Pictures, the BFI) on board – and given his previous success, there was undoubtedly a built-in audience attached.

In Australia, the Edgerton brothers’ Blue Tongue collective would seem most likely to succeed with such a plan, should they so wish. Snowtown director Justin Kurzel might also fit the mould. As we inch ever closer to A Field in England’s Australian premiere in Melbourne, it will be fascinating to see who does opt to follow Wheatley’s lead with this revolutionary model – and how effective it proves.

Ed Gibbs is a film critic, journalist, broadcaster and curator based in Sydney. 

Encore issue 22This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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