Why the Australian market needs to close the release window

Day-and-date self-distribution is becoming an increasingly popular and lucrative means of releasing features, so why is no-one acknowledging it asks Ed Gibbs

Last month outgoing Screen Australia CEO Ruth Harley addressed an industry forum at Melbourne’s 37 Degrees South film market on the subject of the traditional release window for feature films. The standard four-month gap between the theatrical screening and the home entertainment release had grown outdated, she said. It was time to look again at the time lag – a key factor contributing to Australia’s record-high piracy habits. “Our audiences are already demanding immediacy and convenience in the form of DIY day-and-date,” she said.

Her comments were welcomed by distributors, particularly those with niche products. Exhibitors weren’t so keen, citing a potential loss in cinema revenue. Others claimed it was high time the window went altogether.

While we’re some way off being able to emulate the US or UK day-and-date models, the prime example being the UK’s release of A Field In England, it was something of a relief to have a rational discussion being offered up in the marketplace. It was, after all, high time the pot was stirred and shaken.

Far from the madding crowd, several industry players have been working vigorously, for more than a year, at grass-roots level, self-releasing day-and-date features without agency assistance or traditional publicity models. Social media, on-the-ground guerilla marketing, reaching out to local businesses and colleges, i.e. going out and finding the core audience, and generating substantial word of mouth. A case in point are film-makers Michael McIntyre and his wife and business partner, Kate Clerk McIntyre, of Second Nature Films, who self-released their documentary feature, Yogawoman, on more than 40 screens last year. Their secret: a global strategy.

“We intentionally filmed in Germany, in the UK, in Japan, in the US – that’s where the big markets are,” McIntyre says. “Australia was never really intended to be a big market for us because we knew the big numbers were in those other countries. When we started post, we realised we had to start the buzz before the film was finished, some five or six months before we were locked off. It was exhausting and excruciating. You usually wait until after you’ve locked off a film before you do website, social networking and so on. But we knew we had to do it before the film was finished so we could hit the ground running.”

He adds: “We were taking pre-sales online: we sold 3,000 copies in the first few weeks, which gave us the cash injection we needed to pay off the credit card and keep the mortgage at bay, and pay for some publicity. On top of that we booked the biggest cinema at Fox Studios, 440 seats, did the same in Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane, going along and doing Q&As at these cinemas, which was a huge risk. We sold them all out, we were selling the DVDs on the night, making up to $2,000 a night selling the DVDs. Again, a cash injection. Then you get the media, the Facebook photos, the buzz. From that, we ended up doing really well here, running on more than 40 screens in Australia and New Zealand, and making in excess of $150,000, in a market we weren’t even focusing on. Then we did the same in America, Germany and the UK. Again, because we knew we’d do well. So we did screenings in LA, San Francisco, Boston, New York, again we sold out, and again selling the DVDs – again being told we’d kill the theatrical if we did that, and again proving them wrong.” McIntyre says the key to Yogawoman’s success has been knowing where the film’s market lies. If you know there is an audience for your film, he adds, you can self-release. (Oddly, the US distributor had a conservative view of VOD, claiming it would eat away at their theatrical: Mcintyre says they would have done a day-and-date release with VOD, in hindsight).

Another industry player, Steve Jaggi, of Jaggi Shute Productions, is currently preparing to roll-out Aussie teen drama Circle of Lies. Unlike Yogawoman, the film will have a VOD release – where its core audience lies – virtually day-and-date (a three-week, rather than a four-month window, so that investors remain eligible for the producers offset). Circle of Lies, Jaggi says, should prove that self-releasing (or alternate-releasing, as he prefers to call it) with a day-and-date strategy works, provided you’ve done your groundwork.

“From an early stage, we made the decision to make this a totally vertically integrated project,” he says. “It’s exactly what IFC and Magnolia do in the US, and Revolver did in the UK. Companies like Roadshow do teen films very well, and they gave us great advice about our film. But with a film like Circle of Lies, their print and advertising (P&A) costs would be huge, so it just didn’t make sense. They have to make sure the opening weekend covers their P&A, have stars attached and so on. A film like this, the release has to be very calculated. A film like Circle of Lies, you can’t spend $250,000 to $500,000 on P&A, that’s a large chunk of the physical budget. Plus, the film has already performed well in the US with Warner Brothers and in parts of Europe through Sony, and they’ve gone day-and-date. So we knew this was going to have a day-and-date release.”

The roll-out for Circle of Lies will be limited to 15 screens nationally – Melbourne is the only major centre to turn its nose up at the authentic teen drama – with on-the-ground events at schools and colleges with cast and crew, in the days leading up to Q&A screenings in each city.

“We decided to do a state-by-state release, looking at the Magnolia and IFC approach to engage with the audience,” Jaggi adds. “We’re offering Q&As in most states. Of course, you can’t be everywhere all at once with the cast, and we don’t have a massive P&A budget, we can’t compete with the big guys. So we release on August 22 in Brisbane, partnering with local press, then the same with Sydney, Adelaide and Darwin. Then it filters out, in each state and territory. Circle of Lies will be the first ‘commercial’ film to collapse the window, almost day-on-date, from four months to three weeks.”

Jaggi says the paradigm has already shifted dramatically and that the local market is ripe with opportunity, unencumbered by the restraints that the US and UK face. “In the markets in the UK and America it’s very hard to break out with so many established players. Of course, the populations are bigger, but the markets are very mature. In Australia, it’s a very young market. There are a few dominant players, and there are some rules in place because of federal regulations which are determining how people are releasing films. But the dam has broken: self-releasing, or alternate-releasing, there are now multiple ways to reach your audience.”

“Film-making has changed from business to business; the paradigm of producer selling to a sales agent and then to a distributor, that has completely changed. But Australian film-makers aren’t taking advantage of this as quickly as other parts of the world. It’s moved to B2C – that is, business to consumer. In a way you can cut out the middleman. I don’t mean you don’t use a distributor – we’re working directly with Accent, who have been fantastic, and you can’t do it all yourself – but what it means is, it’s now incumbent upon the producer to have that direct link to the consumer. They have direct access to the revenue stream. They’re responsible if the film succeeds or fails.”

Circle of Lies begins its theatrical roll-out on August 22, in Brisbane. If it succeeds, the teen drama could signal a seismic shift, with Australia finally joining the US and UK markets in adopting day-and-date releases and, broadly speaking, more integrated and imaginative roll-out strategies. Collapse that four-month window? I think so.

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


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.