AFC Managing Editor Dan Edwards visits SPAA Fringe 2005
The Brisbane Powerhouse was a fitting venue for a conference dominated by talk of the new overriding the old. The former power station's stark grey exterior speaks of early 20th century industrial dreams, while the fading graffiti on the walls reminds of the building's derelict status after the station was closed in 1971. Overlaying these traces of past times are the gleaming new theatres, chic cafes and coffee bars that now mark the Powerhouse as one of Brisbane's premier arts venues. SPAA Fringe 2005 unfolded here across three days in mid-August, the layers of history evident in the venue providing an apt metaphor for the talk of radical changes being wrought on long-established film industry structures.
As expected at a producer-orientated event, the talks focussed primarily on questions of funding, marketing and distribution. Laid back low-budget filmmaking guru and SPAA Fringe patron Peter Broderick played a key role in the proceedings, extolling the virtues of web-based marketing strategies across three 90-minute talks.
Broderick was an astute observer of the explosion of independent American features in the late 1980s and early 90s, penning a series of articles examining how films like The Living End (d: Greg Araki, 1992) and El Mariachi (d: Robert Rodriguez, 1992) got off the ground. He went on to found Next Wave films in 1997, working with the Independent Film Channel to provide finishing funds for low-budget features.
Broderick's ideas at SPAA Fringe revolved around two interrelated concepts: core audiences and film distribution via the internet. Traditional distribution companies often market to a general audience, with the assumption that a film's core audience will watch the product regardless. Broderick advocates the reverse approach, citing several examples of recent highly successful American features initially marketed to specific audiences before attracting a wider viewing public. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) targeted a progressive political audience, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) was aimed at the Greek community, and Bend It Like Beckham (2002) was sold to Indian audiences, as well as soccer mums and daughters. On a smaller scale, US documentary maker Robert Greenwald sold 100,000 copies of Uncovered: The War on Iraq (2004) from his website, while Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (2004) sold twice that number before getting a theatrical release.
Broderick argued that contemporary core audiences, be they cultural, political or special interest groupings, are formed and organised on the web. If these virtual communities can be successfully tapped and users encouraged to buy DVDs directly from a filmmaker's website, there is the potential to transform audiences from passive consumers to active patrons of a filmmaker's work. The return for the filmmaker on each DVD sold from their own website far exceeds anything they could make on products sold in a traditional retail setting.
Given that recent financial figures for cinemas in Australia are grim, Broderick's claim that traditional modes of distribution are "broken" probably contains some truth. Gil Scrine, distributor of titles such as The Corporation (2003) and The Take (2004), arrived in Brisbane fresh from a public meeting about the closure of Sydney's Chauvel Cinemas and painted a deeply uncertain picture of theatrical distribution's future in Australia. Cinema attendances are down 13 per cent this year and the past month has seen Melbourne's Lumiere and Sydney's Valhalla cinemas close, with the Chauvel to follow suit in September. The multiplexes, while better able to absorb loses, are also feeling the pinch.
In this context, Broderick's ideas about finding audiences via the web are not only inspiring but possibly prudent. However, a note of caution should be sounded in a local context. A niche audience in the United States can still represent hundreds of thousands of people; the same audience here is likely to translate into a few thousand at best. The States also has a strong tradition of private support for artists that is distinctly lacking in Australia. While the internet transcends national borders, most of the examples given by Broderick still tapped primarily into sub-cultures and interest groups in the filmmaker's own country.
Unfortunately no local examples featured in Broderick's addresses, although he made passing reference to an Australian film distributed via the web and screened at house parties before the last federal election. It was up to audience members to supply details of the Time to Go John project. This film comprised short segments from a range of directors, and received some media coverage and considerable word of mouth 'buzz' before the last federal election, but the sales figures indicate the stark difference between the Australian and US markets. According to the group that produced the project, around 800 Time to Go John DVDs were sold before the election, of which approximately half were sold off the website. A further 250 copies were downloaded via BitTorrent technology, and around 1,000 individual segments a month were downloaded during the election campaign. A second version of the DVD has sold a further 750 copies. An impressive achievement, but not one offering the kinds of returns Broderick outlined in his talks.
What about film content?
Given that SPAA Fringe is aimed at up and coming producers, a focus on the mechanics of the industry is inevitable, but it was striking just how little was said about filmmaking itself. Fortunately the opening and closing sessions provided some relief from pure industry talk. Director and 2005 Young Australian of the Year Khoa Do opened the conference with a highly entertaining live interview with Bec Smith. Do's is a unique, community-based approach to filmmaking, that draws on the experiences of his family and other Cabramatta youths to produce socially engaged and stylistically brazen work. His debut feature The Finished People (2003) was shot on Mini-DV and employed a non-professional cast to portray life on the streets of Sydney's south west, utilising a style with one foot in the traditions of Italian Neo-Realism and the other in the kitchen-sink dramas of British directors like Ken Loach. At SPAA Fringe he described his latest still unfinished work, Footy Legends, as being in the vein of films like The Commitments and The Full Monty; commercial comedies set in very specific social milieux.
At the other end of the movie-making scale, Sandy George's on-stage interview with Wolf Creek producer David Lightfoot provided an upbeat conclusion to the conference. Lightfoot's thriller/horror film was made in South Australia for $1.4 million and has already recouped its costs several times through pre-sales. Asked how he and director Greg McLean were able to pull off an action-based film on so little, Lightfoot replied with two words: "High Definition". Shooting on HD tape stock, the filmmakers were able to shoot using three cameras and a relatively high ratio of 30:1, providing the necessary coverage for action sequences. The same budget for a film shot on celluloid would have restricted them to a ratio of 8:1. According to Lightfoot, HD also allowed cinematographer Will Gibson to use a third of the lighting required for film. While extolling HD's cost benefits, Lightfoot also pointed out that the trick to making quality digital product is tailoring the entire look to the format, rather than trying to replicate the look of film. The talks from Lightfoot and Do illustrate the breadth of filmic possibilities being unleased by digital formats. It remains to be seen how the similar upheavals in distribution predicted by Broderick will play out in the long term.
SPAA Fringe 2005 had many other highlights; space doesn't permit mention of them all. Scriptwriter Stephen Davis (City Loop , Blurred ) provided some amusing stories about the pitfalls of using Australian humour on American studio executives, while Olivia Rousett, Amos Cohen and Jen Peedom provided insights into the new technologies and working methods informing the images of SBS's Dateline. As in feature filmmaking, cheap, portable digital technologies have revolutionised the way television journalism is being conducted.
As always at such conferences, much of the real action took place off stage, over coffees at lunch time and beers after hours. Although the fact that all the international speakers were from the US perhaps represented a lost opportunity to hear more diverse views, SPAA Fringe none-the-less continues to play an important role in providing a sense of community for emerging filmmakers, vital for those starting out in such an economically harsh industry.
Below are links to three of Peter Broderick's key articles on low-budget filmmaking from the early 90s:
'The ABC of no-budget filmmaking', www.nextwavefilms.com/ulbp/abc.html
'Learning from Low-budgets - case studies', article courtesy of Filmmaker Magazine, Vol.2/No.2, Winter 93/94, www.nextwavefilms.com/ulbp/learning.html
'Crossing the Line', article courtesy of Filmmaker Magazine, Vol.2/No.3, Spring 1994, www.nextwavefilms.com/moviemaking/lost.html