Last night, I attended the 1-hour session of Friday On My Mind which is an interview series that hosts professional speakers from the film and TV industry. The session was entitled “an insiders take on acquisitions and what works at the Australian Box Office” and the guest speaker was Seph McKenna who is the head of productions at Roadshow Australia. As the name suggests, the talk was centred around “acquisitions” and what criteria producers base themselves on in order to decide whether or not to support a project. As Mc Kenna points out, there are 5 elements that are taken into consideration. Firstly, the story and whether the plot and screenplay are appealing and engaging. Once past this stage, production companies will look at who the director is, who the producer is, what type of budget is in play and most importantly, “from a sales point of view, who’s the cast”. Once all this is determined, a comparison is made with other similar films within the past 5-10 years to see how they’ve done and come up with an analysis and a chart of how the project should perform at the box office, as well as other sources of revenue including DVD sales, airlines, cruise ships etc.
According to McKenna, cast is an essential element in the value of the film that is being made and viewers will base their choice of film very often in accordance to who is in it. He gives the example of Bran Nu Dae, with actors such as Jeoffrey Rush for an older audience, and Jessica Mauboy and Missy Higgins for the younger ones.
He also adds that he is not very open to first-time directors in feature films, but will more likely back up a first-time director wanting to work on a television project.
When asked what it is to be a producer, McKenna hesitates and admits that he is only just starting to understand what it is that a producer does. He believes that the strongest producers have a lot of experience in the industry, they have a large network of people who are in the film industry such as writers, actors, directors and most importantly with financiers. Producers who have such a track record will definitely give more confidence to distributors, and as a rule, producers are the ones who are usually asked to bring the project to the distribution companies like Roadshow. These companies, he says, are usually interested in films with budgets that sit in the 7-15 million dollar budget bracket because they are the types of films that will usually attract the sort of cast that will add value to the project. There are exceptions like Wolf Creek which was a low budget film but because it was noticed at Sundance, Roadshow decided to take it onboard.
In terms of funding, Screen Australia has a set of standards that demands that when production companies agree to back up a project, they will have to provide a minimum of 5% of the budget. For instance, if a film has a $10,000,000 budget, distributors will have to agree to contribute to a minimum of $500,000 towards the promotion of the film. Another topic that McKenna touched on was the subsidies provided by the government. He spoke about the 40% producer offset which is a rebate offered to encourage the production of Australian films and therefore giving distributors the leverage that they might otherwise have. He said that this system is essentially quite efficient because it aims to ensure that producers have their finances in place beforehand in order to qualify for the rebate. These rebates are however not for any producers, and projects with more significance in terms of cast, crew and content will usually benefit the most. Consequently, this encourages producers to aim for bigger projects, making them more appealing for distribution; as McKenna points out, advertising and marketing campaigns can be quite costly, with wide release targets easily reaching $1.5 million worth of expenses to distributors.
Another interesting point that he makes is that the Australian market for film is very much female driven. He also criticises the trend in Hollywood films to cater for a broad, wide audience as opposed to niche markets, such as the older audiences which is quite prominent here in Australia. One other argument of McKenna’s in terms of what producers should be looking at, is that people nowadays go to the movies to see things that they can’t see on television, and therefore directors really need to surpass themselves, again emphasising on the need for a better cast, crew and content.
This interview was really eye-opening, and one of the highlights for me was about the strategies that were used to promote Red Dog. As Roadshow was struggling to release the film on the planned date because of some of the bigger releases coming up on the big screen at around the same date (and also because television networks were not able to provide the necessary time slots for the promotion of the film through the cast), Coco (aka Red Dog) was used for the promotion of the film and was sent on a tour of Australia until the later release of the film in August (originally organised for April).