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More than just tomorrow's TV: does VOD support Australian film?

'Should not those who benefit from films contribute to the investment in them?'

These words were spoken by Tom Clarke in the British House of Commons on 3 March 1999. Then a Labour member of parliament, he was discussing how the UK film industry might be restructured to support the country's own national cinema. His words were prophetic. They apply just as well to the issue of the new digital-streaming economy in Australia today, and how VOD providers are contributing--or, rather, not contributing--to Australian storytelling.

To date, most commentary dealing with US giant Netflix's entry into the Australian market, and with the VOD sector as a whole, has focused on whether cheap streaming services can undercut piracy. That question obscures other, much more pressing ones: What does digital distribution mean for Australian stories, and how might Australian cinema thrive in the new streaming economy? Exactly how much local film is represented in VOD libraries? And how is Netflix, the giant of the VOD industry, going to support Australian film?

In the contemporary on-demand and cloud-dependent era, Australian film continues to face what we might call an access gap: a lack of availability on new viewing outlets. In the US, Netflix has a number of under-recognised Australian classics that are almost impossible to see here. The beautiful High Tide (1987) by Gillian Armstrong, a critically applauded and criminally under-seen drama starring Judy Davis and a teenage Claudia Karvan, Is one of them. US critic Bilge Ebiri has called High Tide a 'forgotten film' with 'one of the most haunting cinematic climaxes of all time--to one of the greatest films of the 1980s'.

Even though cinema can now reside in iPhones and laptops, the only way we in Australia can see High Tide is by purchasing it directly by mail order on DVD from its distributor--a ridiculously twentieth-century state of affairs, and a sign of how anachronistic our film-delivery systems are. By incorporating older and otherwise-neglected classics into its impressive library, Netflix Australia could bring local films to a new generation of viewers. But its present geographically based digital rights system means High Tide is not available to Australian Netflix viewers. This forms part of a bigger problem: we're in a situation whereby Netflix is now critical in enabling or preventing films from slipping in and out of distribution--and, thus, the canon and the national conversation.

Currently, a total of 161 Australian films are available on Australian VOD services. On Netflix, there are only twenty-four local films among a library of thousands. Though that pitiful figure changes periodically as new titles are added and older ones retired, it hasn't changed substantially since the website's launch. Of those twenty-four titles, there are a couple of new and old classics, including Ted Kotcheff's Wake in Fright (1971) and David Michod's Animal Kingdom (2010), and some great arthouse titles, like Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (1979) and Robert Connolly's Balibo (2009), that are increasingly hard to track down in Australia with the closure of DVD stores. All of these titles are important in the history of Australian film.

Clearly, the digital revolution has not arrived for local cinema--for the most part, VOD providers are just reselling the same multiplex fare. And, clearly, Netflix's investment in the local industry that it is changing is currently very surface-level: limited to purchasing temporary online screening rights for a tiny handful of films, some ABC series like Jack Irish, and a small range of local stand-up comedy specials. Given the popularity and quality of Australian long-form televisual storytelling, this could be a huge area of online growth and a promising way to engage local audiences via local stories. Meanwhile, VOD providers have funds and access to audiences, and are unencumbered by the need to perform in terms of ratings and the box office; some even have links to traditional broadcasters and cinemas. Local long-form television could be a wise area of investment for a burgeoning media company like Netflix.

So far, Netflix USA has rebooted its production company, funding independent American films for simultaneous online and theatrical release. In Australia, other new VOD providers like Stan and Presto have already commissioned and funded new local television programs--most of which are comedies, with the exception of a series related to Wolf Creek (Greg McLean, 2005). This is significant, as it evidences the transition of these VOD providers from distribution companies to production companies--a range of new, online-first studios that could deliver the big digital promise of a new way of making and viewing films online. It's the development that the old-world film industry has feared. As Netflix and other VOD providers enter the market, they not only offer templates for online television of the twenty-first century, but also enable the funding and production of local stories by local filmmakers.

What are Netflix's obligations, in a foreign market such as Australia, to invest in the local industry? This is not clear yet, nor are even basic considerations like what sort of tax it will pay domestically. The issue of content quotas--that is, treating VOD services like TV broadcasters and applying the same minimum quotas for local content --is fast becoming a touchstone for bridging the access gap for Australian content online. Unfortunately, although Netflix has announced it is funding Michod's next project, War Machine (co-produced with Brad Pitt's company Plan B, to be made exclusively available to Netflix members and released in select cinemas), the feature film will not be shot in Australia with an Australian crew. (Netflix's public-relations agency did not respond to requests for comment.)

So far, nimble state funding bodies are leading the way. Screen Queensland recently announced it is partnering with Stan to finance and distribute a A$1 million feature film. The 'Queensland Originals' project will receive development, production and marketing support, as well as 'event'-style theatrical and festival release on top of its VOD availability. As Screen Queensland's program is only open to writers and writer/directors with no more than one feature-film credit, its aim is to unearth new talent, connecting new local stories with audiences through popular distribution online.

The future of Australian cinema relies on plugging the access gap by making films available online, conveniently and inexpensively. The discussion about how Netflix and other VOD providers can be partners in getting Australian film online is of top priority.
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Title Annotation:Scope: SCREEN INDUSTRY VIEWS
Author:Harris, Lauren Carroll
Publication:Metro Magazine
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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