MELBOURNE film The Jammed seems the unlikeliest success story.It's a confronting, low-budget movie set against a background of human trafficking and the sex trade. Yet the film, directed by Dee McLachlan, has broken box office records in its first week on a single screen at Melbourne's Nova cinema, leading to its release in cinemas across the country. The impressive film, starring up-and-comers Emma Lung, Veronica Sywak and Saskia Burmeister, and inspired by cases drawn from court transcripts, couldn't attract an established commercial distributor but was granted a brief season at the Nova. Now that season has been extended indefinitely, after the film earned $38,000 in its first week and followed it up this weekend with earnings of $32,000, a figure likely to rise to $40,000 for the week: a sign the initial success is no flash in the pan. The film has already opened at three other Melbourne cinemas and will be released in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth tomorrow, and in Canberra next month, while screenings in Tasmania, South Australia and the Northern Territory are being negotiated.
Nova owner Natalie Miller describes the results as extraordinary. But when so many good films, including Australian ones, fall over, to what does this one owe its initial success? Miller isolates four factors: its quality, effective grassroots marketing (mainly street posters), a controversy in the Victorian media over its rejection by distributors and the Melbourne International Film Festival (even though it was selected for the Sydney and Brisbane festivals and won a prize at the latter), and three key rave reviews, two of them from ABC television's At the Movies. Would it have performed so well without the controversy? Miller isn't sure. Reel Time hears the Sydney preview figures at the weekend were not in the same ball park as the Melbourne ones. But it's an impressive start for a film that has no trailer or big stars and initially seemed destined to go straight to DVD.
NOVA'S Miller, meanwhile, is planning an exclusive season for another powerful low-budget local film, Kriv Stenders's Boxing Day, which was funded by the Adelaide Film Festival. Yet another local film without an established distributor but with healthy revenues in limited release is 4, a musical documentary based on Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and directed by Tim Slade. The film, praised glowingly by The Australian's Evan Williams, earned about $15,500 at Sydney's Cremorne Orpheum in its first week. Orpheum general manager Paul Dravet says its popularity exemplifies a trend: audiences are returning to "offbeat, independent, exclusive" films and showing less interest in mainstream Hollywood titles. As 4 doesn't have a distributor, Dravet deals directly with the filmmakers. "That could be an interesting future for us: bypassing the distributor," he says. "That means we take full control of the advertising campaign."
IN its 40th week at Dravet's cinema (and therefore surely by far the longest-running film in Australia) is As It is in Heaven, a Swedish film that was overlooked by distributors but which audiences have clearly taken to their hearts. All of this points to a future that resembles the days when individual cinemas would play a successful title for months on end: a pattern that ended when it became common for films to be released simultaneously at several cinemas in each city and, as a consequence, they burned out relatively quickly. Even the smaller films have generally been expected to do well during their opening weekend instead of being allowed to slowly build an audience via word of mouth.
Someone acutely aware of this is Tony Ayres, writer and director of the local drama The Home Song Stories, starring Joan Chen. In an instance of viral marketing, Ayres and his colleagues emailed a letter to all their friends and contacts ahead of the film's release, urging them to turn out on the first weekend and to forward the message to 10 more people. Reel Time received the email from a non-film industry source, suggesting the message successfully circulated beyond the usual industry crowd. "Cinema exhibitors regard the opening weekend as the most significant time in the film's season," reads the email. "A strong opening weekend will also encourage other cinemas to consider screening The Home Song Stories. Australian films have limited publicity budgets compared to the big American films. We can't afford billboards or TV ads. We are relying on the kindness of friends and colleagues to help us let the public know that our film is screening." One of the film's producers, Michael McMahon, says feedback suggests the campaign seemed to work very well, with some recipients organising groups of people to see the film at the weekend.
THE Home Song Stories is one of nine Australian features that will be screened next month at the Toronto International Film Festival. The others are Gillian Armstrong's Death Defying Acts, starring Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta Jones, Richard Roxburgh's Romulus, My Father, Scott Hicks's documentary about composer Philip Glass, Glass: a Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, Rolf de Heer's silent comedy Dr Plonk, Peter Duncan's Unfinished Sky, Ben Hackworth's Corroboree, Lawrence Johnston's doco Night and Peter Carstairs's September (the first film from the Tropfest Feature Program).