To download or not to download – is that the question?

Red DogLionThe Dressmaker, and Hacksaw Ridge are Australian films endangered by infrequent moviegoing habits. Image credit: Roadshow Films, Transmission Films, Universal Pictures, Icon Film Distribution.

Visit a news outlet on a Monday afternoon for a certain ten weeks of the year and, like clockwork, you’ll be greeted by a similar headline. “Game of Thrones piracy boom shows Aussies aren’t afraid of the copyright police,” said the Sydney Morning Herald in April. “Australians were at the front of the worldwide queue despite legal avenues to access the TV show at the same time it aired overseas,” said News.com.au. Yes, Australia leads the Game of Thrones and movie pirates, the nation most likely to jump aboard the internet, sail the high seas of the deep web, and return with the coveted bounty stolen from another ship – the latest instalment. And distributors are declaring a war against the internet. But are they heading to the wrong battleground?

Australia’s swashbuckling attitudes in the absence of timely, cheap alternatives afforded to their American counterparts has been a point of frustration for distributors for some time now. A virus, a cancer, a disease. If the limit on apocalyptic synonyms to describe piracy had seemed to finally be exhausted, there is another deadly wave coming – a plague. Last week at the Australian International Movie Convention, in the company of hundreds of distributors and exhibitors, Roadshow and intellectual property rights organisation Creative Content Australia boss Graham Burke declared that piracy is “a fire that will destroy all of your homes” and can be fixed in five steps: site blocking, alliances with Google, offering timely and price-attractive legal product, taking legal action, and winning over strong community support. Without action, Burke says, the “potential for havoc” in the Australian film industry “is frightening”.

graham-burke-aimc-2016-pic-peter-jackson-pjp_8255Graham Burke, Village Roadshow Limited: “Movies like Red Dog and Lion – with the heart and happiness they bring our damaged planet – are what our war on piracy is all about. I still come back o Philip Adams’s famous quote, ‘Do we want to be a remote Los Angeles Suburb?’. And unless action is taken, that will be the outcome.” Image credit: Peter Jackson.

Blocking of illegal hosting sites is already happening in the UK and parts of Asia, resulting in a 10% increase in visits to legal avenues; and Google is processing millions of copyright notices on a daily basis, in addition to blocking nearly 100 000 websites from monetized advertising since 2012. Roadshow and other major distributors are opening top-lining titles like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them the same day as as the United States and United Kingdom.

But while big-budget powerhouses like Fantastic Beasts, and Suicide Squad will undoubtedly top the lists shaming them as the Most Pirated Films of the Year (Interstellar took out that title last year), it’s not the piracy of them that will result in a crippled local industry. A year after the biggest in box office history, spectacle, bolstered by multiple figure marketing budgets, is what fills seats. What’s being pushed out of cinemas and the public consciousness is the smaller films in between. They’re now dropped in a handful of cinemas with no public awareness, months after garnering press overseas. High-profile independent films like Sing Street and High-Rise were available to pirate long before their quiet releases in the middle of this year, having come out overseas months earlier. Burke’s argument is nostalgic for the days of the neighbourhood cinema in an age before global culture was just a click away, not shopping centre multiplexes that cost $25 a pop, a shift instigated by distributors and exhibitors which has seen the cinema become less a frequent past time and more a three-times-a year event. Smaller dramas and comedies, once consumed by the masses, are cast aside to discover on Netflix (or, in the absence of legal availability, on a pirate site) in a year’s time.

Sympathy is easy to find in a room of cinema distributors and exhibitors, unsure of how to attract social media-savvy millennials and unsettled by Netflix and prestige television. Even winning a Best Picture Oscar isn’t a sure sign of a runaway box office success anymore, with grosses of the winners continually hitting all-time lows. Why would audiences want to pay to see an intimate drama when they can watch the increasingly cinematic offerings of Netflix without getting off the couch?

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Blockbuster TV shows like Netflix’s Stranger Things are making cinema owners nervous about the potential of smaller films. Image credit: Netflix

But according to Roy Morgan Research, cinema attendance increased last year and has stayed relatively the same since the rock-bottom of the mid-1980s recession, suggesting that audiences are not consciously swapping the big screen for the small. Here, it’s purely a question of habit.

Burke, rightfully so, is crusading to save Australian cinema that’s not part of the Mad Max universe, saying the future box office smashes are dependent on cinema seats being filled. But if the tug-o-war between Game of Thrones fans and companies like Roadshow has been at all of an instructive test case, it points to this – give the people a timely, cost-effective legal option they are aware of, and they will gladly come. In an article titled “I Refuse to Feel Guilty for Torrenting Game of Thrones“, writer Mark Serrels says “Australia doesn’t have a piracy problem. Australia has a distribution problem”. If Australia only goes to the cinema three times a year to see The Avengers wage war, taught not to see smaller films, why would they turn up to the likes of Red Dog: True Blue? The outcome of this battle is in the hands of those holding the weapons – the distributors.

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