With films such as The Dressmaker, the Cannes-selected surprise hit Japanese Story and the idiosyncratic Road to Nhill to her name, Sue Maslin, for over three decades, has been one of Australia’s highest-respected independent film producers.
Operating out of an office in Melbourne’s Fitzroy and active in the production of television and digital media, Maslin has also worked as a distributor, forming Film Art Media with Daryl Dellora in 2008 – an entity devoted to the development and distribution of diverse stories.
With over 35 years of experience in narrative and documentary films, Maslin has seen many changes to the local sector.
We sat down with the pioneering filmmaker to discuss the major challenges facing the industry, being told no on The Dressmaker, backing films that cut against the grain, and how innovation is needed in the Australian screen sector.
You’ve been a key producer of Australian film for over three decades. Whilst there are positive signs such as a record contingent of six Australian films at Sundance this year, and filming in Australia hitting its second highest levels yet, the industry is undergoing significant change. What are your thoughts on the overall picture?
You really do have to have a view over the longer term to make sense of it. This time last year, we had the complete opposite where we had nothing at Sundance or Cannes. Looking at the overall picture, we are all in the same boat, dealing with a huge amount of disruption to the business model that’s been operating here for the last number of decades. It impacts everybody, producers, distributors, exhibitors, screen agencies, the investors. All of us need to ask the question, do we want a viable feature film industry in this country? Yes or no? If it’s yes, and I’m a great believer that we do, we have to ask: What might it look like going forward? At the moment, everybody’s scrambling over “this is how we used to do things”.
We have to come together and say, the industry has changed. The streamers have changed the business model forever. So, what might get people into cinemas looking at Australian films going forward? What do we as producers need to do in relation to that? What do distributors need to do? How can screen agencies respond? We have to rewrite the rules on this.
In terms of the producer’s and distributor’s role (because I distribute as well), I look at it in terms of what is the audience experience. It’s not enough to do what we’ve been doing for decades. To just make a film, support it with a publicity and marketing campaign and hope that people come. That just doesn’t cut it anymore. So, let’s go back to the basics. Yes, there’s the cinema experience which you can’t beat because it’s communal, it’s in real time, it’s a moment out of people’s busy lives. It’s something to be shared with people you love or want to be with. It’s an experience.
But it’s no longer enough to think you are producing a work for the screen and that’s it. That’s how we have to change our thinking as producers. Same thing with distributors. It will only work going forward, if we ensure that the distributors and the producers, both who have the most at risk, are in sync, getting the best possible campaigns, the best possible materials, the best possible social media strategies, and just working really closely together.
As a producer, I think about not only what I put on the screen, but what is the entire experience that sits around what’s on the screen. In the case of The Dressmaker, the experience that leads up to going and sitting in a cinema. That’s the social media campaign, which we started about 18 months beforehand. It’s how we bring the tribe together, the fans, the conversation. On The Dressmaker, we invited, through our social media, people to audition for roles of extras.
That in turn leads to the most important experience of all, which is word of mouth. That’s how you make movies that really speak to people. And then the experience doesn’t stop with the screen. It goes beyond and long after. It could be education programs at school. Or as in our case, doing costume exhibitions. It could be doing documentaries around the work; thinking about theatrical productions.
Exhibitors have to completely change the way they’re thinking around windows and around how releases are going to happen going forward and come to terms with the fact that the streamers are here to stay. They’ve got big pockets. And increasingly people are looking at content online. It may mean shorter windows. All of these things need to be on the table. I’m committed to a future that is not based on how we did everything in the past but is based on how we actually make a feature film industry work going forward in this new world order.
Is there more opportunity with a globally open marketplace to distribute Australian stories like The Nightingale and Judy and Punch to global viewers and to get them seen overseas?
Are our films getting traction? Yes, they’re getting the kind of traction they’ve always had, which is specialist distributors that are giving them limited release screenings, which will hopefully continue to happen. Those films are very idiosyncratic, very specific, culturally specific stories, but they speak to very big, universal themes. And they do it very well. They’re beautifully made films, and they will always have a place. The thing that the digital world and the digital platforms have shown us is that there is no such thing as a general audience. There’s no such thing as an international audience. We have tribes, and we can find those very, very specific tribes anywhere in the world.
Where do you see the direction of the feature film industry going as a producer and distributor?
To me, the exciting thing about the technology and where it’s going is that it reduces the distance between the content creator and the end user and enables us to find a very specific paid audience, anywhere in the world. It will only work if you have influence of curators to help. The single biggest challenge we’ve all got going forward is that there’s way too much content out there. There’s such a glut, and we’re all feeling overwhelmed by it. It’s only going to get worse. How do we make sense of all that content? That’s the real challenge. That’s where the role of curation comes. Festivals will have an ever-increasing importance and we see that now. Festivals are growing in importance because they do take a curatorial role. We will also see a rise of importance in people who curate taste and interest, and I’m not talking about algorithms, I’m talking about real people who know cinema, know the background, have the passion. We need those people in the mix.
In terms of your own films, Japanese Story screened in Cannes Un Certain Regard, The Dressmaker premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Both aren’t the films studios favour. Can you talk about the challenges of producing those films and getting them made?
Both those films I was told there was very limited audience and both of those films got several knockbacks, before I finally got investors and distributors on board. I like making films that cut against the grain. Films that are the outliers, that are surprising, that take creative risk. And I’ll always continue to make those films because the one thing I know about audiences is that they love to be surprised. And they love to be surprised by great storytelling that takes them into worlds that they’ve never been before. That’s the kind of movie I’ll always continue to make. And I’m happy to make it because I know I can find those audiences.
You’ve said that we need to support filmmakers with talent that say something and that are prepared to take creative risks. How do we ensure that there is support in Australia for risky films like Japanese Story? Are financiers more risk averse now?
I still believe the same. It’s more difficult right now than ever to make a sustainable living as a creative across the board. We’ve seen the centralising of what was a many door policy that we all operated on in this industry for years, where if you got knocked back from one area, there was a number of different doors that you could try and get your film made.
Increasingly, we’re seeing a reduction and a centralising of what I call the “green lighting power”. So that is who gets to finance films in the first instance, and secondly, who gets to decide what we see on our screens. That is really a huge challenge. The only way we’re going to be able to deal with it going forward I think, is just trust that here in Australia, we do have the capacity for stories that are incredibly idiosyncratic and unique in an environment that’s not like anywhere else in the world. And we’ve got one of the oldest living civilisations or cultures anywhere in the world. So, we’ve got really, really unique storytelling that happens here. And I trust in that. But it’s got to be authentic. It’s got to be real. It’s got to be made really well, so that it has the best chance of connecting with people anywhere in the world.
Ultimately, I still feel optimistic about the Australian industry, that’s why I’m still doing it. I’m still only interested in those films that are right out there. Because they have the best chance. The minute you try and second-guess the market, you’re lost.