So I Opened A Cinema:
Tackling Indie Film Distribution Headaches

By June 11, 2015 Blog

Guest writer Dean Francis talks about finding an audience for his latest film Drown.

As a teenager my favourite thing was late night screenings of edgy indie films at arthouse cinemas. Todd Solondz’s Happiness sent me into a tailspin of moral dilemma; Greg Araki’s The Doom Generation began my obsession with bad taste; and Catherine Breillat’s Romance redefined the relationship between the lens and the human form. I aspired to provoke audiences by making films that keep playing in the mind after the closing credits. To me this was the point of cinema.

Years later, most of those cinemas have closed. Sydney alone has lost two-dozen arthouse screens. The ubiquitous multiplex offers the same Hollywood re-hashes, which are as disposable as the giant popcorn cups they’re designed to sell.

Australian distributors are dumping local films on VOD/DVD like never before, bypassing the theatrical release cherished by filmmakers. It’s hard to raise awareness around a film, and directors are deprived of real critical and personal responses to their work. Distributors don’t publish sales figures for ‘straight to VOD’ releases, so it’s impossible to tell if a viable alternative to theatrical release actually exists.

2015 Heath Ledger Scholarship Winner, Matt Levett, and Jack Matthews star in Drown
2015 Heath Ledger Scholarship recipient, Matt Levett and Jack Matthews star in Drown

My second feature Drown has distribution deals throughout Europe, the US and the UK, and it will release theatrically in many of these territories. As a crowd funded film it had a close social media following from its inception. It effortlessly sold out two 900-seat theatres at the Mardi Gras Film Festival, and two sessions at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival (where it won the Audience Award). It was positively reviewed (four stars from Margaret Pomeranz), and has won festival awards in almost every category. Yet despite this, Drown—like many local films—was slow to garner theatrical release interest from established players in Australia. Having struggled for three years, embracing the do-it-yourself philosophy to get this confrontational and personal film made, I felt compelled to extend this ethos to distribution. So I opened a cinema.

JJ-splice screening

For months we screened Drown to test audiences and festival programmers in the basement studio of jj splice films in Surry Hills. I beefed up the sound system, added more lounge chairs and a popcorn machine, and it was ready to go live on Eventbrite and Facebook. We included an extended Q&A with people from the Drown team and a catalogue of deleted scenes. We provided boutique wine and gathered feedback from audiences on social media and via a short survey.

The first two screenings of Drown sold out quickly, the average audience rating was four stars, with 80% of audiences ‘extremely likely’ to recommend the experience. People were drawn in by the event’s uniqueness—an intimate setting, personal interaction with filmmakers, good quality free refreshments and exclusive bonus content.


Drown is also on the Tugg Cinema-on-Demand platform, so anyone in Australia can request a screening in their local cinema and get a percentage of box office sales for promoting the screening. Thanks to a very impressive per-screening box office average and strong, positive word-of-mouth, established exhibitors have renewed interest in Drown as a theatrical proposition, with it’s first conventional two to four week run commencing last week.

When digital filmmaking emerged, I looked forward to the ‘democratisation’ of filmmaking. Yet despite more films being made, less are being watched in cinemas thanks to the prohibitive distribution overheads and competition with lavishly resourced ‘safe-bet’ US studio pictures.

Drown has reinforced for me that the most important part of filmmaking is when the lights go down and the audience enters the story world. Indie filmmakers have taken more and more control of the filmmaking process. If we’re prepared to shoot, edit, post-produce and finance our own films, it makes sense that we should also find our own ways to theatrically exhibit them. With a bit more luck and support from a committed audience, Drown just might inspire more filmmakers to keep arthouse independent cinema alive without relying on increasingly unrealistic ‘traditional’ models or relegating their visions to the ever-shrinking small screen.

To attend a Drown basement screening click here for tickets and more info.

Dean Francis is an award-winning Director, Producer, Cinematographer and Writer. He has directed two feature films: ROAD TRAIN (2010), funded by Screen Australia and released in 50 countries; and the newly released DROWN (2015). Dean has also directed more than a dozen short films which have screened in more than a hundred international film festivals.