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Film Impact Ratings – Measuring Success in Australian Films. Some additional comments and a couple of tentative case studies

Bruce Hodsdon

A key observation in the response to my earlier critique proposes impact “as a measurement of success relative to opportunity”. In this regard there seems to me a question about with the way coverage and commercial performance, in particular, are weighted then subsumed into FIRs . As I have previously suggested I see value in the three C's (coverage, commentary and commercial performance) as indexes provided that they are further subdivided so that the empirical data is more apparent. I have also previously suggested a way of doing this.

What I primarily had in mind in my reference to 'overdetermination' in my earlier critique, is the risk of over-complication at the expense of transparency in the representation of an admittedly complex interaction of commercial and cultural factors by measuring impact indicatively through statistical analysis.

Some complexities in both the empirical evidence and the functionality of the FIR system as it stands, are raised by the two examples below. The first example is a brief comparison of the application of the three categories to what I see, in Mystery Road and The Great Gatsby, as polarities in feature film production. The second example is of two similarly rated films, Mystery Road and Wolf Creek 2. Both examples, it seem to me, strengthen the case for the breakdown of the of the FIR categories into separate indexes to which cross reference can be made from the FIRs in the interests of greater transparency.

Central to FIRs is the concept of normalisation of the fourteen variables comprising the three components which are scaled between 0 and 1 so that all the films being rated are “evenly weighted and statistically comparable”. In the pilot IRs the “smoothing of the outliers” is most apparent withThe Great Gatsby which, in terms of the raw data of bo performance and number of screenings, is in a very different league. Normalisation pulls it back into the umbrella sharing the value of 1 as a benchmark for the 36 film list with Saving Mr Banks, a film whose coverage is only half that of of GG. The effect down the list is also to compress the raw data into FIRs of each film. To some extent this explains the closer proximity of films' IRs than one might intuitively expect from looking at the raw data (see especially example 2 below). I think this effect has been exacerbated by the underweighting of commercial performance.

There is an obvious nexus between coverage (ie opportunity) and result (commercial performance). I think the FIRs would provide a more immediately accessible and observably credible index of the complexities, if the three broad components were at least evenly weighted at say one third each. To reduce the singular role of commercial performance to a weighting of less than 25% of impact seems to me excessive.

I assume the introduction of online performance, if feasible in the near future, would in any case require a re-weighting of both the coverage and commercial performance components. For example, consideration would need to be given to further expanding the commercial weighting to say 40% to include online performance.

I don't see the proposed measurement of film impact as merely an arcane academic exercise. The most valuable contribution the researchers have made so far to the broadening of the comparative rating of FI may be the identification and assembling of the range of data per se and in addressing the difficulties of weighting that data.

The FIR index could assume, at least initially, a role subject to further refinement in the weightings (including possible additions), as a kind of index to the component indexes, representing what the researchers describe as “ a more holistic approach to film impact that extends beyond just one metric , i.e. domestic box office”.

I do also have to question about the way the FIRs are organised, namely the adoption, in the sample, of The Great Gatsby and Saving Mr Banks as "benchmarks". Its seems a case of apples being 'normalised' as oranges. I query the usefulness of extending the selection down the list to many films that have minimal coverage. Such wide-ranging juxtaposing and rating of films with such different production and marketing budgets as well as filmmaking genres seems to me to introduce questionable compression. On the face of it I find it difficult to reconcile minimal coverage with high commercial performance ratings. Presumably these ratings are generated by the low to ultra low budgets producing favourable budget: b.o. ratios, even when commercial return is negligible.

Subjecting no 36 film Foreshadow (in Table 3 in the original paper) to the same rating framework as The Great Gatsby seems to me to lack meaning. The GG operates in a quite a different league from nearly all the other films on the pilot list with the possible exception of Saving Mr Banks, The Railway Man and Dinosaurs although the latter is a special case. The coverage benefits of co-production with a multinational major are apparent in the contrasting opportunities provided for GG and MR summarised in example 1.

To set Mystery Road against The Great Gatsby as an example: MR's  commercial performance is rated at 39% of GG even though bo : budget is less than 20% c.f. GG's massive 334%. The mitigation of this large gap in commercial performance in the IRs would seem to be in the minimal coverage of MR at 7% that of GG's coverage ('the denial of opportunity') and MR's low budget relative to that of GG. While commentary for MR is high at 59% that of GG (qualitative substantially offsetting the lack of the comparable quantitative response for WC), critical reception seemingly improving MR's relative position in the IR.

To summarise, it seems that MR, despite its relatively strong reception (commentary), because of minimal opportunity (coverage), made little impact in recovering a reasonable proportion of its relatively low budget (commercial performance) at the domestic bo on initial release.

An alternative to the broad-based list of films rated in Table 3 it might be productive to also apply impact ratings to comparable 'likes' such as say films 5-12, 14-15 (ten titles from The Rocket to 3 Peas in a Pod excluding the documentary In Bob We Trust), using an international co-pro with more limited coverage and commercial performance like The Railway Man as a benchmark.

Example 1

Does this beg the question? Just before its worldwide release The Great Gatsby was given the opening night screening at the Cannes Film Festival, the most prestigious cinema showcase in the world. Only one other Australian film has had a similar launching pad into the world market, Baz Luhrmann's earlier Moulin Rouge. Conversely, why, given the general critical acclaim domestically, was MR given such a limited launch?

The answer may lie, at least in part, in the way it was released (including the timing) through an independent distribution company, Dark Matter, co-owned by the producer and director of MR which grossed around $400,000+ on a maximum of 21 screens in Oct- Nov 2013. This puts it in the bottom rung,“limited release” category, which it shares with the the majority of Oz features, about one fifth to one quarter, on average, of American and British releases and the substantial majority of foreign language releases, although its GBO was at least three times above the average for ”limited release” films of both Oz and overseas origin.

The almost invariable percentage fall-off in the week-by-week takings in the 4-5 weeks of MR's initial release was less than that usual for films irrespective of the scale of release. From a better than average $5300 per screen in the first week, it suggests positive word of mouth reinforced by favourable reviews. Given that the run-up to Christmas is traditionally a difficult time to release a film, it seems apparent that MR was not given an adequate opportunity to find its audience. GG, by contrast, was given a “blockbuster” saturation opening at the end of May 2013 on 587 screens, grossing $6.8 million on the opening weekend.

MR was subsequently screened free to air by the ABC (which had invested in the film) only months after its theatrical release.That late evening single screening on air should have at least tripled the 40-50,000 audience for its domestic theatrical run. MR has screened in a number of international film festivals but does not appear to have had any significant theatrical release overseas, likely going straight to dvd and online release.

For GG Warner Bros in effect received a 40% rebate for money spent in Oz on the production and marketing under the controversial Tax Offset arrangement. This may have cost the federal government coffers as much as $75m, leaving Warner Bros to fund the balance of anything from $40-100 mill production and marketing costs (estimates of which have been quoted in total as anything from $105-190 mill) on worldwide gbo of around $350million.

MR production costs of around $2 million plus marketing have been largely funded by the Queensland government (more than $900,000), Screen Australia's Indigenous Department and the ABC. As indicated the film's producers took on the distribution role including marketing, themselves thus cutting out the 25-30% of gbo distributor's fee. It would seem unlikely at this stage, however, that there has been any significant recoupment of production costs from the initial theatrical release.

MR has attracted strong critical support ( 91% in Rotten Tomatoes) from local and overseas reviewers compared with 48% critics' rating forThe Great Gatsby . Combined ratings (audience and critics are not rated separately) on IMDB are 73 % for GG and 65% for MR, the latter on a much smaller sample - on IMDB the numbers of audience and critics aggregated for the ratings for GG are about 125 times times the number of responses for MR.

An aura of scale and glamour created around The GG combined with the cultural status of the source novel as a modern classic elevated it into the 'must see' category for so many potential viewers resistant to critical equivocation. The nuances in MR's auteur inflected blend of genre and social commentary attracted strong critical endorsement both here and overseas but lacked initial opportunity to establish momentum through viewer response, crucial in that the cinema screen still has the strength to open that window. This is not to dispute that Luhrmann in The GG made a film that not only drew around one in ten Australians into the cinema but presented them with a seemingly boundless sense of opportunity to do so; the figures are impelling evidence that it delivered for the great majority. What is thrown into stark relief is that perhaps 150,000 Australians took the severely limited opportunity (not much more than 40,000 in cinemas) to take in one of our own stories. What are the political (the question of taxpayer subsidy to a multinational) and cultural issues (opportunity) here that the box office figures don't reveal?

Example 2

To briefly make another comparison of two films: Mystery Road and Wolf Creek 2, placed in adjoining FIRs on the pilot list. MR is a low budget feature substantially publicly funded; WC2 with a medium level budget ($7.2 mill) privately funded following the major commercial success, domestically and internationally, of WC1 ($ 30 mill gbo). WC2 is rated with more than four times the coverage (opportunity) of MR which resulted in domestic bo of around $6 mill versus only $0.45 mill for MR (I have found no significant overseas theatrical release recorded for either film). MR's 70% higher commentary rating resulted from a substantially higher critics' rating (91% for MR versus 48% for WC2) partially offset by more than three times the number of user responses for WC2 for only marginally lower user ratings. That MR's IR is only 2.95 points lower at 30.52 than WC2 (33.47) seems a problematically narrow net difference in the representation of the comparative impacts of these two films in light of the empirical evidence.

Note: The information and stats for my short comparative look at the contrasting cases of GG and MR and WC 2 have been gleaned entirely from available information online. I acknowledge that there could be significant omissions and errors but I am fairly confident that any corrections will not substantially alter the general validity of the comparisons.