Australian filmmakers find success with the digital-only release of The Mule

Mule is about a drug smuggler (Angus Sampson) stuck at the airport with 20 kilos of lethal narcotics in his stomach.

For an independent Aussie film about a football player holed up in a hotel room trying not to go to the toilet for a week, The Mule has done remarkably well.

Over the summer it notched up No. 1 indie title, No. 2 drama title, No. 3 thriller title and No. 8 overall on iTunes Australia. On iTunes US, it achieved No. 1 indie title and No.3 most popular trailer on Apple TV.

Co-producer David Griffiths says he and Sampson fought tooth and nail with distributors to avoid theatrical release.

The black comedy is about a drug mule (Angus Sampson) bailed up at the airport with 20 kilos of lethal narcotics in his stomach. A laconic Hugo Weaving as a federal police officer is one drawcard but what distinguishes The Mule in an industry sense is that Sampson and co-producer David Griffiths eschewed the usual path of theatrical release and went straight to the market – the digital market.

Film is locked up globally by the Hollywood studios, distributors and exhibitors, and is taking longer than other sectors to bow to digital inevitability. On the flip side of this oligopoly is that audiences are increasingly loath to pay, prone to pirate, and demand to watch a film on the device of their choosing at the time of their choosing.

As far as industry structures go, Aussie film is so very 1999. We are therefore a nation of prolific intellectual property pirates.

“Indie films undertaking traditional theatrical release are a failure at the box office,” Griffiths says. “You just get locked up for 120 days and because you don’t get exposure the film is deemed to be a failure. It’s self-fulfilling. Consumers think, ‘We haven’t seen any good press, we haven’t heard about it, it must be a failure’.”

He cites The Rover, with gross box office receipts of $450,000 after three weeks; critically acclaimed and with no bad press. Felony, These Final Hours and Son of a Gun all had similar outcomes.

“These films ticked all the boxes but they still under-performed. Australian audiences are not prepared to spend $20 to go to see Australian films at the cinema,” Griffiths says.

“Why would I want to be locked up in a theatre for 120 days?” says Sampson, now in Canada filming TV series Fargo. “You have to drive to Tuggeranong, pay $10 for parking, $10 for popcorn and $20 for your ticket.”

On a personal note, this writer would have to agree, having seen the odd Australian film screened late at night on SBS, thought it was good and wondered why we had never heard of it before. The answer is it simply doesn’t have the marketing budget of an X-Men 3. Ergo no slavering entertainment “news” online or star actor profile on 60 Minutes.

Griffiths says he and Sampson fought tooth and nail with distributors E1 (formerly Hopscotch) to avoid theatrical release. It’s a recipe for failure, he reckons. You are up against Marvel product with a $30 million budget. It doesn’t matter how good your product is, you get buried.

Blame game

Most agree Australian independent film is in crisis, a sort of long, listless crisis of minor oblivion. And for years, says Sampson, a blame game has played out.

Filmmakers, he says, blame distributors for not marketing the film and exhibitors for only showing it on weekdays at Tuggeranong.

The government blames the audience for pirating it. Audiences, for their part, tend to blame filmmakers for making too many depressing and artistically indulgent shows about another heroin addict.

But now that Bill Hunter is not around any more to shoulder the blame for the failure of yet another Aussie film, quips Sampson, the industry has to face reality.

Sampson also starred in 100 Bloody Acres, which, although buried here at the box office, briefly became the most pirated film worldwide. Both he and Griffiths put the prolific pirating down to a mix of factors, among them the inefficiency in the market arising from the refusal of exhibitors – the Hoyts and Greater Unions – to collapse release windows from 120 days.

Consumer behaviour has changed fundamentally over the past five years, says Griffiths, thanks to the immediacy of information via the web and the proliferation of devices.

“They expect to be able to view the content on their own devices now. With The Mule, we had a choice between certain failure opting for theatrical release, and a chance to take it straight to the audience.”

So the release strategy was a live event on December 7 last year on Twitter. “The concept was to have as many people as possible watch the film at exactly the same time around the world and to share their comments on Twitter. The hashtag #TheMuleLive reached an overall audience of over 2.5 million people and trended to fourth most tweeted hashtag in Australia during the event.”

Whether Griffiths and his co-producers make money will be determined in time. That will depend on how many actually pay to watch it. Thanks to the sheer market dominance of Apple and iTunes, and consequent high pricing (and therefore piracy), the industry dynamics still conspire against them – and we co-funding taxpayers (through Screen Australia).

Ultimately though, if the industry becomes more efficient, the incentives for piracy will surely diminish.