Diamond deals put sparkle in film industry

Making Waves: <i>Storm Surfers 3D.</i>
Making Waves: Storm Surfers 3D.

In a business as precarious as Australian film, it's rare that two warmly-reviewed new releases land in cinemas within days of each other.

But the comic musical The Sapphires, which opened in 270 cinemas on Thursday, takes a starkly different approach to earning revenue to the documentary Storm Surfers 3D, which starts a one-night-only tour of coastal cinemas on Tuesday.

After acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival and sale to every international territory, including a high-profile deal with Hollywood powerbroker Harvey Weinstein, The Sapphires has had just about the perfect build-up to becoming this year's Kenny or Red Dog.

Producers Rosemary Blight and Kylie Du Fresne are coy about the budget of what appears to be an $8 million to $10 million film. But the film, about an Aboriginal girl group who head to Vietnam during the war to entertain the troops, nearly fell over shortly before filming when a major British investor withdrew.

It took backing from Singapore's IFS Capital to get the film back on track, adding to finance from the government agencies Screen Australia and Screen NSW, international sales, what Blight calls ''a small but significant army of private investors'', distributor Hopscotch and the federal government's producer offset.

Early this year, a promotional clip at the Berlin Film Festival sparked the first batch of international sales, including Britain, France, Canada and Israel. Then, in a coup for the filmmakers, given his Hollywood savvy, Weinstein bought the rights to the rest of the world.

Now, after an Australian premiere opening the Melbourne International Film Festival, positive reviews and a hit soundtrack album, The Sapphires seems headed for a bullish $2.5 million to $3 million opening weekend.

Except for a wider-than-usual release and one creative piece of marketing - a free iPhone app that has Jessica Mauboy teaching soul singing and tells the story of the real-life singers that inspired Tony Briggs's stage musical - The Sapphires is following a traditional model for an Australian film: overseas festival acclaim, Australian cinema release, international release (starting with France and Britain soon) then further revenue from DVD, pay TV and free-to-air TV.

Compare that with Storm Surfers, which has the film as just one part of a $6 million multimedia project that includes television, web and digital products.

During the five-week coastal tour, stars Tom Carroll and Ross Clarke-Jones will present one-off ''special event'' screenings. Producers Marcus Gillezeau and Ellenor Cox, whose credits include the telemovie Scorched and the documentary Rocket Compulsion, hope the interest will lead to a wider cinema release. But the project also involves:

A behind-the-scenes web series (profiling the surfers, the filmmakers and the breaks from Storm Surfers) that has been given away free initially to surfing and sponsor's web sites to promote the film.

A ''how to'' series in 2D and 3D web (on such topics as surfing tow-in waves and getting to distant breaks) that will be packaged for LG and Sony 3D TVs around the world. The producers are also negotiating for release on 3D gaming consoles. ''Over the next couple of years, there's going to be a whole suite of 3D mobile devices that are autostereoscopic, which means you don't need glasses,'' says Gillezeau. ''So basically your standard iPhone will be 3D and we've got content available for that.''

A four-part adventure documentary series cut from the same 1500 hours of footage shot for the film that will screen later on television in both 2D and 3D.

An e-book, a surfing games app and a soundtrack album featuring Michael Yezerski and Richard Tognetti.

A complex project in Australian film terms, the $6 million budget came from a combination of pre-sales to various international television networks, three government agencies including Screen Australia, the production company, Red Bull's media arm and the producer's offset.

''The box office is important for the film but not critical to its financial success,'' says Gillezeau, who is optimistic about the potential for worldwide sales of the e-book for $4.99 and the game for $2.

''In Australia alone, 3 million people identify as surfers ,'' he says. ''And beyond that, there's the whole lifestyle market.''

Gillezeau estimates that only 25 per cent of the income is likely to come from Australia. ''We've got the feature film but expect that in many territories the TV series will be equally if not more successful,'' he says.

As with any Australian release, the producers of both films are hoping to find an audience that will translate into returns to their investors.

The Sapphires looks a good chance of doing that relatively quickly. ''Touch wood, I feel there's a really good vibe out there in Australia,'' says Blight, whose previous projects include the TV series Lockie Leonard and the film Clubland. '

With their innovative model, the Storm Surfers team are taking a longer-term approach that taps the digital and 3D potential of big-wave surfing content.

Gillezeau says: ''I've effectively got a number of properties that can generate revenue and therefore spread the risk for the investors.''

This story Diamond deals put sparkle in film industry first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.