Content Cafe


The real costs of “the culture of the free”

by Andrew Pike, OAM

One Australian distributor to the education market whose business failed spoke about the damage done by what he called “the expectation of the free.”

As a distributor for 42 years, I think it is important to examine what he was referring to. This expectation of “the free” on the part of librarians, teachers and the general public is one that we are dealing with constantly in the digital age.

My company Ronin Films serves the education market in Australia and, through agents or sub-distributors, in North America and some Asian countries. We focus on public education via public libraries, community groups and government agencies as well as schools and universities.

Our films are social documentaries on issues of public interest – whether historical or contemporary. We prefer films that present independent alternative viewpoints, often “highly authored” films that carry the very evident stamp of an independent filmmaker. Some of these will play on TV and some will receive cinema releases, but many are not conventionally released on those platforms.

Beginning with 16mm print sales, then VHS and DVD, it has been a stable and worthwhile small business that has delivered a great deal of satisfaction, supporting filmmakers and helping to communicate content of social importance.

From this base a range of other marketplace activities arose such as running art house cinemas (which would often show our documentaries) and theatrical distribution of feature films. Many of our theatrical features were specialised releases but they included break-out successes such as Strictly Ballroom, Shine and Road to Nhill.

With the arrival of forms of digital delivery – streaming and downloads – our core business has diminished in value and has lost its predictability, but has remained viable, especially when topped up with a slate of airline and TV sales and theatrical releases of suitable feature documentaries.

One attraction of our business model has been the small number of competitors in the field of social documentary. But in the digital era some of competitors have closed down. Perhaps they were too narrowly focused on classroom videos, perhaps other factors contributed.

Increasingly it seems teachers and librarians are being forced by financial and staffing cutbacks to rely on covering subjects from either free material online, copied off-air, or purchased from a legal copying agency such as Enhance TV where content copied off-air can be downloaded by a registered educational institution for a minimal cost.

Teachers are being drawn to these free or low-cost sources rather than researching and aspiring to use the best quality resources in classroom contexts or in building libraries.

Many filmmakers feed into this expectation by putting their films online for anyone to access. The number of “hits” their film may receive on an online platform is seductive and some filmmakers place these numbers above any prospect of earning revenue from sales. It can be a fatal trap: sometimes these films could have been eminently suitable for distribution and the filmmakers could have had a formal release to enhance their careers.

Providing films for free promotes a culture that expects films for free. There is no doubt that a huge number of “hits” for a social documentary provided free on the internet diminishes dramatically when a paywall is introduced. My company is not alone in finding that revenue from streaming and download platforms for our style of social documentary is minimal: it’s small change that is barely worth the bother. For a feature film, the paywall may be the basis for a solid business but for social documentary it is not yet viable.

My concern is that the huge numbers of “hits” for free or low-cost content doesn’t necessarily indicate that the viewer is attentive. A free documentary online, say, on the plight of refugees in Europe may attract tens of thousands of hits, but what these “hits” represent are people clicking onto a file, watching a few seconds or perhaps minutes then moving on to the next offering that attracts them on the endless feast of programs available on the internet.

What we want – and need – are attentive viewers. I believe making viewers pay something for access is a sure way of buying their attentiveness and their commitment to watch at least a substantial part of a film they have paid money to acquire.

If we can start by challenging the culture of “the free” that is pervading our educational systems we will be making a good start. We need to convince teachers and librarians – and the people who control their funding – that “free” (or almost free) is no guarantee of quality.

We need more discussion around the fact that teachers and libraries may be prioritising titles that they can copy off-air or download at minimal cost. This shift to rely on material copied off-air places the choice about what is shown in the classroom in the hands of TV programmers. If a film is not broadcast on TV, then it is increasingly not considered to be affordable by teachers and librarians.

To make the education market willing to pay for quality is our challenge: it’s essentially a marketing exercise that we need new strategies to tackle.

The problem is paralleled by the expectations of many private individuals who are cavalier about pirating films for free, to the extent that they refuse to pay for new quality content and wait until they can find it (illegally) free of charge.

Educators and librarians are presumably less likely to use pirated downloads because they work for public institutions, but the resistance to paying royalty fees is the same. The culture of “the free” needs to be addressed at all levels.

Andrew Pike is a film distributor, film historian and documentary filmmaker. With Ross Cooper, he co-authored Australian Film 1900-1977. His company Ronin Films, distributed many Chinese fifth generation films in the 1980s and Japanese classics. In 2007, he received an Order of Australia Medal and an honorary doctorate from the University of Canberra. For ten years until 2012 he served on various iterations of the Board of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. As a documentary director, his credits include Angels of War, The Chifleys of Busby Street, Emily in Japan and Message from Mungo (co-directed with Ann McGrath and winner of a United Nations Association Media Award in November 2014).