The Great OzFlix Experiment is Over – What Went Wrong and What Could Happen for Australian Films Going Forward

In 2017, Luke Buckmaster asked in response to the launch of OzFlix – a premium video on demand (PVOD) service created by Australian film industry veterans Ron Brown and Alan Finney – whether we really needed a streaming platform just for Australian films. Wading through the comments section on his Guardian piece throws up a sea of ‘no’s and complaints about the service before it had even launched. Commenters criticised the tagline of ‘every Australian film ever’, rattling off a list of notable titles like The Year My Voice Broke, Storm Boy, My Brilliant Career, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Emoh Ruo that were absent from the service.

One user, nospater, put it best when they said:

The tagline really should say:

‘Every Australian Movie. Ever. Eventually. If We Last That Long. So PLEASE Join!’

Outside of the cesspool of comments sections, the mood within the industry and Australian film enthusiast circles for OzFlix was positive. For many, myself included, the notion of having a service that catered exclusively towards Australian films was exactly what we’d been waiting for. Often if you wanted to watch an Australian film, you would have to scour eBay for ex-rental VHS copies of Australian films, import ridiculously priced barebones DVDs from other countries, hope that some forward thinking person had uploaded a low-fi video onto YouTube, or scour illegal torrent websites in the hope of unearthing that lost Aussie gem. All of this made the notion of having a wide catalogue of Australian films at your fingertips available via OzFlix attractive and exciting.

But the service seemed almost doomed to fail from the start. First of all, navigating to the correct site was a mild pain: OzFlix.com.au would take you to a Crazy Domains registration site, OzFlix.com sent you to a 403 Forbidden white page of concern, leading users to the less utilised .org and .tv extensions to find the goods. Yes, a Google search would bring the correct address up, but given the dominance of the .com and .com.au extensions, it seemed like a foolish endeavour to not have secured at least one of them.

Then there were the difficulties that arose with trying to stream from your laptop or phone. In my experience, I was denied the ability to cast from my laptop to my TV, causing me to watch my rented movie on my phone, far from the ideal circumstance to watch any film. The app was difficult to navigate and failed to provide the ability to search the entire OzFlix library. Reviews on Google Play immediately highlighted problems such as difficulty with accessing rented titles and browser access issues. While it’s still available to download, the app was last updated in 2019, a mere two years after the launch of the service.

Equally abandoned are OzFlix’s various social media accounts, with the Facebook page being the most recently used with a post on 9 July 2021 asking “Who is your favourite Aussie director?” It’s almost been as long since I last received a newsletter in relation to what’s on offer via OzFlix.

If you visit OzFlix.org today, you’re presented with a graphic telling you to visit OzFlix.tv. Heading there presents you with an odd login prompt that leads you nowhere. When I last visited OzFlix earlier in 2022, the offerings were great and broad, with the inclusion of live music and theatre being added to the service. Sure, it still didn’t have every Australian film ever, but it did have a lot of films that were only available on OzFlix. Accessing the JustWatch register of what’s available on OzFlix shows a wealth of Aussie films that aren’t available anywhere else: Tony Ayres excellent Walking on Water, the great documentary Making Venus, and countless ‘lost’ titles like Tan Lines and The Roly Poly Man. This is without even cataloguing the many web series and short films that were available on the service.

Outside of the PVOD offerings, OzFlix also worked to support independent Australian films with the launch of the OzFlix Independent Film Awards (aka the Ozzies). With an industry supported and guided awards ceremony, the Ozzies sought to honour indie filmmakers. It’s notable that after the emergence of the Ozzies – which split films into categories based on their budgets – the AACTAs implemented their own independent film category. Possibly due to the pandemic, the Ozzies didn’t make it past 2019.

The reality is that the streaming market is a brutal one, especially for niche services where not even Jeffrey Katzenberg’s billion dollar failed short-form Quibi service could survive the harsh landscape of competitive streaming services all aiming to whisk ten bucks a month out of your pocket. OzFlix’s biggest selling point was being a destination place for Australian films, and yet its PVOD model worked against its library, following a video store mindset that has long been phased out.

New release rentals cost $6.79, while $3.79 got you an older film, with the occasional freebie thrown into the mix. Free offerings included Aussie film history videos, interviews with filmmakers, and web series content. In a bid to be fair and equitable, OzFlix gave 50% of the earnings to filmmakers and rights holders. Even though PVOD provided a stopgap solution during COVID for Hollywood films, for most audiences they are reliable, known risks.

While the ‘cost of a cup of coffee’ argument to rent a film online gets bandied about often enough, in practice it’s a lot more different, especially as household budgets tighten even further. Putting $6.79 down for an independent Australian production you’ve not heard of is more of a gamble, even though most people don’t think twice about the monthly Netflix cost (if they even pay for it that is). The average Aussie household has 2.3 subscription services, with the cost of a subscription service per month differing from as low as $6.99 (Amazon Prime) to $27.50 (Kayo).

If we look at the percentage breakdown across services, 3.3% of Netflix’s catalogue is made up with Australian content, while locally focused Stan. boasts 7.0% of Australian content. There are caveats with these figures, given that each catalogue of titles will skew the percentages of Australian titles in their collection. This isn’t the article to explore the importance of content quotas (which we desperately need), but it is worthwhile taking a look at the Australian Governments report on streaming services from February 2022.

This leads into the subject of audience reach and awareness of Australian films. David Tiley’s latest piece on Screenhub takes a look at how well the Australian film offerings were received in cinemas (not very is the short answer). If we’re being absolutely blunt when it comes to the box office, Australian films rarely stand a chance thanks in part to the dominance of Disney produced films (Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, etc) and the industry scrambling to compete by making bigger, louder, more expensive films. Sprinkle in a pandemic for a bit of spicy cough flavour and you’ve got a perfect storm that spells doom for Australian films at the box office.

The pandemic merely pushed along something that was already in the midst of happening, namely that cinemagoing audiences were reducing as interest in streaming services at home increased. Additionally, the discussion online is skewing towards serial format ‘content’ (yes, the dreaded c word) as opposed to films. We’re consuming more ‘content’ than ever before, with the threat of peak redundancy imminent (or depending on who you ask, it’s already here). These are all uphill battles that Australian films and shows face, and by gosh it’s a bloody tough one to climb up.

While Quibi and OzFlix have struggled to weather the streaming storm, niche Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) services like DocPlay (documentaries), Kayo (sports), Shudder (horror), and BritBox (British content) have found dedicated audiences. This does suggest that if OzFlix adjusted its platform to be a SVOD service that there might be a receptive audience for a dedication platform for Australian films.

After all, when presented with the opportunity, audiences will seek out and watch Australian films on streaming services. Martin Wilson’s Great White launched into the top ten on Netflix worldwide when it appeared earlier in 2022, with other Australian films like The Sapphires, Jasper Jones, and The Babadook also being widely received by global audiences. Free Video on Demand platforms like ABC iView and SBS On Demand have spotlighted Australian films with online festivals and prominent placement on the landing page of their apps.

I don’t delight in engaging in the vivisection of a service that exists to support the Australian film industry, especially one created with grand and honourable intentions, but the reality is that it’s clear that the OzFlix experiment has failed. Sure, by all accounts some magical investor could come along to sweep in and save the service, but it would need a major injection of cash, a ground-up rebuild of the entire streaming platform, and a realignment of its VOD model. All of which I cannot see happening any time soon.

So what could happen with the library of films that OzFlix had fostered over its years in existence? Rumours have swirled about a domestically owned streaming service swooping in and merging OzFlix into their catalogue, a notion which fits well with certain platforms that already create and house a wealth of Australian films. The audience for Australian films exists, it just needs ongoing financial support which a global library or audience would help sustain.

Additionally, we will have to await the culture review that Minister for the Arts Tony Burke commenced in 2022 to see whether the much-anticipated Australian content streaming quotas will be applied. The notion of a government owned and operated streaming service has also been floated by some areas, an idea that sounds more optimistic than practical.

Ultimately, the answer to the question of whether we really need a streaming platform just for Australian films is a resounding yes. OzFlix is an honourable attempt at building such an entity, but it was always going to be a difficult one to make a success. Whoever follows in Ron and Alan’s footsteps is going to equally face a major challenge, but they will do it on the back of greatness. Australian films and the people who make them deserve it.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!