Aussie exhibs, distribs get news on imports

Oz gov't to exclude vids, pics from reforms

GOLD COAST, Queensland — There was unqualified good news — and a dose of potentially bad news — for Oz exhibs and distribs at the Australian Intl. Movie Convention, which ran Aug. 14-18 at the Royal Pines Resort.

To universal relief, confabbers found out the government finally had killed off a threat that had been hanging over the industry’s head for 18 months, when Arts Minister Peter McGauran revealed that Australia would exclude films and videos from a series of reforms that have allowed unrestricted importing of CDs.

A broad coalition repping distribs, exhibs and producers has lobbied the government to reject a proposal that would have allowed anyone to import DVDs once they are for sale anywhere in the world, principally the U.S. The industry pointed to New Zealand, where the parallel importing of DVDs contributed to an 11% slump in the national B.O. last year.

The ailing economies in rural and regional areas is shaping up as a key issue in the Australian election due to be held before the end of this year, so McGauran was keen to reassure delegates “the government has deliberately chosen to exclude film products in any liberalization of the parallel importation regime.”

On the other hand, Ross Jones, a commissioner at watchdog the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, told the confab the ACCC still supported parallel importing of DVDs, reasoning that would result in lower prices.

Jones says the ACCC’s ongoing inquiry into DVD prices was sparked by the commission’s belief that the regional zoning system for DVDs enables distribs to extract anti-competitive prices.

Bob McMullan, the arts spokesman for the opposition Labor Party, reaffirmed Labor’s opposition to parallel imports. But he warned that the incoming government will come under pressure to allow parallel imports from the ACCC, contending the agency “is obsessed about it in every area.”

In turn, McGuaran says the government had considered the ACCC’s advice and had rejected it.

Jones further jolted convention attendees on the issue of the three-year-old film distribution and exhibition code, issuing an oblique warning that unless the industry makes its voluntary system of settling disputes work better, it could face the prospect of regulation.

The ACCC is reviewing the code, which is intended to provide a framework for fair dealings between exhibs and distribs, and to mediate disputes without the need for legal recourse.

“Should problems persist then mandatory regulation may be the only alternative,” Jones says.

The ACCC is concerned that some distribs are demanding excessively high rentals from rural cinemas that don’t get films until several weeks after they debut in city cinemas. They also are upset over unrealistically long minimum runs.

“There is some evidence that minimum (runs) have been increased. They should be falling rather than rising,” Jones says, citing the fast-burn out of many titles in Oz, mirroring the U.S. pattern.

Jones acknowledges that if the code conciliator’s recommendations were made binding and sanctions were introduced, some form of appeal process would be needed.

While he was careful to say the ACCC had no role in deciding whether the code should be proscribed, he notes the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and some European countries have such regs on distrib-exhib deals.

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