In an industry starved of recent success stories, Hearn’s tale of risk and triumph is as rare as a short acceptance speech at the Oscars. By mortgaging his own home, Hearn kick-started a film venture that has already generated a 400 percent return for his investors — even before the sale of a single movie ticket. His horror/thriller, Wolf Creek, won a coveted spot at the Director’s Fortnight Competition earlier this year in Cannes. It is also the only Australian film ever to have been selected for Cannes and Sundance in the same year. Riding high on industry praise and the film’s escalating commercial success, Hearn is proving that silver screen success isn’t reserved for doe-eyed Aussie soap stars. He is smiling proof that film making can deliver Australian entrepreneurs the happiest of endings. Interview by James C. Tuckerman
How did you get into the movie making business?
I started my career in advertising and worked there for thirteen years, so I got to learn a great deal about production and how to take a project through to completion. I loved that, but my real dream, ever since I was a child, was to make movies. I was working in an ad agency in London and had reached that stage where you start to question what you’re doing. I started thinking about moving back to Australia and I thought that if I am going to move back to Australia then what I’d really like to do is move into the film industry. So, basically, I took steps and found myself happily employed in it.
What was your role in bringing Wolf Creek to life?
My key role was executive producer. I also co-produced the film. Co-producing means actively managing the making of the film on a day-to-day basis with the director and producer. Executive producers help put the deal together and generate the momentum that’s needed to get a project off the ground — attracting investment and coordinating everything along those lines. I coordinated the private investment side of things under the ATO tax structure, which provides a 100 percent tax-deductible investment structure into Australian film. I wrangled a group of friends together, along with my own investment into the film, which helped trigger finance from Federal and State government film bodies.
So, how much money did it cost?
We produced it for $1.38 million, which is about a third of the cost of an average Australian film. And we managed to do that by calling in every favour we had. Also, we were one of the first crews in Australia to shoot on the new high definition technology. That allowed us to speed the whole process up. We averaged 42 set ups a day, which for a feature film is quite incredible. Shooting digitally allows us so much more freedom and speed to move.
You have to feel pretty confident when you’re asking friends, family and business colleagues to invest.
Yes. A fair chunk of that initial private investment was mine. I risked my house, dipping into my mortgage to prove that I was dead certain that this was going to work out. By having that sort of confidence, it rubbed off on my friends to some extent, but they were more than willing to take a punt on a great script and an interesting project such as this.
Was there much personal sacrifice involved?
Absolutely. During the whole production, and still to this day, I have never paid myself a cent. I’ve contributed my car, all of my time, raised the money and emptied everything. I had percentages and points in the film that made me work doubly hard because, if the film was successful, I stood to gain a great return. I’ve been lucky enough that that’s been the case.
Was the $1.38 million the original budget? Did you run over budget?
No. We brought it in on budget and on time, which is quite a modern miracle.
We shot in the middle of the desert. It was supposed to be summer, and we were shooting in the Flinders Rangers in South Australia. The real Wolf Creek is based in the second largest meteorite creator in the world and is located in far north Western Australia. We had the most unfortunate thing happen to us. Our shoot was to take place over 25 days, and for 21 days it rained. In this part of Australia it almost never rains. We got more rain in five days than they’d had in seven years! So the roads all washed away.
What initially brought Wolf Creek to life?
Greg McLean, the film’s writer/ director, had written a script. I had worked with him on a project — a couple of corporate videos for ANZ and a music video — and over a couple of beers one night we both spoke about what we’d really like to do. I said that I’d like to executive produce feature films and he said, “Well I’ve got four I’ve written, do you want to read them?” The second I read his first script I knew that here was an incredible talent waiting to be unleashed and I was absolutely astounded that he hadn’t been given the support he needed at an earlier stage.
Was this script Wolf Creek?
No, it was another script. We embarked on raising finance for that but realised fairly quickly that in Australia the average cost of a feature film is around four million dollars, and raising four million dollars behind a first time Writer/Director is quite a difficult task. He’d written a number of scripts over the years. I read all of them and found Wolf Creek to be the most immediately commercial. We could also scale it back and do it for less money. But Greg’s philosophy was, I just need to make a feature film. I need to prove myself and what is the minimum amount of resources I need to accomplish that task? So we cut cast back, returned to the basics and thought, what would it take to make a really good film? And, fortunately, Wolf Creek is a really good story that has power and immediacy.
How would you describe the genre of Wolf Creek?
Wolf Creek is a horror/thriller. One of the reasons that we chose to develop and produce Wolf Creek at this stage is because horror is performing very, very strongly. As a genre, horror/thriller films can be sold into most international markets. Basically, we’re in it to make a great film and make a profit for the investors. The best way for us to do that was to make a genre fl ick that had a much better chance of selling into an international market.
It’s obviously been well received. Have you received any numbers back that you can talk about?
Well, we produced the film for $1.38 million and two days before Christmas, the Weinstein brothers (who started Miramax and have now gone out on their own again) pre-emptively put a bid in for the film. We had already sold into the UK and a couple of the European countries earlier in the piece, which is quite amazing because no other Australian film has done that for a while, but two days before Christmas, the Weinsteins approached us.
After a bit of negotiation, we closed a deal with them for North American distribution, which, at that time, was the most money paid for an Australian film in about seven years. The presale of the film to them as distributors, was $7.5 million. Every investor has more than quadrupled their input into the film, even after sales agents’ percentages and so on, even before one ticket has been sold.
So, how does it work? Where does a film maker make money?
The best way to make money is to create a really great film, get billing at the international film festivals and hopefully drive up the value of your film by creating a competitive bidding situation between distribution companies. After you’ve sold distribution into various countries and regions, you also receive a trailing percentage of ticket sales. But generally, these days, about 55 per cent of revenue now comes from DVD sales — between 55 and 60 per cent. And the producers of the film get a much higher percentage of DVD sales. And that’s a trend that is looking good for film makers.
You license the distribution and then you get royalties from ticket sales and DVD sales.
And if it ever goes to television?
Yes, TV as well. There are different percentages negotiated for television distribution. After a wide cinema release, you go to DVD and video but the distributors negotiate TV deals as well.
The film has also been a critical success. You mentioned Sundance.
Yeah, we were the only Australian feature film to play at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and, I think, we are the only Australian film in history to play at both Sundance and the Cannes Film Festival in the same year. We were accepted into the Directors Fortnight Competition in Cannes. At our opening screening in Cannes, we also found out that we were the third horror film ever to be accepted into the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. The first was Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1975. The second was Blair Witch Project, I believe, in 1997. And now Wolf Creek in 2005. So, they believe that the film has the potential to change the genre, as those films did. At this stage, it looks like Wolf Creek is going to be the biggest international release of an Australian film since Crocodile Dundee.
I’m really keen to hear about the nuts and bolts of how you went about selling Wolf Creek.
I think that one of the real reasons why Wolf Creek sold for such a big number, and performed well early in the piece, is because we approached the film differently to many Australian filmmakers. We worked out how we were going to market and brand the film at the very beginning. Distributors are actually looking for films that they can market. So, unlike most Australian films, we created film posters almost on day one. We created a trailer from footage that we collected early in the piece and made it look as slick as any Hollywood trailer. The Weinsteins actually saw the trailer before they saw the film. Their initial approach to buy the film was based on the trailer and how they could market the film.
What advice would you give to people who are trying to make a film or even those who have already tried and failed?
You need to put your balls on the line. If you really, really believe in the project, do everything you can to make sure that the film is going to sell after you’ve finished making it. I think that a lot of people are so passionate about making the film they’ve had in their head all their lives that they forget about the next step — generating revenue from the film. This is something that a filmmaker must never forget. And ultimately, that means more people get to see your film.
We’re in the throws of negotiating with an American distribution company to fully finance our next film. It is looking like it could be the biggest independent film in Australian history made solely in Australia and totally financed out of the US, which in the current state of the market is another rare occurrence.
Wolf Creek tells the harrowing story of three young backpackers and their terrifying journey after being abducted in the Australian outback. It is due for release in Australia on 3 November (Village Roadshow).