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A handy tip for festival organisers: get your films banned

Last week the Australian Classification Board banned a film two days before it was set to screen at a Melbourne festival. But in the ongoing battle to generate PR and word of mouth, is that such a bad thing?

Father's Day

An image from the poster of Canadian film Father's Day, banned by the Classification Review Board.

If you’re running a small film festival on a tight budget, generating publicity is no easy task. New suites of films from somewhere-or-other about something-or-other seem to launch every other day.

Festival organisers and publicists face the difficult question of how to drum up interest. So here’s a handy tip to grab the public’s attention courtesy of the clipboard-wielding folk at the Australian Classification Board: get your films banned.

Before last Friday few people outside film circles had heard of Monster Fest, a 10 day program of “movies to melt the mind” put on by distributor Monster Pictures and Melbourne exhibitor Cinema Nova.

But a decision by the Classification Board to grant one of the films on the program an RC (‘Refused Classification’) rating two days before it was scheduled to play has generated a spate of local and international headlines that feed into the festival’s emerging reputation as a conveyer of edgy and provocative films. And this is not the first time the ACB have delivered a boon to publicity-hungry events and distributors.

The film in question, Canadian horror-comedy Father’s Day, doesn’t sound like your average assembly line crowd-pleaser. Produced by “low-budget, 80′s centric” production company Astron-6, the story follows a one-eyed rapist and serial killer named Ahab and reportedly features a concoction of gross-out moments such as a scene in which the protagonist resolves a dispute by biting off a man’s penis (as you do). It has been described by popular US site Ain’t It Cool News as “over the top, tasteless, senseless and completely hilarious.” The ACB found it no laughing matter.

Read the film’s write-up on the festival website and there’s no doubt the Monster organisers were genuinely keen to screen it – just as there is no denying the bucket loads of free publicity inadvertently thrown their way. Stories on the film’s ban have circulated via The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, WA Today, The Border Mail, Filmink Magazine, Twitch, international websites such as Deadline Hollywood plus many other outlets.

“They’ve just given the Australian public an incentive to watch this film. It’s a lure for them now,” Neil Foley, Festival Director and Monster Pictures Manager, told me. “For us as marketers it’s a hiccup in that it slows down our release strategy, but it also brings attention to the film…On the downside for us, people can now download the film for free and are much more inclined to do that.”

“They’ve just given the Australian public an incentive to watch this film. It’s a lure for them now.”

The exhibition of controversial films is a subject Richard Wolstencroft, director of the Melbourne Underground Film Festival (MUFF), knows well. In July 2010 American director Bruce LaBruce’s ‘gay zombie porno’ LA Zombie also received a Refused Classification rating, preventing it from screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). Countless headlines spawned across the world. The rabble-rouser LaBruce said he was “delighted” the film had been banned.

The next month Wolstencroft went ahead and screened it anyway, collecting windfalls of further publicity and cementing MUFF’s notoriety on a national – perhaps even international — level. It was “probably our most successful year”, Wolstencroft says, agreeing that bans lead to spikes of interest: “There is a boom when films are banned.”

Wolstencroft says MUFF  is not solely driven by a desire to create controversy, but he understands the value of it.

“I have a friend in the advertising industry who said with regards to the LA Zombie controversy that if you were to buy that kind of coverage it would cost over 1.5 million dollars. We had front pages, articles inside newspapers and lots of other things.”

Neil Foley is no stranger to marketing controversial films either. Monster Pictures is the Australian distributor of Norwegian horror/thriller The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) which was green lit for distribution in May 2011, banned late November, then, with less than one minute shaved off its running time, re-granted an R classification.

Foley says last week’s decision by the ACB to ban Father’s Day took the company by surprise: “we absolutely did not see it coming.” After all, the ACB did allow the award-winning film to screen in March this year at Sydney’s A Night of Horror International Film Festival despite now deeming that it offends “the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults.”

Given the publicity benefits associated with copping a knuckle slapping from the censors, it seems logical that canny organisers might try to take advantage of this — in turn creating a culture in which programmers choose risque films with the intention of getting one banned and revelling in the subsequent exposure.

Wolstencroft says this isn’t a realistic option because our censorship bodies are too unpredictable. “You can never tell what is going to be banned,” he says.

“You can never tell what is going to be banned.”

The most controversial feature he programmed on this year’s MUFF bill was Donkey Love, a documentary exploring the sexual relationships between Columbian men and their donkeys. It played during the festival in August; Wolstencroft says the ACB raised the film with him but did not request a copy to review. It also screened at the Sydney Underground Film Festival a couple of weeks later.

“You get to see people in the distance doing it in wider shots. That’s fairly confronting. I’m not sure it’s entirely ethical,” says Wolstencroft.

“Within the first five minutes of Donkey Love, someone has fucked a donkey and it gets worse and worse. It’s an amazing documentary (and) we got full permission from them (the Classification Board) to play it.”

The irony, perhaps, is that the festival may have been better off had the ACB banned it.

On the question of whether The Human Centipede II benefited from the publicity its ban whipped up, Foley says “absolutely” but acknowledges such things are hard to measure.

“In our short history, it’s probably our most successful title. Is it a coincidence that the film was banned and all the controversy created? Probably not. Would we be able to afford that kind of publicity? Absolutely not.”

Whether last week’s Father’s Day ruling will generate a spike in attendance to Monster Fest remains to be seen, but it’s hard to argue the long-term branding of the festival will suffer.

“We are positioning ourselves as a genre film festival that shows films that push boundaries and challenge the status quo and the censors,” says Foley.

“We look for films that are edgy and confronting. If audiences know we’ve had a film banned, it can’t really hurt our reputation.”

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