Racing ahead with ‘Dalkeith’

Racing ahead with ‘Dalkeith’ – DVD film

Andrew Einspruch

SOMEONE ONCE SAID, ‘YOU CAN always tell the pioneers. They’re the ones with the arrows in the ass.’ Next time you see John Chase or Leigh Sheehan, check for the arrow holes in their backsides. With their film Dalkeith, they’ve been the pioneer force behind feature film self-distribution using DVDs in Australia and New Zealand.

Based on a true story, Dalkieth tells of a group of senior citizens at the Dalkeith Residential Home who take in a greyhound. They name the dog Dalkieth, figure out she can run like blazes, enter her in greyhound races, and bet on the results. Suddenly life is interesting again.

Wait a minute. A film about retirees in an old folks’ home and a skinny dog? Who’d want to see that? That’s a question Chase and Sheehan were asked often during development.

The government funding bodies wouldn’t touch the project, but Chase and Sheehan felt they were onto a good story. So they set out to raise the money themselves, and three years later had the basic budget. ‘We believed in the film, so we kept going,’ said Chase. ‘And we didn’t start until we had enough cash in hand to pay for all the commitments that we knew of beforehand.’

They tapped into business associates and friends, and ultimately both of them sold their homes. The full budget was around $800,000, including deferrals. Everyone was paid award rates on the day, with deferrals only being for amounts above award levels.

They shot Dalkeith in Ballarat, Vic, where they live, with Chase producing and Sheehan making his feature film directorial debut from a script by Victor Kazan. The entire production took place within a five-minute drive of the town hall.

Once finished, Australian distributors decided to pass on the film as well. Who’d want to see a movie about old people and a dog?

Old people.

And do old people go to the movies?

Nope.

But Chase and Sheehan begged to differ. Before shooting, they already had UK-based High Point Films & TV on board to handle overseas sales, so they knew it would get into the marketplace. They decided to try for some sort of theatrical release in Australia.

And here’s where the pioneering starts.

Dalkeith was shot on Super 16mm, and finished digitally with a stereo sound mix. Said Chase, ‘We always worked on the theory that we should be capable of going to 35mm if we needed to. We did tests on the more difficult scenes, including pans, so we knew it stood up with a kine.’

But the cost of a kine (a tape to 35mm film transfer) runs around $700 per minute. Prints come on top of that.

So Chase and Co. set out to get their local theatre to show Dalkeith using a DVD player and a digital projector. They worked out a deal with projector company Christie, who flew a unit to Ballarat for the first screenings.

Buoyed by the enthusiastic response of local audiences, and convinced that the digital approach could work, they prepared to keep going.

Around this time, Nicole Jean, owner of the Waverley Cinema in Melbourne suburb, Mt Waverley, saw an article in the paper. ‘I thought, “This sounds like an interesting film”,’ said Jean.

That same day she heard some of the cast members on the radio. She made a phone call, got Chase’s number and called him up. ‘It was as simple as hearing about it on the radio and saying “Yes, we want to get involved with that”. At the time, we didn’t even know it was on DVD.’

The Waverley positions itself as a family cinema, doing a strong business with older patrons. Jean had been considering installing a digital projector for other reasons, so when Dalkeith bobbed up, it gave her a reason to go ahead. ‘We knew the film was going to be quite good,’ said Jean. ‘And we thought other films would be presented to us this way, so we went ahead and bought the equipment.’

So who wants to see a movie about old people and a pooch?

Apparently lots of folks. Dalkeith has been playing at the Waverley since January 2001, and at the time of publication was still going. That’s longer than Forest Gump, the previous longevity champion at the theatre, which lasted a meagre twenty-two weeks. Jean estimates that 15,000 people have come through the doors for it, including a few busloads who’ve seen it four or five times.

John Chase has kept up the digital push.

We’ve been in twenty theatres so far, including three in New Zealand. We also ran for seven months on BSkyB. Also, part of the deal we struck was that all of the theatres kept their copy of the DVD. That way they could put it on when enough people requested it. We’ve created an on-going situation and have had several return seasons.

On the strength of their experience with Dalkeith, over half a dozen theatres have installed digital projection, which means it will be easier for the next film-makers who take the same road. ‘We’ve shown that digital does work,’ said Chase. ‘And it is economical. That means that smaller filmmakers can have a chance, and exhibitors can pick up those films, assuming the story stands up.’

So would he do it this way again? ‘Yes,’ laughs Chase. ‘But I’d pay more attention to marketing budget, and not cut it as close to the bone, if possible, with the production budget.’

Andrew Einspruch is a freelance writer and producer of the recently completed independent feature film Finding Joy.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Australian Teachers of Media

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group