SYDNEY - An Australian film about a hapless drug mule has bypassed cinemas to make its debut on the Apple iTunes store, in a novel attempt to beat piracy and woo audiences drawn to big-ticket Hollywood releases with huge advertising budgets.
The Mule, available for paid downloads, was the most popular "indie" film on iTunes in the United States and Australia over the weekend. It will be launched on DVD on Dec 3.
In a promotional campaign targeted at Twitter users, audiences around the world have been invited to watch the black comedy on Dec 7 while tweeting to the cast and crew using the hashtag #TheMuleLive.
"For us, in the absence of having a fully resourced, cinematic marketing campaign, it feels as if the most logical decision is to bypass cinematic release," said Angus Sampson, the film's star, co-director and co-writer. "We don't have a lot of it (money), so I'm trying to spend it wisely."
Australian audiences are increasingly watching film and television online, said a report released last week by Screen Australia, the national agency for cinema promotion.
Web viewership offers new opportunities for Australian feature films, which accounted for just 3.5 per cent of the country's total box-office earnings last year.
"I think the market will drive change," said Screen Australia chief executive Graeme Mason. "Digital distribution and the egalitarian nature of it could be an amazing opportunity for speciality films and local films in each country."
Illegal downloading is a challenge, made worse by the four-month wait in Australia between a film's cinematic release and its availability online and on DVD.
"I think what The Mule is trying to do is pre-empt piracy by making the film available online and making it as easy as possible for audiences to get their hands on it in a paid way," said Lauren Carroll Harris, an Australian film academic.
The Mule stars Sampson as a man who returns from Thailand with his stomach full of heroin and struggles to hold it in while in police custody. The cast of Australian actors includes Hugo Weaving, who played Agent Smith in The Matrix trilogy.