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29 Comments • Sep 2, 2014 2874

Australian cinema is still big, it’s the audience that got small

In January this year Daily Review published an article titled Australian cinema in 2014: 10 films to get excited about. It highlighted a slate of yet-to-be-released features attached to pedigree names including directors David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) and Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) and stars Robert Pattinson, Ewan McGregor and Mia Wasikowska.

The article was unusual for the simple and sobering reason that for a long time the Australian media commentariat’s default position, when it comes to matters relating to local films, has been characterised by a far more sceptical mindset than excitement.

There are plenty of familiar criticisms and “end-is-nigh” prophecies synonymous with discussions of the Australian film industry. The most common concern is the industry’s problematic and heavily subsidised financial state — its everlasting struggle to get bums on seats in a market dominated by American content.

The second is about perceptions. Australian producers have long battled public sentiment that locally produced features are one of two things. The first, that they are morose hard-hitting dramas that explore the “human condition.” The sort of stories that follow characters who battle drug addictions, grieve over deceased family members and live dreadfully unhappy lives.

When I discussed classic Australian films in March 2013 with comedian Tim Ferguson, star of The Doug Anthony All Stars and TV’s Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, conversation touched on the unexpected success of Kriv Stenders 2011 family film Red Dog, which earned more than $21 million at the local box office and spawned a litter of yet-to-be-released sequels.

“It’s an Australian film, so of course they had to kill the dog!” Ferguson joked. Like most punchlines from practiced comics, there was more than a touch of truth to it.

The other perception is that when it’s not busy depressing us with films about cancer and people who collapse in gutters with needles in their arms, Australian films are cringe-inducing “g’day mate” comedies. The sort of facepalm productions geared towards jokes featuring things as stereotypically nationalistic as shrimps on a barbie (thanks, Paul Hogan).

These perceptions didn’t arise from nowhere and can’t be dismissed as mere furphies. They were the result of decisions made by baby boomers at government-funded film bodies who, not driven by the make-or-break instincts of commercial producers, threw their weight behind “serious” and/or distinctively Australian films. On that last front it’s hard to deny them success, though many years of box office flops have conditioned pundits to anticipate the worst.

When I spoke to Bert Deling in 2009, director of notorious 1975 Melbourne-set drug drama Pure Shit!, I made an off-the-cuff remark about how exciting and progressive Australian films seem to be pretty rare these days. It was like I’d zapped him with a cattle prodder. Deling exploded into a rant about a closed society of gate keepers who pass money around and have no faith it will return through public support.

“They are the same 12 or so people who made all this crap in the past that no one wants to see. They get hold of a hundred percent of all the governments’ money. In any other country, that would be considered to be a scandal,” he raged. “They want to get a big budget film. They’ll make that and then they’ll disappear, leaving the Australian film industry in a smoking ruin.”

But Deling’s perspective doesn’t seem to leave room for faith that patches of poor or uninteresting funding decisions can come and go in cycles.

A colourful and varied array of popular films released in the 1990s suggested a period when doom and gloom (or shrill ocker comedy) wasn’t par for the course. These titles include crowd pleasing hits such as Strictly Ballroom (1992), Muriel’s Wedding (1994), The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (1994), The Sum of Us (1994), Babe (1995), Shine (1996), The Castle (1997) and Two Hands (1999). But things began to look awfully serious and awfully arty after the turn of the century.

The AFI Awards reflect this. Best Film winners in the ’00s include 2001′s Lantana (murder, infidelity), 2002′s Rabbit-Proof Fence (indigenous inequality), 2003′s Japanese Story (romantic tragedy), 2004′s Somersault (woman’s sexual awakening), 2005′s Look Both Ways (confronting cancer), 2007′s Romulus My Father (immigrant family battles adversity), 2008′s The Black Balloon (family with autistic son) and 2009′s Samson & Delilah (indigenous inequality).

In recent years the AACTA Awards (formerly the AFIs) have reflected a more populist sentiment. In 2010 Michôd’s Animal Kingdom broke the death and despair mode (well, sort of – it’s still dark) and was followed by trio of smash-hit releases: Red Dog (2011), The Sapphires (2012) and The Great Gatsby (2013).

Those films provided a more optimistic context with which to view 2014. Perhaps this was the year the little industry that could would prevail, bringing to popular culture a suite of interesting titles prophecised for success — or at least to turn heads — in January by Daily Review.

How did it go? Three-quarters through 2014, results reinforce the familiar maxim that quality is not a prerequisite for popularity.

The most successful of the 10 titles so far is Wolf Creek 2, which took $1.681 million in its opening weekend and earned $4.73 million in total. It opened to mixed responses from critics but fulfilled expectations of fans, offering more kills, more carnage, a faster pace and a greater focus on the star of the show — outback serial-killer Mick Taylor (played by John Jarratt).

Tracks, buoyed by a strong performance from Wasikowska as bullishly independent journeyer Robyn Davidson, who trekked 1700 miles across Western Australian desert in the mid 1970s, also performed well. Its box office takings equaled around $4.3 million.

But the best Australian films of the year so far weren’t that fortunate.

The Rover seemed to have everything going for it: a hot director (David Michôd), a big budget ($12 million), an exotic setting (Australian dessert in an anarchic future) and huge celebrity draw power (Twilight alumni Robert Pattinson). Reviews were generally positive but audiences stayed away. The film took a disastrous $344,000 in its first opening fortnight.

Writer/director Zak Hilditch’s fiery debut These Final Hours may not have had A-list actors, but, having played at Cannes (like The Rover) it had great reviews and good street card. An intense hell-on-earth vision of humanity during its last moments, the film was given extensive promotion — including bus stops, social media, TV spots and an innovative website – and a wide release from distributor/exhibitor Village Roadshow.

Still, the crowds didn’t come. These Final Hours opened to a lousy $207,000, leading Sydney Morning Herald to rephrase the familiar doom and gloom refrain: “If a critically lauded film such as These Final Hours can’t resonate with local audiences, is there any hope for Australian films at the cinema?”

The answer is yes, no, and maybe. Yes, in the sense the Australian film industry makes and will continue to make great cinema. No, in the sense that much of it will go largely unnoticed by the general public. And maybe, in the sense every now and then quality films defy the odds and find popularity.

As dreadfully serious as the Australian films that characterised the first decade of the turn of the century tended to be, there were plenty of productions that, while not exactly walks in the park, broke the morose drama mould in interesting ways. It is these kinds of titles that are often forgotten, or never remembered in the first place.

Some achieved relative success and/or notoriety (such as Chopper, Mao’s Last Dancer, Mary and Max, The Proposition, Mrs Carey’s Concert and Not Quite Hollywood) but most were barely seen at all (such as The Magician, The Horseman, The Jammed, Dr Plonk, Boxing Day, Like Minds, Black Water, Hunt Angels, Van Diemen’s Land, Cedar Boys, Forbidden Lies and Red Hill).

Most stand-up comedians will tell you that if they have a bad gig there are certain things one can blame and certain things one can’t. Bad sleep, a fight with their girlfriend or boyfriend, the joint they smoked beforehand — these are things that might help explain why they tanked in front of a crowd.

What they absolutely cannot blame is the audience. To do so reverses the onus on which their profession is based: it is the comedian’s job to make audiences laugh, not the audience’s job to laugh at anything. This is why (in theory) the best entertainers rise to the surface.

And yet, with so many quality Australian films and so little support from punters, it is hard not to view the failures of the Australian film industry as partly the failure of viewers to appreciate the magnificent work it often produces. To paraphrase Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond: Australian cinema is still big. It’s the audience that got small.

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29 Responses to Australian cinema is still big, it’s the audience that got small

  1. Linda B says:

    A depressing movie called ‘These Final Hours’ about the end of the world? Gee, I can’t imagine why audiences stayed away from that one.

  2. JONATHAN HOLMES says:

    I have a family interest in “The Babadook”, an intelligent horror flick made in Adelaide, which screened at Sundance to rave reviews, echoed by Australian reviewers. But it opened on a mere 13 screens in Australia, with absolutely zilch promotion. Its producers say it did “OK”, by the dismal standards we’ve come to expect. A few months later it opened in France on more than 100 screens, with enormous posters on the Champs Elysees. I don’t know much about the film “industry”. But why does a foreign language film in France attract far more support than it can in the country where it was made? It’s opening right across the UK in October – let’s hope the Brits go see it. Australians didn’t even know it was on.

    • Johanna Bailey says:

      For the same reason foreign films are of interest to us. Its a cultural experience. And in the case of the Babadook, its an intelligent, elevated genre film with Polanski traits with a stunning female protagonist. Wild Bunch are the distributor who are the hottest art-hour distributors in Europe who would have put it in all the right places. Well done Babadook team.

    • Kristie Cubbin says:

      And I believe this is the crux of the matter. I would love to see this film, but never heard of it while in cinema and it had a limited showing anyway. I will hope to see it on DVD , but really, is that good enough for our national culture to be attained that way? I say no. We should be celebrating our film industry and give it the prominence it deserves.

  3. Gareth W says:

    Linda, all I can say is that I saw ‘These Final Hours’ and absolutely loved it. I’ve had my difficulties with Australian film (if I see one more film where ‘the landscape is a character’ or about boys coming of age whilst fishing…) but found that one engrossing and uplifting. Check it out when you get the chance, it might just be that the marketing is struggling to get it across.

    In fact, I reckon it’s been a pretty good year for Australian cinema. ‘These Final Hours’, ‘The Babadook’ and ’52 Tuesdays’ have all been great watches and those are just the ones I’ve seen.

  4. Ronson says:

    Having bought the BluRay versions of ‘Red Hill’ and ‘Mystery Road’ recently I can see why Australian audiences are shrinking. Thankfully they were cheap from JB HiFi.

    Are these really the products of the 900,000 jobs that Roadshow boss reckons are at risk from piracy? If so, it’s no wonder.

    • Johanna Bailey says:

      Roadshow only back a few Australian films a year, and the ones they choose havent been paying off. I don’t think it will be long after the disasters for them like “Any questions for Ben”, “I love you too” and “These Final Hours” that they don’t invest in Australian films anymore and just distribute foreign cinema. Palace Films had to stop investing years ago, others will probably soon have to follow unless they get a Sapphires or Red Dog 2 x a year, every year.

  5. Dog's Breakfast says:

    I’d agree on the point above about just how many cinemas they get shown at. Have just seen ‘Predestination’ and loved it, but had read on some of the youtube trailers the fact that it was only being shown at 4 cinemas in all of Sydney, and no regional centres, so the person from Wollongong couldn’t see it.

    Thankfully, the fantastical Randwick Ritz had it on. Just a few minutes away for me. Love to support a local independent cinema.

    Would have loved to see ‘These Final Hours’ too, but perhaps with an Abbott government people have quite enough doom and gloom in their life. I just didn’t have the time.

    • John says:

      I live in “The ‘Gong”where we are largely at the mercy of the rigid Event Cinema distribution system which rarely gives Australian movies a run. I appreciate the commercial realities of “bums on seats” but it annoys me that mainstream movies (think Marvel Comics series) can screen to an early morning audience of six people when an Australian movie could be shown with a bit of advance publicity to attract interest. Even foreign releases such as A Most Wanted Man and Night Moves are not shown here.

  6. Vivienne says:

    I saw Felony on Sunday in a Canberra cinema – me and about eight others. And that was after mass publicity about the film in the press. It was an excellent film that would stand up before a tough audience anywhere in the world. And it has secured OS sales. But when faced with feel-good American pap, or an intense Aussie flick, people seem to choose the former. Perhaps it comes down to how they want to spend their precious leisure time, once the stress of the work day or working week is over.

    • Johanna Bailey says:

      Totally agree Vivienne. I recall a very particular day being at the cinema in a rare free afternoon and had the choice at the Dendy Newtown of the feelgood hit “The Angels Share” or “Dead Europe” – every inch wanted to support an Australian film in the cinema, but couldn’t bring myself to see a dark film over a comedy out of obligation, wasn’t in the mood. On a Saturday night if you were at the cinema and faced with the choice of Bridesmaids or Galore, what would you see? I’d view Australian films nightly if they were $1.99, low impact to access viewing at home on a Tuesday on my Apple TV and so would others when they’re hungry for content.

  7. Billy The Fish says:

    Most of those movies failed for a reason – the trailers made them look like generic Australian kitchen sink melodramas where grumpy bogans just swear at each other in lieu of an actual plot. Then throw in some infidelity to give it that soap opera feel. Add some drugs to give it an edge. Then make sure the actors shout their lines as loudly as possible to create the illusion of conflict. This is not entertaining because it’s been done hundreds of times before.

    Oz movies that do well tend to have a proper story underpinning them, and they make an attempt at entertaining the audience. Most Oz movies don’t get that far. Something sets the story up, but then the second act is just swearing and drug taking and weirdos staring off into the distance (aka ‘padding’). And there’s no third act.

    There’s something to ponder – no movie with drug use in it ever made any money at the Oz box office. Conclusion – stop making movies with drugs in them.

    You wanna know why the following movies failed?

    The Rover – infidelity, drug use and grumpy bogans swearing at each other.

    These Final Hours – infidelity, drug use and grumpy bogans swearing at each other. Plus rape and suicide for that old-fashioned feel-good factor.

    • Mandrake Gestures Hypnotically says:

      Spot on, Billy. I’ve shouted at Margaret and David many times when they laud an earnest Australian flick with deadbeat drug users as the principal anchor to the plot.

      The other thing that bugs me – and a third point in key Oz movie cliches – is the drearily inevitable menacing outback figure, randomly murdering tourists with little indication of motive. (I guess this puts me at odds with Wolf Creek 2, which yet another such tiresome character.

      Yes, the acting is always good, as are the technical aspects of these flicks. Just crushingly unoriginal, and intrinsically boring. So many films here seem to be made to impress mates rather attract an audience.

  8. paddy says:

    The comedians have it right. Never blame the audience.
    I looked up that list you mentioned of films that almost no one ever saw.
    I realised I’d seen about half of them, but had forgotten their titles.
    (That’s probably a rather telling pointer to their lack of success.)
    A quick glance at IMDB reminded me why I hadn’t bothered with the rest.
    I’m tired of making excuses for “less than stellar” Oz movies.
    I really DO get, that the “industry” is full of passionate people dying to tell
    us their stories. But if they bore the audience, then they’re doing it wrong.
    BTW It’s not the audience’s job to tell them how to do it.
    When they get it right, it works. When they (mostly) don’t, it stinks.
    That’s show biz.

  9. victor says:

    I went to see These Final Hours curious to see why it had flopped. It reveals a director with great potential and a team with great resourcefulness creating a fantastic look with little money. But the premise has few surprises and it runs out of story. It simply isn’t clever enough as a theatrical release in a very crowded market and it isn’t worth paying $20 to see. The big problem with Australian films is that almost none of them have real breakout potential and simply languish in the art house unwatched. They are simply not good or clever enough as a cinema premise and while there is a potential digital market for many of them which I would pay for they are not full paying theatrical films. The world independent film market has far too many films, is heavily subsidised by governments and has diminishing theatrical platforms. Hollywood won decades ago. Unless we can find viable distribution platforms the future is bleak. And frankly given the huge cost of making a theatrical film, even a smallish Australian one I often wonder whether we should think laterally and would be better of for our cultural investment to invest in new Australian playwrights, workshops and performance and in excellence in writing. Australia might unearth, interrogate and nurture some real writing talent which could really help our cinema, a few more Andrew Bovells (Lantana) or Williamsons (Gallipoli). An investment of $3 million, is the equivalent of Federal subsidy in one average budget $5 million Australian film (and excludes further state subsidies). That goes an awfully long way in the theatre world.

  10. Kate says:

    Sure, viewers may not be interested but there are plenty of other factors.
    - Less advertising
    - Less places actually screening the movies
    - Less screen times
    - Changes in who and how many people actually go to a cinema
    - Less focus on what the consumer actually wants.

    If the Australian Film Industry wants to be taken seriously then start engaging the correct target market and don’t just sit back and complain that you aren’t making billions.

  11. RAB says:

    Paddy above and the comedians have got it right. If someone makes a film that audiences want to see, the audiences will go and see it. And they don’t only want to see comedies. Those films from the 1990s mentioned in the article were all comedies, but they were popular because they were great movies. And the writer conveniently forgot Proof, which was a great film and also successful, but not a comedy. He put Lantana in with the depressing crop of post-90s films, but was an international hit because it was the most mature, intelligent an well-made film for a long time, if not the best of them all, and it is far from a comedy.

    It’s probably true that people like happy films better than depressing ones, but Animal Kingdom is proof that if the film is good then people will watch it no matter how depressing it is.

    A great movie is made when all the elements of it are done well and there’s a guiding hand that makes all those elements work together. That doesn’t happen very often, which is why far more bad films are made than good.

  12. mo says:

    The problem with the rover ( which I thought was a great film ) was the promotion of the film was so poor, no one I new had heard of it there were no posters about and needed more interviews to promote

  13. This year has been a wonderful year for Australian cinema in terms of quality produced but, as you say, not in terms of being appreciated. The Rover was wonderfully made – though not one you’d recommend all your friends should see. These Final Hours was decent and engaging enough. Predestination is highly polished and, although a little heavy handed, still a good little movie. The truly frustrating part is that one of my favourite flicks of the year – The Babadook – is virtually unheard of in its own country. I was among the few who saw it on the big screen here and can’t wait to give the makers more money when they release it on DVD. It’s winning awards and rave reviews overseas but remains largely anonymous here. And while I take your point about not blaming the audience I think we have to recognise our culture has a bit of a chip on the shoulder about local products, often assuming a local product isn’t as good as an overseas one.

  14. David R says:

    Perhaps the blame lies not with the audience, but with cinemas and distributors. The large multiplex cinema chains give few screens over to Australian films. They seem content to screen well-marketed Hollywood dross that audiences seem happy to line up for. They make no effort to promote Australian films or anything that sits slightly outside the mould of a well tried and tested formula. No wonder Australian films repeatedly fail.

  15. Aaron says:

    As much as I like to think that not every movie has to be written using Blake Snyder’s beat sheet, he did have a valid point when he wrote about what a film needs to do be successful. To paraphrase from ‘Save The Cat!’, Snyder states that a film concept and poster needs to be quickly distilled and pitched in approximately 10 seconds by the person designated to read the movie titles in the newspaper to their friends. If after that 10 seconds the group of friends ask “what else is on?” then the film is dead and buried. Unfortunately Australian films barely survive this test. In my opinion the new Aussie film ‘Felony’, which has received excellent reviews, totally fails this test and won’t be a success for reasons that Snyder highlights. Maybe movies shouldn’t be a case of ‘eat your vegetables, they’re good for you’, particularly when ice-cream is on offer next door.

  16. I totally agree that Australian cinema is great with fantastic actors and directors. Unfortunately with today’s economic situation all production companies face problems. Also the majority of people at international level prefer to see the big names of Hollywood.
    Let’s hope that this will change.

  17. Johanna Bailey says:

    FARK can we all just call out the Rover for what it was? There was more tension in the Q&A following that film, than in the actual film in its Australian Premiere at Sydney Film Festival. The Director and cast on stage looked like they wanted to run a mile from a somewhat angry audience desperately looking for meaning. 1,000 people turned out in full passionate support for one of the country’s most loved directors and walked away utterly dissapointed. Word spreads, no one goes to see it. When you watch the trailer, what does it tell you about the film? Nothing. Because there wasn’t one. It was like a video game walking around shooting people. The only point of interest was R-Patts performance.

    The film industry is a BUSINESS, and the product is not something that people want in cinemas generally. We make 1-3 hits per year, and the rest a f-ing disasters at the box office. We CAN AND SHOULD keep making our cinema – but only certain films belong in the cinema. If you were selling two different drinks at the beach on a hot day and one wasn’t selling as well as the other, you’d have to realise it was a waste of your energy carrying around that product (heavy load, not profitable) and find a different place for it. Find a better way to sell your product. Apply some damn fundamental principles of business to the industry.

  18. Johanna Bailey says:

    52 TUESDAYS and THE BABADOOK are the types of INTERESTING cinema that we should be continuing to produce. The Babadook (1 mil) has done $500k in Australia and nearly outfared the Rover at the Box Office (12 mil) its also done at least $500k in France and will do well all over Europe and the US. It’s very tough to make on such low budgets, but the budgets matched the market for these films, Australian films, they are compelling stories that are finding audiences world over and will have long VOD lives. Will be very interesting to see how SON OF A GUN fares in the cinema, and how THESE FINAL HOURS and THE ROVER do in download terms.

  19. Brian Williams says:

    To that list of interesting 1990s films, I must add ‘Proof’ and ‘Death in Brunswick’ – two well crafted comedies that utterly captured the inner suburban Melbourne of that era. I still love watching them on occasions late at night with friends.

    In respect of ‘The Rover’, although I was glad I saw it, I tend to agree with Johanna Baileys comments, and it wasn’t just Australian audiences that didn’t want it, as it was pulled from most American theatres after only 6 days.

  20. Peter Hannigan says:

    The Rover is an example of what seems to be right and wrong with many Australian movies. Great outback setting, good actors and performance, beautiful filming – and a shit screenplay, at least the way it came out. It seems to have been made to impress film critics with its incoherent narrative – Mad Max with added angst. Everybody was unlikeable – the only fun was working out the order in which you wanted them all dead – it did after all have a bit of a snuff movie ambience. In retrospect there was a story in there – but it may have ended up on the cutting room floor. Things were introduced that then never appeared again – defying the storytelling approach of ‘if you show it, use it’. The whole dog thing could have been quite interesting (and moving) with a better introduction. For example (for those who have seen it) the dwarf from the circus could have been explicitly cruel to dogs.

  21. bill evans says:

    the same gatekeepers are still there.
    Only the removal of funding will get rid of them and Abbott is doing just that.
    Thank you lame gatekeepers for destroying screen funding!

  22. SJMarshall says:

    Our film “industry” isn’t one, its not an industry if its funded by the government. To get a film funded you have to be saying something profound and relevant about a segment of Australian society. That MAY be what some films are but it is not how you make a film. You cannot tick ‘angsty male with communication and alcohol issues’ and another 99 cliches off and make a good film. Ok some of them are good. I don’t have any answer other than stop making cliched government funded arthouse tripe. I see as many Australian films as I can, and it is depressing. We do NOT make good films.

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