How Many Aussie Movies Did You See This Year?


Was 2008 another dire year for Australian film? Sadly, yes. And it’ll probably get worse before it gets better. I’m sure there’s a group of people who’d vehemently disagree with that assertion — but they probably produced the films that we didn’t see.

From the little seen (everything we made) to the over-hyped (Baz’s Australia), the film industry slopped up more of the same: "realistic" dramas set in the bush or outer-suburbs about "worthy" subjects like mental illness, Indigenous rights, refugees, broken families and alienation. These are subjects, it seems, that the great unwashed should be paying money to be "educated" about. As if the public has a cultural responsibility to go and see the story of an outback farmer taking in an Afghani woman who has fled a brothel. Such films are made with good intentions, but without audiences and they are at the heart of the Australian film debate.

Why are they made? And why are they failing to connect with audiences? Quite simply, the public is not to blame for the failure of Australian films to connect. That’s backwards thinking. The films are to blame, or — more accurately — their makers. I refuse to go to see a film simply because it’s Australian. That’s not support – it’s pity.

President of the Screen Producers Association of Australia Antony Ginnane recently said, "If they premiered most of the Australian films of the last 24 months on an airplane people would be walking out in the first 20 minutes – and that’s not good." This is coming from the head of a body that represents Australian film and television producers on all issues affecting the business and creative aspects of screen production.

We Aussies like movies. We spend between $10 and $12 million on movie tickets each week. But on average, only a tiny 2 per cent is spent on locally produced films a year. The Black Balloon, a film about a kid whose desire for a normal adolescence is thwarted by his autistic brother, was this year’s winner of the AFI award for best film. It was made for $4 million. It took $2.265 million at the box office. When you divide that by $16 for a movie ticket, 141,600 people saw it — or 0.6 per cent of the population. Worse still was the performance of The Tender Hook which cost $7 million to make and took less than $40,000 at the box office.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with making "worthy" films about "serious" subjects. I think that’s fine if you have a real industry (not one almost entirely subsidised) that produces a good mix of artistic and commercial movies. But if "worthy" is all we’re making, the well is poisoned. A situation is created where most of the cinema-going public consider the "made in Australia" tag to be a setback. The term "Australian film" unfairly becomes synonymous with "pretentious wank-fest" (which would in turn make the AFI awards the great incestuous industry circle-jerk).

If you’re going to drop $16 on a ticket, do you want to come out of a cinema feeling worse about yourself and your country than when you went in? After a long day workin’ at the cattle station, it’s easier to go laugh at a Will Ferrell movie about the infantilisation and emasculation of the modern middle-aged man, his dysfunctional family relationship and his difficulty adapting to sudden change. To be honest, Step Brothers is shit, except it took almost $8 million at our box office, more than any Australian film other than Australia. Let’s not compare Aussie films to mega budget American films — it’s a lop-sided competition. But even if we compare them to American independent films, we’re still underperforming.

The content and themes of the films that are being made is a key problem here, one that’s amplified by the way the films are marketed to the public. How many of these movies did you see? Bitter & Twisted, The Black Balloon, Cactus, Dying Breed, Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger, Men’s Group, Monkey Puzzle, Newcastle, The Plex, Son of a Lion, The Square, The Tender Hook, Ten Empty, Three Blind Mice or Unfinished Sky?

There is simply no viable audience for these films. Not here and not internationally. There are six billion people in the world, why not try and make movies that will interest them too? Why have we been churning out so many bleak, dour, depressing films made with little cinematic panache, handicapped by their insular Australianess over this last decade? Films, in short, that are about as fun to watch as being f*cked gently by a chainsaw? Our movies don’t have to be un-Australian — but do they all have to pander to the same battler stereotypes or foster the image that we all wear Akubras and ride horses? Eighty-two per cent of the Australians live in major cities. Couldn’t we make a film about them? (Returning from the city to your hometown doesn’t count nor does being on smack in the Cross.)

When we do attempt a big budget international film such as Baz Luhrmann’s Australia we still can’t escape our own ‘stralian-ness. It stars every single Australian actor you’d recognise (all six of them, though not that guy who played Carl Williams in Underbelly) and Rolf Harris composed some wobble board music. Australia was breathlessly touted as the saviour of the film industry. The "saviour" is a $130 million film mostly funded by 20th Century Fox in the US and co-funded by the generous producers offset (aka the Aussie taxpayer who’ll kick in about 40 per cent of its budget). Breathlessly compared to Gone With The Wind, it was always going to land below expectations.

And boy was it underwhelming. In the USA, the film opened at number five, behind a slew of forgettable fodder and Quantum of Solace. "[It’ll] need strong legs and spectacular international grosses in order to break even" wrote box office analyst Gitesh Pandya, of Even if it had been a roaring success, what exactly would its legacy have been? A slew of $130 million auteur-driven Australian-themed films funded by Americans? Unlikely.

When Australian filmmakers who aren’t Baz try and make something that’s outwardly commercial, such as 2007’s Gabriel, about, errr, kung-fu fightin’ angels who shoot each other with semi automatics, it’s met with snide derision from within the industry. Of course Gabriel is not a perfect film, far from it, but it has catapulted director Shane Abbess into directing a $40 million film in America. The same could be said about Greg Mclean, director of crocodile movie Rogue who a few years ago made the horror film Wolf Creek. He got a deal with the Weinsteins.

But what do we do? We go and make a slew of lame copycat films, set in the outback (or forest) featuring serial killers. So we end up with Storm Warning, Gone, Prey and Dying Breed. I’ll applaud them for being commercially minded, as for originality though…

Once all these films are made, we are marketing them to the public very poorly. So poorly, that the marketing can unfairly damage the film, as I think was the case with The Square, Nash Edgerton’s feature debut. It’s a solid, noir-ish thriller with stolen money, murder and an illicit affair. It could’ve been a crowd pleaser. But how was it marketed? Like another dull arthouse film. The poster sells something quite unlike the film — a man’s back, looking into the sunset. Those who don’t read Inside Film or Encore would have to research the film to know that it was a thriller, otherwise you could be forgiven for thinking it was just about a building foreman and his struggle to lay the foundation before morning.

The 2008 Bergent report, commissioned by the Film Finance Corporation into attitudes to Australian films, found that, "Australians often feel that Australian films are not ‘promoted’ sufficiently and that their awareness is low." How often do you see local films advertised on TV? The Government subsidises production, why not advertising? Wouldn’t the producers of The Tender Hook have been better off spending $6 million on production and $1 million on advertising?

And finally, what about the critics? Does a bad review kill an Australian film or do overly enthusiastic reviews hamper it with high expectations? Some filmmakers certainly seem to think critics are to blame for poor results: witness Jimmy the Exploder’s best script acceptance speech for The Black Balloon at this year’s AFIs. He took the opportunity to read some of Jim Schembri’s negative comments about the industry in The Age and then proclaimed "F*ck you!" to applause (this was edited out of the "live" broadcast). This is the same Jim Schembri who championed The Jammed, helping it secure a cinematic release. The notion that critics should remain silent on problems in the industry is deluded. And further, I think most critics give Australian films better reviews than they deserve, behaviour which is in and of itself a problem.

Dee McLachlan, director of The Jammed recently said, "I think it’s up to us to get Australian audiences engaged back in Australian stories". I agree with her, though I wonder who she means by "us"? Every year filmmakers say the same thing: it’s time to get energised; it’s time to make films people want to see. But all we’ve been able to produce is the opposite. So how do we really energise the industry?

We start with better scripts. We make a mix of films — drama and (a word dreaded by the filmmaking elite) good genre films. They don’t need to be sexist shoot ‘em ups or torture porn, just solid stuff people want to see. And I do think people will come to see intelligent, well-made films if the primary objective of the movie is to entertain (with laughs, blood or drama), not to instruct. Wrecking our industry for the sake of some kind of imagined cultural integrity will help no one in the long run. The box office speaks louder than film festivals and AFI awards: a real industry can’t sustain this forever.

"Everybody has been troubled by a number of years of very low box office," new Screen Australia CEO Ruth Harley said in the Brisbane Times. "But just through the cycle, it will change next year."

Call me a cynic, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

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