Dropping Box Office Bombs


Local audiences for Australian films continue to dwindle as filmmakers churn out worthy, dull films. The worsening situation means that producers who want to find private investment for films actually aimed at making a profit — yeah, I know, a crazy idea! — face an uphill battle against the common conception (and supporting facts) that Aussie films are profitless and devoid of any real audience beyond the filmmakers and their friends and a small crowd of genre-hating-posers.

I’m well aware that national funding body Screen Australia, formerly the austere sounding Australian Film Commission, and its state equivalents don’t need to fund movies aimed at making a profit. After all it’s just taxpayer money they’re spending. But does anyone else think that this is having a detrimental effect on our cinema? Even other heavily protected industries, such as the car industry, have a profit-driven system.

If we want to get all post-Keynesian about it, surely we’d realise that even the artiest film is at its base a commodity in the circulation of capital. Sure, the target audiences and reasons for making arty films are important (and often in the Australian industry, the problem), but for the most part we’re not talking about Warhols’ Blowjob. Rather, we’re talking about overwrought dramas with no real dramatic arc about westies like Ten Empty or Bitter & Twisted. Depictions of angst don’t necessarily equal drama or entertainment. Worse, the production quality often feels sub par — telemovie style — something that Ten Empty seemed to wear with pride.

There’s been a lot of talk within the industry both about the appointment of New Zealander Ruth Harley as the new Screen Australia CEO and about the establishment of new film funding guidelines. These decisions will define an industry already on the precipice over the next few years.

Ruth Harley did an interview with Encore magazine, a self congratulatory, back-slapping industry mag. Here are a few key quotes: "The immediacy of television is something that appeals to me. I like the crispness, energy and vitality of it." Translation: she wants to make movies more like TV? On "crisp" (I think she means video, HD, or HDV) formats. Our TV is worse than our movies! Imagine hitting the multiplex and seeing trailers for Neighbours: The Movie. Or Rove: In IMAX. Euthanise me, please! Underbelly was a breakout hit for Channel Nine and it proves my point about connecting with audiences — it cannily targeted a market and provided mostly solid entertainment. At the AFI awards, it was lauded as if this was some sort of magical breakthrough.

Here’s another Harley classic, "Film can’t have the same neat structure as television, but you’d be hoping to transfer more of that (television) across to film." It gets better, "I don’t have any specific idea about how to go about producing films with greater audience appeal." Uh? What? How’d she get the job?

With all the worrying about the state of the industry you’d hope that Screen Australia would come up with a plan of attack to revitalise it. To shake the tree, ruffle feathers, initiate change.

And they have.

Except they’ve come up with a plan that’s so backwards it’s staggering. Rather than fostering new talent, they’ve entrenched the "experienced" filmmakers who got us into this mess and called it a solution. They’ve set the bar for funding eligibility so high that it’s next to impossible for anyone but the most "experienced" producers, directors and writers to get access to money.

For instance, the Australian Writers Guild (AWG) estimates that there are maybe five to 10 screenwriters in Australia who’d actually qualify for funding under the new guidelines – contra Screen Australia’s assertion that there are in excess of 70. It smacks of deep-seated, cancerous cronyism. Nepotism on steroids. Doesn’t experience usually carry some implication of success? Not in the Australian film industry. In any other business if you’d just lost millions of dollars you’d get the sack. In the Australian film industry, they reward it by deeming you "experienced" and giving you the opportunity to lose more taxpayers’ money. Furthermore, funding bodies will help keep the younger, hungrier, more innovative competition out of the way. Historically, changes in the landscape of film have come from younger filmmakers, not those deeply entrenched within the machine.

According to the AWG, under the proposed restrictions, writer applicants with the following projects would have been turned away without an "experienced" producer: start with Strictly Ballroom, Romper Stomper, Newsfront, Proof, and The Castle, keep going through Wolf Creek, Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee, and Muriel’s Wedding and don’t stop just because you’ve left Looking for Alibrandi, Lantana, and Look Both Ways behind. These are some of our most iconic films and have achieved spectacular results, here and abroad. Further, the directors and producers on almost all of these films would have failed to pass the proposed eligibility criteria.

Worse, their decision flows down, affecting not just producers, writers and directors but all crew. The people at the top generally use the same key creatives (cinematographers, production designers, editors) who in turn use the technicians (gaffers, grips, standby props, assistants, etc) they’ve always worked with. How can anyone new break into the industry?

Until recently, Screen Australia also planned to eliminate short film funding and thereby close another means for up-and-coming filmmakers to hone and showcase their skills.

Screen Australia insists that with the emergence of digital technology and editing software like Final Cut Pro, films can be made on a low budget that are internationally competitive, which is true to a point. But if you want to be internationally competitive you need good ideas and good production values, not a slew of tiny, earnest kitchen table dramas about two people in a room shot on low-end video. None of the Australian short films selected for the Sundance Film Festival this year (Lessons from the Night, Netherland Dwarf, Miracle Fish and Jerrycan) were shot on your family video handycam.

And finally, once filmmakers have had the opportunity to make a government subsidised feature film and get some runs on the board, shouldn’t they be in a better position to go out and find private financing for the next one rather than using up more government funding? I know it would be difficult, because in all likelihood the film they just made was seen by less than half a dozen punters, but that’s the problem with this system — it’s inefficient. It fosters lazy filmmakers who need to return to the teat to suckle the sweet milk of Screen Australia.

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