Australian films are having a slightly better than usual year at the local box office, with takings of more than $28,330,000 so far thanks to the hit Mao’s Last Dancer and the arthouse success story Samson & Delilah.
Despite this the Australian film industry remains focussed on why local films don’t get bigger audiences more consistently — and with good reason. When the various production costs of this year’s slate are factored in, the results often don’t look so hot.
Take Rachel Ward’s debut feature Beautiful Kate, a Tennessee Williams-style melodrama about incest and family dysfunction. Its respectable-looking $1.5 million takings don’t seem so fancy when you learn that it cost four times that amount — $6 million — to make. And similarly, Disgrace, faithfully adapted from JM Coetzee’s Booker prize-winning novel, also breached the $1 million mark — usually felt to be a minor achievement for a local production. Its cost? $10 million. And while Mao’s Last Dancer has grossed $11 million and is still going strong, its $25.8 million production cost means it needs to do especially well on the international circuit to have a hope of covering its costs. The one exception to this rule is the highly successful Sampson and Delilah, which took double the amount it cost to make.
The recurring line from the public, repeated on websites whenever the audience issue is discussed, is that "Australian films are too depressing". This might be an over-generalisation, but it also has some validity and funding agencies and filmmakers must bear responsibility for the fact that the view is so widely held. Over the last few years, the Australian industry has poured out dysfunctional family dramas and some high profile druggy tales aimed at a relatively limited sector of the middle-class audience. (Start your list with Candy, Little Fish, Romulus My Father and Beautiful Kate, although there are many others to add.)
It has also displayed a remarkable ability to keep churning out teenage coming-of-age stories that totally miss the mark with their intended audiences. Think December Boys or the gallingly charmless Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger — assuming, of course, that you’ve heard of them at all.
No small-scale film sector trying to survive against the marketing might and star power of Hollywood can hope to stand a chance if it doesn’t aim its films at a broad range of audiences. There is no such thing as public taste. There are only publics.
Last week in Sydney the NSW educational body Metro Screen held a debate entitled Oz Film Vs Oz Audience at Sydney’s Chauvel Cinema and managed to sell out all 350 places two days early. It was easily the most crowded industry forum I can recall in the 20 years I’ve covered the industry as a journalist. The high-profile panellists included Ruth Harley, chief executive of the new federal funding "super-agency", Screen Australia; Anthony Ginnane, president of the Screen Producers Association (SPAA) and fierce critic of taxpayer-backed funding agencies; and actor-turned-filmmaker Rachel Ward, who directed Beautiful Kate. (A video of the panel discussion can be seen here.)
Among the solutions floated were suggestions that the bulk of federal funding for screenwriting should go to writers and not to bureaucrats, and that filmmakers should abandon clichés about "telling our own stories" and realise that the big screen requires the creation of "our own myths".
In a neat bit of timing, a documentary called Into the Shadows opens this week, exploring exactly these problems. Director Andrew Scarano has done an admirably thorough job in interviewing specialists from all sides of the film industry, from filmmakers, actors, and other big wheels in cinema exhibition and distribution, to smaller cogs frustrated by the state of things. What quickly emerges is that there is no single answer. There is, however, an urgent need to change.
Of the film’s many choice quotes, I particularly liked this insight into cinema exhibition from producer and small-scale distributor John L Simpson: "So many independent cinemas are used to receiving instructions: take [our film]under these terms, or we’ll drive you out of town, run you out of business. That’s how organised crime works." This serves as a useful reminder that you can’t blame everything on the filmmakers and funding bodies — the very structure of the business does not favour small-scale films.
I also liked what Kenny director Clayton Jacobson had to say: "When Kenny had made $5 million at the box office, I still owed my investor $250,000 … What hope have you got?"
A large part of the problem for Australian films is that the old model for releasing films has broken down, and yet too many people are continuing as if nothing has changed. As US industry analyst Peter Broderick told Scarano, "It’s harder to get a movie into the world than it is to make one in the first place … The old rules no longer apply but in many cases, the old rulers haven’t figured it out yet, so filmmakers have opportunities to make up the new models, and to be on the frontiers and to reach people in new ways."
In other words, the way you market a film in 2009 has to be very different to the way you marketed it in 1999. Not only has the world of filmmaking changed, so has the world of communication. If you expect to sell a film without a huge Hollywood-style marketing budget today, you start building its profile on the net from the day it goes into production. You keep the ball rolling through interactive websites, early free screenings that help spread the word. You Twitter and Facebook like mad — but not in a way that annoys people. You release clips that tease the audience’s interest.
Earlier this month I examined the viral marketing around the US low-budget horror flick Paranormal Activity, which has since shot into the stratosphere at the US box office. That film’s unlikely success shows that even very small-scale films can work if they genuinely connect with their target audience and are imaginatively sold.
Martin Walsh, marketing specialist and producer of upcoming drama, The Battle of Long Tan, in a statement read at the MetroScreen event, gave his assessment of just how entrenched these communications issues are in the Australian industry. "The problem is that marketing is either being mistargeted and or insufficient or left too late."
How far do we have to go? A long way.
This article has been edited for accuracy since it was published.