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What’s Wrong With the Australian Film Industry?

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Reflections amid the slump


"If you don't have hope and aspiration in our industry you go and do something else. It's an industry that's about stories, dreams, hopes and aspirations." So says Kim Dalton, Chief Executive of the Australian Film Commission, articulating the reason Australian filmmakers keep on going. And judging by the hammering Aussie films have generally taken at the box office for the last 18 months, there isn't much more than dreams in it for them.

As Australia's biggest international breakout hits of the 1990's Strictly Ballroom, Muriel's Wedding and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert signalled a level of possibility unimagined in the Australian movie business but long dreamed about by our filmmakers – that of Hollywood-style productions, our own superstars and a self-sufficient industry.

Fast forward ten years and 2004 shows a very different picture than we'd hoped; an industry as reliant on handouts as ever, a drain of big name talent to America, and a slew of movies with disappointing box office performance.

There are two major differences between then and now. One is a solid filmmaking infrastructure in Australia (with a focal point in Sydney) offering world-class facilities and services in digital effects, sound stages and technicians. The other is the sheer volume of films being made and released in Australia.

But with the absence of big scale Hollywood productions, effects houses and studios are languishing. Even Sydney's Fox Studios reported an uncomfortable lack of activity following completion of principal photography on Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith late last year.

And as to the volume of Australian films being made, is it worth it when they're supposedly doing so badly? Low key releases like Travelling Light (Icon), Rage in Placid Lake (Palace) and Horseplay (Buena Vista) – which took only $47,000, $463,000 and $140,000 respectively, seemed bad enough. But when major films enjoying generous marketing budgets flopped it seemed to add insult to injury.

High hopes for Ned Kelly (UIP) were dashed after the $30m film raked in only $8.5m nationally, and the high profile The Night We Called it a Day was a bigger letdown, taking only $500,000.

Together with fear for the industry's future, a case of mild hysteria set in. According to one theory, audiences mistook the poster art for The Night We Called it a Day (Joel Edgerton holding a cardboard cut-out of Dennis Hopper as Frank Sinatra with a 'cancelled' banner across it) as saying the film itself was being withdrawn from release.

The Wannabes, Danny Deckchair and zombie splatter film Undead all similarly underperformed, although expectations for Undead weren't high, with a short season on only a small number of screens.

The only big winners of recent time have been Fat Pizza, with $3.6m, Japanese Story (over $3m) and Gettin' Square ($1.8m), the latter both doing good business thanks to scooping the pools at 2003's major film awards.

So should Australian moviemakers be doing something differently to avoid another disastrous film season? Or was it indeed disastrous? The media has been awash with stories explaining the shocking performance of Aussie movies, but is it just a question of perspective? It depends on who you ask.

Expecting every film to be a Muriel or a Priscilla is a bit much according to Tait Brady of Palace Films, distributors of several local and arthouse films in the firing line. "Maybe our expectations are unrealistic," he says. "There's enormous pressure on these films to be massive hits and I can't imagine a situation where you'd see ten big and successful Australian films in a year, which is almost what the industry and the media want.

" Alexandra's Project was an unquestionable success because of the scale of the release and our expectations. It took $800,000 in Australia, whereas our expectation is to make $10m on a big film where we've spent a fortune on the release. We never expected Alexandra's Project to run on 100 screens and make $10m."

Despite the marketing savvy shown by distributors (or lack thereof), economic factors out of the control of scriptwriters and financiers don't make the current climate the best time for anyone to make a movie in Australia, Australian or otherwise.

Our steadily rising dollar has made it less attractive for big Hollywood players that institutions like the NSW Carr government spent the late 1990s wooing, and the recent Free Trade Agreement with the US has local producers feeling uneasy about their future.

We're also faced with fierce competition from emerging filmmaking locations around the world, including New Zealand (home of both Lord of the Rings and The Last Samurai) and Prague (even when $5m worth of sets from Fox's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were lost to flooding, it didn't cool Hollywood's thirst for the Czech capital's thriving studio industry).

What's worse, even we ourselves aren't making as many films. In a 2003 report to the federal government, The Australian Film Commission said that 'overall levels of development investment in feature films in Australia are low' and that...funding for development has decreased over recent years'.

But surely it's just like the stock market, where even though there's a good year and a bad year, in general it's always on the way up? Almost everybody interviewed for this story paraphrased the word 'cyclical' about the film industry. Isn't the fact that so many Australia films found their way to screens the main thing?

Kim Dalton of the AFC thinks that numbers, in that sense, are good. "This is a volume business and when you've got less films going out in to the marketplace it's more noticeable if you have a run of films that aren't performing as well as you'd like," he says, "But I still think if you look at the Australian films [of 2003] there's a diverse range and some of them are finding an audience."

Alex Meskovic, Director of Sydney's Chauvel cinema (screening mainly independent and arthouse films), has seen this year's releases come and go, and he doesn't think we should get any ideas of grandeur. "If you go to any country in the world, the majority of their films aren't very good either," he says. "There's a lot of bad moviemaking going on around the world because younger filmmakers don't have a handle on what makes a successful film."

Kim Dalton takes a different view, pointing out that we are an extraordinary player in the global market. "The reason people want to see Australian films is because of the uniqueness of our stories, characters and landscape," he thinks, "and the Australian film industry has done that over the last 25 or 30 years in absolute disproportion to the size of our industry and the size of our marketplace. That's why the Australian film industry has such a high profile internationally."

But if we're enjoying a high profile internationally and releasing enough films for there to be three or four Australian releases in the multiplex at once (in the Strictly Ballroom days we were lucky to see four major Australian movies in a year at all), what's gone wrong at the box office?

It's subjective to say there have been some shoddy scripts, but when the critics are saying so almost unanimously and the public are staying away in droves, there must be some truth to it. Have we simply made too many poor quality movies that deserve to flop at the box office (a theory Fat Pizza's success seems to effectively nullify)?

"That's the problem with a lot of these guys,' according to the Chauvel's Alex Meskovic, "they can't write. The best thing about Gettin' Squared was the script – that's why it won best scriptwriter at the AFI awards.

"In America, before you can even hire the cameras and lights for the film, the script's probably had about 20 people work on it. Here you have people at the AFC approving scripts by people who are struggling to find talent to make these things."

Despite the question of poor scripts being an emotive one, there's little doubt we don't invest enough in their development. Stephen Smith is the president of the Screen Producer's Association of Australia (organisers of 2003's Live or Let Die; The New Reality for Producers conference). To him, the filmmaking infrastructure in Australia doesn't give scripts the room they need to move and grow.

"Producers in Australia only work every three years or so – sometimes longer – so they're jumping from project to project," he believes, "often working out of their homes or in confined spaces to save cost. When a project comes up that they can get funded they tend to try and get it up and running quickly, and the problem is it may not be ready.

"Our mindset in this country is project driven and I think we should change that mindset to producer driven. In LA, a producer will come onto the lot and they give them full support – rent, equipment, the whole thing – to develop projects, so they might have four or five going. We don't do that here so you're always rolling the dice on one project."

But the script debate has a flip side. Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald recently, director George Miller (Mad Max, Witches of Eastwick, Babe II) pointed out that despite Hollywood's mature system of working, they manage to churn out some appalling scripts that still do well here.

Saying it was no accident the US dominates the film business, Miller believes their talent is that 'they understand how important it is to push their culture'. Our collective experience as consumers of entertainment certainly seems to confirm this belief; going to an average multiplex film, watching a music video show, buying a computer game and surfing the web gives us all a Grand Unified Theory of Brand America.

US movies wield enormous marketing, cultural and buying power – to say nothing of the ability of American actors to sell a movie around the world single-handedly (Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Heath Ledger are only just at that stage, and even then their record of doing so is hit and miss). After all, the marketing budget of the average US blockbuster (in Australia alone) is higher than the total amount spent annually on Australian film production.

And we all know the hype gets louder every year, but in 2003 (particularly during the US summer season of July/August) it seemed deafening. With another global Hollywood release seemingly every week, how could The Wannabes or You Can't Stop the Murders even get a look-in at Aussie multiplexes?

"You often hear 'it was a busy time to release' and I say 'when isn't it?'," says Tait Brady of Palace. "The US market is central to this debate. Sometimes you want to cry when you see a very average American film get released in Australia with no serious work by the distributor that easily grosses $4 or 5 million. We have to really work to get an Australian film up to that level.

"You don't need me to point out why they released The Matrix: Revolutions all over the world at the same time; they just take the money and run. They know it's no good and it's not going to have big legs so they don't even want international publicity to get out – we can't begin to compete with that."

Despite conventional wisdom, comedy also continues to be a hard sell – especially our distinctive sense of humour. And if the first words that spring to mind are Crocodile Dundee, remember that it worked on strength of what American audiences wanted to believe about Australians, not the reality.

" [The Channel 9/Macquarie Bank consortium] seems to have a clear policy to focus on domestic comedies," says Palace's Brady, "they're actually behind a lot of these films. But if you do an Australian comedy, it's almost certain to be very difficult to sell outside Australia. Every culture has its own sense of humour and they just don't travel."

But above all, the big killer of enthusiasm in Australian movies seems to be the simplest; there's nothing worth watching. Moviegoers won't see an Australian movie to do their bit for the local industry, but because it's something they've never seen before.

"There's definitely a feeling that Crackerjack was related to the Working Dog productions like The Castle," says Palace's Brady. "Poor old Bad Eggs, which wasn't such a bad film, seemed such a rehash of Crackerjack – even in the casting."

Alex Meskovic from the Chauvel agrees originality is sorely lacking from the Australian landscape. "People think they can take a well worn theme like Wogboy and make five other films like it," he says. "It's just not going to work. People want something new and original."

Box office figures and balance sheets aside, a final disquieting factor creeps into the argument of how Australian films have been received when we look at the relative quality of trans-Tasman cinema.

Whereas Australia used to be synonymous with the eloquent, lyrical quality captured last year by Japanese Story (think My Brilliant Career, Picnic at Hanging Rock, etc.), now we seem to have taken up the Hollywood mantle of high turnover and low quality in the name of financial returns.

Should we cringe in embarrassment at concepts like Fat Pizza, Takeaway and The Wannabes while films like Perfect Strangers and Whale Rider (praised by critics worldwide) further cement New Zealand's reputation as the standard bearer of quality filmmaking Australia used to be?

Some believe the future will be better if we learn some of Hollywood's 'tried and tested' marketing strategies, groom a select few faces to be our international megastars (and give them a reason to stay at home), and start using production money to give producers the time and elbow room to develop decent scripts.

But ask anyone on the street to name one Australian movie they've seen over the past year and you'll get a dozen different answers. Compared to the Australian filmscape of Strictly Ballroom's early 1990s, isn't that a triumph in itself?

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