Special Feature: Australian cinema – a broken industry?

Australia always seems to be in some kind of crisis. If the country isn’t stressing over its cultural identity, its busy ripping into its own precarious government (although it must be said that the Antipodean populace has taken greater pleasure in observing Britain’s amusingly dishevelled political affairs).

Hot topics of the season include the insufficient funding towards national sport with 2012 looming, the colossal rate at which the population is increasing thanks to their Prime Minister’s relaxed approach to immigration control and, more relevant here, the local film industry’s (or ‘sector’s’ if like so many over here, you don’t want to admit it’s a business) inability to draw in their own general public to see locally produced films, let alone make them work internationally.

Recent cinematic hysteria was energised last year by two passionate articles from The Sydney Morning Herald’’s chief film writer Garry Maddox and subsequently Rachel Ward, the director of the highly acclaimed Australian melodrama Beautiful Kate (2009).

In his article, Maddox brought attention to the fact that, although Australian cinema had seen record takings in recent years, Australian audiences had grown decidedly weary of the local film-makers’ continued desire to focus on “tragedy and heartbreak: violence, death, grief, drugs, grim endings”.

With her hackles firmly raised, Rachel Ward responded angrily with her own article, which made the point that critics were not seeing the underlying enrichment these films had to offer and that their limited use of vocabulary (most commonly “dark” and “bleak”) was partly responsible for deterring audiences before they took the opportunity to “make their own minds up”. The resounding point from them both, however, was that audiences are not unanimously responding to the crop of home-grown features currently on offer to them. And so begs the question: what exactly should Aussie film-makers be doing differently to change this?

For Dr. Karen Pearlman (Head of Screen Studies at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney), the notion of creating myth rather than regressive personal stories, is one that she believes local film-makers should start to take note of; agreeing with Maddox that Australian films have for a long time alienated themselves from the cinema-going public by delivering stories heavy in naturalism and light in audience resonance. By her definition, in order to create myth, not only is it vital to implement a large cinematic scale and dramatic dynamics (i.e. offering the audience something out-of-the ordinary to experience) but one must also take into consideration who actually takes ownership of the story itself. “If the ‘owner’ is the person with the money or the film-maker, then we are ascribing ownership to a very small and, by our own admission, culturally proscribed group of people” Pearlman stresses in her essay on the matter, published last November in Lumina – the AFTRS journal of screen arts and business.

“Myth on the other hand is owned by everyone and it speaks to humans more broadly than within specific cultures or societies”. It is certainly an altogether noteworthy argument and one that took centre stage at a landmark panel-debate last October, which saw a selection of industry figure-heads cast their varied opinions on the matter. But it is perhaps not one that has so far been taken very seriously by Screen Australia; the newly reorganised and consolidated governing body that distributes much of the funding for locally produced content.

Since its emergence back in 2008, Screen Australia has invested heavily in film development and production, with around $28m of tax-payers’ money being allocated during the 2009/10 period alone. It has helped ensure that this year more than 5 per cent of cinema releases down under will be Australian-made – a significant increase on previous years – but whilst they like to have a song and dance about the storming success of Samson & Delilah (2009) and Mao’s Last Dancer (2009), the fact remains that almost all of these films have so far lost money; something confirmed in a recent business analysis by the Herald Sun newspaper.

Little known films such as Blessed (2009) and Coffin Rock (2009) all received substantial bursaries towards their hefty budgets but struggled to pull in the punters once on screen. Another, Prime Mover (2009), was granted $1.4 million of government money but had only scraped together $52,000 by its sixth week of release. Understandably, there is increasing concern being voiced about SA’s selection policy and whether they are actually in tune with what the general cinema-going public want to see.

Spend an afternoon on Sydney’s George Street asking the general consumer what the last Australian film was they saw at the cinema, chances are they will respond with Baz Luhrmann’s romantically epic Australia (2009). They will also likely tell you it was “shit-house” but the very fact that the mass-population swarmed to see it two years ago demonstrates that it had the broad appeal so many of its compatriots clearly lack. It also tells you that the country is more than capable of producing big, event movies of this ilk; something Mad Max director George Miller has long known but has been increasingly frustrated by over the course of his 30 year career.

According to Miller, the Australian film industry has suffered from a roller-coaster effect, which has seen short surges of big-budget productions being made followed by long stints of nothing. He believes that if the local industry was able to attract off-shore productions more consistently, it would create a gravitational-pull that would bring more and more talent in and initiate a much more sustainable production flow. “The proof of this is in Wellington, New Zealand” he told ABC news during interview regarding the latest instalment of his hugely successful Australian franchise entitled Fury Road (2011). “It is a tenth the size of Sydney and has the best talent pool in the world because it has sustained production for 15 years; starting with the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Narnia cycle, it is currently seeing the likes of Spielberg, Cameron and Guillermo del Toro filming down there”. The biggest mistake made in Australia, he claims, is that they are “too lazy with the over-view, thinking intermittent film-making will solve the problem – it needs to be sustained”.

To its credit, after a recent review of the production incentives it introduced two years ago – which were designed to encourage international productions (particularly large scale Hollywood blockbusters) down under – Screen Australia has convinced the government to relax its regulations considerably. Initially, producers were allowed to claim back up to 15% of their over-all production budget on the condition that they spent 70% of their money locally.

However, with the strength of the Aussie dollar out-weighing the rest of the world, international film-financiers are failing to see the benefits in this; most recently illustrated by the government’s failure to entice large scale productions Green Lantern (2011) and Battleship (2012) down under to shoot. Now, after careful analysis, the 70% expenditure requirements have been completely scrapped, making the rebate a much more attractive prospect and leaving many tentatively anticipating a substantial rise in business when the new rules come into play later this year. Theoretically, a dramatic influx of international production and the flow-on effect that this could offer local talent and practitioners could then inspire and sustain development of local films with similar commercial appeal.

However, unconvinced by the results so far, many within the industry remain sceptical about whether the government and SA are capable of single-handedly re-energising the failing industry. None more so than Australian DoP Marc Windon, who has assembled a network of industry professionals intent on founding their own independently financed sustainable film industry. With The Filmmaker’s Factory, Windon hopes to establish a creative interaction centre in a Sydney-based venue, which will see members work together in developing, funding and producing their own work and stem the flow of independent, commercially viable Australian product. Demonstrating his dedication to “making a better film industry”, Windon is also offering a $25,000 development grant to an aspiring writer, in the hope that this will act as a launch pad for the scheme and attract attention from local rising and established talent. It is still very early days for the initiative however and whether or not this will develop into anything of worth or standing remains to be seen, but what it does demonstrate is the prevailing issues many seem to have with the current government system.

It’s not all doom and gloom however. At the time of writing this article, the theatrical top ten holds two very commercial Australian productions: I Love You Too (2010) – a low grade rom-com which has managed to break the $1m mark in its first week of release – and the upmarket WW1 movie Beneath Hill 60 (2010), which is sitting comfortably on $3m after a steady four week run. Furthermore, earlier this year, the Australian/American co-produced vampire thriller Daybreakers (2009), starring Ethan Hawke, was a surprise hit around the world (US$50m worldwide) and, looking ahead, Stuart Beattie’s Tomorrow, When the War Began (2010) – an entirely Australian production based on popular Australian novelist John Marsden’s bestselling book – is already being widely predicted as one of the biggest films of 2010.

Of course, box-office is not the only parameter on which a film’s success should be judged. The fact that currently most Australian films are not financially viable does not mean that they were somehow not effective, compelling films or that they shouldn’t have been made. Furthermore, it could be argued that government subsidies for film production are in place so that producers do not have to rely so heavily on their financial return. But if nothing else, the consistently lacklustre box-office results clearly demonstrate that the current systems in place are not generating nearly enough Aussie films designed to satisfy the mass-market and with film-makers, critics and government officials starting to recognise this, there is now a collective desire for things to change. Let’s hope, for the sake of the Australian film industry’s future, they manage it.

Tommy Delcher