Buoyed by the success of this year’s hits Oddball and Paper Planes, the hunt is on for Australia’s next big family-friendly movie.
In a highly unusual move, Screen Australia has put out a call for established filmmakers to submit ideas for a live-action family film that can be made for under $7 million.
The agency is calling for one-page submissions, and will pick 10 to attend a two-day workshop in Sydney next March, after which up to three will receive funding to develop a first draft.
Joan Sauers, a screenwriter and script editor who is managing the program for Screen Australia, says there is a dearth of family films in the pipeline, despite the commercial appeal of the genre.
“So many applications [to the funding agencies] are for incredibly dark niche films, and I love dark films but they aren’t always successful,” she says. By contrast, “Some of our more mainstream family films have done incredibly well, but we just don’t get enough of them”.
Sauers frames this call-out as a kind of challenge to Australia’s mid-career writers, directors and producers (note to first-timers: this scheme isn’t for you). “If you weren’t going to do an outback serial killer movie, and you were going to do a family film, what would it look like?”
She nominates David Michod (crime films The Rover and Animal Kingdom) and the Spierig Brothers (time-travel thriller Predestination, vampire flick Daybreakers) as the sort of people she’d like to turn their hands to a family film. And she insists she’s not being funny.
“The sort of family films we should be making are a little darker, a little more ironic, a little more left-field of typical Hollywood fare.”
A little more Roald Dahl, perhaps?
“Exactly – Dahl is the perfect example of stories that offer something that appeals to both adults and kids.”
It’s easier said than done, of course, but the numbers do suggest the idea has some merit. Oddball has just passed $6.3 million locally. Paper Planes has taken $9.65 million in Australia, and is about to be released in Britain. George Miller’s Babe took a mammoth $36.7 million in Australia alone.
Family films also have a long tail, cropping up on TV and VOD and in DVD sales and rentals for years, sometimes even decades, after they were first released.
“What’s so great about kids’ movies is they can be rewatched by a fresh audience that just doesn’t know enough to care that a car went out of fashion years ago,” says Oddball director Stuart McDonald. “As long as it works, they’re engaged.”
Before the release of Paper Planes, writer-producer-director Robert Connolly said he was inspired by the sort of Australian films he grew up watching as a kid but felt no one was making any more. “If we don’t make films like that then how do you build an audience for Australian cinema looking to the future,” he asked.
That’s a view with which Sauers concurs. “I hear parents all the time saying, ‘I wish there was an Australian film I could take my kids to so they could hear Australian accents on the screen’,” she says. “We need that new generation of Storm Boy and Starstruck. If you don’t get the audience as kids, you won’t win them back.”
The program is targeting live-action films because they are relatively cheap compared to animation, where budgets typically run north of $100 million in Hollywood.
LA-based Australian screenwriter Harry Cripps has experience of that end of the spectrum – he is co-writing the outback-set Dreamworks animation Larrikins with Tim Minchin – but says a smaller budget is no impediment to making a good film.
“It’s the same principles: money is great, you can do more things with it, but if the story isn’t there it doesn’t matter,” he says.
Cripps will help finesse the selected projects at the workshop next March and says he’s looking for “great characters, great dialogue that comes from the heart, and a huge idea”.
He cites Shrek as a perfect example (but don’t, for goodness sake, copy the idea, and do ignore the fact it was animated). “That was the first time I saw a family film and forgot I had a kid with me, the first time I thought, ‘Oh, you can make a film that’s equally appealing to kids and parents’.”
Sauers agrees that the key to a great family film is that it appeals equally to kids and adults – and ideally to older kids and teens too.
“The best ones are about children who solve adults’ problems for them,” she says.
“Films like The Goonies, where the kids save the town from evil developers, or the Parent Trap, where the kids have to get the parents back together, or Home Alone, where the parents forget they’ve left their kid behind.
“Parents can enjoy those stories as much as anyone because they are dealing with their issues too – like divorce, like developers, like dementia.”
Here’s an idea: how about a movie in which a bunch of kids save all the adults in the Australian film industry by writing a hit family film?
Just a thought.
Karl Quinn – SMH – October 4, 2015
Here’s one for all the family: The top 10 live-action Australian family films at the Australian box office
Crocodile Dundee (1986) $47.7 million (#1 Australian film of all time)
Babe (1995) $36.77 million (#3)
Crocodile Dundee II (1988) $24.91 million (#7)
Strictly Ballroom (1992) $21.76 million (#8)
Red Dog (2011) $21.46 million (#9)
The Dish (2000) $17.99 million (#10)
The Man from Snowy River (1982) $17.22 million (#11)
Young Einstein (1988) $13.38 million (#18)
Phar Lap (1983) $9.25 million (#28)
Kenny (2006) $7.78 million (#33)
Source: Screen Australia. Figures are not adjusted for inflation.