Last year we didn’t want to know about Australian movies. This year, they set a new box office record. What’s behind the massive turnaround?
Which Australian movies did you see at the cinema in 2014? If you’re like most Australians, the answer is probably none. But this year, there’s a good chance you saw at least one.
Maybe it was Mad Max: Fury Road. Or Last Cab to Darwin or The Dressmaker or Russell Crowe’s wartime romp The Water Diviner. Or maybe it was one of the surprise family movie hits, Paper Planes or Oddball, to which you might have taken your kids or grandkids during the school holidays. Each of them has taken more (in some cases much more) than $7 million from seemingly satisfied Australian punters.
This has been a record year for Australian movies, which have collectively taken $84 million at the local box office, or 7.7 per cent of the total. That’s the biggest result ever in raw dollar terms, and the best share since 2001. What makes it truly remarkable is that just a year ago the local industry looked to be in terminal decline.
In 2014, Australian movies accounted for just 2.4 per cent of the total Australian box office. Only once since 1977, which is as far back as the Screen Australia database goes, has it been lower; the 1.3 per cent share in 2004 makes that Australian cinema’s annus horribilis. What’s more, last year’s result ($26.2 million) came on the back of a poor 2013 as well ($38.5 million, 3.5 per cent share). Had it not been for The Great Gatsby ($27.4 million), 2013 would have been a complete disaster.
So what has happened? Why has Australian cinema bounced back, and is this recovery sustainable?
A little over a year ago, I ran through the possible reasons you couldn’t pay Australians to watch Australian movies at the cinema. All of them were mined from the comments posted on our websites every time we ran a story about Australian movies. Those comments tended to have the following views:
Australian films are dark and depressing
Australian films are full of outmoded ocker stereotypes
Critics are too soft on Australian films
Australian films come and go without us even knowing they’ve arrived
Australian films should be cheaper to watch than Hollywood films because they
aren’t as spectacular
Australian films are rubbish
Ouch. So what has changed? Is it possible that the Australian movies of 2015 are fundamentally different? To answer, let’s start at the bottom, simply because it’s the most obvious explanation.
Are this year’s movies just better?
Some people would answer with a resounding “yes”, but let’s just remember that for every person who thinks film A is a work of genius, there’s usually another (or another 10) who think it’s not.
Reviews for Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner (released on Boxing Day 2014) were mixed, both in Australia and abroad, but it did terrific business here and in Turkey (though it tanked in the US). On imdb, it gets a rating of 7.1 from the averaged votes of more than 45,000 people. On metacritic.com. it scores just 50/100 from professional critics. So, is it a good film or not? It’s largely down to personal taste.
At the other end of the scale, one of the most lauded Australian films of 2014, The Babadook, barely registered at the Australian box office (though its distributor claimed to be happy with its haul of $268,044 from 13 screens). But it did solid business overseas, catapulted writer-director Jennifer Kent into the Hollywood hot zone, and got stellar reviews (both at home and abroad). Was it a success? Yes and no. Was it a good film, as good at least as those that have done so much more business this year? Absolutely.
What is different, says Village Cinemas general manager Gino Munari, is that this year’s crop appears to have been made with a clear intention to engage audiences rather than simply satisfy the creative urges of the filmmakers. “I think there’s a commercial sensibility that’s crept into the psyche of the Australian filmmaking community,” he says. “The magic is in telling stories that people want to hear, stories where they can engage with the characters.”
Are we beginning to see the light?
The idea that we only make dour, introspective dramas about inner-city junkies is as reductive (and wrong) as it is popular, but looking at this year’s hits a couple of things stand out: they mix comedy and drama, they aren’t afraid of a bit of sentimentality, and family is at the heart of many of them.
Is there darkness? Well, yes. Last Cab to Darwin is about a man with stomach cancer who drives 3000 kilometres to meet a doctor he hopes will kill him. But there are laughs along the way, a bit of romance, an interesting take on black-white relations.
Light and shade, in other words. Death casts a shadow in Paper Planes, Oddball and The Dressmaker too. And it’s at the very heart of Holding the Man.
Perhaps the reason these movies have resonated is precisely because they don’t shy away from the dark stuff – but nor do they become trapped by it. Australians are resilient, resourceful people, able to rise above the challenges they face (or so we like to tell ourselves). It makes sense that we want to see those traits reflected back to us on screen, and are ready to embrace the films that do just that.
Goodbye, Sir Les and your ilk?
Have we really consigned the Ocker stereotype to the garbage bin of history? Hell no. Have you seen The Dressmaker? Last Cab? Oddball? These movies all dabble in caricature (though the denizens of Jocelyn Moorhouse’s country town ion The Dressmaker could have come straight from the pages of an Australian commedia dell’arte). What makes them work is a lightness of touch, a willingness to draw on the stereotype while seeking to flesh it out – to make the familiar just a little surprising.
Michael Caton’s cabbie is instantly recognisable as a type – but the relationship with his indigenous neighbour Polly (Ningali Lawford) adds shades and detail that we at first don’t expect.
At any rate, the success of these three movies in particular – and to some extent also The Water Diviner – suggest there’s still as much appetite for characters from “the land” now as there was in the era of Dad and Dave. We just want them to be a little less like cartoons these days.
You must have known it was on?
One of the reasons some of last year’s Australian movies failed at the cinema was that people were given scant opportunity to see them. A week or two on a dozen or so screens with scant marketing barely counts as a release strategy when you’re up against Hollywood movies on 500 screens with saturation advertising. But that’s the fate of many an Australian movie.
Those that cut through this year, though, tended to benefit from a wide release and hefty promotional spend. The Water Diviner went out on 299 screens, Oddball 289, The Dressmaker 384 and Mad Max: Fury Road a Hollywood-sized 542 screens.
A wide release means a distributor can target their campaign around a narrow window of time, maximising bang for buck. Shane Jacobson did such a sterling job talking up Oddball it’s doubtful anyone in Australia didn’t know at least a little about the film by the time it hit cinemas.
But it takes a certain kind of product for distributors to have the confidence to go wide: an appealing story, star talent, good production values. This year’s batch ticked those boxes, “but you can’t reverse engineer it”, says Screen Australia chief Graeme Mason. “If the distributors are spending millions of dollars – literally – putting it out there, they’re not going to do that unless they see something commercially appealing in it.”
Not every film that hit its mark this year went wide, though; Holding the Man opened on 31 screens, fairly typical for an Australian drama of the sort you might find in an arthouse cinema rather than a multiplex. That Sugar Film opened on just three, but rapidly expanded to more than 10 times that number on its way to becoming the highest-grossing non-IMAX Australian documentary in history. It is still possible to do it the old way, but it takes a hell of a lot of work.
How many stars did you give it?
Fairfax’s reviewers weren’t especially kind to Oddball – both Jake Wilson and Sandra Hall gave it two-and-a-half stars out of five – and News Ltd’s Leigh Paatsch gave it three. But if the critics were lukewarm, audiences were anything but. Our guys liked Mad Max: Fury Road a lot more – Wilson gave it three-and-a-half, saying it was “finally, a sequel that doesn’t disappoint”, while Craig Mathieson gave it four and a half, calling it “gloriously twisted”. They were perfectly in sync with the greater Australian public, which propelled the film to almost $22 million locally.
On the other hand, Partisan got just two stars from Paul Byrnes; at the box office, Ariel Kleiman’s debut feature made $115,439. Personally, I thought it had plenty to admire, but it’s hard to argue there was a huge disconnect between critical and audience response.
It’s hardly Hollywood, is it?
Few Australian movies can compete with Hollywood in the visual stakes, but Mad Max: Fury Road is an exception. In fact, you can bet plenty of people in Hollywood will cite its influence on their work in years to come.
Generally, though, we work cheaper and make more modest films (though our budgets are considerably higher than those in America’s indie sector, whose films are our direct competition for arthouse screens).
Is that a turn-off? Not at all, says Village’s Gino Munari. “We don’t need to spend tens of millions on films, we just need to tell stories that connect,” he says. “We’ve got a unique lovable culture that we should celebrate. We’ve got great talent, when the writers, directors actors all come together – when all the molecules coalesce – that’s when the magic happens.”
So, is everything OK now?
The trouble with setting a new high is that there’s a great chance it will be followed by something lower, and that creates the impression of relative failure. The truth is, the movie business is cyclical. This has been a big year for cinema generally – and Star Wars will likely push it to a new record – but the fundamental challenges for Australian cinema remain.
The reality is that most Australian films are not made for the multiplex. That’s about budget, it’s about availability of star talent, it’s about our desire to tell stories that are uniquely Australian.
Multiplex staples such as horror, thrillers and sci-fi might work internationally but, says Mason, “genre does not work theatrically in this country; it never has”. Even the best of them are destined to play only on the ever-diminishing arthouse circuit.
Screen Australia chief Graeme Mason is bullish about what lies ahead – he has high hopes for Simon Stone’s The Daughter, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck; Lion, based on Saroo Brierley’s memoir about searching for his birth parents in India; and Sherpa, a documentary about a brawl between climbers and their guides on the slopes of Mt Everest. But nothing is certain.
What matters for Mason is that our filmmakers think first and foremost about making movies with an audience in mind. “We have to aim to make stories that connect with people,” he says. “I don’t mean everything has to be at the multiplex, but there’s got to be a story that could – if the stars align – really resonate and connect with an audience.
“You can’t make stuff for what an audience SHOULD want. You have to think, ‘Would I go see it, where would I go see it, and would my friends go and see it?’ “That,” he adds, “is the reason for the success of this year’s crop”.
More than a mil: The Australian movies that passed the million-dollar mark in 2015
Mad Max: Fury Road ($21.67 million) – action blockbuster
The Dressmaker ($15.23 million) – rural period comedy drama
Oddball ($10.8 million) – family film with animal
The Water Diviner ($10.18 million) – rural period war saga
Paper Planes ($9.65 million) – family film
Last Cab to Darwin ($7.32 million) – dying with dignity drama
Blinky Bill the Movie ($2.89 million) – kids animation
That Sugar Film ($1.71 million) – documentary
Holding the Man ($1.24 million) – gay drama
Karl Quinn – SMH – December 6, 2015