Love me, I'm Australian
Wednesday, May 23 2012
Australians spent over one billion dollars at the box office in 2011. Out of 437 films, 44 were Australian. How many Australian films did you pay to see?
As film student and wannabe screenwriter, I see many films and my thinking is that film output should be looked at as a pyramid, with the base consisting of mostly average to bad films and with the tip being the apex of success, however measured. It’s the nature of the industry. Anywhere. Period.
According to Screen Australia, the Australian share was $43 million or 4% of the total box office in 2011, trending down 5% from 2009 and 4.5% in 2010. Australia has only seen national shares of ticket sales of at least 10% in only ten years since 1977, with most of the glory years in the 80s when private funding was at its highest level. Local market share percentages over time for France, England and America can range from 7 to 12 times higher than our results in recent years.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Do we suck?
If you’re a fan of Margaret Pomeranz, you might agree that if lazy Australian audiences don’t like challenging films that show bleak and grim content, they can go and get stuffed.
If you’re Jim Schembri, a critic who is about as popular with local filmmakers as a fart on packed tram, too many Australian films stink. It seems that cultural cringe is very much still alive and well.
According to the commercially minded Anthony Ginnane, President of The Screen Producers of Australia, local filmmakers’ complete disregard and contempt for audiences’ wants and expectations. This has resulted in too many dark and miserable social realist films that don’t connect with cinema goers year after year. Ginnane is joined in thought by Ruth Harley, President of Screen Australia – the government funding body whose financial aim is to lose money as slowly as possible.
Ginnane says local filmmakers should take note of the great Alfred Hitchcock’s theory that film should be about life with the boring bits cut out; but we don’t cut the boring bits out. This sentiment is also widely shared among the paying public and the media.
Shaun Miller, media and entertainment lawyer behind innumerable contracts for local projects, says that the majority of scripts that he’s read are not worthy of turning into films. Troy Lum of Hopscotch Films concurs. At the 2009 Metroscreen Oz Film vs. Oz Audience Forum, Lum iterated the lack of great ideas and scripts as a central problem; but limited funding and budgets also pose a big problem in that filmmakers can only make what they can afford. Ginnane countered by saying that it’s time filmmakers think bigger and write more sizeable, dynamic and popular concepts with larger budgets that can be obtained from international players and agencies.
Natalie Miller, co-founder of Cinema Nova, says she tries to show most Aussie films, but ultimately the public will vote with their feet, regardless of where films are made. So why such a low turn out for local films? She says it’s a combination of stiff competition from Hollywood and lack of marketing and advertising dollars. Most independent films here run out of money by the time they’re ready for release so marketing is practically impossible which leads to painfully low screenings; quick death is therefore inevitable, and expected. Most indie films from overseas do far better because they’ve had a good run in other markets and strong public awareness before being released here, an advantage that most local productions don’t enjoy.
Like the large numbers of Australians who love cinema, I do rely on aggregate review sites to find gems to see, without discriminating against country of origin. But as a wannabe screenwriter, I also seek out local films to watch to learn from, sometimes regardless of press reviews. Two recent films that I thoroughly enjoyed are The Social Network and A Separation. However, the last Australian film of lasting impact for me is Samson and Delilah, one out of 13 locally produced films that I’ve seen since 2009. Despite this, I have faith in Australian films because we have produced many awesome and iconic films so it can happen again. It is too easy to use comparable hit and miss ratios to explain ups and downs but the fact is imagination and hard work supported by flexible funding and informed development policies will get us there. Although a good dose of luck in this fickle industry wouldn’t go astray either.
As the Producer Offset receives more applications than it funds, there is also merit in introducing more tax concessions, particularly during this incredibly tough economic climate, to promote more private sources of finance. Policies also need to be reviewed to give more support to deserving filmmakers whose talent we do not want to lose to other markets.
And Paul Hogan, we need you to come home and make Crocodile Dundee vs. Aliens.