Restraint: why an Australian thriller suffered a single-screen, one-week release

11 April, 2012 by Brendan Swift

Restraint was backed by the government’s screen agency, directed by one of the country’s top TVC directors, and starred rising talent. Brendan Swift finds out why a $5 million taut-thriller gathered dust for years before a one-week cinema run in 2009. Restraint will be shown on TV this weekend on Channel Nine at 9.30pm on Saturday, April 14. (This article originally appeared in IF #121, June 2009.)

It was an auspicious day. On April 2, Restraint had its premiere at inner-Sydney’s Chauvel Cinema – a small dual-screen complex better known for showing small Australian and art-house films. Among the cast and crew were respected director of photography Simon Duggan (I, Robot, Knowing), co-producer Anna Fawcett, and top TV commercials director David Denneen. But Denneen would give no speech that night. It had been almost four years since cameras stopped rolling and the film’s long-delayed release was less a celebration than a Pyrrhic victory.

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“It was on at nine o’clock, no publicity, and hardly anyone went, but at least I ticked a box off and was able to sell it to France,” Fawcett says. The one-week limited release at the Chauvel satisfied a French requirement that foreign-made films for local TV broadcast must have a theatrical run in its home country.

The commercially-focused film – a psychological thriller about two fugitives who take refuge in a mansion owned by an agoraphobic art dealer – had appeared destined for bigger things before things began to unravel.

The Film Finance Corporation (since merged into Screen Australia) announced plans to invest $4.14 million in the project – then known as Power Surge – in December 2004. The New South Wales Film and Television Office ($100,000) and US-based Form/Global Cinema Group completed the budget. (However, there remains some contention about the actual budget with the filmmakers stating the FFC invested about half of the estimated total $4 million budget.)

Underwear model Travis Fimmel and actress Teresa Palmer were cast alongside UK-actor Stephen Moyer in the key roles. While the careers of all three have since taken off, their relative obscurity was to become a key point of contention for distributors.

The film, which changed its name to Guests and then Ravenswood, finished its shoot in regional NSW’s Goulburn and Camden areas in the second half of 2005 and was due to be released in May 2006.

Accent Film Entertainment director Peter Campbell – who originally had the distribution deal – says Restraint was aesthetically strong. However, he held reservations about the size of the film’s potential target audience, the star power of the cast, as well as the film’s ending.

“What they wanted to do in terms of the theatrical spread was just too big for what it was likely to take [at the box office] and therefore we would have been up for a fairly hefty P&A [prints and advertising costs] and take a very large loss into the DVD release,” he says.

After multiple test screenings, the film was cut back from about 120 minutes to 90 minutes and the ending re-jigged to make it slightly more ambiguous. (The original alternate ending is included on the DVD.) However, it continued to be turned down by local distributors. A precondition of the FFC’s $4.1 million investment was a guarantee that the film would have a theatrical release – it also had approval over the appointment of a distributor. A Screen Australia spokeswoman declined to answer questions about its involvement in the production.

As the saga dragged on, the film’s most experienced producer Mark Lazarus left Filmgraphics to become a project manager at the Australian Film Commission in August 2006. The Film Finance Corporation announced that it would invest $1.04 million in his next feature film project, The Loved Ones, in December 2007.

Deneen, who recently worked on Optus’ high profile TV commercial campaign and hopes to make other features, says he would never make another film without a written pre-sale agreement. He would also like to see more distribution support from Screen Australia, which is currently reviewing its marketing support and promotion guidelines.

“It’s great they give you the finance but really they should have an arm that supports Australian films because they invest all this money and the money disappears into oblivion because the films aren’t getting distributed,” he says.

Underlying the dilemma is the ongoing dire performance of local films at the box office, which has made exhibitors even more reticent to back local films this year. The release of teen thriller Crush was delayed several times before embarking on a small Perth screening in a bid to prove it could attract an audience. It follows the dismal box office performances this year of films such as Beautiful, which cost about $2 million (not including distribution costs such as advertising) and took just $51,008 across 19 screens.

Restraint co-producer Anna Fawcett says the team felt the pressure of making their first feature film and had many people advising them to go down different paths. “It was a comedy of errors because we weren’t experienced enough. But we are now.”


A scene from Restraint, starring Teresa Palmer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Jessica

    I think you can substitute the word ‘thriller’ with the word ‘film’, and that about sums up the Aus film industry.

  • jim

    the film industry in this country is in a horrible state, everyone is aware of it but no one knows what to do about it. I just watched the trailer to this film and I suspect the one week run in one cinema is about what it deserved, if you can not maintain my interest for a minute and a half in a trailer what chance do you have for 90 mins, sure plenty of bad non australian film have long runs at the box office and make cash but I feel you can not complain about the lack of support for aussie films unless you make something truly outstanding.
    The reputation of rubbish films is the major issue in this country, bad acting, bad dialog, cheesy plots and lame films with a so called heart of gold, most missing the goal of film is to create a believable interesting story where you care about the people in it. Its a real shame cause I would love their to be a viable industry, we have the capable crew and the acting pool to make it happen, but clearly a massive disconnect somewhere and a reputation that means outside of the film festival circuit and quaint cinemas our films are not respected. Worse of all when a quality film is made it struggles to gain the audience it deserves, Chooper, Animal Kingdom and Snowtown all were awarded critical acclaim but the amount of people in this country who have not seen them is alarming. Anyway I have not seen Restraint so I should not bag it sight unseen, by doing so I am doing the exact thing I dislike the general public for in this country, assuming its no good because its Australian. But assumptions like that are based on previous encounters, a radical rethink on Australian film is needed and has been called for for as long as I can remember.

  • bob

    A spokeswoman for Screen Australia “declined to comment”.
    My God! Whose money do they think they manage?
    Jim is right. The whole thing needs a re-think. It’s just a waste of money for the benefit of a small revolving clique.
    However, it’s also time there was a very sharp reminder to the managers of that organisation about the duties that go with offices of public trust.

  • Brendan Swift, IF Editor

    While there were clearly problems during production, I think the final shortened version of the film was quite underrated – worth watching over the weekend. I think films like this would find a larger audience with a more flexible distribution strategy (closing traditional distribution windows, premium VOD etc), although it is a sad situation that this has still not happened to any significant degree three years after I wrote this article in 2009.

  • jim

    I do not think 9.30pm on a Saturday night on a standard def channel is going to result in any kind of an audience, I wish the stations showed a genuine interest in supporting our industry but they do not. I used to watch as many aussie films as I could as I wanted to work in the field and believed you should support the industry if you want to be a part of it, I could list the films that have given me a sick feeling in the stomach when watching but its easier to note the ones that work, which I did above. Also if you criticise aussie films its easy to be cast as a wannabe filmmaker with a chip on his shoulder, thats just a deflection technique used to divert any assertions that we fund the wrong films. I do find it amusing every couple of years I hear about the strength of aussie films or see the movie show hand out 4-5 stars for films that would be classified unwatchable by the general public, I do not want mainstream films in Australia culture but why can I not have films I can be proud off that were made here. The list of these films is too small. We all want a successful industry in this country I think we need to accept that filmmaking needs to be financially worthwhile and make films that engage audiences rather than b grade horrors or difficult films with no redemption and no audience, the fact that we make a type of film is not one to celebrated, uniqueness and interesting does not need to be hard to watch with no reward and I think if we were honest most aussie films fit into this category. Nothing is black and white thou, I am not saying we make nothing but crap, but box office results do not lie and reputation does not lie, ask someone who is not in the industry what was the last aussie film they saw in a cinema that they paid for, hell ask someone in the industry the answer is just as scary. I have seen no positive change in well over a decade in the australian film industry, our films are looked at as calling cards for future work at best, their like the short film circuit to the rest of the world, attempts at films, showreels for better films they may one day make.

  • filmart_dd

    Experience is as above for the general viewer in AFI Awards. Overall, no better nor worse than in other countries, probably, but why the film industry has sacred cow status is beyond me.
    Then again, the occasional gem like Men’s Group (2008) which seems to have disappeared. Screen Aust database, as always, refrains from giving Australian users the Australian distributor, just in case anyone was looking for the film.

  • Dan

    @filmart_dd

    Men’s Group was distributed in Australia by Titan View, and this is a link to their website where you can buy the film on DVD etc:

    http://www.titanview.com/index.php/shop

  • woah

    I saw the film…it wasn’t good enough to get distribution.

  • Anthony J Langford

    Men’s Group was a good film and there has been the occasional good film (Wasted on the Young), but yes audiences won’t give them a go, no matter what the reviews, hype etc.

    I can’t comment on this other than I agree, the trailer looks terrible and it’s easy to see why it wasn’t distributed, more cliches than a One Direction lyric.
    While I agree that we should be taking on the Americans at their own game, (it’s want audiences want), we should also be utilising their publicity strategy’s. Test screenings, trickle feeding of information, more money put to advertsing, posters, interviews etc.
    And when there is a decent film (see above), the Film bodies should be getting behind the same teams and assist them to develop a second feature. God knows it’s hard enough to make a fim in this country. No wonder many people give up after one.

    It’s so sad to see how far we’ve fallen over the past twenty years.

  • Shayne Cantly

    Think of the number of smaller productions that could have been made with that 4 million. I’m making a docu-drama about Captain Thunderbolt, with no funding whatsoever because I started production before going through the funding processes…which I find waaaay too complicated. It does my head in.
    I’d love it if there was a process whereby I could show Screen Australia what I’ve done so far, and they could say….hey…how about we give you $20k to help get it completed. Jeez…even $10k would be a great help.
    And the whole catch 22 process of getting a broadcaster/distributor to agree to broadcast it before you get funding….but the broadcaster wont agree to that until they have seen the finished product….but you can’t start production or make the product until you have the funding. How is that meant to work???
    So, we’re direct selling to people through our website and bypassing the whole funding thing. We can’t seem to catch any kind of funding or financial help, so we just have to make it happen ourselves, and fund it ourselves. thunderboltmovie.com to see more.

  • s

    The real question is where did the four million dollar budget go? It looks like it was shot on HD video in one location. As Australian taxpayers, don’t we deserve an accounting breakdown?

    Pulp Fiction cost eight million to make, with five million going towards the actor’s salaries.

    The Loved Ones cost one million, and the money is up on the screen.

    Was this a film, or a mortgage payment?

  • John Davis

    There seems to be a common misconception that there’s some obvious formula for making successful films that is being overlooked (ie redemptive story lines or characters that some imaginary spectator cares about etc etc). Any prescriptive approach like this is reductive and an impediment to imagination.

    The fact is that the proportion of films that ‘work’ in Australia actually compares favourably to any other national cinema. If the test is purely box office then of course we have no chance to compete with US films that have bigger P&A budgets than the production budgets of locally produced films. Does that make these US ‘spectacle’ films good? The comparison is meaningless.

    It seems pretty apparent that the numbers simply don’t add up – the relationship between a films budget, the amount a distributor can commit to releasing a film locally (and stay in business) and the size of the population is the fundamental issue. We should accept this and focus on making films that are culturally significant (and despite the constant naysaying there is recognition internationally that we make our fair share of films that are artistically successful and would be difficult to produce within the financing structures that exist in other countries).

    It seems that the funding bodies are attempting to produce a range of films; from low budget art house films through to genre and mid budget prestige films.This is the right strategy. Of course there will always be a certain proportion of misfires as there is in any studio or film production enterprise dealing with similar volume.

    Having said that yes, Screen Australia should offer greater marketing and distribution support (as distributors are necessarily ruthless), and possibly fund more low budget films as opposed to movies that over reach their budgets in an attempt to produce box office hits.

    We have an opportunity to do the most reasonable of all things – support talent and interfere as little as possible. Even then there will be a huge number of films that don’t work. Look at the filmographies of any of the worlds greatest directors and you’ll find unsuccessful projects – nature of the beast.

  • Simon

    Ill watch Restraint tonight but the argument in this country over quality film partly comes down to marketing dollars when you think about how well Adam Sandler films do at the box office here compared to films like Snowtown or Animal kingdom it is quite depressIng. Our ratio of bleak dramas to films people actually want to part with money to see is slowly improving we need to get behind bold Aussie genre and create funding options that allow much bigger marketing I think agencies are afraid of spending big on marketing because they have lost faith in really getting behind a potential flop

  • Paul Cambie

    How extraordinary. Absolutely first rate film. Watched it last night on telly (it dragged me away from another channel – as a thriller it absoluely got its hooks into me!). Noting that it was Australian (and frequently guilty of some cultual cringe), I ended thinking “where did THAT come from!”, so researched it a bit the following day – just can’t believe it getting bagged in earlier posts here, and that it was adjudged not worthy of serious release and distribution. Clever, well paced, well shot, and very very well acted. ‘Scuse my lay-person ill-informed simple appreciation – in my ignorance I can’t fault it. Wish I’d seen it in a theatre. Absolutely first rate!

  • Bab

    I just watched the film on television. Good production values, the cast acquitted themselves well, and the plot kept me engaged till the end. I enjoyed it, but I suspect that like so many decent films out there it was too twee for a mainstream audience but not quite niche enough for an independent audience.

    I think the move to sell the film in France is probably a good one and says something about the fickleness of the art cinema watching public here, who would only watch a movie like this if it were subtitled in Farsi.

  • Phil Avalon

    I watched RESTRAINT on Saturday night. It was, in my opinion, a very well made film. The production values, cast, direction all of a high standard. The story, edgy and held my attention throughout. I’ve read the above comments and suggest to those that focused on the general charge that Australian films don’t cut it.
    When are people in this industry going to wake up and look at the BIG PICTURE re Australian movies? Please… Book a ticket. Attend the American Film Market, you will see how many absolutely D Grade American, British, European movies are produced each year, and how many make it to the big screen. Better still, how many get a deal….Any deal! The percentage is frightening. There are over 2.000 titles offered to Sales Companies each year. The percentage that are picked up and make money is less than ten percent. OK…BOTTOM LINE… We cannot make a block buster movie or art house winner every time. Our percentage of HIT films pro rata is actually higher than most other English speaking countries. Every now and then, we produce a film that catches a wider audience both domesically & globally. ANIMAL KINGDOM, MAO’S LAST DANCER, A FEW BEST MEN did just that. Others like GRIFF THE INVISABLE and THE HUNTER should have done better, both excellent films. I say, look at the stories in these films, great stories matched with great talent in front and behind the camera. I do agree, we must try and produce better home made stories, but we must also face up to -not every one will be a hit. That is the bottom line. I go and see as many Australian films as I can. Hope you do the same.

  • Jessica

    Watched it. It was well made, but like many posters have said above, I too would not watch it in cinemas. It’s not the type of film I and many Aussies would pay to see in the cinemas.

  • Bruce M

    I’d suggest if Shayne Cantly wants backing for his film, then KickStarter is the way to go to break the cycle – I’ve supported a few fledgling video projects that way and it seems to work well. Get power from the people.

  • James Mathers

    GRIFF THE INVISIBLE? Phil, you have to be kidding, this was the worst piece of trash ever..

  • Liam

    Griff the Invisible is one of my favorite Australian films ever!!!

  • Bob

    I’ve watched it twice;seeing both endings. I preferred the 1st, but wasn’t wowed with either. I did enjoy the movie. I couldn’t take my eyes off Teresa Palmer, and I like her acting. I watch my share of Aussie films. They aren’t bad, but the Australian wilderness seems to be where they usually take place. I think the WORLD has a hard time identifying.