Dance Academy

‘Dance Academy’, one of only four Australia films to crack $1 million at the box office this year. 

Tait Brady has spent 35 years in the screen industry in production, distribution, cinema management, publicity and programming, and he says it’s never been so tough for independent films.

That’s borne out by the scorecard for Australian films and documentaries released in cinemas this year.

Apart from Lion ($29.5 million), Red Dog: True Blue (a disappointing $5.8 million this calendar year), Jasper Jones ($2.7 million) and Dance Academy ($2.1 million), none of the other 40 titles in release this year has cracked $1 million.

Through July 26, the total stands at $43.3 million, according to the Motion Picture Distribution Association of Australia (MPDAA). Even so, that is a vast improvement on the dismal 2016 calendar year total of $24.1 million.

“The current environment is the toughest I’ve ever seen in the 35 years I’ve been involved in exhibition and distribution, especially if your film doesn’t speak to the older, female-skewed audience,” says Brady.

Brady’s distribution firm Label released Ben Young’s Hounds of Love, grossing $204,000 thus far, and Rosie Jones’ The Family, a feature doc on an Australian doomsday cult, which made $190,000. “I am fairly happy with both, under the circumstances,” he says.

The only new Aussie title this month was Umbrella Entertainment’s Descent into the Maelstrom, a documentary about the Australian band Radio Birdman from brothers Mark and Jonathan Sequeira.

Madman Entertainment co-founder Paul Wiegard describes the indie film marketplace as “brutal,” but says he plans to release more Oz titles, particularly feature docs, in the next two years than he did in the past five or six years.

Feature docs usually have a ceiling of $1.5 million at the Australian B.O. and entail less risk, but have less upside than narrative films, he says.

Next month Madman is launching two films. Jeffrey Walker’s comedy Ali’s Wedding will go out about 45 screens after being warmly received at the Sydney Film Festival, where it was won the audience award for best narrative feature.

Produced by Madman Production Company (MPC), Dan Jones and Marcus Cobbledick’s All for One follows the first five years of the GreenEdge cycling team, illustrating their renegade spirit and determination to win against substantial odds.

After premiering at SFF, Jen Peedom’s documentary Mountain is getting 12-14 live performances with the Australian Chamber Orchestra in performing arts venues plus Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) screenings as primers for the September release via Madman.

Damien Power’s feature debut, thriller Killing Ground, opens in August via Mushroom Pictures, while Transmission Films has dated Karina Holden’s marine doco Blue for October.

In September, Umbrella will launch Sera Davies’ Namatjira Project, which traces the life of acclaimed Indigenous artist Albert Namatjira and his family’s quest for justice; Rhiannon Bannenberg’s tween movie Rip Tide; and Kriv Stenders’ Right Here: The Go-Betweens, which charts the rise and fall of the Aussie band.

Umbrella has scheduled Greg McLean’s thriller Jungle, which will open the MIFF, for October.

Also on Madman’s slate are Florian Habicht’s feature documentary Spookers, which MPC co-produced with a Kiwi company; Paul Williams’ Gurrumul, which profiles the late blind Indigenous singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu; and Ben Strunin’s Westwind: Djalu’s Legacy, which portrays Yolngu elder Djalu Gurruwiwi’s quest to pass his people’s ancient song lines and culture to the next generation and will premiere at MIFF.

Umbrella MD Jeff Harrison says: “We are still drilling down on Australian films, as risky as that may be, but we are being more selective. It’s about managing costs and everyone’s expectations. I am optimistic because of the producers we have on side, and I like experimenting with smaller producers.”

Release dates are yet to be confirmed for Stephan Elliott’s comedy Flammable Children (Becker Film Group), John V Soto’s thriller The Gateway (Rialto) and Paul Currie’s thriller 2.22 (Icon).

On paper the line-up for 2017 looks terrific with such titles as Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene, Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale and Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (all Transmission),  Simon Baker’s Breath (Roadshow), Anthony Maras’ Hotel Mumbai (Icon), Ben Howling and Yolande Ramke’s Cargo (Umbrella) and the Spierig brothers’ Winchester (StudioCanal).

View the full scorecard here.