Do Australian films cost too much to produce?
This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #146 (April-May 2012).
Oscar Wilde famously described a cynic as one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The Australian film industry knows the value very well but the price – at least in the eyes of the international community – remains questionable.
Producer Michael Robertson, who has carved out a successful niche in recent years making low-budget horror films such as Black Water and Road Train, recalls one experience at last year’s American Film Market.
“I had a conversation recently where the budget of a picture was sitting at around $2.5 million and the sales agent said to me ‘you know we could do this film in America for about $1.8 million’ – they probably could because the way costs were over there,” he says.
It is an unpalatable view given budgets have been under pressure for a number of years. South Australian Film Corporation chief executive Richard Harris says the average feature film budget has come down from between $4-8 million in the mid-2000s.
“There is increasingly this separation of mega-budgets to very, very ultra-low budgets so there are increasingly less films in the middle.”
The Australian industry only produces one or two ‘event’ films a year (such as Australia or Happy Feet Two), leaving dozens of lower-budget films struggling to compete without star casts or heavy special effects. Few find a widespread audience at local cinemas or turn a profit.
While Screen Producers Association of Australia president Brian Rosen says “there’s no doubt that our budgets aren’t in line with what’s been happening in the United States” he also underlines several important differences between the small, government-supported Australian industry and the dominant US market.
“A lot of the films go non-union so they make completely different products. They see it as being awards-driven and that’s what they want. Then they do the other stuff that makes the real money for them – the movies that the studios make or a TV show.”
But with pre-sales still patchy and lower ongoing levels of Screen Australia funding, extracting more from budgets remains a crucial goal for the sustainability of the local industry. Robertson says well-targeted, low-budget films have a good chance of making money – but only if the screenplay is top-notch.
“You’ve got to have a story and a script that matches and will be able to be sold because that’s one of the key selling points in the low-budget area,” he says. “You are not going to market with a star; more often than not you’re not going to market with a name director, so… you’ve really only got the story and the script to hang onto. So the story and the script have to be a ball-tearer – it’s a no-brainer by just reading it.”
Robertson has produced three horror features in recent years at the lower end of the budget spectrum: Black Water ($1.5 million), Road Train ($2.2 million) and The Reef ($3.5 million), which have performed moderately well. Many higher-budgeted Australian films have been sunk by their ambition while even the strong local box office takings of films such as Mao’s Last Dancer ($15.44 million) and Tomorrow, When the War Began ($13.5 million), have been consumed by their excessive budgets ($25.8 million and $27 million respectively).
Two recent, high-quality US independent films show just how low budgets can be stretched.
Psychological thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene (staring Elizabeth Olsen), made for less than $US1 million, was nominated for the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and grossed almost $US3 million in US cinemas. Wall Street drama Margin Call attracted a stellar cast of including Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore and Stanley Tucci despite a budget of just $US3.5 million. It was reportedly acquired for about $US1 million at Sundance before grossing more than $US4 million via video-on-demand and more than $US5 million at cinemas.
Attracting such top talent to work for scale – often with the added incentive of profit participation – is still no easy task. Robertson says Australia’s remote location can also be a hindrance, which has prompted him to retain a casting consultant in LA. “The best thing to do is keep the films as low [budget] as you can unless you’re going to jump higher and get bigger [international] stars.”
Finding smarter ways to bring Australian stories to the big screen at lower cost remains a key challenge for filmmakers.
South Australia (where Robertson filmed Road Train and is set to film upcoming thriller The Fall) has long been a home for low-budget films. Respected director Rolf de Heer (Ten Canoes) has called the state home for many years while Kriv Stenders’ critically-acclaimed drama Boxing Day, made for just $250,000, was funded by the Adelaide Film Festival in 2007.
The SAFC’s Harris says the state attracts productions with a wide range of budgets but Boxing Day proved a particular inspiration. “For me it was an exercise in what you could actually achieve on a very low budget, which was amazing,” he says.
The SAFC’s $4.2 million FilmLab development project has funded eight teams, with the aim of producing a feature for less than $350,000. It has already tasted success with feature documentary Shut Up Little Man! – An Audio Misadventure, which opened in US cinemas last August. Such ultra-low budgets have forced the filmmakers to employ unorthodox filmmaking methods, such as 52 Tuesdays, which is shooting every Tuesday over the year ending August 2012.
“The way you make it actually becomes part of its marketing,” Harris says of the film. “There have been claims for many years about Australian films in the middle being a little bit bland… not risky enough or star-driven enough, whatever they are, somehow not hitting on it. So we’ve been saying if you are going to make low-budget, then take risks.
“What is it about working at low-budget and having that level of freedom that’s going to actually free you rather than be a constraint? So it has been trying to flip that on its head a bit but also not pretending that we’ve suddenly cracked the model and in fact every film now should be made for $350,000.”
The SAFC also tapped the thoughts of filmmaker Robert Connolly, who has long encouraged the industry to employ more innovative ways of working. Many of the ideas in his 2008 AFTRS Centre for Screen Business white paper, Embracing Innovation: a new methodology for feature film production in Australia, have seeped into the industry although there have not been any radical shifts.
The Producer Offset has allowed greater flexibility in wages, with producers able to trade off ownership so more people can share in successful projects. Halving the expenditure threshold to $500,000 last year has also provided a boost to lower budget projects. Meanwhile, Screen NSW recently launched a review of the often mandatory use of completion guarantors, which can add $40,000-$50,000 to the cost of a low-budget feature.
“I feel that the attitude has shifted – I don’t feel as much that people are naively soldiering on trying to make these huge budget films for their first film,” Connolly says.