Industry advocates new approaches to Oz cinema

03 September, 2014 by Don Groves

Australian cinemagoers have switched off Australian films and new approaches are needed to win them back, according to some producers, directors, actors and other industry players.

Others say there is a wider problem: independent cinema globally, not just in Australia, is suffering from a downturn.


IF’s story about the challenges facing Australian films in light of last weekend’s openings of Predestination and Felony has prompted scores of responses and numerous suggestions on how to lift the industry’s profile and success rate.

“The reality is that audiences have a knee-jerk negative reaction to local films,” said producer and screen industry consultant Julie Marlow. “Contrast with the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Australian made television. A whole range of factors is at work here [including] cost, comfort of lounge room, time shift, episodic format etc.

“The solution won't be simple – maybe it is 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em,' maybe it is a good rallying campaign, maybe it is lifting the game in terms of ideas and stories, looking at Ausfilm's overseas push, all of these and more. I do think the number of pan-national potential co-pros coming through is encouraging.

“We still have a long way to go in persuading the general public to shake off the notion that Australian films are not worth seeing."

Deb Verhoeven, Professor and Chair of Media and Communication at Deakin University, dismisses the notion of a national mood among cinemagoers, arguing audiences are segmented by age, earning power and cultural status.

“Film is and always has been a global media – trying to talk about the success of national cinema in this context is like trying to assess the success of a restaurant based on whether people liked the carrots only,” said Verhoeven, who is researching what happens if 'impact' is redefined more broadly than box-office and relative to factors like the size of production budgets.

“Domestic production is insufficiently connected to the economics, industry and thinking of distribution and exhibition. Bring back vertical (and horizontal) integration.”

Director and former Screen NSW executive Megan Simpson Huberman believes the most active and loyal demographic for Australian films is women aged 50 plus.  She posits, "It is worth considering whether the national development and production slates reflect that or sufficiently serve that audience."

Arguably not, in my view. 

SAFC CEO Richard Harris sees the challenges facing Australian films in a much broader context. "The independent sector everywhere is struggling  worldwide against the blockbusters. And films that have great pedigree or marquee elements are really struggling in the Australian cinema space with the occasional exception, " he told IF.

Harris has spoken to distributors who say the audience for art-house and  independent cinema has diminished this year to the extent they'd never seen. 

"I am not making excuses for the films themselves. Over the past 12 months there have been films that have not deserved to get great box office, others that deserved better. But I think that the structural issues are pretty key to what is currently happening," he said.

On the flipside, Harris points to new avenues for distribution such as VOD and SVOD that are opening up in Australia while that business is growing internationally, and  Australian films are selling around the world, including some, like The Babadook, that perform better overseas than at home.

Actor/producer Josh Howlett, who is developing US-set sports drama Final Four with Lone Survivor executive producer Jason Shuman, opined, “The only way to re-build the trust from audiences is to stop making films that are so strictly Australian. We need to start incorporating themes and encouraging contributions from ideas that are popular on a global scale.

“If the Australian industry took the time and our governing bodies decided to fund more commercial films with international appeal, the rest of the word would stand up and take notice of our more artistic films and they would most likely receive the respect they deserve.”

Crawlspace director Justin Dix also questions the kind of films Australia is making, observing, “A friend of mine once said, ‘In Australia we are good at making talking pictures, but want I want to see more of is moving pictures.’ I totally agree with him. This once sentence would help a film reach international audiences.”

Writer/performer Paul Capsis is a vocal critic of certain types of local films, asserting (expletives deleted), “Enough with the… red-necked white Aussie male, angry and shooting at shit in the… desert. Start telling REAL Aussie stories about real Australians, we are more than that. Show the world who we really are and enough with the bullshit.”

Director Bill Bennett urges the industry to make films that will take people out of their lounge rooms and give them shared experiences through comedies, scary movies and romances.

He suggests tiered pricing- an idea which cinemas have long resisted- to lower the risk of seeing local films, perhaps $10 a ticket. “Or better still, give audiences a $30 or $50 monthly pass whereby they can see an unlimited number of Aussie films per month,” he adds.

Director Richard Lowenstein backed Bennett's views, stating, "I just think we need a renaissance of mature, original  and intelligent cinematic ideas, scripts and vision on our cinema and TV screens to be taken seriously as a film nation, rather than the woeful and incessant discussion about to "genre" or not to "genre" that has been going on for the last few decades."

Lowenstein predicts the new Jemaine Clement/Taika Waititi Kiwi vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows will outgross any recent Australian film because it looks fresh, original, funny and contemporary,  "not like something that has been conceived and produced in the 1980s; we do have to stop talking about Red Dog, Kenny and The Castle as [examples of]  what we need more of."

Consultant Paul Brennan has an idea: "Australian films need their own boutique locations. That way they open and screen in a showcase cinema and the public who go there feel the film has a status worth spending their money on."

Actor Josephine Croft said, “I know too many people who only bother to pay for the cinema when there's no storyline and just a whole lot of explosions, which Australia doesn't do. I've spoken to a bunch of people that don't even know that certain great Australian films even exist.”

Director Martin Simpson reckons the Australian industry performs well for a market of this size. "We just need to make more [films] for a few diamonds to come out of it," he said. "Our financing models, dependent on the offset which is tied to theatrical, make it difficult to finance the digital era, low-budget movies that we could and should be making in droves."

Writer and filmmaker Peter Galvin has been teaching Australian cinema for nearly 20 years, currently at Sydney Film School. In all that time he's rarely experienced a moment where Australian cinema was first choice.

“That's a position that many a national cinema finds itself in,” he said. “Sadly my feeling is that the perception that Oz cinema is a basket case hasn't changed much since the day when Tim Burstall was booted out of the office of his local member in the 50s. Tim was there to lobby for support. And the MP told him 'Australians don't make films…they are made in Hollywood.''’

He adds: "Of course now we do make films and then we didn't. The flashes of success and interest – we all know those titles or we should – don't seem to linger in the collective consciousness of the audience. They only seem to remember the 'bad movie', often a specialist audience movie. The perception is that the only real movie is a blockbuster."

Film festival programmer Steve Saragossi believes we should forget about nationality, observing, “I don't sit and think about going out to see an ‘Australian film’ any more than I think about a French, Italian, British or Israeli film.”