The ‘Sweet Country’ conundrum: Is it getting the appreciation it deserves?

26 February, 2018 by Don Groves

Warwick Thornton and Sam Neill.

Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country has grossed $1.39 million after earning $150,000 in its fifth weekend, now playing on 88 screens amid a gradual expansion plotted by Transmission Films.

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Transmission’s joint MD Andrew Mackie is happy with the results so far, and with a further 80 screens being added next month, he predicts an eventual total of between $1.6 million and $2 million, maybe more.

But the question remains: After numerous accolades, including key prizes at the Toronto and Venice Film Festivals, glowing reviews and copious publicity, is the period Western getting the audiences which such a high quality, moving and compelling drama deserves?

And did the movie starring Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Hamilton Morris, Ewen Leslie and Matt Day suffer from going out in January on the same day as I, Tonya and while The Greatest Showman, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Post and Darkest Hour were well into their seasons?

Exhibitors report word-of-mouth is very positive and generally are very pleased with ticket sales, particularly at upmarket venues such as Melbourne’s Cinema Nova. However one regional cinema operator questions the tactic of the staggered release which means the film is yet to play in some towns.

Granted, the drama produced by Bunya Productions’ David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin has already surpassed the lifetime totals of Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road ($410,000) and the sequel Goldstone ($912,000), which Bunya also produced.

But it is destined to finish well below Thornton’s debut film Samson & Delilah, which earned $3.2 million in 2009, the equivalent of $3.8 million in today’s dollars.

Comparisons with Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires ($14.5 million) and Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae ($7.7 million) are pointless because they are very different, feel-good films with broad, mainstream appeal.

At Cinema Nova the week-to-week declines of the manhunt saga based on a true story scripted by David Tranter and Steven McGregor are amongst the lowest of the titles in release and there is steady group booking interest.

Cinema Nova general manager Kristian Connelly says Transmission made a smart dating decision, which, however, could not have fully anticipated the above-expectation performances of The Greatest Showman, Three Billboards and I, Tonya, the latter reaping the benefits of Margot Robbie’s publicity tour.

By contrast, Samson & Delilah was launched in the far less crowded autumn after its prize-winning Cannes premiere and five star reviews from David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz. At the time its biggest competitors at Cinema Nova were the Aussie productions My Year Without Sex, Mary & Max, Disgrace and the Wake in Fright re-release.

Connelly concludes: “Audiences are still discovering Sweet Country and we expect the season to be a long one. It’s a very good result during such an enormously competitive time [but] it will not reach the heady heights of the filmmaker’s debut feature.”

Mackie acknowledges: “January was a heated period with a lot of must-see films targeting an adult audience. However, given it isn’t a feel good film like the titles you mentioned, we’re happy with the result. It will be our most profitable and highest grossing release since Churchill last May/June, which made $1.85 million. We’d forecast about the same gross as Goldstone so it will almost double our forecast.”

Hayden Orpheum GM Paul Dravet tells IF he agrees with Connolly’s comments but with only six screens in his cinema he was forced to curtail Sweet Country’s run last week. “That was  a shame but up against so many higher grossing titles we had no choice,” he says.

Majestic Cinemas CEO Kieren Dell considers $2 million would be a good result, anything less a slight disappointment and anything above that a bonus.

Dell says: “If it had gone wider on Australia Day I think it could have done more. Many of the regional audiences will wait but many won’t in these days of digital news and information and content. By the time we get it in mid-February or early to mid-March, much of the positive publicity will have worn off.

“In this digital age it is especially important that we have a diversity of product in regional areas and that we are able to access it quickly while it is in people’s minds – they read the SMH and see the news at the same time as people in Sydney do.

“I think our audiences want to see Australian stories; they prefer upbeat stories naturally, hence the success of Bran Nue Dae and The Sapphires that you quote. MA fare can be problematic with the older audience but the success of movies on difficult subjects with political messages and with Indigenous themes (such as Samson & Delilah) indicates that they can handle harder fare if it is done right. Which this one is.”

Wallis Cinemas consultant Bob Parr rates the result as disappointing considering the accolades, but he notes word of mouth from very commercially-minded patrons is glowing. “That in itself should have helped it equal the results achieved by Samson & Delilah,” he says.

The producers prefer not to comment until the end of the theatrical run, when they believe comparisons with similar releases can be properly made.

There should be plenty of upside from the rest of the world, as Memento Films International has sold the film to every major territory including the UK (where it opens on March 9 via Thunderbird Releasing) and the US, where Samuel Goldwyn Co. has the rights.

One thing is for sure: Sweet Country deserves to make a lot more money than Stephan Elliott’s Swinging Safari, which has grossed $1.58 million.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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