OZ Film Vs. OZ Audience

Today some high profile industry people will be debating why Australian films are unpopular with the audience.

I have blogged about this before but I believe these are the six key factors that have brought our industry to its knees:

  1. Australian films have been financed almost exclusively by government agencies, whose primary concerns have never been accountability or viability.
  2. Australian films have lacked strong concepts because writers and producers ignored the market, and distributors have come to the table way too late.
  3. The development of Australian films has been managed by people without a stake in the projects or without understanding of story principles and market needs.
  4. Writers and producers have been ignorant about universally accepted story paradigms (3-Act Structure, Hero’s Journey) or – worse – reluctant to adopt them.
  5. Critics have mislead the audience by giving mediocre Australian films star ratings that are equally high as or higher than worldwide box office successes.
  6. Film schools have prioritised an artistic, historical and technological approach to filmmaking. Feature screenwriting studies have ignored the commercial reality.

Australia

Metro Screen has promised to make a filmed report of the debate available to The Story Department. So watch this space over the next few days.

Meanwhile, if you have an opinion, specifically on the six points above, please give your comments below. Thank you!

Karel Segers


Here is a report on the night, confirming many of the points I made above.

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  1. I’d go so far as to say that problem 1 has catalyzed all the subsequent problems you’ve listed here.

    Film is the most expensive art form. It cannot be sustained if commerce isn’t afforded equal import with the artistic. If the commercial impetus to craft a captivating story is ignored, as is the case with government funding lacking accountability, nothing will be learned from past mistakes. What is really perplexing to me is that filmmakers funded to make past flops are often repeatedly funded, simply because they have a feature film credit. The system has been rewarding failure.

    The autuer’s wish to get their “important” story seen is not enough. In some cases its the problem; a solemn 90 minute sermon on the Balibo 5 or living in the Western suburbs is the last thing audiences are going to choose when going to the flicks for a night of entertainment. Its not to say that art can’t be broadly entertaining. One of my favorite recent Australian films is “Rabbit-Proof Fence”; a message-movie by any definition, but one that still entertained by crafting intriguing, strong characters with a clear purpose and obstacles to overcome.

    There is admittedly a problem marketing films and competing with Hollywood’s promotional clout. Aussie films can be a success if they’re marketed well, like “My Year Without Sex” taking in $1.1m at the local BO (shouts to mates at The Population for their incredible social media campaign). But its an uphill battle, audiences have been burned by too many self-important films and Margaret and David urging audiences to “see this important film” sends alarm bells off for even the most serious cineastes (case in point; their pleading with audiences on behalf of “Blessed” in early September).

    One common symptom of Australian film that has long perplexed me is the frequently passive protagonist. Its hard to care about a character that doesn’t at least try to take control of their destiny. Perhaps its the consequence of Australia’s founders predominantly being convicts, whose fate had been taken out of their hands…

  2. A fascinating show. Loved it. Tony Ginnane slagging the current stultifying effect of funding and promoting the “just do it” film-making philosophy, while sitting beside a pretty rational sounding Ruth Hartley (Screen Oz). Sell the synopsis before writing the script, “…it’s emotion (that sells) stupid” and “Australian blokes are funny, give us more funny” from Troy Lum (Hopscotch).

    A vox pop was shown asking about Oz film, and “Australia” was pretty much the only film mentioned by the punters, to some derision from the 99.9% industry audience.

    A big push to “mythologise our stories” rather that Oz verité, and why the heck can’t we build on our fantastically successful book writing, though I think we’re talking about good books rather than big incomes for writers.

    There was talk of “give us more heroes” but zip about “heroes journey” as such, apart from a letter read out at the beginning from one “Karel Segers” (go hard lad!)

    Rather scary marketing facts and figures: spend hundreds of thousands of dollars or go home, and we have very few screens to show them on.

    Loved Andrew Urban’s idea that, as we speak English we’re swamped by U.S.A and to a lesser extent UK, therefore we should change our national language. As rightly pointed out, Korean, French, Japanese etc. cinema are hugely supported in their own countries.

    One of the things I love about Australia (the country) is that in fine art, music, theatre, writing of all sorts, short films, long films, animation, games, TV, sport (oops) etc. we churn out heaps and heaps of stuff (look at the “What’s On” any day of the week), and a fair smattering of really good stuff , but we’re jostling for space, the (dis)proportion of creators to consumers is ridiculous ie. Not financial.
    I’m still with Karel, (and Troy Lum) emotion, through good storytelling is it.

  3. Am I alone in thinking that that the title of the meeting – OZ Film Vs. OZ Audience – is the wrong question? There’s a widespread idea that we are trying to make films that play well to a local audience, and if they find an audience beyond our shores, then that’s a bonus. This is actually the business model for TV drama, not movies. With total Oz box office (for all films, not just local ones) representing less than one per cent of world box office, films have to succeed overseas as well as locally. The Americans have the biggest domestic box office in the world, but even they are passionately concerned as to how their films play internationally.

    Sometimes its necessary to point out the glaringly obvious. If you want to make films that people actually go to see, they have to be a bit like films that people already go to see. With most Oz films, the idea behind them would probably make a good stage play. Or a short story. Or a Haiku poem. But not a movie

    Most Oz films, as the Hollywood Reporter describes them, are ‘grim suburban micro-dramas’. This is not a question of budget – popular films get made for less money than many Oz films. It’s about ideas, ambition, and usually, genre. ‘Memento’ was a low budget film with enormous ambitions.

    What we have here in Australia is a unique and stunning outdoors, and in Sydney, arguably the most beautiful city in the world. So where do most films get made? In the suburbs, the very thing that audiences all around the world have plenty of already. I hear people say, ah, the Outback, the Opera House, that’s corny. It’s not. Like the New York skyline or John Ford’s Monument Valley, it’s not corny – it’s iconic. Wake up and smell the celluloid.

    To finish, I’ll throw down two challenges for Oz screenwriters which I hope people will take up. Write a script that makes Sydney look like a place you’d want to visit, rather than avoid. And write a scene in it that makes sex look like something you’d like to participate in, rather than give up for life.

  4. Agree more closely with points 4, 5 & 6. Of the few box office “commercial” movies made, most are sequels or one-off shots from left field. Mad max was a one off-it spawned a hugely successful sequel and a pale second sequel, plus a slew of imitators. Pricilla a one off. Strictly ballroom, young einstien, crocodile dundee – all one offs. (be serious croc 2&3 weren’t up to it). TV is starting to use the (sad but necessary) american style of storytelling, and pay TV especially is raking it in in terms of audience share and overseas sales.

    Why can’t australia have a go at the true blockbuster in the australian form, rather than just a cheap place for US studios to outsource location and workers? wolf creek! horror movie gone wild quoted as being the scariest movie ever. shame the saw franchise had to be made in the US. hero concept, three act structure. our fx people are the best. we have some brilliant writing talent. rather than sit back making quaint comedies or historical things, lets get high concept going.

    i know, then comes the money thing. US money needed.

    but is it?

    paranormal, anyone.

    we have the tools, we have the talent. let’s find a way to get into it.

  5. Hi Karel,

    I relate to Oscar’s comments above.

    The last Aussie film I saw was Three Dollars and I still haven’t recovered. I used a gift movie voucher and it really pissed me off that I wasted it!

    Now I will always pick a Hollywood action movie over any Australian film. Like McDonald’s, I know what I’m getting. It’s a safe investment of my time and money.

    I didn’t appreciate the lack of commercial accountability that drives Australian content.

    Maybe you’ve mentioned this before, but is it possible to use a scientific method (of sorts) to show the commercial success of a film and it’s underlying structure/content compared to a commercially unsuccesful film?

    The problem is an investor would have to believe the stats to affect their funding decision making.

  6. I agree with most of Karel’s points except no 4. If you actually look at Australian films they do have a clear 3 act structure and hero’s journey – it’s just not hyped up enough.

    Paraphrasing Timothy Daley ‘ the stakes need to be high’ and from Billy Marshal Stoneking ‘ people shy away from the dramatic but writers can’t afford to’ or words to that effect from both and they are right.

    Most Australian films come over as pleasant little stories for a niche market that feels that an authentic Australian film is idiosyncratic and revolves around the little Aussie battler – and they are the ones that have sold in the past. What people forget is that Australia is a cosmopolitan society with many sub-cultures; old heroic forms of the man on the land, man versus nature, etc no longer really exist in the psyche of the cinema going public and are so distant to their reality that they are disinterested at best; and the quest for poetic justice in film with the hero (‘actantial subject’ – see the work of Gay McCauley) winning is best is a fallacy. Shakespeare knew a good plot but it’s not his plots that sold seats – they were old stories with vibrant characters who didn’t shy away from the dramatic moments of their lives- it is an awareness that all visual styles of storytelling are collaborations – not just the writer- producer -distributer but the writer-director-actor-crew-audience as well as the producer and distributers.

    There is also a current confusion between the hero and the ‘actantial’ subject-(who can be a hero or an anti-hero) we tend to concentrate on the hero rather than the anti-hero as the main focus and even when we do we try to turn it around so they are really the hero after all. It is the flawed character who is interesting as we are just as interested in how they deal with and grow through the problems that beset them as we are with the series of events that drive the story forward. We tend to think small when we should be thinking big.

    Unlike other film industries we have never been through the tragic realism phase when the hero dies at the end (very traumatic for the audience- but what an amazing story); our stories are almost naive fairytales without adherence to the genre.

    If we are going to write we need to be clear about the genre and its rules- we need to keep it credible, forget the overly elaborate self-conscious artistry for its own sake (or the Auteur’s sake) and remember our task is to tell a bloody good story which comes to life from the page and shows us something about the world we live in and allows us to connect to either the story or the characters.

    The most powerful stories still allow audience ‘catharsis’ and the most powerful agent for social change is still film

  7. I agree with Frances – the Hero’s Journey or 3-Act Strurture templates do not guarantee freshness. They may ensure dramatic action, but if it is stale and predictable no one is going to care. What we need is ORIGINALITY and VISION allied concepts and for the storytellers to form viable and emotionally meaningful relationships with and understandings of ALL of the characters necessary for finding the story. Sorry it took me so long to reply to this, but I only just saw it. Will re-publish the points aboive (with acknowledgment) – it’s a conversation that we need to keep having. Billy

    • Earlier this year I had a student in my class whose parents had invested in a feature film. They lost it all and now the family is struggling.
      I saw that film. It was personal, it was unique and it had vision.
      It didn’t have a smidgin of proper structure.

      I see this problem in Australian film over and over and over again. To just stand by and keep ignoring this is shortsighted to say the least.
      It doesn’t do anyone a service to confuse an analytical tool with the creative source of writing.

      Of course it doesn’t GUARANTEE freshness. Nothing does. Nor does freshness guarantee SUCCESS of any kind.

      I’m not here to help writers express their artistic vision. Artists don’t need teachers for that. I’m here to help build careers and create movies people want to see. Once the writer has a unique concept and a profound inspiration to develop it, the writer will need the tools to bring it to a successful end.

      To ignore that the Hero’s Journey (more so than the simple 3-act structure) has helped writers immensely would be dangerously shortsighted.

      And if this keeps being a matter of clashing opinions without either side learning anything or contributing anything new, this is NOT a conversation we need to keep having. In fact, it is not even a conversation.