Why don’t the majority of Australian films attract Australian audiences? Metro Screen in Sydney threw down the gauntlet before a panel of industry players, while Dominic Case picked through the shifting and diverse opinions.
“We are a lying, hypocritical, duplicitous group”, says Tony Ginnane, giving the audience the results of his mature reflection on an industry he has inhabited longer than most.
It was a packed house at the Chauvel cinema in Paddington for Metro Cinema’s forum discussion on “Oz Films versus Oz Audiences”. Some fireworks were expected from the glittering panel of speakers, and Tony Ginnane, recently re-elected as President of SPAA, didn’t disappoint. His point was the bipolar nature of the film industry – was it art or was it commerce? When a film is a commercial success we praise it, when it wins prizes and bombs at the box office we still praise it. What is the benchmark for success?
Andrew Urban, from Urban Cinefile, introduced the session with a video of vox pops. It appeared that most Australians have clear views about Australian films (not all negative), but when later asked what was the last Australian film they had seen, few could remember. Those that did almost universally mentioned Australia though they weren’t entirely sure that it was Australian.
“Audiences should be more supportive of their own culture.”
Susan Hoerlein of Tsuki Marketing, spoke in Marketing Language about Australian films as a Brand. Clearly people recognised the brand, and if the brand had failed, then it would have to be changed and a new marketing campaign launched: not for a specific film, but for Brand Australia. But Troy Lum of Hopscotch, scotched the idea that people saw a film because of its country of origin: “Oh, we’re too late for the Swedish film, let’s see if there’s a Canadian one showing instead”.
However, both Margaret Pomeranz (At the Movies) and Rachel Ward (Beautiful Kate) felt that Australian audiences should be more supportive of their own culture. “Bloody lazy” said Pomeranz. “Could be more embracive” said Ward.
And so discussion moved to the content of Australian films: often seen recently as” dark”. Garry Maddox of the Sydney Morning Herald noted that most successful films were “hero films”: they didn’t necessarily end happily, but the main protagonist stood for something important.
“Telling our own stories should not be a driver for making Australian films”
This part of the discussion was brought to a focus with an invited contribution from the audience by Karen Perlman, who is Head of Screen Studies at AFTRS. Her iconoclastic proposal was that “telling our own stories should not be a driver for making Australian films”. This leads, she said, “to a dire state of naturalism in films”. Instead, the purpose should be to “contribute to our own myths”.
In a paper due to be published in AFTRS’s new journal Lumina later this year she will suggest that there are three aspects to good cinema: big scale (cinematics, staging, or emotion); dynamics (variation in tension, pace, scale, movement), and audience ownership: the film must not be the filmmaker’s story, but “our” (the audience’s) story.
Andrew Urban was quick to reflect that Australia had all three boxes ticked: scale, dynamics, ownership.
Later, Clare Stewart (Sydney Film Festival) would note from the audience that programming for the last Sydney Film Festival had also considered the purpose of films: she offered a few such purposes: “make me laugh”; give me a kiss”; “push me to the edge”.
“Big scale, dynamics and audience ownership.”
Representing the Australian Writers’ Guild, Louise Callan spoke in favour of the writer’s key role in the film, and wondered if too much money was spent on the apparatus of script development rather than directly funding writers. But Dr Ruth Harley (Screen Australia) was emphatic on the importance of building a craft-based culture, “otherwise we’ll just have to go on throwing money”.
Returning to the question of benchmarking success, Victoria Treole, also from the audience, said it was meaningless to compare Samson & Delilah with Australia. Many have looked at the overall profitability of each film, with Warwick Thornton’s film so far taking $3.5m at the box office, higher in proportion to its budget than Australia with ten times the box office takings in Australia alone. But she said Samson & Delilah was about giving a chance to a talented team of filmmakers, not about returning a profit.
Margaret Pomeranz wondered if Samson & Delilah” would be considered as much a success (on the strength of its Cannes Festival selection) if it had only taken $100,000 at the box office. Most of the panellists had difficulty in discussing success in terms other than box office success – and Tony Ginnane pointed out that most films all around the world lost money, before moving on to suggest that the industry needed to decide if it was a cultural or a commercial sector. “Why not both?” came from the audience.
Moving on to distribution and marketing, Andrew Urban asked if government tax subsidies (along the lines of the Producer Rebate) would be helpful to distributors. Troy Lum thought not, and Tony Ginnane (clearly from his perspective as a producer) agreed: distributors have no trouble making money, he said.
But Troy Lum was very clear on the trouble distributors had making money on Australian films, that were made or lost on their first day of release in the face of the publicity and distribution juggernauts of Hollywood films like Transformers 2. He conceded that Hopscotch was distributing Mao’s Last Dancer, currently worth $9.7m at the Australian box office. Susan Hoerlein later suggested that film promotion needed to start earlier – during the production – rather than a few days before the (usually too short) release.
Screen Hub asked whether the relative popularity of Australian films in the 1970s and 80s had any lessons for today’s industry: Tony Ginnane recalled a greater degree of cooperation between distributors and filmmakers, while Gary Maddox noted an entrepreneurial sense that showed through in Not Quite Hollywood.
A suitably subversive closing note (or call to arms) came from Jonathan Wald – leader of the campaign to save the Chauvel Cinema when it was threatened with closure a couple of years ago. He suggested that film industries rarely made money, and why should they? “We subsidise the army, we don’t expect it to make a profit: why can’t it be same for the film industry”.
Dominic Case, until recently the Director of Communications for Atlab and an Australian Film Commissioner, has over 30 years experience in the film industry. He is the author of Film Technology in Post Production (Focal Press) and a Fellow of both SMPTE and BKSTS. In 2002 he was awarded SMPTE’s Presidential Proclamation for his dedication and outstanding reputation in the industry.