It’s a little known fact that Australia produced the world’s first feature length film The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Australian film industry experienced a renaissance with films like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, Breaker Morant and The Man from Snowy River. This renaissance was sparked by government funding of Australian films undaer Prime Minister John Gorton.
Although government funding revived the industry in the 1970s, it is often criticised for creating a culture in which only earnest films which satisfy government selection criteria get made. There are some who suggest that Australian films are far too grim and don’t connect with local audiences. In 2012, Screen Australia reported that Australian films only took 4.3% of box office takings in Australia.
Jim Schembri suggests that the industry is improving as a new generation of filmmakers start making more engaging and “audience-friendly” films. “Australian cinema has undergone something of a rebirth over the past two years,” he writes in the article ‘Australian film disaster at the box office’. “Popular hits such as Tomorrow When the War Began, Animal Kingdom and Mao’s Last Dancer have been accompanied by a new mindset among film makers and financiers that puts audience-friendly, genre-driven films before the type of niche, introspective, arthouse films that have dominated the movie landscape for so long, usually to empty houses.”
In 2013, Screen Australia produced a report praising the local industry for producing hits including Red Dog and The Sapphires. “There was a strong belief that screen stories are now more sophisticated and diverse, reflecting a more complex Australia,” notes Screen Australia. “The enthusiasm for thought provoking TV dramas such as The Slap and Redfern Now and films such as The Sapphires was evidence of this.”
Here are some of the issues that affect the Australian film industry:
- Indie cinemas. Between 2005 and 2015, forty-six independent cinemas closed. Given the sheer number of Hollywood films that come to Australian shores, and the Hoyts and Village oligopoly, Australian films often get limited showings at the cinema. While the Australian government funds the production of Australian films, it doesn’t fund small, independent cinemas. According to Lauren Carroll Harris in The Guardian, funding independent cinemas would be one way to ensure that Aussie films make it to the big screen.
- Distribution. “A clever script and excellent cast may be key elements to producing a great film, but unless that film is delivered to an audience it will never be a hit. Poor distribution is a problem faced by many Australian filmmakers, whose works often flounder at the domestic box office despite receiving critical acclaim.” At Hoyts and Village, Australian films often only get a very short run. Australian films that are popular usually rely on word-of-mouth marketing to succeed.
- Funding cuts. According to Clare Stewart, funding cuts to Screen Australia means that we have seen fewer Australian films in recent years. ‘I think that the very dramatic cuts to Screen Australia have had a noticeable impact,’ said Stewart, who was director of the Sydney Film Festival from 2006-2011. ‘My concern about the state of the Australian film industry is very much about the need for the government to be properly investing in the supporting of development and production of films.’ $51 million cut to Screen Australia in the last decade.
- Talent drain. Successful Australian directors, such as James Wan and Justin Kurzel, go overseas to pursue ‘greater opportunities and resources’. As Luke Buckmaster notes in The Guardian: “But it wasn’t always like this. During the 1970s, when Australian cinema experienced a great renaissance and produced a wellspring of fresh talent widely regarded as some of our finest film-makers, these artists generally stuck around. They made multiple films. They developed their craft. They were (to a point) allowed to take risks and allowed to fail.”
- Cultural cringe. Australians often don’t want to go and watch Aussie films. “Australians are notoriously recalcitrant when it comes to seeing Australian films,” David Michôd, writer-director of Animal Kingdom, said in a 2010 interview. “They need to be told not just that the film is good, but that it is exceptional.”
- Declining box office. According to Luke Buckmaster in The Guardian, the market share for Australian films has declined from 23% in the 1980s to about 5%. Further details about our box office share can be viewed here.
- Foreign subsidies. Australian filmmakers are often critical of government subsidies of foreign films, such as Pirates of the Caribbean. “The Queensland incentive wasn’t the only one that Disney got for the project: Australia’s federal government gave Disney $21.6 million — the equivalent of about $20 million U.S. at the time of the 2014 deal — to lure the production to the country. It was the biggest individual contribution the government has ever made to the financing of a movie.” Writers, actors, directors and editors often don’t get jobs on these large Hollywood films.
- Quotas for Australian actors. Australian film industry professionals often argue that there should be quotas for Australian actors. While receiving an award from the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts, Cate Blanchett argued that we should see more Australian actors on our screens. Big budget films like Mad Mad: Fury Road, for example, had two foreign actors in the lead roles.
- Budget. Australian films generally cost a lot less than Hollywood blockbusters. It is often argued that the small production budgets mean that Australian films can’t compete with overseas films that have big name stars, exotic locations and expensive special effects.
Australian film industry activities
• Read Heinemann Media, pp.119-123.
• Watch Into the Shadows. As a class, make a list of arguments that the documentary makes about the Australian film industry.
• Listen to the episode of Triple J’s Hack about the Australian film industry. Take note of arguments made about the local film industry.
• Watch three Australian films that you haven’t seen before.
Read the following articles. As you are reading, take notes and copy down quotes about the state of the Australian film industry.
Based on your reading and study, answer the following questions:
• What perceptions do people have about the Australian film industry?
• What are some of the perceived problems with the Australian film industry?
• What do people suggest for improving box office return for Australian films?
• Is government funding beneficial or detrimental to the Australian film industry?
• Based on your reading and viewing of Australian films, what are your perceptions of the industry?