AUSTRALIAN FILMMAKING - THE PERFECT STORM
Should audiences choose movies by their (Australian) nationality? Is culture enough to drive box office? Has the film industry inadvertently unleashed a virus in the past weeks, instead of shoring up support? Andrew L. Urban says the various elements of the film funding debate have collided into the perfect storm – and visibility has dropped to zero.
The Australian film ‘industry’ is facing a crunch of major proportions: three major, interconnected issues have coalesced into the one perfect storm, with much noise and banging but little clear visibility. The loud clamouring for protection at the Free Trade Agreement, while justified, has let loose a virus the industry might regret if it infects politicians and their constituents. Some widely-read columnists have already caught it ….
The three issues are:
1 - protecting Australian screen culture: as if this was ever negotiable; but let’s make sure it’s worth protecting and that it reaches a wide audience.
2 – increasing our share of the box office; it fell from $40 million in 2002 to $26 million 2003 - and it’s not all Hollywood’s fault.
3 - objectives and methods of funding ‘culture driven’ production, perhaps aiming to underpin a real industry – if that’s possible here, given there’s barely a healthy film industry outside America, India, Hong Kong, France (highly subsidised) and splutteringly, in the UK. And the funding mechanism should be able to filter out obviously mediocre projects (thus helping issues 1 & 2).
The season of film awards - the Critics Circle, the If and the AFI awards – all within a three week period in November, gave the filmmaking community the perfect platform to scream an alert over ‘cultural protection’ in the FTA talks. They did so loudly enough to generate snarly editorials and venomous columns in response. In perhaps the most inflammatory piece, Padraic P. McGuinness (SMH, Nov. 25, 2003) heaps scorn on Japanese Story, after stating that “The truth is that most of our films are no bloody good.”
McGuinness begins by asking if the Australian film industry is worth saving, declares (half way through) that the industry “clearly as a whole has not been a failure and there is a valid line of argument that … films have done an enormous amount to enhance Australia’s status in the world.”
But a little further on, referring to the industry’s concerns about the FTA as “the chorus of anti globalisation slogans,” he says: “Somehow they [the filmmakers and actors] seem to believe that shoving their own inferior product down Australian throats willy nilly will be of benefit to all Australians.”
He goes on to tail his piece with a half-baked swipe at the AFTRS, but not before making an underinformed suggestion; “Perhaps it is time to reconsider the structure of the industry. There seem to be too many bureaucrats and too many ideologues. If one is going to run a financing scheme, it needs to be run by experts in finance, not in low level film production.”
"the sticky web of Australia’s filmmaking complexities"
McGuinness isn’t the only one to get caught up in the sticky web of Australia’s filmmaking complexities and rattle off opinion as fact and silly ideologies as solutions. Aside from his half-hearted call for a Productivity Commission (the final sentence in his column), McGuinness doesn’t address the issue of regulatory content protection, which was the subject of those ‘anti globalisation slogans’.
If he did, he might have found that those regulations which currently provide minimum quotas for Australian television content have been reasonably successful. The networks pay more for domestic programs but audiences have shown their commitment to them when they have the choice. The FTA issue was about the ability to regulate for new media services in the future. The real impact therefore is more likely to be on television than on cinema. (There did seem to be, at best, confusion about the detail of the FTA risk among those in the film industry who vocalised their concerns - many were sounding the death knell of the entire industry, Cate Blanchett’s statement from Europe on November 28 a notable exception.)
Of course there is no question that new media content needs to be protection-regulated by Australian Governments as does television content. Perhaps Canberra was just playing politics here. End of issue 1 – protect screen culture. Period.
ISSUE 2 – increasing our share of the box office
Some recent Australian films, from low to above average budgets & expectations, from arthouse to mainstream, from forgettable to excellent – and their box office takings since release date (excludes income from video etc):
Alexandra’s Project (Palace, May 8,) $810,892
Travelling Light (Dendy, September 11) $35,400
Fat Pizza (Roadshow, April 10) $3.58 million
Horseplay (BVI, May 22) $136,034
Ned (Icon, May 22) $18,816
Ned Kelly (UIP, March 27) $8.3 million
The Night We Called It A Day (Icon, August 14) $501,833
The Rage in Placid Lake (Palace, August 28) $463,865
Swimming Upstream (Hoyts, February 27) $892,379
Take Away (Roadshow, August 14) $926,796
The Wannabes (Hoyts, September 25) $1.22 million
The Hon. Wally Norman (Becker, November 13) $150,084
Total box office takings for all Australian films in 2003: $26.1 million.
Australian Rules (Palace, August 29) $567,333
Beneath Clouds (Dendy, May 23) $541, 357
Black and White (October 31, New Vision) $62,843
The Tracker (Globe, August 8) $791,143
Walking On Water (Dendy, September 26) $339,690
Blurred (Becker, October 31) $1.45 million
Dirty Deeds (Hoyts, July 18) $5 million
The Hard Word (Roadshow, May 30) $2.93 million
The Nugget (Roadshow, October 17) $1.9 million
Rabbit Proof Fence (Becker, February 21) $7.5 million
Total box office takings for all Australian films in 2002: $40.1 million.
Issue 2, increasing our share of the box office, is interconnected via the obvious matter of what Australian audiences think of Australian movies. We know what McGuinness thinks, and he’s not alone.
Just last week, Frank Devine (The Australian, December 5, 2003) had a crack at filmmakers in the wake of the lobbying: “Artistic collapses and retreats are endemic in a sheltered workshop where the auteur is ayatollah and funding eternal.” He’d “tried” half a dozen Australian movies in the past five years and liked only Two Hands. (I’ve seen a hundred or so in the past five years, and liked a lot more than that. What makes a personal opinion carry some weight in this debate?)
His perception is that cinemas dedicated to showing Australian films would “become almost instantly no-go areas of town.”
Friends of a teenager whose mother is an executive in the film industry specifically avoid going to Australian films. (Presumably even films they might have enjoyed, such as Gettin’ Square. There is not much correlation between ‘good’ films and their box office takings.) This sort of negative selection by nationality is the biggest challenge facing Australian filmmakers; examples of the opposite, where people choose to go and see films because they are Australian, are harder to find. It is the sort of community attitude that helps explain why Australian films collectively take a measly 4% to 8% of the total annual Australian box office.
"to see 'our own stories' "
This shows how few Australians are prepared to buy tickets to see “our own stories” on the big screen, merely on the basis that they are Australian films – yet that is precisely the rationale driving Government funding of production. And precisely the catch cry of the filmmakers who want Governments to support it with funding. (See issue 3, a little later on.)
When the filmmaking community complains about this low figure, it usually does so in the context of being steamrolled by Hollywood and its marketing machine. While that is certainly a major factor as a generalisation, it ignores those preconceived negative attitudes as well as the failure of many Australian films to attract audiences – despite the marketing and even positive media attention. Not that Hollywood movies are immune to box office failure: of the 200 or so American films released in Australia, over 100 fail to even recoup their P&A (prints and advertising) costs. It’s a tough, competitive marketplace, and Australian audiences don’t choose films on national pride, however much they show it in the sports stadium.
As for marketing: Australian distributors spend anything between $300,000 and $3.5 million per film, although not anywhere near the latter on Australian films. However, let’s put marketing in context: it certainly helps to have money, but an expensive marketing campaign doesn’t guarantee big box office (even assuming it is creatively well conceived and executed), as hundreds of Hollywood movies demonstrate. Australian films do have to battle for visibility, but this is not the only reason for commercial failure.
Gettin’ Square had one of the biggest marketing budgets of any recent Australian film, Hoyts Distribution spending around $1.5 million. The film looks set to reach $2 million - on strong word of mouth. Palace Films will have spent some $500,000 on P&A for Japanese Story and it is heading for $4 million at No 12 in its 10th week of release (as at December 3, 2003). Clearly, marketing spend is not a simple cause and effect exercise. Word of mouth is as valuable as wads of dollars, and nobody can really explain the vagaries of the market. I certainly have no idea why Australian audiences resisted Gettin’ Square, considering the positive reviews, the calibre of the stars and the entertainment value of the finished product. It’s a mystery, but I do believe the poor graphics of the campaign hindered interest.
"Obviously, cinema box office is not the only way to earn revenue and reach audiences"
Obviously, cinema box office is not the only way to earn revenue and reach audiences – there’s video and DVD. Still, of the 169 films financed in 15 years through the Film Finance Corporation at a total cost of $425 million, only 10 will have made a profit*; the rest has seen an average recoupment of 25% of the budget. In Hollywood, they expect one in seven films to make a profit: on that yardstick, 24 of these 169 films should have done so; but then we’re culture driven here, not profit driven. Aren’t we? See Issue 3 below.
(*The Wog Boy, Muriel’s Wedding, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Green Card, Strictly Ballroom, Shine, Sirens, Napoleon – and soon Rabbit Proof Fence, Lantana)
No doubt, it would help Australian films gain visibility if the marketing spend was factored in from the beginning, as part of the total cost of producing and distributing the film, not left entirely for the distributors to pick up. (see issue 3 – below).
Big spend marketing can lift the profile of a film, but it can’t sustain a long term run unless the film has popular appeal. Not when there are some 240 films released every year. They say you can ‘buy’ an opening weekend, but you can’t buy word of mouth for 10 weeks.
ISSUE 3- objectives and methods of funding production
Issue 3 - objectives and methods of funding production: The collective ‘we’ of filmmakers, actors, Government agencies, politicians and screen culture supporters must be honest and recognise that while Australia has succeeded brilliantly in setting up a filmmaking community, richly populated with sensationally talented individuals, it has failed miserably in developing a policy to sustain it as an industry – if that’s possible.
"Our cultural imperative demands we protect and finance
Our cultural imperative demands we protect and finance filmmaking, but funding policies have yet to deliver a conveyor belt of productions that satisfy the audience. Australian filmmaking remains a folkloric activity whose occasional breakouts have deluded us all into believing that it’s really cool, if only the public would recognise it. Reality is uncomfortably at odds with that. The shortcomings of Australian film will not to be redressed by spitting chips at the Hollywood movie machine.
McGuinness is right about one thing: Australian filmmakers do not have ‘the right’ to expect Australian audiences to pay their hard earned dollar for their product purely on the basis of being Australian made. That expectation is belittling, patronising and ultimately anathema to artists and craftspeople. Indeed, every filmmaker I speak to individually expects and demands that their work be assessed without bias, without some sort of handicap for being Australian.
And speaking of suicide: Phillip Adams (a past film community tsar with significant experience in the process) recognises that it is Australian audiences, not American cultural imperialists, who make the final decision. When Gough Whitlam was faced with a bluff by Hollywood’s Jack Valenti (still president of the all powerful Motion Picture Association of America) to stop exporting Hollywood movies to Australia, Australia reeled. “Withdrawing the troops from Vietnam? A doddle. Recognising China? No worries. But to take Australians off their Hollywood drip feed might cause rioting or mass suicide,” writes Adams (The Weekend Australian, November 22-23, 2003). This was in the context of an Adams idea to have Australian tv networks send a single buyer to negotiate movie deals for tv with the studios, instead of competing with each other.
Adams might be a tad overstating things for the sake of a beefy column, but the point is valid. Australians decide for themselves which films to see, and hold the commercial fate of films in their hands; it’s not entirely due to American cultural imperialism.
While cultural catch-cries are valid, they don’t address the issue of funding with any sort of rationality. Clearly, the funding mechanism needs to
fine-tuned (as is contemplated) to filter out the obviously mediocre project.
"Clearly, the funding mechanism needs to be fine-tuned"
But if our purpose is to simply give Australian filmmakers the opportunity to tell ‘our’ stories on the screen, hasn’t the objective been achieved irrespective of box office – of how many people actually saw it? If not, why not? How do we assess this cultural imperative? If we do count the number of bums on seats as a guide to the effectiveness of the funding policies – and we do so even across the whole year, not just one film – then what level do we set as acceptable? Is it the simple number of bums, or does it depend on the film? Does a bawdy comedy like Fat Pizza equate culturally with a profound human drama like Lantana? Does a comparable budget mean comparable cultural value? Does an overseas festival screening, nomination or award add cultural value? What about local awards? If so, how much? If a film is critically applauded but a box office failure, do the makers get a credit for their next film? If not, why not?
We may not have ready answers for these questions, but we should, as a community, give them some thought in the wider discussion about supporting our filmmakers. And our filmmakers might take note of how Antony I. Ginnane, one of Australia’s most experienced film producers (now executive producer and marketing executive), puts it: “It's great to wrap ourselves in the flag over the free trade issue, but let's spend the same energy getting the content right.”
And similar energies on changing perceptions: Government film agencies should invite Frank Divine and Paddy McGuinness (and their many peers in print and electronic media) to see the best examples of our filmmakers so they can write better informed and up to date comments. Their comments are the ones soaked up in Canberra, not the filmmakers’.
"there has to be an audience for every movie"
And yes, there has to be an audience for every movie, relative at least to the budget and P&A costs; if that audience doesn't come to the movie, who gets to hear the Australian voice or story? And the unsympathetic politicians will argue that the money might as well go to health care, education or welfare, which deliver to their constituents. That’s the realpolitik of it.
Published December 11, 2003
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Andrew L. Urban
Andrew L. Urban is founding editor of Urban Cinefile and Australian Bureau Chief for the London based film industry publication, Moving Pictures; he has been writing about the Australian film industry for almost 20 years.