When it comes to producing raw film-making talent, Australia punches well above its international weight. The Invisible Man, directed by Australian Leigh Whannell and shot in Sydney, presently sits atop the US box office and is set to gross several hundred million dollars. Catch 22, the remarkable Hulu adaptation of the classic novel previously considered unfilmable, was written and executive produced by Luke Davies and David Michôd, Australian writers.
Countless Australian actors have made the seismic leap from Neighbours to the pinnacle of Hollywood’s A List. But despite this wealth of talent, Australian movies still mostly suck. They routinely fail at the local box office. Very few gross $1 million, and even fewer make any dent on international markets. Why is this so?
How Big is the Australian Film Market?
The Australian market, although comparatively small, still generates some decent box office numbers. Averaged across the last few years, the total Australian film market is worth about US$800 million per annum. This sum is split between roughly 400 film releases. A movie like Avengers: Endgame, with its huge marketing budget, pulled in over US$60 million, while feel-good animation Finding Dory reaped a respectable $36 million.
There should, in theory, be space for Australian movies with budgets of under $10 million to carve out a profitable niche. In 2019 there were two Australian movies in the top 50. Ride Like a Girl grossed $7.7 million, and Storm Boy, based on a popular novel, grossed $3.5 million, and it tailed off right after that. So why do so many local productions struggle to break even, let alone return a profit? Why are Australians so reluctant to pay for our stories on the big screen?
Who Funds Australian Films?
One argument places the blame on Australian funding bodies. With so few profitable films, private investors are almost non-existent, and film funding is generally handled only by government bodies, both state and federal. Panels of ‘industry experts’, who must justify their choices to their governmental masters, seem to make very poor judges of what audiences will pay to watch. They seem to focus on safe, feel-good scripts that tell tired and familiar stories. These bodies are removed from the actual coalface, they have no skin in the game, their choices are dull and reactionary.
They lack the rat-cunning instincts of a hustling Hollywood producer who is one failure away from bankruptcy. They arguably stay away from profitable niches that might be deemed too edgy. Screen Australia, the largest of the funding bodies, bankrolled such 2019 titles as Buoyancy, which grossed $19,000 worldwide, Judy & Punch, which was marketed as ‘a delightfully offbeat feminist update of the Punch and Judy puppet show’ and grossed $140,000 worldwide, and Little Monsters, which grossed $75,000 worldwide having cost $7 million to produce. Hardly stellar numbers. Plenty of red ink.
Breath, released in 2018 is something of an Australian movie case study. It starred bonafide international success Simon Baker, who also directed, was based on a best-selling novel by much-loved author Tim Winton, featured stunning Australian scenery, was well acted by a solid cast, and its story centred around surfing, a past-time most Australians can relate to.
It scored a respectable 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, had a budget of about $9 million of primarily public money, including $1.5 million from the government of Western Australia, and managed to recoup a mere $3 million. That’s a nasty $6 million hole that will dissuade others from trying. Was it poorly marketed? Are Australians not interested enough in their own stories to part with the price of a cinema ticket? Do we still suffer from cultural cringe, a nationwide belief that our creative output is naturally inferior to the rest of the world?
If local audiences are not exactly flocking to locally produced films, can we expect international filmgoers to react differently? A list of Australian international film successes makes very short reading. There are two Crocodile Dundee movies released in the 1980s, four Baz Lurhman productions – Australia, The Great Gatsby, Strictly Ballroom, and Moulin Rouge!, animated hits Babe and Happy Feet, and most recently – Lion, and that’s it, unfortunately. Nine success stories since 1986, hardly an impressive strike rate.
So Australia has the talent required to make outstanding films. Being a small market, it must be export-orientated. If a locally produced film with a budget of $10 million can carve out $5 million in Australian cinemas then it can reasonably expect to turn a profit from international receipts. Funding bodies that rely on public funds have extremely poor track records when it comes to picking winners. One industry insider blames the lack of script development in Australia.
With so few films made, there is minimal incentive for writers to pour themselves into Australian stories. He also blamed the Australian accent, “it just doesn’t work on a big screen, it’s alienating somehow, neutral accented films have a better shot than those with stereotypically Aussie characters.”
What is the Future of Australian Film?
So will Australian talent continue to leave these shores in search of viable careers? Will a new generation of local producers break away from the current funding bodies to carve out a profitable niche? Will these public funding bodies change their ways? Or will the industry plod along with its dismal strike rate, producing the occasional profitable venture and the very occasional diamond in the rough, an Australian movie that does not feature a crocodile and still manages to attract a sizeable international audience?