What’s wrong with the Australian Film Industry?

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Australia makes some truly terrific films and we have a long history of producing some world class dramatic films – the problem with Australia cinema at the moment, as has been well documented, is that we aren’t making films that are generating the mass appeal required to build the industry and attract the talent orbiting around it.

We are cultivating an extremely niche market for films which will fill the odd art house for an evening or two but they won’t generate the necessary profit to sustain the industry in a land where the talent is boundless but the opportunities are being scaled further and further into the dank back lots of indie sets and suburban dramas. Without a doubt we need these indie films, they are vitally important and are generally truly fascinating insights into the cultural intricacies that so often come to shape our sense of national identity, case in point ‘The Castle’. Australian Cinema needs something else to interweave with these smaller scale productions, we need films that will appeal more broadly and with quality writing, clever marketing, and most importantly – essential storytelling driving by memorable characters. Without the might of the Hollywood style Film studios it’s problematic to gain enough funding to attract the appropriate talent both behind and in front of the lens. However, if we’re serious about planting a flag on the cinematic landscape and declaring a space for our very own its vital we take it seriously.

While I wasn’t necessarily a fan of the film Tomorrow When The War Began, I was a big advocate for the concept of big budget cinema that is large in scope with prodigious ambition. While I’m weary of recreated and repurposed properties featuring on a continuous loop in American Cinema, I believe to become a truly self-sustaining industry and the envy of the world of cinema, we need to invest in these tent pole features. It’s a delicate line between becoming too broad and too niche, we need films that don’t pander to the lowest common dominator (Transformers anyone?) while at the same time being accessible by a large cross section of the audience who will be willing to come to the cinema. Baz Lurhmans Australia was an example of getting this wrong in my opinion. While the film had all the bells and whistles and it looked expensive, it couldn’t shed the perception it was simply a big budget advertisement for the Australian Tourism industry.

Don’t get me wrong, I love some of the films that have been produced in Australia by Australian artists, the problem is that the general public doesn’t seem to feel the same way. Take, for example, The Babadook. A film that debuted to resounding acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014. It should have, with clever marketing, been a decent chance to be a hit. No way. The film tanked in Australia (but managed to double it’s tiny budget in profit in overseas markets). I saw the film in a completely empty cinema, nevertheless it was a genuinely great horror film that should have been seen and celebrated by the locals in the country in which it was natured to existence. 2014 was another dark year at the Australian box office, with ‘high profile films’ with perceived mass appeal such as Predestination, Felon and These Final Hours all going the way of the Babadook – despite being quality genre entries. Even films like The Rover with star power like director David Michoud and stars Guy Pierce and Robert Pattinson, landed with the thud of a falling tree in the forest of the deaf. Has the Australian film going community been programmed to steer clear of Australian films?
It all comes from script. We need to foster an environment that natures both the creative and business aspects of the film industry, starting with smart writing. If Screen Australia planned for 1 – 3 tentpole features to appear on the calendar throughout the year that are created with a high level of creative quality while being supported by a thorough and clever marketing campaign there is no reason why we can’t start bringing Australians back to Australian cinema.

A carefully cultivated online strategy coupled with a well thought out release plan designed to generate maximum interest through old-fashioned word of mouth must be the way to promote these high profile releases. While I am evidently an advocate for marketing on a grand scale for this style of film, I believe word of mouth is still the key to keeping people coming back to the cinema for repeat business. Films that have appeal on a grand scale need not fall into the trap of clichés and clunky character work in favor of a special effects driven spectacle. Again, this is where a balance must be struck, every story is driven by the characters within in – therefore these films must be built from the characters upwards. Australians love to see themselves represented on the big and silver screens, they just want genuine and passionate work that doesn’t fall foul of trying to be too American in their storytelling tropes. While the business side of the industry has many elements that can be borrowed from the American system, we must create content in a way that does not betray its Australian roots – otherwise audiences will see it for it is – a falsehood. There’s nothing worse as an audience member than being treated like a fool by the product you have paid money to see. First we must understand our audiences and be sensitive to what people want to see. If you pay the audience the respect they deserve – by not pandering to their lowest impulses – they will have a positive experience in the cinema even if they don’t love the film.

Our industry is pregnant with possibilities, we have at our disposal and treasure trove of talent and a haven natural beauty in which to create genuinely world class film content. I am passionate about the Australian Film industry and I want to see it succeed, I want to see Australian stories represented on the grand scale of film in a way that both reflect and enhance our experiences as a people. I want to see it succeed so that the vast amount of creative talent circulating our country has an industry that will allow them to grow and forge rewarding careers. I want to see the world want to watch Australian films, to talk about them and respect them for their artistic and creative place within the annuls of film history.

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