James Hewison’s widely acknowledged success in his six years as director of the Melbourne International Film festival was due in large part to his strong grasp of marketing. And as a good marketing man he’d appreciate that Australian cinemagoers aren’t that keen on seeing Australian stories on screen. Locally made films account for less than 2% of all box-office takings in Australian cinemas.
No wonder Hewison kept his choice of film to launch the festival secret from the punters – who paid $105 a ticket to last night’s opening screening. With a celebrity-studded crowd in attendance, MIFF opened last night with 2:37, a tale of teenage angst directed by 21-year-old Adelaide filmmaker Murali Thalluri. According to The Age, Thalluri had trouble raising finance, which is perhaps not surprising considering some of the film’s content – it features a “graphic seven-minute scene of suicide [that] has been described as dangerous by mental health experts.”
Hewison has said he decided to keep the opening night film a secret in order to give the audience a “virginal cinema experience” .
While “virginal” is probably not an apt description of the subject matter of 2:37, it does sum up the film-festival experience of the man who is going to be taking over from Hewison next year.
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Hewison is handing the reins to Richard Moore, former executive producer of arts at ABC TV (Moore was my boss for a while and it would be fair to say that we are neither friends nor admirers of each other’s work). Hewison and Moore go back a long way. Hewison was Moore’s spin doctor at the ABC. Given Moore’s limited credentials to run a film festival, he is considered by many as an unlikely choice. No matter, he’ll be able to rely on his good mate Hewison for advice. Commenting on the success of his decision to keep secret his choice of opening-night film, Hewison told The Oz: “Next year I will be urging Richard Moore not to announce the whole program.”