Channel 9’s nostalgia show, 20 to 1, last night listed its Top 20 Australian films. While hardly a quantitative measure, the show proved two points. First, Australia has produced some of the world’s finest actors, directors and productions since the early 1970s. Second, despite receiving increased government funding, the industry has achieved very little in the past ten years. The 20 to 1 list contained virtually all of the great Australian films, from the box office smashes (Crocodile Dundee, Babe, Muriel’s Wedding, Mad Max and The Man from Snowy River) to the masterpieces (Shine, Gallipoli, Breaker Morant and My Brilliant Career) – the common theme was that virtually all those films were made between 1975 and 1993.
Andrew Bolt made a fair point in a recent column he wrote about the surprise hit, Kenny. With Film Finance Corporation funding in their back pocket, Australian film makers tend to not make movies that Australians want to see but the movies which they want to make. The Film Finance Corporation’s website lists the films which have received government funding. You many not have heard of many of the funded films. In 2004/2005, films receiving taxpayer funding included The Book of Revelation, Candy, Footy Legends, Jindabyne, Little Fish, MacBeth, The Magician and Suburban Mayhem. With all due respect to the talent involved in those productions, they would hardly rank alongside Picnic at Hanging Rock or Strictly Ballroom.
The list of top grossing Australian films tells a similar story. Since 1997, Lantana is the only non-comedy to sneak into the top 20 (the others are Working Dog’s The Dish and The Castle, and The Wog Boy). That is also before inflation is taken into account, which would reduce the relative grosses of recent productions. The industry has performed even more abysmally in recent years, with the highest grossing Australian movie in the past four years being the horror flick, Wolf Creek, way back at number 30.
Government funding has seemed to allow filmmakers to ignore what Australians want. We flocked to Yahoo Serious’ absurd Young Einstein back in 1988 (it grossed a huge $13.3 million) and Crocodile Dundee because they didn’t take themselves too seriously. Meanwhile last year’s publicly funded Oyster Farmer $2.2 million) and Ten Canoes ($3.0 million) may have been critically acclaimed, but weren’t watched by too many of ordinary Aussies.
In any other industry, if you don’t give the customer what they want, you will soon be out of business. The inverse seems to apply to Australian movies these days. Who knows, maybe the person who coined the phrase there’s no business like show business was talking about our local film industry.