More than 10 weeks into its theatrical release, director Kriv Stenders’s all ages ode to the power and personality of a pedigree pooch, Red Dog, is still taking chunky bites out of the box office.

Last weekend the film (which opened August 4) earned $322,892, pushing it over the $20 million milestone. This makes Red Dog not just the most financially successful Australian film so far this year by a wide margin (next in line is Oranges and Sunshine with less than $4 million) but also the eighth highest grossing Australian film of all time (in unadjusted terms). With inflation taken into account it currently sits at number 20.

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Here is a table of this year’s local box office performers, courtesy of Inside Film:

It’s fair to say that Red Dog is the surprise hit of the year. The obvious question — the same one local industry wonks contemplate every time a breakthrough hit arrives — is: why did this film perform so well? What’s the formula and can it be replicated?

Sure, Red Dog is a well-made film with popular appeal but a) cinema is not an art form that necessarily rewards the best productions with the highest audience turnouts, in fact, far from it, and b) so were other titles on the above list (Cane Toads: The Conquest and Face to Face come to mind) and they earned pittance by comparison.

When Australian producers, directors and commentators broach the subject of how to make a commercially successful film (read: how to cover their costs) they usually mention one or more of the following basic approaches:

1) Play it broad, keep it safe. Take inspiration from Hollywood and make movies accessible to the widest possible audience.

2) Embrace genre filmmaking. Target a particular niche — i.e. horror — and hope for sales to eventually trickle through if initial box office receipts dissapoint.

3) Be uncompromising. Follow your artistic vision no matter how weird or unmarketable and if it never takes off, so be it, there goes your home and credit rating.

4) Simply make a good film. The Field of Dreams ethos: if you build it (and you do a decent job) they will come.

Virtually every filmmaker (except perhaps Tommy Wiseau, though he might argue otherwise) strives for the fourth.

There are countless theories and strategies for how to get the variables right. Marketing and distribution, of course, are huge factors. But the bald truth is that the Australian and American film industries — and many others, I suspect — are driven by a confused congregation of gamblers and artists, of numbers runners and “visionaries.”

No distributor, despite how much dosh they push into a film’s publicity, knows how to make a guaranteed success. Arguably the exception is the sequel-making and franchise building sub-industry: it’s common wisdom, for example, that sequels are guaranteed around 20% of the original title’s intake, which means, if you scale back the budget, you’re sitting on a safe bet.

But if a tried and true formula existed, the majority of productions that arrive from a conveyer belt such as Hollywood’s would be highly profitable ventures.

They aren’t. Hollywood survives not on the back of the hundreds of movies its studios churn out every year but by a small number that do exceptionally well.

Largely relying on government funding, the Australian film industry has a different dynamic but still chases — or should chase — the same basic goal: combining financial and creative success.

Screen Australia and Screen Queensland sunk a huge amount of cash into the critically maligned and barely seen A Heartbeat Away (released earlier this year), which cost $7 million and took in around $70,000. You don’t need to be an accountant to figure out how staggeringly awful that investment was, and guess who footed the bill?  We did. A great deal of the cost came out of the public purse.

There is little in Kriv Stenders’s oeuvre that suggested he was a reliable choice for making a commercial hit like Red Dog. Certainly not his patchy debut comedy, The Illustrated Family Doctor (2005), or even his remarkable single shot drama Boxing Day (2007), probably one of the most under-appreciated Australian films of the last decade. With a production budget of more than $8.5 million to play with, Stenders, who’d never directed a family film, was something of a wildcard. Not quite a dark horse but getting there.

He did well, very well, though things could have gone the other way.

In this context it’s hard not to think of the Australian film industry as a dark room in a casino populated by crapshooters and high-rollers who, awkwardly flanked by skinflint artists hungry for audiences and acclaim, gamble with a cocktail of cash and credibility.

It worked out well this time. History suggests the next expensive bet may end up in the dog house.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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