In January this year Daily Review published an article entitled Australian cinema in 2014: 10 films to get excited about. It highlighted a slate of yet-to-be-released features attached to pedigree names including directors David Michod (Animal Kingdom) and Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) and stars Robert Pattinson, Ewan McGregor and Mia Wasikowska.
The article was unusual for the simple and sobering reason that for a long time the Australian media commentariat’s default position, when it comes to matters relating to local films, has been characterised by a far more sceptical mindset than excitement.
There are plenty of familiar criticisms and “end-is-nigh” prophecies synonymous with discussions of the Australian film industry. The most common concern is the industry’s problematic and heavily subsidised financial state — its everlasting struggle to get bums on seats in a market dominated by American content.
The second is about perceptions. Australian producers have long battled public sentiment that locally produced features are one of two things. The first, that they are morose hard-hitting dramas that explore the “human condition”. The sort of stories that follow characters who battle drug addictions, grieve over deceased family members and live dreadfully unhappy lives.
When I discussed classic Australian films in March 2013 with comedian Tim Ferguson, star of The Doug Anthony All Stars and TV’s Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, conversation touched on the unexpected success of Kriv Stenders 2011 family film Red Dog, which earned more than $21 million at the local box office and spawned a litter of yet-to-be-released sequels.
“It’s an Australian film, so of course they had to kill the dog!” Ferguson joked. Like most punchlines from practised comics, there was more than a touch of truth to it.
The other perception is that when it’s not busy depressing us with films about cancer and people who collapse in gutters with needles in their arms, Australian films are cringe-inducing “g’day mate” comedies. The sort of facepalm productions geared towards jokes featuring things as stereotypically nationalistic as shrimps on a barbie (thanks, Paul Hogan).
These perceptions didn’t arise from nowhere and can’t be dismissed as mere furphies. They were the result of decisions made by baby boomers at government-funded film bodies who, not driven by the make-or-break instincts of commercial producers, threw their weight behind “serious” and/or distinctively Australian films. On that last front it’s hard to deny them success, though many years of box office flops have conditioned pundits to anticipate the worst.
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When I spoke to Bert Deling in 2009, director of notorious 1975 Melbourne-set drug drama Pure Shit!, I made an off-the-cuff remark about how exciting and progressive Australian films seem to be pretty rare these days. It was like I’d zapped him with a cattle prod. Deling exploded into a rant about a closed society of gate keepers who pass money around and have no faith it will return through public support.
“They are the same 12 or so people who made all this crap in the past that no one wants to see. They get hold of a hundred percent of all the governments’ money. In any other country, that would be considered to be a scandal,” he raged. “They want to get a big budget film. They’ll make that and then they’ll disappear, leaving the Australian film industry in a smoking ruin.”
But Deling’s perspective doesn’t seem to leave room for faith that patches of poor or uninteresting funding decisions can come and go in cycles.
A colourful and varied array of popular films released in the 1990s suggested a period when doom and gloom (or shrill ocker comedy) wasn’t par for the course. These titles include crowd pleasing hits such as Strictly Ballroom (1992), Muriel’s Wedding (1994), The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (1994), The Sum of Us (1994), Babe (1995), Shine (1996), The Castle (1997) and Two Hands (1999). But things began to look awfully serious and awfully arty after the turn of the century.
The AFI Awards reflect this. Best Film winners in the ’00s include 2001′s Lantana (murder, infidelity), 2002′s Rabbit-Proof Fence (indigenous inequality), 2003′s Japanese Story (romantic tragedy), 2004′s Somersault (woman’s sexual awakening), 2005′s Look Both Ways (confronting cancer), 2007′s Romulus My Father (immigrant family battles adversity), 2008′s The Black Balloon (family with autistic son) and 2009′s Samson & Delilah (indigenous inequality).
In recent years the AACTA Awards (formerly the AFIs) have reflected a more populist sentiment. In 2010 Michod’s Animal Kingdom broke the death and despair mode (well, sort of — it’s still dark) and was followed by a trio of smash-hit releases: Red Dog (2011), The Sapphires (2012) and The Great Gatsby (2013).
Those films provided a more optimistic context with which to view 2014. Perhaps this was the year the “little industry that could” would prevail, bringing to popular culture a suite of interesting titles prophecised for success — or at least to turn heads — in January by Daily Review.
How did it go? Three-quarters through 2014, results reinforce the familiar maxim that quality is not a prerequisite for popularity.
The most successful of the 10 titles so far is Wolf Creek 2, which took $1.681 million in its opening weekend and earned $4.73 million in total. It opened to mixed responses from critics but fulfilled expectations of fans, offering more kills, more carnage, a faster pace and a greater focus on the star of the show — outback serial-killer Mick Taylor (played by John Jarratt).
Tracks, buoyed by a strong performance from Wasikowska as bullishly independent journeyer Robyn Davidson, who trekked 1700 miles across Western Australian desert in the mid 1970s, also performed well. Its box office takings equaled around $4.3 million.
But the best Australian films of the year so far weren’t that fortunate.
The Rover seemed to have everything going for it: a hot director (David Michod), a big budget ($12 million), an exotic setting (Australian dessert in an anarchic future) and huge celebrity draw power (Twilight alumni Robert Pattinson). Reviews were generally positive but audiences stayed away. The film took a disastrous $344,000 in its first opening fortnight.
Writer/director Zak Hilditch’s fiery debut These Final Hours may not have had A-list actors, but, having played at Cannes (like The Rover) it had great reviews and good street cred. An intense hell-on-earth vision of humanity during its last moments, the film was given extensive promotion — including bus stops, social media, TV spots and an innovative website — and a wide release from distributor/exhibitor Village Roadshow.
Still, the crowds didn’t come. These Final Hours opened to a lousy $207,000, leading The Sydney Morning Herald to rephrase the familiar doom and gloom refrain: “If a critically lauded film such as These Final Hours can’t resonate with local audiences, is there any hope for Australian films at the cinema?”
The answer is yes, no, and maybe. Yes, in the sense the Australian film industry makes and will continue to make great cinema. No, in the sense that much of it will go largely unnoticed by the general public. And maybe, in the sense that, every now and then, quality films defy the odds and find popularity.
As dreadfully serious as the Australian films that characterised the first decade of the turn of the century tended to be, there were plenty of productions that, while not exactly walks in the park, broke the morose drama mould in interesting ways. It is these kinds of titles that are often forgotten, or never remembered in the first place.
Some achieved relative success and/or notoriety (such as Chopper, Mao’s Last Dancer, Mary and Max, The Proposition, Mrs Carey’s Concert and Not Quite Hollywood) but most were barely seen at all (such as The Magician, The Horseman, The Jammed, Dr Plonk, Boxing Day, Like Minds, Black Water, Hunt Angels, Van Diemen’s Land, Cedar Boys, Forbidden Lies and Red Hill).
Most stand-up comedians will tell you that if they have a bad gig there are certain things one can blame and certain things one can’t. Bad sleep, a fight with their girlfriend or boyfriend, the joint they smoked beforehand — these are things that might help explain why they tanked in front of a crowd.
What they absolutely cannot blame is the audience. To do so reverses the onus on which their profession is based: it is the comedian’s job to make audiences laugh, not the audience’s job to laugh at anything. This is why (in theory) the best entertainers rise to the surface.
And yet, with so many quality Australian films and so little support from punters, it is hard not to view the failures of the Australian film industry as partly the failure of viewers to appreciate the magnificent work it often produces. To paraphrase Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond: Australian cinema is still big. It’s the audience that got small.
*This article was originally published at Daily Review.