Imagine this: you’re standing in line to buy a ticket at your local multiplex and you’re tossing up between two options. On one hand you’ve got the latest superhero blockbuster — the third reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, sequel number 27 starring Hollywood hunk X and screen starlet Y — and on the other a new Australian film that you haven’t heard much about. The superhero movie is going to have dazzling action scenes and state-of-the-art special effects — you’d bet your house on it. But the Australian film, well, you’re not sure you’re in the mood, or even what sort of mood you should be in.
This is not exactly an inconceivable hypothetical. Something close to this scene presumably unfolds on a regular basis, with Hollywood movies from superheroes to comedies and dramas all featuring A-list actors, or even smaller and edgier American indies buoyed by wow factor and street cred. In other words, movies that have the edge over that unknown Aussie production.
But let’s add another variable. Imagine next to the title of the movies being rotated on the screen above the box office you can see the price of the session. Imagine this number varies. Transformers 247: Saved From the Scrap Heap is $22. The Australian film (which isn’t even in 3D!) is a more affordable choice for punters. It’s $15. Does this influence your decision?
According to trade publication Inside Film, the idea of charging a lower price for admission to an Australian feature film is currently making the rounds. It’s the latest end-is-nigh talking point in a doom and gloom year for homegrown cinema, at least when it comes to market share (local films currently account for around 2.5% of box office, down from a 3.8% yearly average for the previous decade).
This potential incentive for enticing local audiences to see local productions (which isn’t a new idea) is couched in language concerning price and scale — i.e. that if a film didn’t cost as much to make, we shouldn’t be asked as much to buy/experience it.
It needs to be explained as a sort of economically ethical “fair go”. If not, this weird idea would seem an awful lot like a blend of self-pity and cultural cringe thrown in with a bargain basement-style business model like one of those late-night TV commercials with pictures of doors and a voice-over shouting “DOORS! DOORS! DOORS!” to convince you to buy one.
It’s hard to imagine how those nerve-jangling door ads lead to a meaningful journey for the customer. “You know what, honey, that screaming man makes a good point, I had completely forgotten we don’t have a front door,” has never been said to anyone, ever. It is also difficult to envision how to convince anyone that the best way to communicate the value of a product — in this case Australian cinema — is to say it’s worth less than the others.
“Yes, the Australian film industry is having a rough year. But knee-jerk responses aren’t going to magically take us back to the halcyon years of the 1980s …”
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News flash: it isn’t. There are good and bad Australian films. There are fizzers and turkeys. There are goofy comedies and pretentious, inaccessible dramas. But our national cinema is and will continue to be awesome, and our talent is extraordinary. There’s a reason Australian filmmakers such as Nash Edgerton, director of The Square (2008), and Patrick Hughes, director of Red Hill (2010), caught a one-way trip to America and were able to start working with the greats. Edgerton has made three Bob Dylan music videos since 2009, and Hughes, in the latest Expendables movie, directed a dream team of stars including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Jason Statham, Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson, Jet Li and Sylvester Stallone.
The Square and Red Hill are both outstanding Australian films, and they both tanked. In 2014 two terrific Aussie titles, among the best of this or any year (Hugh Sullivan’s The Infinite Man and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook) also drew blanks at the local box office. Were they “worth” any less than the Hollywood blockbusters they competed against? Of course not. If you imagine price gauged in terms of quality (given the subjective nature of cinema this might seem ridiculous; in a restaurant it’s de rigueur) those films are worth double or triple others on the bill.
But of course, audiences didn’t come. There are many reasons for this, some of which Crikey Daily Review explored in September. But is one of the reasons that audiences don’t see local films that they think the admission price is too expensive? Imagine somebody in line at the box office saying “I’m not convinced about this Australian film, but it is $7 cheaper, oh what the hell”. That feels just as implausible as the person positively reacting to all those doors, doors, doors. But let’s say such a scheme is introduced. What happens if audiences come back? Do prices go back up? What happens if sales get worse? Do prices keep going down?
Yes, the Australian film industry is having a rough year. But knee-jerk responses aren’t going to magically take us back to the halcyon years of the 1980s when homegrown cinema averaged a yearly market share of 11.49%. A productive approach for Australian producers is not to denigrate their products by bunging on a discounted price tag, but to experiment with interesting distribution strategies.
In 2011, low-budget thriller The Tunnel (which raised its budget by selling actual frames for $1) became the first Australian feature to get a worldwide release via the BitTorrent Network. Last year, director/producer Robert Connolly made his adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel The Turning an “event” by charging a premium price and screening it with an interval and a 40-page colour program included with the purchase.
In the last fortnight, a World War I movie literally filmed in the director’s backyard — William Kelly’s War — opened on more than 20 screens, almost all of them in regional cinemas where the demographic is potentially more suited to the film than punters at CBD multiplexes. Later this month, dark comedy The Mule (staring Angus Sampson, Hugo Weaving, Leigh Whannell and Noni Hazlehurst) will bypass cinemas and go straight to digital in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.
As the local industry continues to contemplate vexing issues such as branding, marketing and the saturation of overseas content, these films at the very least have attempted to find creative solutions. Their success or failure will help forge a way forward.