Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Australian films

The film was hyped, and because I thought it would be pretty blokey, I got together some male friends to watch it. We had dinner together, and then went to see Kokoda.

In the darkened cinema, when the curtains parted and the feature began to roll, I sat ready - waiting - to be moved and entertained. Then, as the film screened, I began to wonder how it had ever been made.

We stumbled out of the cinema together, paused awkwardly as we held back sharing our impressions, and then out it came: general consensus that this movie was a dog. I'd arranged the event, so felt the disappointment all the more acutely.

Australia has in fact made many wonderful films. Everyone will have their own lists, but here are some that I particularly like:
Several artists nurtured in Australia – actors like Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving, Russell Crowe, Eric Bana, Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, directors like Peter Weir, Phillip Noyce, Fred Schepisi, to name but a few - have gone on to make films which have resonated round the world.

But too often we are disappointed in Australian films. Many have spoken of a malaise in our films. Producer Antony I. Ginnane put it this way in his inaugural speech as president of the Screen Producers Association of Australia in 2008: "If they premiered most of the Australian films of the last 24 months on an airplane people would be walking out in the first 20 minutes — and that's not good."


The great screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) famously said about cinema that "Nobody knows anything".

I've made a few small films, and love the medium, so perhaps I have that most dangerous commodity: a little knowledge. But I think there are some reasons for our disappointment.

The first is budget. The average US feature film costs over $US100 million. The only Australian film to have approached this was Baz Luhrmann's Australia, with a budget of $A130 million. Most Australian features are made for less than $5 million. We are being outspent by a factor of 20 to 1.

Script development in the US is considered vital. Before shooting starts several individuals and teams rework every screenplay. These people are well versed in the craft of screen writing, and take that craft very seriously. This does not happen in Australia. Recently several Australian films have been badly hurt by scripts that have not been rigorously worked through. The approach adopted for the more transient – and usually short form - medium of television will not do for feature films. Shooting should not start until the script is right, but several films have been made in Australia where the script has fundamental flaws. Writers can get away with this in a half hour television program, or a ten minute script, but in a 100 minute film the defects are there for all to see.

Then there is the small number of films made in Australia. Not every film made by a film industry will be successful. It is the production of a large and consistent number of films which builds the experience of film makers and allows really excellent films to stand on the shoulders of others. A handful of films a year, which is all that Australia can claim, makes this near impossible.

Film-making requires a creative partnership between those who make films and their financiers. A film needs both. If there are several films, not only can film makers build their craft, but financiers can spread their risk. In Australia there is very little prospect of making a large budget film ("Australia" is about the only exception). Writers, actors and directors have to work within the constraints of what are, in world terms, tiny budgets, and the creative limitations that imposes. If many small budget films are made, however, the possibility of one or two large budget films becomes real.

Then there is a lack of integration between production and distribution. In the US major film corporations have controlled several distribution chains around the world for most of the last century, giving confidence that there will be a distribution market for their films and enabling investment with real prospect of return. In Australia it is much more hit and miss. Lack of vertical integration has meant we cannot attract the funds which US film makers enjoy.

There is confusion about what an “Australian” film industry means. Increasingly films – even Hollywood films - are made with money from other countries, filmed in a variety of nations, and use stars and technicians from a range of countries. In a way, film is an international medium now. Australians can justly claim stories from around the world as fit subjects for their films, and they can also make films peculiar to our own special landscape, history and culture. We should embrace the wider film industry to do this – not seek to keep it out.

One proven way to encourage national film making is to impose a box office surcharge which is then spent on film-making in Australia. This could not be confined to “Australian” film companies – film makers from any country should be welcome to use such funds, provided they come here to make their films. Similar methods were used with success by the British and Italian film industries. Distributors do not like box office surcharges, and would be likely to campaign against such an added impost. But in the longer term they depend on a good supply of films which Australian audiences like. Some will be satisfied with what is on offer now, but others want more. A revival of interest in film in Australia is good for distributors in the long term, as well as film makers.

Making a film is not like writing a novel. It involves creative collaboration between many highly trained people, in partnership with financiers. Passion, people and money. Australia has all of that - but we do need to reorganize it.

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  1. I think you're spot-on about the lack of financing and organisation.

    A couple of years ago one of my jobs (ah the joys of freelancing) was doing movie reviews for a small newspaper and the Australian movies I saw were all - yes all - excrementally, bowel-shuddering, eye-wateringly awful.

    I learned during that time that David and Margaret would misguidedly add anywhere between one and three stars to an Australian film in order to coax people to see it and that in reality most of us want to be entertained when we visit the cinema, perhaps even given a few things to think about. What most of us don't want to see are 'gritty and confronting' dramas that feature 'quirky' characters who are mean, miserable and heaven forbid, unbelievable.

    Someone (expat Aussie, in town from LA to preach to the eager) said that we need to get over our fear of making stuff that appeals to the masses; that popularity doesn't necessarily mean crap. Maybe it's time to listen, because 'Hey Hey it's Esther Blueberger' was six million dollars utterly wasted.