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Good Aussie films a thing of the past


Picnic at Hanging RockOn 6 December, four films that few Australians have seen will vie for top honours at the 2008 Australian Film Institute Awards.

The Jammed, The Black Balloon, The Square and Unfinished Sky all received outstanding reviews, yet their combined box office takings were a paltry $3.9 million. Compare this with the Will Ferrell vehicle Step Brothers, an American comedy that was panned by critics, which alone took $8.7 million in this country.

As an aspiring filmmaker, one of my primary concerns is that I am competing with a large pool of very talented filmmakers for a very small share of the Australian box office.

At present Australian films garner only 4 per cent of box office takings. This leaves us in a bit of quandary over whether we should make films that are true to our personal vision or try to give the audience what we think they want.

At present it appears that what the film industry thinks they want is American style blockbusters and comedies. Hence, the proliferation of comedian-driven vehicles such as Takeaway, Boytown and The Nugget. These films had fairly large budgets by Australian standards, yet all failed at the box office.

I believe they failed because they attempted to exploit the earlier success of films such as The Castle and Crackerjack. But what these two films had which others do not is true to life characters and a genuine premise; in other words, character and script development.

Both these films told uniquely Australian stories and both were driven by an underlying message the filmmakers were keen to relay to the audience. In other words, the filmmakers had something to say.

Compare Australia's current crop with the Australian 'New Wave' of the '70s and '80s. Films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Breaker Morant and My Brilliant Career appealed to audiences and critics alike, not only here but overseas.

Back then, The New York Times put such films' appeal down to their 'distinctive national flavor, most obvious in their rich visual texture ... in a recognisably American format. Locale, custom and accent may differ, but the cinematic language does not ...

'Indeed, the solid, well-crafted plots, believable characters and naturalistic dialogue of the best of these films recall American movies of an earlier era.'

In other words, the films of the New Wave were better received because they were better made.

'It is a shame,' The Jammed director Dee McLachlan said of the modern day struggle for a slice of the Australian box office pie, 'because we're competing against American, big star, $100 million films.'

Of course, it isn't fair to compare Australian films to American product, since we are not even playing on the same financial field. We can never compete with Hollywood on its own terms (perhaps with the exception of Baz Lurhman, whose epic Australia was largely financed by US 20th Century Fox).

But blaming the dominance of American films for the lackluster Australian field is also somewhat of a cop-out. American films dominate the box office in virtually every country they get a release — it's not as if Australia is an anomaly. Yet other countries, such as France, England and Germany, also have a healthy local industry.

In 2007, Australian films took 4 per cent of the box office, American films took 77.7 per cent, with the remaining 18.3 per cent going to foreign films. Perhaps it is this last category of filmgoers we should be aiming for: audiences that are drawn to foreign films.

It is this share of the audience that made Lantana one of the most successful Australian films and who will support other Australian filmmakers who seek to tell real stories, not simply churn American style movies with an Australian-style budget.

'Australians want to see Australian films. But they only want to see good ones,' says Melanie Coombs, Oscar winning producer of short animation Harvie Krumpet and upcoming feature Mary and Max.

It's time to stop blaming audiences for not watching our films and start giving them more reasons to do so. It's time to go back to the 'solid well-crafted plots' and 'believable characters' without relinquishing our 'distinctive national flavour'.

When Australian filmmakers hit these marks, we produce world-class films that our audiences flock to: Lantana, Muriel's Wedding, Babe, even Wolf Creek. It's been done before, and it can be done again.

Ruby HamadRuby Hamad is a graduate from Victorian College of the Arts, where she majored in film writing and directing. She has a Bachelor's degree in Political Economy from the University of Sydney. Ruby lives in Melbourne where she is working on a new feature film script.

Topic tags: ruby hamad, australian film industry, afi awards, The Jammed, The Black Balloon, Square and Unfinished



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Existing comments

Thank you Ruby, I couldn't agree more. Because of the absence of well-scripted Australian films, I find myself turning more and more to quality foreign films. Quality speaks many languages and that's what we should be aiming for.

John Edwards | 04 December 2008  

You inadvertently restate your plea by not classing American films as foreign: American films are seen as our films because they saturate the market. There are fine American films and crass ones, but they all benefit from that huge marketing machine.

anna griffiths | 04 December 2008  

I'm one of those who say "I hate Australian films" (The castle excepted), then over the course of a semester I listed all I'd seen, and it was over 100, going back to Smiley.

And in doing so I realised there were a lot of good ones, like Mad Max and Death in Brunswick. Throw in Gallipoli as well, and Almost Footy Legends.

But, I'm sick of the morbid content of local offerings. Stop being auters and artistse, and start entertaining us.

That's the trick Baz learned.

Trevor | 06 December 2008  

When large numbers of the general populace will enjoy the products of MacDonalds, Hungry Jacks etc, it is no wonder that similar support comes for the delights of the Twilight series.

Ray O'Donoghue | 27 November 2009  

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