The best or the worst of times for Australian film?


Are Australian films “boring, grim and unsatisfying”? Is that why many failed at the box office in 2009? That’s the verdict of Australian playwright and screenwriter Louis Nowra.

Meanwhile, the president of the Screen Producers Association of Australia, Anthony I. Ginnane, says that the local industry is not making films that people want to see, with a few exceptions. “Genre is the key, and it’s bizarre to me that when literally hundreds of social-realist Australian films fail, we keep making them,” he contends. “Perhaps collectively our ability to read the marketplace and audience appetite has been so dulled by the subsidy drug that we’ve completely forgotten what audiences want.”

At recent meetings and forums and on a range of media, the state of the local industry has been analyzed and re-analyzed and no clear direction has emerged.

Thirty-eight Australian films were released to local cinemas in 2009, resulting in $32.5 million at the box office. (The 38th film, Jane Campion’s Bright Star, opened on Dec. 26, and no box-office details were available at our deadline.)

The top six films were:
1. Mao’s Last Dancer: $14.9 million
2. Charlie & Boots: $3.7 million
3. Samson & Delilah: $3.2 million
4. The Boys Are Back: $2.0 million
5. Beautiful Kate: $1.6 million
6. Mary & Max: $1.4 million

Those six films grossed 82% of the box office for Australian movies. Three other films took in over A$1 million: Balibo, Disgrace and My Year Without Sex. Samson & Delilah was only budgeted at A$1.6 million and is looking profitable. Mao’s Last Dancer cost A$25 million and will need overseas income to go into the black. The Boys Are Back, starring Clive Owen, grossed less than US$1 million in its American release and the local box office did not add much, leaving it well short of its $16 million budget. Disgrace, starring John Malkovich, cost A$10 million. All other films were budgeted at under $10 million.

Looking at the year from an artistic rather than financial standpoint, many critics feel 2009 offered the best selection in many years. Sandra Levy, chief executive of the Australian Film and Television School said, “It’s been a fabulous year. There have been terrific films this year, and such a diversity.”

But perhaps the future is looking better. George Miller is already hard at work on Happy Feet 2 and is in pre-production on Mad Max 4: Fury Road for a release in mid-2012. Much of the 12-month pre-production period for Fury Road is being spent building the cars and sets. There is no news on whether Mel Gibson will be back in the role that set him on the road to international fame. It is expected that a younger man will be the lead. Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy are the only cast members confirmed at this stage. Mad Max 4 was 11 weeks from filming in 2003 in Namibia when it was cancelled. This new production seems much more secure.

Hoyts selected Hewlett-Packard to convert around three-quarters of its 373 screens in Australasia to digital this year. No details have been provided about any financial deal between the distributors and Hoyts over the conversion, but they have been in negotiation for several years. Hoyts started the process with the conversion of one Sydney screen at the end of 2009. The 3D digital installations will include specialized projectors and play-out servers. HP will also be supplying desktops, printers and dedicated back-up server solutions for each of the sites.

E-mail your Australia/New Zealand new items to David Pearce at