BIZ: Ozzy Melbourne; Aussie Industry Struggles to Still Shine
by Andrew Lucre
(indieWIRE/08.15.01) — It’s strange returning to Australia after 17 years in London. Winter can feel like spring even in meteorologically maligned cities like Melbourne. Space, though it comes at a premium in Sydney, is still abundant. And people exhibit boundless enthusiasm tempered by a deep suspicion of it. Perhaps Sydney is the equivalent of Los Angeles; Melbourne is like Chicago (minus the winter); and Brisbane more akin to Miami (or on it’s best behaviour San Diego), while Canberra (designed by a Yank) feels Swiss.
The world, cooing over a handful of Australian films, is convinced that it’s the big, bouncing and truly promised land. Sydney was even christened the “Diamond City” by Screen International in its recent Sydney Film Festival preview. Yet most Australian films never cross international waters and are rarely given sufficient provisions for domestic distribution. “I’ve had much more interest when I’ve travelled abroad with short films than I’ve had in Australia,” observes Clare Sawyer who produced one of this year’s winning shorts “Vitalogy.” “You’re never really sought out and communicated with in the local scene.”
Claire shares an office with eight other young filmmakers in Melbourne. This year, the Melbourne International Film Festival (July 18 – August 5) celebrated its 50th anniversary with a program and vibe that would be the envy of many a U.S. festival and certainly Sydney, whose fest just prior had great box office but little breadth or zing.
Clare Sawyer’s mentor, veteran producer and self-distributor John Maynard, opened the festival with “The Bank,” an unevenly crafted political thriller written and directed by Robert Connelly. A climate of public outcry against banking practices made the film especially topical. And audiences at further screenings seemed to rally behind this nation’s classic Aussie battle story much as they had done for the high-grossing “The Castle” whose Working Dog team is based in Melbourne.
At the opening party, Geoffrey Rush and Morgan Freeman rubbed shoulders with State Premiere Steve Bracks, fresh from announcing the creation of Melbourne’s locally-owned $40 million film studio by 2004, to rival Fox‘s lot in Sydney and Warners‘ base on the Gold Coast.
The modest John Maynard was less excited. “Building a shed won’t give you an industry. It’s not the infrastructure that’s the problem; it’s the development. Australia is a culture that’ll spend $100 million building a shed or subsidising a road, but they could never conceive of using the money to support an intellectual industry.”
Federal arts funding policy is indeed appalling. As in the U.K., and unlike Europe, the government asks not what it should fund, but what should they cough up at all. The Tax Office (ATO) is also under fire having just rejected promised tax concessions for “Moulin Rouge” investors following a similar blow to those in the Hollywood-backed Red Planet. Nor can most local films recoup costs solely from a domestic market of fewer than 19 million people.
The tax concessions that kick started the industry in the ’80s declined and the industry fragmented, exacerbated by the changing landscape of distribution and exhibition. “Releases became more polarised so that you could do a 20 print release or a 200 print release, but to position a film in between became increasingly difficult,” notes Andrew Pike from Ronin Films, now forced to limit his theatrical distribution to documentaries because of features’ high-risk.
Ironically Pike, who acquired at script stage two of the country’s all time highest grossing films “Shine” and “Strictly Ballroom,” quietly runs Ronin from the nation’s capital, Canberra. Every exhibiter initially rejected “Ballroom” while “Shine,” though embraced immediately, still struggled with major exhibiters and distributors for a careful release.
The Aussie battlefield can be summed up thusly: the government gives subsidies to funding bodies in each State: the Australian Film Commission (AFC) and the Australian Film Finance Corporation (AFFC). To qualify for the latter, the film must already have domestic distribution and foreign investment in place. As Australia hasn’t had a hit for a while, foreign distributors are cool on product even though Aussie actors are hot in the US.
Domestically, independent distributors like Palace, New Vision, and Globe find it increasingly difficult to position the smaller Australian product with the major exhibitors.. Nor do the majors’ streamlining allow for platform releasing to build a film’s audience. They’ve also bought up the independent cinemas and followed the U.S. trend of acquiring commercial art house product.
Then there’s the changing face of marketing and P&A costs. Whereas before, indie films had the benefit of specific State marketing, campaigns are now run nationally. This difference in urban flavors was tasted in MIFF’s closing night film, directed by Richard Lowenstein, “He Died with a Felafel in His Hand,” a mellow well-cast comedy about flatmates in different Australian cities. It’s a first feature for ex-commercials co-producer Andrew McPhail.
“You develop a relationship with where the capital is,” says McPhail, “and then supply script product into that market. I’m developing a business model whereby a company develops scripts that are either factored back into the American system and rewritten, or packaged their way, or get produced here.”
Most in the industry, though, are cynical of such arrangements. The presence of Fox studios in Sydney, while generating work and revenue, has increased the budget of a $5 million film by around $500,000. Melbourne, where “The Bank” shot, has now become the alternative.
There’s also a feeling among some key funders and distributors that producers are unsavvy, scripts unsatisfactory and that communication within the ranks is at an all time low. This was certainly borne out by MIFF’s ludicrous project pitching forum that included Palace Films GM Tait Brady and Brit director Jamie Thraves.
Sue Murray, former Fine Line Oz acquisitions head and former AFC board member, cherishes the industry, but is sadly pragmatic. “For government support to continue, you want to put the best foot forward about the achievements of the industry. [But] not to have been completely intoxicated by the few films I’ve bid for over the last three years is a very sad state of affairs. And the marketplace attachment system of deciding what gets made can lead you to a particular type of middling film.”
Richard Sheffield, Head of Film at Becker Entertainment, indie owner of the popular Dendy arthouse chain, also bemoans the lack of good scripts. Yet last month’s box office success story, the $1.3 million downbeat “Mullet” from writer/director David Caesar and Globe Film, proves a beacon. Its producer Vincent Sheehan looks further afield to Christine Vachon and Good Machine for his business models.
“Most of the moneymaking films in Australia like ‘Muriel’s Wedding‘ and ‘Strictly Ballroom’ never looked like they would,” notes Jan Chapman (“The Piano“), producer of Sydney Film Festival opener “Lantana,” a superbly crafted psychological thriller acquired for U.S. release by Lions Gate. And like “Mullet,” it’s a prime example of the small character driven Aussie story, but quadruple the budget. How much better “Mullet” could do with more P&A (the poster’s fantastic) and going wider than it’s 14 screens is a mute point in this distribution climate.
There’s now little help for those films under $3 million after the AFC’s Million Dollar Movie Initiative failed. In a venture with SBSI-Australia’s multicultural TV channel, and the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC), New Adelaide Festival Director Peter Sellars is funding three features under $3.7 million, including “Dance Me to My Song” director Rolf de Heer‘s “The Tracker.” His “Old Man Who Read Love Stories,” also in the MIFF, has a penetrating performance from Richard Dreyfuss and was a departure from De Heer’s smaller films. Like the “Mullet” men, De Heer shows what is possible. And the frequent return queues for James Hewison‘s MIFF programming, particularly for Asian and Australian film, show there’s no lack of audience support. This was also the case at Brisbane’s recent film festival.
Perhaps I’ve been abroad too long, but despite the enthusiasm, determination and originality I experienced visiting the major cities, something was missing. Often a “near enough is good enough” attitude all too often exists, resulting in poor communication and backbiting, even at the governmental level. Yet the cliche of Australia always being home is hard to mock.
[Andrew Lucre is an Australian actor who appeared in “Dancer in the Dark” and has written widely on cultural affairs for British newspapers and magazines.]