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Are Australian films in trouble?

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Over the last decade we’ve continually heard the Australian film industry is in dire straits and its box office takings are evidence of the industry’s downward trajectory.

Some industry commentators say we need better distribution models and on-demand services. Others, such as Daily Review film critic Luke Buckmaster, say Australian cinema is still big, but it’s the audience that got small .

Common criticisms are that our films are too art-house or that our filmmakers need to better market their product.

So with this multiplicity of opinions, maybe it’s time to broaden our perspective on the Australian film industry.

Professor Deb Verhoeven, the chair of Media and Communications at Deakin University, believes the industry is multi-faceted.

“I think we focus too much on defining the industry. The industry is a complex ecology that involves production, distribution and exhibition,” Verhoeven says.

She argues there’s many factors affecting the market; price point is one of them. Earlier this year, Village Roadshow and Palace cinemas came under fire for raising their ticket prices up to $20. The decision was due, in part, to lower rates of cinema attendance.

“People’s motivation for going to the cinema is complex … I don’t think there’s enough evidence to suggest people are not going to see Australian films just because they have an antipathy,” Verhoeven says. “Maybe marketing isn’t big enough, maybe it’s a certain time of year; there are just too many reasons.”

From a cultural perspective, Australian content is still relevant. A study last year by Screen Australia indicated that local content is still a regular part of the audience’s media diet, although television appears to be the dominant medium. Yet in an age of multi-platform media, it becomes increasingly difficult to measure a film’s success, considering less than 10 per cent of Australian films are viewed at the cinema.

Some Aussie production companies have recently taken advantage of multi-platform media. This month, Film Scope Entertainment launched the Australian crime thriller The Reckoning across 17 video-on-demand (VOD) platforms, including iTunes, Foxtel On-demand, Quickflix and Bigpond Movies.

Kingston Anderson, executive director of the Screen Directors’ Guild, believes that in a global context, Australia is doing relatively well. He argues it’s difficult to compete with high-rise Hollywood productions, and that in an age of piracy, we need to rethink the way we release our films. He cites The Lego Movie as an example, with Village Roadshow admitting it was a mistake to hold back the release of the film in Australia long after it had been released in the US.

“We’re competing with the best in the world,” Anderson says. “You need to look at the quality of the work that we’re doing. Films have a long tail – you will see them eventually.”

He claims that in the past, Australian films were given more air time in cinemas, allowing people to discover them after a few weeks. This also provided an opportunity for an audience to be built.

“It’s tougher for filmmakers nowadays. It’s hard for Australian films to get into cinemas and stay in cinemas unless it’s a huge hit in the first weekend,” he says.

Veteran producer and former head of the Screen Producers’ Association of Australia, Antony Ginnane, believes Australians’ attitude to local films would improve if we had “two or three breakout hits a year”, instead of one. He cites The Sapphires and Red Dog as examples of home-grown films that blitzed the box office in the years they were released.

“It’s tough, mostly because young people want to go to the movies for entertainment and fun.”

Ginnane argues that the cultural shift towards art-house films has contributed to a downward cycle that began in the mid-1990s, after changes in financing structure adopted by the Film Finance Corporation and its successor Screen Australia.

“The last 10 to 15 years have been a lot more art-house and, progressively, younger audiences have switched off,” he says. “It’s tough, mostly because young people want to go to the movies for entertainment and fun.”

Around 25 Australian feature films are released each year. Since 2003, the number of Australian box office successes has halved. From 1994-2003, an average of 2.4 Australian films made it into the top 50 grossing films shown in our cinemas. The last decade (2013-2002) tells a slightly different story, with an average of 1.4 local box-office hits making the list.

This year, industry professionals had high hopes for both The Rover and These Final Hours. But Daily Review’s Buckmaster points out that last month, both struggled at the box office, despite being marketed relatively well.

Ginnane says that nowadays much of the marketing is done by the fans themselves through social media, so it’s simply a matter of producing higher-quality films.

“I’m not a great believer in branding, as such. The films have got to be better,” he says.

Historically, Australia has had a strong track record of film directors who have pursued international careers. Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi, Phillip Noyce, Gillian Armstrong, Bruce Beresford, PJ Hogan and Jocelyn Moorhouse are among those who went on to work on big-budget Hollywood productions after establishing themselves in this country.

Lately, it seems this process has been fast-tracked. Aussie director Patrick Hughes directed only one film before going on to direct The Expendables 3; the team behind Saw had completed no work in Australia.

“I think what you might be hoping [is that] some of these directors come back to work in Australia and you might hope they come back a little earlier than directors like Bruce Beresford, but you can’t force people to do that,” Ginnane says.

The Australian film industry is also facing other challenges, including a decision to cut $38 million from Screen Australia’s budget over four years.

In response to the cuts, Screen Australia made several key decisions that could affect production, including: a 10 per cent reduction in staff to 100 personnel; a $2-3 million reduction in production investment and project development courses, and a $400,000 cut to its Talent Escalator programs.

There were, however, some positives for producers. Production funding of up to $500,000 will be given as a grant rather than an investment, up from the previous $200,000, and copyright fees will no longer be administered. This will ensure producers keep more of the revenue from their productions.

But Kingston Anderson sees few positives in the funding changes.

“It will reduce documentary production, feature film production and television production,” he says. “Our directors will be doing less because there will be less feature film productions because of funding cuts to the ABC and Screen Australia.”

Recognising that times have changed – especially the way in which people view content – seems key to the industry moving forward.

Verhoeven, for one, doesn’t believe Australian cinema is likely to go away any time soon.

“Focusing on gloom because of domestic box office is only part of the story,” she says.

“There’s other ways to measure an audience, including critic and user ratings and the number of screens a film is shown on in a number of countries.”

This article was first published on The Daily Review.

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