Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Australian Films: Past, Present, Future

If you mentioned Australian cinema ten years ago, the average local audience would be left uninspired by lacklustre, slow-moving images depicting social realism and dysfunctional communities. To put it bluntly, one of my fellow film students once claimed that “nothing actually happens” in Australian films.

That is not to say there was anything inherently wrong with Australian films in that period, or that they were tedious (or maybe they were), but not having the mythical scope of Picnic at Hanging Rock or the cult of Mad Max or the irreverent, nationalistic pomp of Crocodile Dundee, the average film produced ten years ago were somewhat short on escape and entertainment quality. They were for the most part, non-genre films.

Mad Max: the good old days of Australian cinema

Our government agencies sought to encourage and produce films with high Australian content, focusing on the Australian condition, whatever that means. To some, Australian films appeared to be a vague quest for some elusive Australian identity. What actually happened is that most of us became indignant of and rejected what we were being told, via moving images, was our 'national identity'. Alternatively we simply shrugged off those films. To really get our attention, Australian films had to dress up, feature over-the-top singing and resemble lavish arthouse creations like Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge. But all in all, in the genre department, we remained lacking.

As a result, for years, we’ve maintained the clich├ęd opinion that Australian cinema is not worth our attention and that we can not possibly compete with the big budget US genre film. But a change has arisen. A change that most of us are unaware of.

The first thing I want to clear up is that we have talent. That’s right. Here, in Australia, we have amazingly talented genre screenwriters and directors. Not just actors. But since we’re on the topic, let’s talk about actors. Most of us, have noticed that in the actor department, we are blessed. Our actors seem to make it big in US and other foreign productions. Nicole Kidman, Rose Byrne, Russell Crow, Mel Gibson, Geoffrey Rush, Hugo Weaving, Abby Cornish, Heath Ledger Chris Hemsworth and Toni Collette are only a small sample of the talent which Australians can be proud of. So why can’t we make films? And most importantly, why can't we be proud of our films?

Well the real problem is that when we do make a good film -and by a 'good film', I think the audience means a compelling genre film and not some commentary on Australian identity- we are for the most part, completely oblivious about it. What I mean is that the average Australian audience has not a clue when the film they have just seen is actually an Australian film.

For two reasons.

Firstly, recall that we do notice the success of our actors. In fact, the average viewer is only ever aware of actors and can not identify a screenwriter or a director. So if a film had at all been written by an Australian and directed by an Australian, most of us wouldn’t bloody know. Instead, we readily identify the big production company logo, Paramount, Lionsgate and Canal+ along with the heavy US marketing and for some reason we take it for granted that the film that has just taken our breath away couldn’t possibly be Australian. So there you have it, perpetuation of an existing attitude through lack of information.

Ironically, when a film is indeed funded by Australia and is officially proclaimed as an Australian production, our media avidly follow its progress with a curious blend of national pride and pessimism. It’s as if subconsciously, there is this whishful thinking, a desire for our fellow Australian to fail, only because they dared to have a go and we didn’t. We make such fuss about Australian productions, becoming overly critical, nitpicking for every fault in the narrative only to confirm our already established opinion that “we can’t make films”. Think back to Baz Luhrmann's Australia and the wave of mixed responses it inspired.

Australia: 'Not good enough' for some

The reality is that in the last couple of years, many successful Australian directors and screenwriters saw their genre creations brought to life and receive positive acclaim but only because they were endorsed by large US production companies. It was not Australian money perhaps, but it was Australian talent. One has to only see the success of directors such as James Wan (Saw I-IV & Insidious) and the Spierig Brothers (Daybreakers) or even, the impressive Australian screenwriting duo, Shane Krause & Shayne Armstrong who, together with Australian director Russell Mulcahy penned the upcoming $30 million Bait 3D, to appreciate that a lot “does happen” in Australian films to stir enough interest.

Which brings me to funding. This is indeed the second reason why we are often not aware that a film is Australian-made. For years, Australian genre film productions simply could not raise the level of financing that an average US production attracts. Instead, they relied on foreign investors to harness the talent and skills of its citizens, yes, right here, on the Gold Coast. An example is Arclight's Bait 3D, which was shot last year on the Gold Coast and which Screen Australia only partly funded.

Engulfed by the mighty buzz surrounding US production companies, the average Australian film writer and film director or gaffer even, simply does not get the standing ovation due to them by their fellow Australians. Most of us are too blinded by the Hollywood neon lights to recognise our own. This lack of knowledge perpetuates the long standing myth that Australia can not make films.

But things are changing. Firstly, in the last three years, Australian Government funding in the film industry has increased threefold from $136.7 million to $412.1 million. But there is another reason why we now have enormous potential for competing in the international genre market.

The micro-budget. The box office success of horror film, Insidious, produced for a mere $1.5 million confirms what many producers and directors already know, that a bigger return can often be made from low-budget productions. Indeed, Reuters recently named Insidious as this year’s most successful film. It has so far made over $65 million worldwide. What does this mean? It means that for a budget of $1.5 million, our talented directors and screenwriters had no need to seek funding offshore. Indeed, Australian director, James Wan and Australian screenwriter, Leigh Whannell may not have had to rely on foreign funding to see their creations brought to life. We could have funded Insidious ourselves.

In fact, following the surge in the value of the Australian dollar and the need to continue to attract foreign investors, the Australian Government has instituted a change in its Screen Production Incentive. This includes the proposed reforms to the Producer Offset. This change is mostly designed to continue to attract foreign investors despite our expensive dollar but it also makes it particularly attractive to local film investors. In addition, the purchasing power of our dollar is such that we can easily send production teams overseas and shoot films at a more economical cost with the potential for a higher return on our investment.

I had to blurb about finance there, much to your disgust. The reality is that film is not art, it's business. Only this time, business aligns itself perfectly with Australian film potential. Provided of course, we appreciate the value of the micro-budget and continue to believe in our genre films.

Now before, I said that we could have made Insidious. Could have. But the question remains, would we, in Australia, have liked this film as much?

It's a potent question. One that could be equally applied to all forms of art and innovation in Australia. It drills into the very core of our long-standing tall poppy syndrome. Indeed, who the hell do we think we are? And are we ready to recognise the Australian talent for what it is or does it need to be forever cloaked in a foreign logo for us to appreciate it?

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