When Justin Kurzel’s debut feature film Snowtown was released in 2011, it sent shockwaves through Australia with its brutal re-telling of one of our country’s most infamous crimes. Obvious references to American-style psychological thrillers made it a success both nationally and internationally, which prompted many critics to question why Australian filmmakers don’t attempt to imitate their American counterparts more often.
The answer perhaps lies within Kurzel’s next career move. Instead of making his next film in Australia, Kurzel was enlisted to direct the blockbuster adaptation of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, a far cry from the murky backwoods of Snowtown, South Australia.
This occurrence isn’t out of the ordinary. More and more of our best film talents are being poached by American and British production companies, and with limited funding to the arts in Australia, it’s easy to see why they would lured by the big cash signs of Hollywood.
However, lack of funding is only one factor, the more disheartening reason as to why Aussie filmmakers are going international is the absence of love for Australian films from Australian audiences.
RMIT lecturer and documentary filmmaker, Mark Poole, believes that “Australian audiences may not feel the need to see their own ‘culture’ on screen, and are only willing to go to an Australian film if they feel it is going to be entertaining, thought-provoking or about something important.”
Each year, an average of 25 of Australian films are released nationally. Of those, only a handful will make enough money at the box office to produce a profit.
Even a critically successful film like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook only made $258,000 at the Australian box office in 2014, far less than its $2 million budget. The Babadook, however, has since found more success in the US and UK, grossing $6.95 million internationally.
In 2014, Australian films accounted for just 2.28% of national box office takings, according to the Motion Picture Distributors of Australia (MPDAA).
Of course there are always the exceptions. For instance, Baz Luhrmann has four films in the top ten of Screen Australia’s list of highest-grossing Australian films: Australia (2nd), Moulin Rouge (5th), The Great Gatsby (6th) and Strictly Ballroom (8th).
Last year Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner performed an incredible feat becoming the highest grossing Australian film of 2014 in under a week. It now places 15th on Screen Australia’s list with a national box-office gross of $16 million.
Box-office is the main factor driving the Hollywood system with its ultimate goal being successful blockbusters with big budgets and big stars.
Although the Hollywood system is unique and cannot be accurately compared to the Australian film industry, there’s also a missing ingredient in Australian films that Hollywood movies tend to always have, and that is spectacle and advertising.
Head of Cinema Studies at RMIT, Dr Stephen Gaunson argues that, “the real stigma for Australian films is that they don’t work with an audience in mind. Instead of the industry being ‘production’ focused, films need to be thinking about exhibition and distribution from the start. Until this happens, local films will struggle to find a successful box office”.
In order for an Australian film to grab the attention of an Australian audience, it needs to seem like an unmissable experience and must reach a diverse audience through clever marketing techniques.
For the average Australian going to the cinema once a week, like 21-year-old student Ashlee October, there are a few things to consider before choosing to watch an Australian film.
“I usually consider watching an Australian film if the trailer gives the impression that it’s good quality movie or has an interesting storyline. Also if there’s an actor that’s been in a good film I’ve seen I’d be more inclined to see it,” she says.
“Australian viewers don’t really want to watch Australian films because they’re a bit dull. When the choice is between an international film with a lot of hype surrounding it, and an unknown Australian film, the latter usually wouldn’t be my first option. But often when I do watch an Aussie film that I quite enjoyed I think, that was really good, for an Australian movie,” says October.
Audiences may love popcorn movies, but these films rarely have cultural significance. Screen Australia’s funding grants are only available to films that have “strength and distinctiveness”, “a cultural significance” and the ability to “engage with a large audience”. This is perhaps the reason why not many blockbusters are made here and Aussie filmmakers are moving to Hollywood.
“If there is a stigma about seeing Australian films, I believe it may be because don’t particularly feel the need to see Australians on our screens when there are so many Australians in Hollywood films like Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman,” says Poole.
“What audiences want are good films that move us, interest us, entertain us, and if an Australian film does that, we will go and see it.”
This article was published in the 2015 print edition of the City Journal.