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Monday, 4 January 2016

The Film Institutions in 2016 – (2) Screen Australia

It took two seriously good hits to do it.  However, building on Mad Max Fury Road,  and The Water Diviner as early as September 15 industry guru Don Groves was already calling it in Inside Film “It might be a stretch but 2015 could come close to the all-time for Australian films  of $63.4 million set in 2001, the year of Moulin Rouge!, Lantana, The Man Who Sued God and Crocodile Dundee in LA. After a strong start to the year from Mad Max: Fury Road, The Water Diviner, Paper Planes and That Sugar Film, Aussie films already have eclipsed 2014’s lowly $26.1 million (a market share of 2.43 per cent) and 2013's $38.5 million.”

Within a couple of weeks the CEO of Screen Australia Graeme Mason couldn’t help himself and was signing off on a press release trumpeting the new 'record'  . You had to follow the asterisk to the bottom of the page to find the note*Note - figures are actuals i.e. not adjusted for inflation. Using the ABS’s calculator to obtain approximate inflation-adjusted figures, 2015 is already the best box office result for Australian film since 2001. - Here's the full story

The truer story still lay somewhat buried and needless to say you have to wonder whether it’s in anybody’s interest for such things to be told when we are trying to get the nation once again used to the idea of going out to a local picture. Keep it simple and you’ll believe that this past year, 2015, has set the bar for the highest cinema takings ever for Oz movies. But we know the claim is based entirely on inflation.  And there’s more to agonise over, to which I’ll return.

So let’s start from the start. The biggest years for Australian cinema are those where two things, or one or other of them, might have happened. The first is where the greatest number of Australians actually plonked down their money and bought a ticket to an Oz movie. What that year is, remains unknown or if it is known is a closely guarded secret known only to a few. So where can I go. I can investigate by suspicion to start with and my suspicion immediately told me that the ‘BIGGEST’ ever Australian film was “Crocodile” Dundee and the second biggest “Crocodile” Dundee 2. That’s the assumption I started proceeding on until I came upon a splendid piece of analysis commissioned by Film Victoria which you can find here.

In brief This report analyses box office takings of Australian theatrical
releases from 1964 onwards, adjusted for inflation. The analysis allows for an accurate comparison of the performance of Australian films at the Australian box office over time.
The report was issued in 2010 so further adjustments for another half decade of inflation would be warranted but I wont attempt them myself.

Here’s the report’s table of the top twenty and the inflation adjusted dollars
Title
Year
Recorded Box Office
Box office Equivalent 2009
CROCODILE DUNDEE
1986
$47,707,045
$104,001,358
BABE: THE GALLANT PIG
1995
$36,776,544
$52,958,223
THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER
1982
$17,228,160
$50,133,946
CROCODILE DUNDEE 2

1988
$24,916,805
$46,843,593
AUSTRALIA

2008
$37,555,757
$38,306,872
GALLIPOLI
1981
$11,740,000
$38,037,600
ALVIN PURPLE
1973
$4,720,000
$36,721,600
MAD MAX 2
1981
$10,847,491
$35,145,871
MOULIN ROUGE
2001
$27,734,406
$34,668,008
HAPPY FEET
2006
$31,786,164
$34,646,919
STRICTLY BALLROOM
1992
$21,760,400
$33,946,224
PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK
1975
$5,120,000
$30,003,200
THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB
1966
$2,417,000
$26,127,770
YOUNG EINSTEIN
1988
$13,383,377
$25,160,749
THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT
1994
$16,459,245
$24,688,868
PHAR LAP
1983
$9,258884
$24,443,454
MURIEL’S WEDDING
1994
$15,765571
$23,648,357
THE DISH
2000
$17,999,473
$23,579,310
MAD MAX
1979
$5,355,490
$20,939,966
THE PIANO
1993
$11,240,484
$17,197,941


(By the way I thought The Castle would be in this list. Acccording to Wikipedia the film was released in 1997 and grossed $10,326,428. Not enough apparently.)

So, just a couple of observations.

The highest grossing film of 2015, Mad Max Fury Road might just, depending on the inflation rate for the last five years, scrape in at number 20 in the biggest box office films of all time. The film also had the additional benefit of increased ticket prices for those prepared to pay for 3D.
2.    
     More than half of the films above were made without any recourse to or assistance from the national screen agency of the day for such things as script development, workshopping, labbing, mentoring, or further drafting.

The latter of which is as it should be. Film-makers able to work with the majors should not be the beneficiaries of modest handouts from the state, though they will of course always benefit from whatever tax advantageous laws are available to support film production.

The national screen agency should have a bias towards promoting excellence and quality film production. Your taxes may go to work via rebates and offsets to support the industry but direct grants should be aimed at the top end of the market. Those will be the films which compete for prizes and international acclaim even if they click with only small audiences. We should be prouder that direct government funding assisted the production of The Piano, Samson and Delilah, Love Serenade, Charlie’s Country, Toomelah, Sweetie, The Navigator, Heatwave, and Breaker Morant than of tax breaks that produced many popular successes and increased the profits therefrom.

A few years ago, somebody at the then new Screen Australia dreamed up an interesting hurdle. It was called something like “Six out of six” and referred to a year in which Oz films were accepted for what were designated as the six major film events/competitions of the year. It may even have included the Oscars but that detail is lost in time. Doesn’t matter. While it seemed a bit fanciful at the time, the all too familiar PR boasting being at full stretch, I think that the achievement may not have been replicated. There are still too few films made here selected for those major competitions and that’s a significant failing of the way by which Screen Australia goes about its work. If films from Thailand, Taiwan and other countries with modest standards of living are regularly selected for the great competitions then we should be taking a long hard look at our mechanisms for funding our best film-makers. 

Part of the current failure derives from the fact that our best film-makers don’t get to work often enough. Having established reputations, there should be an express lane wherein bureaucrats are not niggling away about further drafts and sending people off into the sunset of endless tinkering.


So it’s on to 2016 and already the commentary is suggesting that the likelihood of repeat record business is small. Neither George nor Baz nor Russell has a local movie coming out. Get ready for the gloom and doom to return. Unless of course something gets into one of those Six and the world sits up in the way it did for The Piano  and all the rest.

3 comments:

  1. Good to read this article, Geoff. As a micro-distributor, I'm proud to have one film in the Top 20 (STRICTLY BALLROOM) and I assume that our other big success - SHINE - must be a near miss, with its gross of $11.5m in 1996.

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  2. That is very interesting. There is a wonderful book called George Lucas's Blockbusting which covers the entire history of Hollywood using inflation adjusted figures and they are an eye-opener. A better analysis, I think, is about the number of people who saw the film in the cinema as a percentage of total population, but you need to know the average ticket price for a specific year. That tells you we are not even on the same cricket pitch as Strictly Ballroom. The whole ballyhoo about records is a convenient mess, more like a magic show than real journalism. I did notice that Screen Australia provided a link to the RBA's inflation adjustment gadget, which from memory they have never done before. We can all easily write a HUGE amount about the whole problem, partly focused on the way our popular films diverge so much from our Serious Art projects. Etc etc. I will just leave you with one statistic that shows us a lot about the changing competitive landscape which makes these numbers meaningless. I did a really quick count using the RBA gadget which says that in the last ten years, the take for US blockbusters from Australian cinemas rose from around $1b to $4.2b, and the number of them in the top twenty went from a couple to almost all of them. Those numbers are not about Australian cinema v US, it is about the whole world v tentpole.

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  3. Thanks for those interesting contributions. I feel like a johnny come lately to the argument though I think I have mentioned it casually often enough. When I see the way a blockbuster like Star Wars takes such a huge chunk of the market its obvious that I'm barely scratching the surface of the situation. Andrew also has some terrible stories to tell of the way that Shine's performance was undermined. But that's a different strand.

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