Dec 19, 2009

How to Try and Fix the Australian Film Industry, Part 1

"It is going to be a long and arduous process to convince Australians that we should want to see our own films, but it will be easier if we remember that cinema's tenacious grip on our imagination came about because of its extraordinary capacity to entertain and astonish us" - Louis Nowra, The Monthly Dec 09-Jan 10 edition
Louis Nowra, internationally renowned playwright responsible for Cosi and The Temple, has written a fantastic article in The Monthly. In it, he explains how he forced himself to watch every Australian film that came out this year and then proceeded to identify what's wrong with the industry in his opinion. What he says is EVERYTHING I've been yammering on about within Green Rabbit and that some but not enough of my peers echo.

The filmmakers of this country are the biggest problem with the industry. The very root and soul of the business is the fact that it is not treated like a business and, even worse, that the storytellers are completely ignoring their audience. Green Rabbit was created in some large part so that one day we could make films and TV series that were awesome. What does awesome mean? For us, it means that the majority of Australia and hopefully the Western world would watch our films and go, "Wow! Cool! Let's watch that again, get it on DVD and talk about it at work or school with our mates." Our aim is to make films that succeed commercially.

This approach to movie making, which is certainly based on the Hollywood and even Bollywood approach to filmmaking as an industry, a business that trades in stories, is so foreign in Australia that it is seen in some corners as downright evil. The idea that a film should actually make money and, God forbid, generate profit is blasphemous to so many of our young contemporaries. Making rash generalisations, I happily paint a huge swathe of fellow graduates now, before and in the future with the colour of apathy towards these goals of commercial success. So very many film students want to change the world with their craft, which is great except they all seem to want to do it by making the same bleak, art house films that were made every year for the last decade and that failed as dramatically as the plots therein. And by fail I do indeed mean commercially.

A daydreaming pearl diver from the Northern Territory, torn in two by the expectations of his family profession and the love he feels for a young indigenous girl. A disaffected young man suddenly aswirl in the heady rush of inner city drug gangs tries to escape but is inevitably dragged down to a bloody death by his own needled up hand. A family ripped apart by the incest that has fed on their energies like a parasite all their life. These are the sorts of stories our filmmakers want to tell, are telling right now in cinemas across the country. And that's fine. I would never begrudge a creative person the chance to tell the types of stories they want to tell. My problem is that none of us seem to look around at the world outside of our heads and our tight little group of friends and see that these stories are NOT what our industry needs. Every member of the media, the faculty and the student body has a rant about why the industry sucks, but none of them seem to realise what industry means and how business plays a crucial role.

Industry requires money to be fed into equipment, infrastructure and manpower so as to stimulate production of profitable goods, the revenue of which can be fed back into the whole cycle. It's capitalism and like it or not, Australia is a part of that system. How on earth can an industry sustain itself when, as Mr. Nowra puts it, in 2009 only one film (Samson and Delilah) made its budget back out of the entire local crop, bringing in $3 million all up. According to Wikipedia, 34 Australian films were released this year. Screen Australia's website claims that in the 08/09 financial year, they budgeted $102 million for Screen Australia alone. As a whole, expenditure by federal agencies annually average $93.4 million per year on production and $3.59 million per year on project development. State agencies' expenditure annually average $14.02 million per year on production and $4.82 million per year on project development. Screen Australia's stats for Australian films' share of box office in 2008 states that Aussie films pulled in $35.5 million or 3.8% of the total box office for that year. While these figures don't come together as the perfect puzzle, it casts light on the very, very poor profitability of the Australian film as a business model.

How can an industry function like this? Quite simply, it can't. When a product doesn't make money then the only stream of income comes from government agencies and the odd independent financers, who, if they saw these statistics, would suddenly reschedule your meeting and never call you back. What results, if nothing changes, is an industry that limps along, feeding filmmakers who make movies nobody seems to watch. It's fair to say that Screen Australia and the rest of the funding bodies don't help matters by funding and encouraging films that dont become revenue stream, and though Screen Australia has started investing more heavily into the marketing of films, there needs to be a change that adjusts for the failure of our filmmakers to connect to audiences. But the gatekeepers of government money are not the biggest problem.

My greatest frustration is that a nasty and self-defeating attitude seems to prevail among filmmakers and critics: that the audience is stupid, that we're making excellent films and, as Margaret Pomeranz said, "if Australian audiences don't want to go and see them, stuff them." I put this very simple question to those who say our films are fine and that it's the audience that is the problem: if you're the only one who thinks your film is any good, is it? Is it really? If you're not making a film for a specific audience, then who are you making it for? Yourself? Your best mate? If so, fine, but do you really expect that anyone else will like the film? Do you really expect your industry to benefit from a film you and a handful of critics like but a large audience doesn't? Since when should we expect people to  purchase tickets for a product they don't like, just becasue of some vague sense of forced patriotism? Business, capitalism, industry - they just don't work like that.

This is the problem - movies are made for audiences. We're taught that in film school, but so many of us think that it's bullshit, that we're above that, that we're smarter than our audience, our teachers and every other filmmaker, especially those damn Yanks. And then every film we produce, year after year after year, tanks spectacularly while Titanic rakes in over $900 million in worldwide rentals and grosses $600 million in the USA alone under a year after release. Titanic cost $200 million to create and then made astronomical profits. Of course it's an extreme example, but if an Australian filmmaker made a movie that could achieve even one-fifth of the financial success of this extravagant, whimsical, melodramatic blockbuster, just think of all the arthouse films about pearl divers, street gangs and incestuous fathers that filmmaker could fund afterwards?

Comaplain all you want about capitalism's yoke but take note of how industry works. Blockbuster is not a dirty word and we need to scrub that mentality out of every single filmmaker and film student that populates this great nation of ours. Movies that appeal to the masses make money, and that money can then be pumped back into smaller films that meet more personal aims. In Hollywood, for every Requiem for a Dream there are fifty My Big Fat Greek Weddings. I'd like to see more graduates idolising Harvey Weinstein instead of Lars Von Trier, because while Von Trier makes powerful movies, they are of a certain type that right now, right here, would not help our industry grow and strengthen. The Weinsteins on the other hand constantly espouse the strategy of making large, profitable, blockbuster studio films to finance smaller, more modest, perhaps deeper projects. Hell, Kevin Smith says throughout both My Boring Ass Life and Silent Bob Speaks that you can make whatever movie you want so long as you don't lose the studio money. This finance-conscious attitude shouldn't be seen as a bad thing by filmmakers, because the naturally combative, anti-authoritarian attitude of the Australian in this respect does not work. Instead, see this as camaraderie, as all of us working together to better our circumstances by bringing money and renown to an ailing business. It's our job to stay in touch with our audience and know what they want, and then use our creative skills to meet those expectations as artfully and uniquely as our voices and visions will allow. We need to dispel the tired notion that we should be telling Australian stories and look at what exactly certain demographics of Australian - no, human audiences want to see. That is the charge of the communal activity known as storytelling. If the bearded elder sitting around a fire after a day on the hunt started recounting the existential crisis he experienced while trying to light the fire, instead of the bloody, titanic struggle of the day's kill, we may never have evolved the ability to talk. If we can make movies that people want to pay money to see, we'll be on the right track.

(Stay tuned for the second instalment on this topic)

References: 
My Boring Ass Life and Silent Bob Speaks, by Kevin Smith 
Get the Picture - Release of Australian productions - Cinema box office - Australian share
Get the Picture - Government funding: Summary of key data
Get the Picture - Release of Australian productions - Overview of cinema release
Australian films of 2009 - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 
Titanic (1997) - Box office / business
Nowhere Near Hollywood, by Louis Nowra, published in Dec 09-Jan 10 edition of The Monthly
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