During the recent AACTA Awards film sector backslap, the message was loud and clear. “Australian cinema has been reborn!” the presenters continually reassured us, stressing that 2015 was a great year for local content. Homegrown movies earned AU$84million at the domestic box office, 7.7% of total takings; those figures represent the highest gross receipts ever for Oz films in a calendar year and the best market share since 2001.
But breaking down the statistics reveals some devil in the details. Which Aussie pics wooed local audiences back to the ticket counter? What trends emerged amongst the hits (and misses, of which there were plenty)? And is Australian cinema on the cusp of a new ‘New Wave’, or has the tide already turned? SCREEN-SPACE ponders 'The Year in Australian Film'…
“YA WANNA GET OUTTA HERE, YA TALK TO ME…”
It was a long time coming, and took a very bumpy path to get to its audience, but Dr George Miller’s operatic action extravaganza Mad Max Fury Road was exactly the guzzoline needed to fuel the 2015 box office engine. It wasn’t the singular driving force that blew out the figures, like Moulin Rouge in 2001 or Babe in 1995 or Crocodile Dundee in 1985; in fact, some might counter that our iconic action hero’s return did not carry its weight at the box office, given it was only the 13th biggest hit of the year with takings sputtering out at AU$22million (beaten by the likes of 50 Shades of Grey, Cinderella and Pitch Perfect 2). But it was unarguably ‘event cinema’ of the highest order, the blockbuster ‘Aussie’ film the likes of which rarely emerge from the Antipodes. (Pictured, right; Charlize Theron as Furiosa)
SYDNEY OR THE BUSH?
The anachronistic ‘rural essence’ of this nation’s DNA is still a crucial and compelling component of our storytelling. Jocelyn Moorhouse’s raucous outback oddity The Dressmaker was the second biggest locally made hit, weaving AU$19million; Russell Crowe’s directorial debut, the WW1-set drama The Water Diviner took the bulk of its AU$17million this year after a Boxing Day 2014 debut; and, Jeremy Sims’ red-centre road-trip tearjerker Last Cab to Darwin earned a solid AU$7million and a Best Actor AACTA for local hero Michael Caton. Traditional Australian iconography and a sense of warm larrikinism were central to these works. What didn’t work were the contemporary narratives. Neil Armfield’s critically-lauded Holding the Man (AU$1million) and Dean Francis’ challenging odyssey Drown (figures n/a) failed to break out of their niche demographic. Brendan Cowell’s Sydney Film Festival opener Ruben Guthrie (AU$300k; pictured, top), Peter Andrikidis’ multicultural romance Alex & Eve (AU$390k), comedian Carl Barron’s self-penned vehicle Manny Lewis (AU$390k), Anupam Sharma’s Bollywood-themed rom-com UNindian (AU$100k) and Wayne Hope’s Melbourne-set misfire Now Add Honey (AU$87k) all bombed. On the upside, Damon Gameau’s new-agey diet doco That Sugar Film worked hard for its AU$1million, a respectful return on investment.
“WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN!”
Local producers have occasionally been guilty of neglecting the commercial and cultural potential of all-age films; everyone seems surprised when they hit big. Consider the sector without the likes of Storm Boy (1976), Fatty Finn (1980), The Man From Snowy River (1982), BMX Bandits (1983), Napoleon (1994), Babe (1995), The Wiggles Movie (1997), Hating Alison Ashley (2005), Happy Feet (2006), Red Dog (2011) and The Rocket (2013). Behind the angry road warrior and the snooty seamstress, family films carried the local industry in 2015. Oz production giant Village Roadshow brought all their marketing might to two kid-friendly hits – Stuart McDonald’s country-bumkin puppy-dog tale Oddball (AU$11million; pictured, right) and Robert Connolly’s rousing family drama Paper Planes (AU$10million) defined and maximised their audience with precision. The local arm of Studio Canal invested in Deane Taylor’s contemporary take on Blinky Bill (securing such voice talents as Toni Collette, David Wenham and Barry Humphries) and recouped a healthy AU$2.7million. In 2016, the ‘Aussie teen’ genre will be re-energised by Rosemary Myer’s wonderful Girl Asleep, which warmed hearts at this years’ Adelaide Film Festival.
"WHEN YOU WISH, UPON A STAR"
While the might of the ‘A-list movie star’ continues to wan at the global box office, Australian audiences seem to respond to big name talent in their little Aussie stories. Kate Winslet’s presence in The Dressmaker was a key selling point, earning the film not only acceptance at the local ticket counter but helping to secure the PJ Hogan-produced film a Toronto world premiere. Crowe’s presence both behind and before the camera paid dividends for The Water Diviner, in addition to his uncharacteristic openness with the press and the photogenic charms of Ukrainian co-star Olga Kurylenko. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron didn’t hurt Mad Max: Fury Road, though the ‘star’ was ultimately the chaotic artistry of Miller’s visuals. The exception that proves this rule is our own Nicole Kidman; her brave lead turn in Kim Farrant’s dusty ‘Twin Peaks’ wannabe Strangerland (to date, a global take is AU$24k) was all but ignored, while her latest US effort, Billy Ray’s Secret in Their Eyes, stumbled to AU$1.5million locally (despite the presence of co-stars Julia Roberts and Chiwetel Ejiofor).
SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR...
None of these films contributed more than loose change to the year’s box-office haul, but each one signals a new breed of commercially-oriented young filmmaker is on the verge of breaking through. Had the scourge of piracy not eaten away at it’s theatrical potential, Kiah Roache-Turner’s Wyrmwood would have certainly expanded upon its meagre AU$133k gross. Everyone of the following should earn its keep, via either the developing self-distribution theatrical model (see Fan-Force or Tugg) or as a 2016 home entertainment hit – Joe Bauer’s hilarious sci-fi/comedy Australiens (pictured, right); Rhiannon Bannenburg’s polished chamber piece, Ambrosia; Sam Curtain’s ruthlessly corpulent Blood Hunt; the unforgettably twisted Cat Sick Blues, from Dave Jackson (you’ve been warned); Deadhouse Film’s anthology A Night of Horror Volume 1; Shane Abbess’ handsomely mounted outer-space thriller, Infini; Jesse O’Brien’s bracing and brilliant sci-fi vision, Arrowhead; and, the off-kilter, heart-warming doco Sam Klemke’s Time Machine, from Matthew Bate.
(All figures courtesy of Box Office Mojo; conversion rates as of 28/12).