If you were to ask the question; what is wrong with the film industry in Australia? You would be hard pressed to pinpoint exactly what the problem is. Australians love to consume content; whether it be at the movies, on television, via streaming services or on the internet. Though when it comes to consuming Australian-made content, we are not so eager. During the 2000’s decade 90% of all content was foreign produced (Burns & Eltham, 2010 p.103). Australia has had a long history of terrific film-making, from high-praised arthouse films such as ‘Man from Snowy River’ and ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ to cult classic comedies like ‘The Castle’ and ‘Muriel’s Wedding’. However, the history of Australian cinema success has been very sporadic since the 1970’s, with many highs and lows. Australian content in the past twenty years has averaged making up for less than 5 per cent of all box office revenue in Australian cinemas. Australian content hit a major low in 2016, with just 1.9% accounted at the box office. It is these kinds of statistics that put a lot of debate about whether the Australian film industry is succeeding and worth funding? There is uncertainty surrounding what it means if a film has market failure, is it based on financial factors or do Australian films play a larger role in society, to help construct our cultural identity?
Market failure in commercial terms, means a film is a box office flop. The money put into making the film was not returned in revenue from box office sales. Australian films are continuously plagued by this and yet are still being produced. How did we go from the glory days in the 1980’s where such films like ‘Crocodile Dundee’ helped Australian content account for 23 percent at the box office compared to the measly 1.9 per cent in seen in 2016? An argument that comes from article ‘More Than Ballyhoo’ discusses how the Australian audience has become Americanised. The article looks back at history to show how Australian content consuming habits have been formed. In 1923, the head of the Motion Picture Producers and the Distributers of America utilised Hollywood’s platform to sell ‘the purposes, the ideals, the accomplishments, the opportunities and the life of America’ to the rest of the world with American made films (Bowles, Maltby, Verhoeven & Walsh 2007, p99). Though seen as an ambitious attitude by many, the slow growing consumption of American culture began speaking for itself. Australian cinema audiences were adapting to American trends. For instance, Australian moviegoers dressed as cowboys when watching western films, women’s magazines showed how to style hair like the famous Hollywood actresses. American catchphrases and one-liners also began to become part of everyday conversation amongst Australian culture (Bowles, Maltby, Verhoeven & Walsh 2007, p98). Americanisation has helped create an Australian cultural identity that is obsessed consuming American content and thus creating our cinema identity.
How have we allowed this to happen?
In this opinion, it is due to the inequality of distribution of content. Australian films are bound to fail if they are not available for the public to access. The American film market is noted the prime market to recognise a films popularity. A film’s box office success in the American market is used as a guide for further potential success in overseas markets, in this case Australia (Bowles, Maltby, Verhoeven & Walsh 2007, p99). These films are promoted much heavier than Australian films with expensive marketing budgets. They are typically released at peak times, for example, the Christmas period and school holidays. A 2015 report from Screen Australia discusses some of the issues in the cinema industry that are affecting the distribution of Australian content. Increasing competition from other platforms, television, DVDs, internet and streaming services have made it harder for Cinema complexes to get people in to the cinemas. The cinemas negotiate with the distributors to how many screens and sessions the content will be played at. Using box office success from overseas releases and successes from similar genre films to determine potential revenue return. The amount of content generated continues to grow, an average of 398 films released to cinemas each year, with only around 25 being Australian made. This means that the cinema ‘shelf space’ is tight. As the Hollywood, big budget films take more screens because they continue to produce more revenue, Australian films have been pushed aside. In the last ten years, the amount of Australian films being screened at less than one hundred cinemas has doubled. Independent and arthouse cinemas are most likely to take on Australian films however in very scattered locations making it very inaccessible for many. This argument aids to why the Australian film industry is going through considered market place failure.
As the Australian film industry continues to struggle and be tainted as a continual financial bust, we continue to cultivate our legacy as Australians. Films not for profit but for the greater good. It is important that we continue to protect and fund the film industry. It is no secret that thought of an Australian film makes us weary, we as an audience are very harsh critics. However, when it comes to the local box office, it’s our own Australian-ness that has delivers success. Films like ‘Crocodile Dundee’, ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ and ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ all had distinct cultural themes and characters that were unmistakably Australian, however had that balance to be well received by domestic audiences as well as achieve universal appeal for international audiences (Ryan, 2012 p. 150). A 2011 survey by Screen Australia showed that people’s attitudes towards Australian produced content were quite positive. Over one thousand people surveyed showed ninety-one percent felt it was very important to have Australian narrative content being produced. The research showed that people found it important that Australian stories and culture were portrayed in film; and that more should be done to stop the bombardment of American content at cinemas. One finding was the surveyed, found that people love that the film industry provides employment and generates money in the economy. This was also highlighted in the article ‘Australian films at Large’, highlighting that success of film can be the economic benefits it provides to those in the film making industry as well as a boost to the tourism industry (Verhoeven, Davidson & Coate 2015, pp 9-10).
In this opinion piece, I recommend that the Australian film industry taps back into the Australianness culture of films that made them easily translatable for overseas audiences to enjoy also and to not be afraid of genre films. Genre films are typically more commercially successful and the audience have a better understanding what they’re about to consume. There is a way for genre and Australian identity to co-exist in film. It is this way the film industry can begin to become more profitable and the cultural stigma against Australian films can be eased. The film industry would best be operated through private investment as shown that the top three Australian films of all time (The Story of the Kelly Gang, Crocodile Dundee and Mad Max) were all privately made with no government aid. By operating a profitable film industry, we can assure a sustainable workforce for those in the industry and ensure Australian cultural identity can be brought to life on screen.
Bowles, K., Maltby, R., Verhoeven, D. & Walsh, M. 2007, ‘More than ballyhoo?: The importance of understanding film consumption in Australia’, Metro : media & education magazine, no. 152, pp. 96-101
Burns, Alex & Eltham, Ben 2010, ‘Boom and bust in Australian screen policy: 10BA, the Film Finance Corporation and Hollywood’s ‘race to the bottom’ ‘, Media international Australia, no. 136, pp. 103-118
Ryan, Mark David 2012, ‘A silver bullet for Australian cinema? genre movies and the audience debate’, Studies in Australasian cinema, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 141-157
Verhoeven, D., Davidson, A. & Coate, B. 2015, ‘Australian films at large: expanding the evidence about Australian cinema performance’, Studies in Australasian cinema, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 7-20