What’s the real reason Australian films aren’t popular?

It’s the AFI awards this week, so I’m celebrating with a series of posts about Australian screen policy.

If you’ve been reading tis blog, or following the apparently endless troubles of the Australian film industry, you’ll be well aware of the continuing angst about the supposed unpopularity of Australian features.

This makes the release of the latest Screen Australia report, Australian Films in the Marketplace: Analysis of Release Strategies and Box Office Performance, all the more interesting. A close reading shows that, pound-for-pound, Australian films punch above their weight. The big problem is not that audiences don’t want to see them, it’s actually that they don’t get to see them, at least not in the multiplexes anyway. Let’s drill into the figures and see if we can find out why.

The report analyses nearly 1400 films released in Australia and looks at how many screens they showed on, and their comparative box office takings. The results? Most Australian films receive only limited distribution. 82% are released on less than 100 screens, and 39% are released on less than 20! This segment of the market accounts for only 11% of total box office takings, so even though Australian films do quite well on the screens they show on (taking roughly similar median box offices to British and US films, though below the French), they are generally confined to the ghetto of arthouse and independent cinemas.

At the blockbuster end of the market, it’s a sorry tale. In the period of the study (2005-2009), only two Australian films screened on more than 400 screens.: Australia and Happy Feet. These did well, both grossing more than $30 million, above the median figure for films in this category.

It’s worth pointing out that Australian producers don’t determine what shows in the multiplexes, distributors and exhibitors do. And they’re clearly not buying Australian films for these wide releases. That’s not surprising, because in this market segment Australian films are competing against the massive production budgets, A-list star power and marketing juggernauts of the Hollywood studios.  After all, the production and marketing budget of just one blockbuster film like Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean 3 comfortably exceeds the entire production slate of Australian films (only $128 million in 2007-08).

Moral of the story? Australian films simply can’t compete in the multiplexes – there’s not enough production and especially marketing money.

Screen Australia is responding to this market reality by moving up-market, indicating to the industry that it wants to fund fewer, bigger budget productions. But is this the right strategy? I don’t think it is, for reasons I’ll explore tomorrow.

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4 thoughts on “What’s the real reason Australian films aren’t popular?

  1. Hi Ben – have you read Louis Nowra’s piece in the Monthly? What did you think? Sometimes I find him cranky and harsh in his essays – but this one articulated some great arguments for me, particularly re genre. Em

    • Hi Em, no I haven’t read it yet, but I think genre is a part of the problem, though only a part. It’s true that Australian films are often family dramas or hokey comedies, however, as Lyndon Barber points out, these films are often made after a successful movie in a particular genre like The Castle or Wolf Creek.

      I tend to agree with some of what producers like Tony Ginnane say, which is that the quality of writing of many of these scripts is not up to scratch. I found Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger horribly under-developed, for instance, while I found The Black Balloon beautifully written and deserving of its AFI for best script.

      None of these issues really address the main point, though, which is that Australian producers aren’t making the big special effects block-busters or star-driven teenage comedies that represent the top-selling end of the market.

  2. Oh, but you’re actually saying similar things to Nowra! Not that it’s just him making these arguments. ie, more genre movies is a good thing.

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