Is it time to give up on Australian content?

The short answer to this question is NO. Absolutely not.

In the past, Australia has produced some incredible films and a wide spectrum of successful television series. Although currently in a domestic market declinemaking some changes to Australia’s current methods as to the production and distribution of film and television content could see a huge difference to the success of film and television in Australia in the future.

Firstly, the idea of the importance of the box office being an indicator for a film’s financial success needs to be re-evaluated. Verhoeven et al (2015, p. 8) suggests that ‘Whilst box office revenue is undoubtedly an important ingredient in determining the overall success of a film, its importance is too often overstated and overextended.’ This signifies that Australia should move away from placing reliance on the domestic box office dictating a film’s success and instead look at other ways films are deemed successful. Verhoeven et al (2015) notes looking at international sales and foreign ticket revenue as one example: ‘A quick look at the recent numbers reveals that 8 of the 10 top-grossing Hollywood films in 2013 made more than 60% of their theatrical revenues outside the USA.’ An Australian example of this occurring was discussed in this blog post in relation to The Babadook being widely successful in the United Kingdom.

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Furthermore, a focus on the success of digital distribution for film and television could see Australian content become more highly recognised. Screen Australia’s 2014 report titled Online and On Demand: Trends in Australian Online Video use, revealed that two thirds of 16-24 year olds watch video content online. This is an obvious indicator that young people have made the shift from conventional distribution methods and prefer to watch digitally. This is further evidence for the fact that the guidelines for deeming a film or television series successful (box office takings, television ratings etc.) may be outdated and need to be re-evaluated.

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The final point to be made is that implementing Screen Australia’s ‘significant level of Australian content’ criteria for film-makers to obtain funding is no longer a sustainable practice within Australia’s film industry. This criteria point is quite stringent and restricts the freedom of those within the film industry who wish to create content that focuses less on landscapes and white suburban families, and perhaps more on other topics that may be seen as more attractive to the Australian consumer, for example, different types of genre films. Without funding, high quality films simply cannot be produced and achieving other methods for funding is not always easy to do.

In conclusion, the future for Australian content is bright, however to ensure maximum recognition, both domestically and internationally, Australia needs to utilise other methods for measuring the success of Australian content. This includes how content distribution has shifted, as well as the re-evaluation of Screen Australia’s requirements for funding.

References:

Screen Australia 2014, Online and on demand: Trends in Australian Online Video Use, Screen Australia, viewed 12 December 2017, <https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/getmedia/0062da06-db04-4932-a3e1-20a81d383129/Online-on-demand.pdf&gt;.

Verhoeven, et al 2015, ‘Australian films at large: expanding the evidence about Australian cinema performance’, Studies in Australasian Cinema, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 7-20.

Other materials used have been linked throughout.

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“The way we watch favours global cultural diversity over Australian content”

It is no secret that the way in which Australian audiences consume media content has changed from the conventional methods of going to the cinema and turning on free-to-air television to consuming content via newer distribution methods such as online streaming. Aveyard (2011, p. 41) states that ‘Digital technologies are dramatically altering the exhibition landscape and changing the experiences of audiences at cinemas.’ One reason for this is the 2005 Australia-United States of America Free Trade Agreement which allowed for the incorporation of ‘free trade in digital content’ (Breen, 2010, p. 657) between Australia and the USA.

Hold up what exactly is a Free Trade Agreement? In general, Free Trade Agreements assist in improving trade between two or more countries by reducing the barriers that are initially put up for the protection of local industries and markets (Grimson, 2014). Once signed, the Agreement between Australia and the USA meant the that flow of cultural products was directly impacted in a theory known as ‘digital determinism’ (Breen, 2010, p. 658). Ultimately, products from the USA could flood the Australian market with little to no restrictions. Thus, the rise of online streaming services and digital distribution became prominent – this was mostly due to the introduction of platforms such as Netflix in March of 2015.

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Within the first three months of the introduction of Netflix, it gained nearly 1.5 million Australian users (Frazer, 2015) with many different USA (and other country)-made television shows and films becoming accessible to Australian audiences that would otherwise be difficult to watch. Opening our domestic market up to new options for ways to view film and television has seen global cultural diversity thrive rather than purely restricting Australians to consuming Australian content.

In 2014, Screen Australia released a report titled Online and On Demand: Trends in Australian Online Video use, which determined that two thirds of 16-24 year olds consume video content online. Aveyard (2011, p. 38) suggests that in the Australian film industry, traditional marketing practices do not work. Colin MacCabe (2007) agrees with this notion in saying that ‘films only exist when they are distributed properly’. The consequences of the Free Trade Agreement between Australia and the USA reveal that perhaps digital distribution is the way of the future for purely Australian content as well. If more people are switching to online streaming, perhaps traditional marketing methods should be minimised so Australian content can thrive in a different way. We can make space for Australian content by changing the way we watch.

Carlo Ledesma’s The Tunnel is one example of a successful Australian film that used digital methods of distribution to become successful. Harris (2013) explains how this was done. Ultimately, the film made profit from using file sharing and piracy site BitTorrent to freely giveaway the film – this generated word-of-mouth publicity which invited people to buy tickets to special screenings and buy merchandise and DVDs. The film was viewed over 4 million times and over 25,000 DVDs were sold.

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In conclusion, the Free Trade Agreement between Australia and the USA meant that global cultural diversity grew in terms of having more accessible digital content. The way we choose to watch content has changed to a more digital method and content-makers must adapt their distribution methods to reach a maximum audience.

References:

Aveyard, K 2011, ‘Australian Films at the Cinema: Rethinking the Role of Distribution and Exhibition’, Media International Australia, no. 138, pp. 36-45.

Breen, M 2010, ‘Digital determinism: culture industries in the USA-Australia Free Trade Agreement’, New Media & Society, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 657-676.

Frazer, S 2015, Netflix revolution shakes up Australian media, telecommunications landscape, ABC, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-08-06/netflix-revolution-shakes-up-australian-media/6678138>.

Grimson, M 2014, ‘Free trade agreements: What is an FTA and what are the benefits?’, ABC News, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-04-07/free-trade-agreement-explained-bilateral-fta-tpp/5371314>.

MacCabe, C 2007, cited in Aveyard, K 2011, ‘Australian Films at the Cinema: Rethinking the Role of Distribution and Exhibition’, Media International Australia, no. 138, pp. 36-45.

Other materials used have been linked throughout.

When it comes to the Australian content industry, any attention is good attention!

Within the entertainment industry, there is a well-known idea that is often thrown around that goes along the lines of ‘any publicity is good publicity’ or ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’.

This appears to be true for the Australian film industry’s depiction of landscapes and its links to increased tourism in regional areas. Beeton (2010) discusses the idea of ‘places as characters’ being something that has been said to often evoke ‘strong emotional responses’ (pp. 114) and this ultimately leads people to want to explore these areas. It is fitting to use Greg McLean’s 2005 Australian outback horror film Wolf Creek as a case study for this idea.

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Wolf Creek
stars John Jarratt as Mick Taylor, a psychopathic bushman who takes three backpackers captive in the Australian outback and subjects them to incredibly sadistic methods of torture for his own amusement. The film is marketed as being ‘based on true events’ and is said to revolve around the Ivan Milat backpacker murder saga.

It is suggested by Dr Gemma Blackwood (2014) that undesirable storylines in films invite people to the film’s location, possibly due to the excitement or intrigue that comes with this. ‘The people who watch horror films are often young people and the people who like a bit of adventure and a bit of fun, and they’re the same sort of people who end up being backpackers to northern Australia.

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Director Greg McLean advocates for the film’s popularity with audiences from overseas. In this ABC Radio National sound clip from 2014 he says, ‘Australia is one of the last frontier places where you can go and adventure in the world’ and alludes to the fact that this is due to its wide open spaces and the exciting sort of danger that comes with this. He states that the film was popular in places like Germany, France, Spain and the UK where a lot of backpackers come from and the film was able to engage with their morbid curiosity and intrigue.

Since the introduction of the film, the Wolfe Creek Crater in the Kimberley region in Western Australia has become a popular tourist attraction. The site is located approximately 150km from Halls Creek down a dirt track, and manager of the Halls Creek Visitor Centre notes the increasing tourism to the areas in saying that ‘people want their spot of fifteen minutes of fame; they love being somewhere famous. Many people walk in and say that the Wolf Creek movie was shot around here and we’d like to see it.

As evidenced above, Wolf Creek is a widely popular Australian film with a focus on landscapes. The film’s content is highly negative in nature, however this has had the opposite of a deterring factor on tourists. It goes hand in hand with the idea that any attention is good attention!

References:

Beeton, S 2010, ‘Landscapes as Characters: Films, Tourism and a Sense of Place’, Metro Magazine, no. 166, pp. 114-119).

Other materials used have been linked throughout.

The problem isn’t Australian films, it’s Australian audiences

Australian cinema is still big; it’s the audience that got small – Buckmaster, 2014

With this quote comes the widely held perception that Australian audiences do not like Australian content, and as a result they will not watch Australian content. The box office statistics mentioned in this post give ample evidence for this fact. Bowles et al (2007, p. 96) further explain that the Australian box office data indicates that ‘the knowledgeable enthusiasm of Australian audiences 
for cinema in general has not favoured local production’, describing this as an ‘awkward fact’.

If the demand for local production is low, production value of Australian film becomes weak and this minimises – even more – the want for Australian audiences to watch Australian films. Further, with ticketing prices at the cinema being so high nowadays, it can be argued that if spending their money, most Australians would prefer to watch a much higher budget and better-marketed Hollywood blockbuster over a low budget Australian film.

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Mills (2002) emphasises that ‘Our national cinema plays a vital role in our cultural heritage and in showing us what it is to be Australian’ which means it is a shame if Australian audiences refuse to watch – they are ultimately missing out on a true cinematic experience with an exploration of our culture.

It would seem that the audiences to watch Australian films exist, they just might not be Australian. One example of an Australian film that was not entirely successful here in Australia, but was successful overseas, is Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014). This is a psychological thriller/ horror film in which a monster enters the house of a widower and her young son through the pages of a children’s book. Tan (2014) explains that in Australia, this film was played at select art house cinemas for a period of six weeks, showed on just 13 screens Australia-wide. It only earned a mere $256,000 at the Australian box office. In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, the film was shown on 147 screens and made approximately AUD $633,000 within its opening three days. This comparison with the United Kingdom highlights that Australian films can still be extremely successful, but the problem lies with Australian audiences.

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How do we get Australian audiences to watch Australian films?
As mentioned, Australian audiences are generally more fascinated by higher budget films produced internationally.  Perhaps if Australian films are first shown internationally, their box office popularity in Australia will rise. For example, Dow (2014) explains that in 1994, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert first premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival and this was followed by a midnight screening at the Cannes Film Festival where lip-syncing drag queens appeared in order to generate more attention. Furthermore, Muriels Wedding first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. As a result, Australia’s domestic box office takings for that year were close to 10% (Dow, 2014).


With solutions like this, Australian audiences may not remain small and Australian cinema can thrive again.

References:

Bowles, et al 2007, ‘More than Ballyhoo? The Importance of Understanding Film Consumption in Australia’, Metro Magazine, no. 152, pp. 96-101.

Buckmaster, L 2014, ‘Australian Cinema is Still Big; It’s the Audience That Got Small’, Daily Review, < https://dailyreview.com.au/australian-cinema-is-still-big-its-the-audience-that-got-small/11426/>.

Dow, S 2014, ‘What’s wrong with Australian Cinema?’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/oct/26/australian-film-australian-audiences>.

Mills, J 2002 cited in Bowles, K 2007, ‘Three miles of rough dirt road’: towards an audience-centred approach to cinema studies in Australia’, Studies in Australasian Cinema, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 245-260.

Tan, M 2014, ‘The Babadook’s monster UK box office success highlights problems at home’, The Guardian, < https://www.theguardian.com/film/australia-culture-blog/2014/oct/29/the-babadooks-monster-uk-box-office-success-highlights-problems-at-home>.

Thor but not complaining: How the Australian film industry is quietly struggling

The Australian film industry played an incredible part in the beginnings of the world’s film production with the release of Charles Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906. This silent film ‘is recognised in the film industry as being the first feature film ever made.’

Despite this being a potential indicator that Australia’s film industry may have a thriving and bright future, this was ultimately not the case. During the 1920s the Australian film industry began to deteriorate – perhaps due to the rise of both British and American production corporations. These corporations began creating larger-scale feature films that essentially had higher budgets for production and marketing. As a result, this seemingly pushed Australian-produced films out of the cinemas.

This is not to say, however, that Australia has not had periods of time beyond the 1920s where successful films were made. During the 1970s, the Whitlam government ultimately pulled the Australian film industry from certain extinction with significantly more importance placed on funding for screen culture and the arts. The Whitlam government introduced the Australian Film and Television School, as well as the Australian Film Commission – the legacy of which remains apparent today through the fact that it funded a diverse range of projects including historical films, dramas, ocker comedies and literary adaptations. The 10BA tax concessions also came out of this era which allowed screen producers to claim subsidies for production – up to a massive 150% in the early period when these concessions were made available. The introduction of 10BA definitely showed that people made more films when they had the funding to do so. In fact, between 1970 and 1985 Australia produced nearly 400 films, which was more than any other period in the history of the Australian film industry.

At present time, however, Australia’s film industry is considered to be failing in our domestic market. This is largely due to expenditure and funding accounting for substantially more than what the industry receives back in terms of profit. Poor box office performance is a significant indicator of this – as recent as 2016, Australian feature films earned $24.1 million in the box office, which does sound like a lot of money, but ultimately it only made up for a mere 1.9% of the overall Australian box office takings. It becomes more dire of a situation when we find out that in 2015 the share was at 7.2%.  The 2016 takings also fell exceptionally below the 10-year average of 4.1%. These alarming statistics are indicated by the following graph and tables:

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This information suggests that the popularity of Australian films is rapidly declining.

In relation to this speedy decline, it must be decided whether we should simply just accept the fact that Australia’s film industry is a failure, OR whether we should try and remember why Australia has a film industry in the first place. If the latter is decided, then we need to generate solutions to increase the popularity of Australian films and overall profit for the Australian film industry.

The reasoning behind why Australia has a film industry is because it is important to showcase a cohesive Australian identity in having films and other media content that depicts what it means to be Australian. To receive funding from the Australian government, Screen Australia has put forward certain elements that a film must meet; first and foremost the project must have a ‘significant level of Australian content.’

At face value, this sounds like a straightforward thing to ask of an Australian film, however questions need to be asked as to what this actually means and whether this is a sustainable industry practice. It is incredibly ambiguous and paints the vaguest of pictures in one’s mind about what Australian content really is, considering Australian-ness at present time is not just one single national identity, but a multitude of cultural and social practices that have been recognised over the years. What, then, do we consider to be Australian? Is it the vast outback and natural landscapes depicted in the likes of Wolf Creek? Is it the focus on our history in Gallipoli? Or is it something entirely different? The statistics mentioned above show that submitting to Screen Australia’s requirements for funding will not lead us into a strong future for the Australian film industry.

Australia definitely has the talent in terms of actors, directors and producers (think Margot Robbie or the Hemsworth brothers as rising stars and modern examples), but the above statistics reveal that we do not have the finance to make big-budget Australian films that have the capacity to sell out cinemas. Why would Chris Hemsworth settle for a low-value potentially ‘B-grade’ production made in Australia when he could be Thor instead?

 

With the Australian film industry in its current state, it is no wonder that Australian films are often classed as ‘auditions for our actors before they make it big overseas.’

Something needs to change, and it needs to change fast. What can we do to maximise profit AND artistic value? How can we entertain audiences and have them craving Australian films over American or British films? If Screen Australia insists on only providing funding for films that showcase a ‘significant level of Australian content’, then we need to achieve more options for funding because firstly, producing blockbuster movies is expensive, and secondly, Australians want to see more than the outback, national parks or beaches – as beautiful as these things may be, they are boring to see every day. Think about it: if you’re from the city, you’ll probably holiday near the beach, and if you live near the beach, you’re more likely to holiday in a big city.

Perhaps seeking out private investors is the way forward – maybe we should bring back a 10BA type of taxation scheme to increase private investment. Further, privately investing into the creation of more genre films could save the Australian film industry. Genre films have done well in Australia in the past because people know what they are getting, Altman (1999, 14) describing genre films as a type of ‘contract informing audience consumption.’

Australia could also attempt crowd-funded campaigns to move our dreams to the silver screen – after all, over 600 pledges are made on Kickstarter every day.

Co-production should be encouraged as co-produced Australian films have particularly done well in the past. For example, Australian director George Miller and British production designer Brendan McCarthy co-wrote Australia’s 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road, which was a highly successful film. It became the second highest grossing film at the international box office. Additionally, the use of foreign stars could boost our film market. British heart-throb Tom Hardy and South-African born Charlize Theron are both big names internationally and both happen to star in Mad Max: Fury Road. Co-produced movies would also see a rise in production jobs as more movies are given the go-ahead due to allowing for larger budget to do so. This would not take away from our national identity as Australia’s national identity has become scattered across many different cultural and societal pathways throughout the years. You cannot lose a national identity that is continually evolving and is not just one idea set in stone.

It is time for Australia to step away from Screen Australia’s stringent requirements and move towards the above examples to generate funding for our film industry. The statistics mentioned above reveal that trying to keep up with Screen Australia’s requirements for film ideas to receive funding is simply not a sustainable practice. Australia has the talent and ideas to make our film industry into something worthy of international recognition – we just need to choose options for funding in film making that would see us thrive into the creative future in terms of both monetary gain and artistic success. It must be stressed (again) that we will not lose any form of national identity in this process. Three cheers for Australian films!

What can the case study of Ozploitation tell us about the Australian film industry?

‘Ozploitation’ is a term coined by Mark Hartley in the documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! This term refers to the exploitation of genre films produced by Australia in the 1970s and 1980s which became a fruitful period for Australian film due to the 10BA tax concessions.

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Burns and Eltham (2010) articulate the above-mentioned tax rebate quite well. Under the Whitlam government in the 1970s, Australia wished for culture and the arts to shine and thus the Australian Film Commission was established. This agency created a national policy which initiated the idea of providing public funding for Australian productions. This policy meant that screen producers were able to claim a production subsidy of up to 150% in 1981 when this rebate was first introduced. Despite this number declining to 133% in 1983 and then again to 100% in 1987, the 10BA tax concessions certainly revealed that Australia made more films when they received the funding to do so. Niemi (2006, p. 41) explains that between 1970 to 1985 when the 10BA tax concession was most active, Australia produced nearly 400 films which is a number that exceeds those in any other time period of Australian film production.

In terms of ozploitation, three distinct film types were established. These were ocker sex comedies such as Alvin Purple (1973), low budget horror and creature feature films such as Howling III (1987), and action films such as The Man From Hong Kong (1975). These types of genre films were wildly popular during the 10BA period, Altman (1999, p. 14) noting that ‘Genre functions as a blueprint for industry production, a marketplace label for advertising and distribution and a viewing contract informing audience consumption.’ To put this in simpler terms, if a film comes under a specific genre, the audience as consumers can understand what the film will be about before watching and this notion either makes the film attractive or unattractive to the consumer.


So, what does ozploitation tell us about the Australian film industry? Firstly, Ryan (2012, p. 148) ultimately explains that genre films such as those that fall under categories mentioned above, have been heralded as extremely popular in the past, or known as a ‘silver bullet’. Perhaps the way of the future for the Australian film industry is to make its way back to producing genre films. Additionally, ozploitation tells us that Australians will produce films when funding is available to them, as the above information notes. Although these films in the past have been lower budget films with an often tasteless aesthetic, introducing more options for funding for Australian film-makers will see more films being produced, whether this is a 10BA type rebate or something else.

References:

Altman, 1999 cited in Ryan, MD 2012, ‘A silver bullet for Australian cinema? Genre movies and the audience debate’, Studies in Australasian Cinema, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 141-157.

Burns, A & Eltham, B 2010, ‘Boom and Bust in Australian Screen Policy: 10BA, the Film Finance Corporation and Hollywood’s Race to the Bottom’, Media International Australia, vol. 136, no. 1, pp. 103-118.

Niemi, R 2006, History in the Media: Film and Television, ABC-CLIO, California.

Ryan, MD 2012, ‘A silver bullet for Australian cinema? Genre movies and the audience debate’, Studies in Australasian Cinema, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 141-157.

What are the key assumptions surrounding the production of Australian content?

Despite what we quite often see in content produced by the Australian film industry, Australia consists of more than just these things:

  • The Outback;
  • Akubra hats;
  • Bogans;
  • Fearless male protagonists;
  • Crocodiles, kangaroos, koalas, snakes, and spiders as big as your face; and
  • Insulting your mates as a form of affection.

Cringe-worthy stereotypes such as these can be considered one of the reasons that Australians simply do not enjoy or watch Australian film – the repetitive and monotonous nature of these stereotypes can be incredibly damaging. Australians not liking Australian films is one of the most widely spread assumptions about their production.

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Information from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals that in the past decade, the Australian film industry has become caught up in a rapid domestic market decline. In 2016, feature films produced by Australia earned $24.1 million in box office takings, this number making up for an insignificant 1.9% of the overall box office takings for that year. For some contrast, just a year earlier in 2015 the total box office takings were at 7.2% for Australian films. The exceptional decline is further highlighted when we find out that the 2016 box office takings drastically fell below the 10 year average of 4.1%.

These statistics are quite startling and although over-used stereotypes can take part of the blame for why Australians do not watch Australian films, more reasons will be discussed in the following paragraphs.

Distribution methods are also a significant factor as to why Australians do not watch Australian films. Dow (2014) argues that Australian films get shorter seasons at independent cinemas and have fewer screening times which is something that definitely has an effect on box office takings. Hollywood blockbusters are often more highly anticipated and have more easily accessible screenings due to greater marketing strategies and bigger budgets, and therefore Australian films get lost in comparison.

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Furthermore, Dow (2014) summarises research conducted by Screen Australia in 2011 in saying that ‘nine out of ten [people] wait to see [films] on DVD, television or online.’ The rise of online media is especially intriguing. Screen Australia’s 2014 report titled Online and On Demand: Trends in Australian Online Video use, revealed that two thirds of 16-24 year olds watch video content online. This is an obvious indicator that young people especially will not go to the cinema – and therefore Australian box office takings suffer.

The lack of funding for Australian films produces lower film quality and is also contributing factor as to why Australians do not watch Australian films. Screen Australia has eligibility guidelines that a film must adhere to in order to obtain funding. The main element is that the film must have a ‘significant level of Australian content.’ This is a restrictive guideline in that Australian content producers do not get much room to follow other creative paths. Funding for films is not cheap and without it film quality is severely reduced. Following a guideline so stringent means that most Australian films turn out quite similar in that there is a large focus on landscapes and the production of stereotypes mentioned above. From the above-mentioned ABS box office statistics, perhaps Screen Australia should shift their guidelines to make them less stringent and allow more room for creativity so more Australians will want to see Australian films.

The assumption that Australians do not like Australian films could potentially be undone if the above options are explored.

References:

Dow, S 2014, ‘What’s wrong with Australian Cinema?’, The Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/oct/26/australian-film-australian-audiences>.

Screen Australia (2014) Online and on demand: Trends in Australian Online Video Use, Screen Australia, viewed 12 December 2017, https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/getmedia/0062da06-db04-4932-a3e1-20a81d383129/Online-on-demand.pdf>.

Other materials used have been linked throughout.