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:
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!