In a recent Sun-Herald article, 2015 was heralded “The year we fell in love with Australian movies again” (Quinn 2015b). Australian movies recorded their highest annual gross, achieving $84 million at the local box-office or 7.7 per cent of the total (Quinn 2015a).
While it is misguided to assess the Australian film industry’s performance exclusively on box-office earnings (Van Hemert & Ellison 2015, p.48), the sharp counterpoint to 2014’s commercial doldrums, when domestic receipts from Australian films totalled $26.2 million or 2.4 per cent – the second-lowest percentage in four decades (Waters 2015) – raises pertinent questions about the determinants of Australian cinema’s success.
The main reason attributed to the success of the Australian film industry this year was the range and appeal of local film offerings. From the fast-paced action spectacle Mad Max: Fury Road to the children’s comedies Oddball and Paper Planes and the challenging dramas The Dressmaker, The Water Diviner and Last Cab to Darwin, this year’s films were made with a clear intention to engage with an audience rather than simply satisfy the creative urges of filmmakers (Quinn 2015a). The diverse range of genres produced also indicates that the Australian filmmaking community is embracing the dynamics of commercial filmmaking (Quinn 2015a). The box-office success of Mad Max: Fury Road demonstrates that Australia is capable of producing high-end blockbusters with widespread appeal (Falkenstein 2015). This supports my argument in last week’s post for the reconsideration of Australian genre cinema.
Further contributing to the success of Australian films in 2015 was their powerful distribution strategies. The films benefited from a wide release and large promotional spend aided by the attachment of star-names (Quinn 2015a). This was complemented by innovative marketing and exhibition strategies responsive to audiences. For example, the release of the low-budget children’s film Paper Planes was accompanied with promotional events. This prompted awareness of the film and helped to achieve an impressive $1.71 million on opening weekend ahead of DreamWorks’ Penguins of Madagascar and Disney’s Big Hero 6 (Media Federation 2015).
The remarkable turnaround of the Australian film industry over the past year challenges the belief that Australian films are struggling due to audience preferences and behaviour. Cultural commentators and industry practitioners regularly report that domestic audiences are unwarrantedly resistant to quality local product, citing audiences’ preferences for Hollywood blockbusters and their dismissal of Australian films unless they have been internationally recognised as key reasons for the industry’s peril. In addition, changes in media consumption patterns is feared to have dire implications for audience engagement with Australian content (Kaufman 2009, p.8).
These accounts overlook the significance of an appealing story and innovative marketing, distribution and exhibition strategies in creating demand for local films (Kaufman 2009, p.7). The resounding opening weekend success of Paper Planes indicates that Australians will see a local film if it has strong buzz and word-of-mouth. Meanwhile, the box-office triumph of Mad Max: Fury Road reveals the appeal of mainstream popular cinema while also suggesting ongoing audience engagement with Australian content despite the impact of new technologies.
In this way, the general consensus pervading industry discussion that Australian audiences have changed viewing habits and are resistant and cynical to local products cannot be used to justify the tenuous state of Australian cinema. Rather than pinpointing audiences as the crux of the industry’s quandaries, a self-reflexive policy agenda that constantly monitors and evaluates the critical arenas of content development, distribution and exhibition is necessary to lead audiences down the yellow brick road to Oz cinema.
Falkenstein, G 2015, ‘Is Australia capable of making Hollywood blockbusters?’, New Daily, 27 October, viewed 19 December 2015, <http://thenewdaily.com.au/entertainment/2015/10/27/australia-capable-making-hollywood-blockbusters/>.
Kaufman, T 2009, ‘Finding Australian audiences for Australian films’, Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, no.163, p.6-8.
Paper Planes: Helping a Little Aussie Film Fly 2015, Media Federation, viewed 20 December 2015, <http://www.mediafederation.org.au/mfa-awards/past-winners/item/385-paper-planes-helping-a-little-aussie-film-fly>.
Quinn, K 2015a, ‘Australian film has had its biggest year at the box office ever. Why?’, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 December, viewed 19 December 2015, <http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/australian-film-has-had-its-biggest-year-at-the-box-office-ever-why-20151204-glfut3.html>.
Quinn, K 2015b, ‘The year we fell in love with Australian movies again’, Sun-Herald, 12 December, p.19.
Van Hemert, T & Ellison, E 2015, ‘Queensland’s film culture: the challenges of local film distribution and festival exhibition’, Studies in Australasian Cinema, vol.9, no.1, p.39-51.
Waters, J 2015, ‘Australia’s film industry reels’, Financial Times, 16 October, viewed 19 December 2015, <http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/53ea9bee-70f8-11e5-9b9e-690fdae72044.html>.