In an article written by Barry Jones and published in The Age, September 7 1976, the Australian film industry was criticised for producing boring, timid and self-indulgent films about pessimistic, downtrodden characters. Jones denounced Australian films for their reluctance to confront our national history, their mournful ocker humour and overall banality that was seemingly rectified by dressing characters in fancy costumes or using picturesque settings.
Forty years later and cultural critics continue to reflect upon the dull, depressing and unwatchable nature of most Australian films (Carroll Harris 2013, p.3). Australian cinema in the 21st century is lost in the shadows of empty art-house theatres, addicted to government funding and still desperately scraping to make itself relevant to an audience that barely knows it exists (Schembri 2008). In this dire context, is it time for film production in Australia to come to an end?
The Australian screen production industry is an important part of a smart, creative and resilient economy (Allman-Payne & Watson 2013). In a qualitative research study conducted by Screen Australia (2011), 91 percent of people believed it is quite or very important that Australia has a film and television industry producing local content. The vast majority of people agreed that Australian screen stories are vital for creating a sense of Australian national identity, contributing to Australia’s GDP and providing employment opportunities (Screen Australia 2011).
This combination of cultural and economic value affirms the ongoing importance of producing locally-made content. However, the Australian screen production sector is situated within a challenging industry facing rapid and constant change (Alony, Whymark & Jones 2007 p.43). Despite experiencing periods of boom, the Australian film industry is getting weaker over time and small independent producers are the most vulnerable (Court & Buck 2015). Action is, therefore, necessary to maintain a healthy production industry so as to ensure the survival of local traditions, the transmission of social and cultural values and the continuity of employment for Australian writers, directors, actors etc. This requires the development of new strategies that can provide support for independent producers and revive the national film industry.
Filmmaking is a collective enterprise that depends on collaboration and skill-sharing (Alony, Whymark & Jones 2007, p.43). However, research conducted by Van Hemert & Ellison (2015, p.48) into the state of Queensland’s film industry has revealed a lack of transparency and candor between local filmmakers about how their films are funded and the profits they return. This situation in Queensland is symptomatic of the wider culture of secrecy within the Australian screen sector. Australian filmmaker Bill Bennett argues that producers’ reluctance to share information is holding the industry back and is indicative of a lack of maturity in the Australia filmmaking community (Groves 2015).
There is a need for greater reliance on collaboration, communication and knowledge-sharing between Australian filmmakers, particularly given the uncertainty about current methods of exhibition and distribution in an unstable media landscape. According to the Australia Bureau of Statistics, 85 percent of Australian video production and post-production businesses have only 1-4 employees (Court & Buck 2015). Working alone or in small teams, independent filmmakers have few past films to guide them and limited capacity to gather the global market intelligence they need (Court & Buck 2015). This information poverty leads to wasted time and effort, poor decision-making and, in too many cases, to business failure (Court & Buck 2015).
Court and Buck (2015) advocate for the Australian screen industry to set up an information-sharing scheme modelled on the US-based Sundance Transparency Project. This non-profit project collects and shares financial and other data to “help filmmakers be more creative and efficient in funding, marketing and releasing their work” (Court & Buck 2015).
This scheme would enable Australian filmmakers to compare their work to similar films, identify potential revenue streams and distribution costs and to gauge how box-office grosses correlate to video-on-demand and other online digital platforms (Groves 2015). This information would help producers to secure private investment and to qualify for the funding requirements imposed by Screen Australia. At the same time, it would also empower independent filmmakers, giving them tools to compete more effectively with major studios who have substantial information advantages (Court & Buck 2015).
Australian cinema also needs to distinguish and differentiate itself from other national cinemas. Kaufman (2009, p.7) suggests considering the idea of Australian cinema as a brand. Following the lead of other countries such as the UK, Kaufman (2009, p.7) argues that rebranding Australian cinema with its own marketing campaign could maximise the impact of Australian film overall.
Delivering a brand name for Australian cinema will, however, require the Australian film industry to maintain consistency in terms of the style and content of its films (O’Reilly & Kerrigan 2011, p.771). Since its inception, Australian cinema has been driven by tendencies towards diversity of genre, format and approach (O’Regan 1996 , p.187). This diversity of production has made it difficult to define an overarching framework for Australian films and has resulted in the formation of a national cinema with an unstable identity (O’Regan 1996, p.188).
Specialising in a format, style or genre would give the fragmented Australian screen industry and production context a semblance of coherence (O’Regan 1996, p.198). For example, Hong Kong’s action films and Scandinavia’s crime dramas emphasise regularities of theme, plot and representation to construct a sense of unity. These thematic and stylistic continuities produce a connected family of filmmaking projects and a coherent screen industry that is readily and easily recognised.
To produce a sense of regularity, unity and convergence, Australian cinema should seek to find a lucrative niche within the larger international cinema. Elsaesser (1989, p.61, cited in O’Regan 1996, p.69) argues that Australian cinema has been most experimental and innovative in its margins, pointing specifically to its women’s cinema, its documentary tradition and its films about marginal groups, sub-cultural lifestyles, minority interests and the disabled. In more recent years, Australian horror films have also performed strongly in global markets (Ryan 2009, p.43).
Focusing on one of these specific thematic concerns or storytelling approaches would give Australian cinema a certain representativity crucial to differentiating itself in the international marketplace. At the same time, it would also offer industry professionals the opportunity to hone their skills from film to film.
For Dermody and Jacka (1988a, p.20, cited in O’Regan 1996, p.117), Australian national cinema is a child or adolescent, trying to grow up and become something, but whose development is permanently arrested by post-colonial ambiguity and anxieties. Indeed, in his 1976 newspaper article, Jones concludes, “Interesting films may depend upon developing a more interesting country.”
Australia in the 21st century is an innovative, resourceful, multicultural society that has a unique culture of vitality, energy and ingenuity. It is, therefore, essential to advance Australian cinema beyond the ordinary, mundane and reassuringly familiar to develop a more vigorous assertion of our hybrid identity, originality and competence to produce cinema to an international standard. If we give up now, we risk squandering forty years of public investment and will return to a time when Australian voices were not heard, our stories were not shared and our country was not seen.
The documentary Advance Australian Film (2014) explores the development and inner-workings of the Australian film industry. Check out its trailer here:
Allman-Payne & Watson 2013, Australia’s Stories on our Screens, Creating Jobs: Television and Film, The Greens, viewed 1 February 2016, <http://greens.org.au/sites/greens.org.au/files/Creating-Film-Television-Jobs.pdf>.
Alony, I, Whymark, G & Jones, ML 2007, ‘Sharing tacit knowledge: a case study in the Australian film industry’, Informing Science: The International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline, vol.10, p.41-59.
‘Australian Screen Stories Are Important To Australians’ 2011, Screen Australia, viewed 1 February 2016, <https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/research/austories_research.aspx>.
Carroll Harris, L 2013, Not at a cinema near you: Australia’s film distribution problem, Currency Press, Strawberry Hills, NSW.
Court, D & Buck, A 2015, ‘How Australian filmmakers can benefit from sharing information’, The Conversation, 16 March, viewed 2 February 2016, <https://theconversation.com/how-australian-filmmakers-can-benefit-from-sharing-information-37894>.
Groves, D 2015, ‘Call for greater transparency in screen industry’, Inside Film, 20 March, viewed 2 February 2016, <http://if.com.au/2015/03/19/article/Call-for-greater-transparency-in-screen-industry/JFEFTRIOSV.html>.
Kaufman, T 2009, ‘Finding Australian audiences for Australian films’, Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, no.163, p.6-8.
O’Regan, T 1996, Australian National Cinema, Routledge, New York.
O’Reilly, D & Kerrigan, F 2011, ‘A view to a brand: introducing the film brandscape’, European Journal of Marketing, vol.47, no.5/6, p.769-789.
Ryan, MD 2009, ‘Whither culture? Australian horror films and the limitations of cultural policy’, Media International Australia, Incorporating Culture and Policy, vol.133, p.43-55.
Schembri, J 2008, ‘Tough lessons for the film industry’, Age, 16 April, viewed 1 February 2016, <http://www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/tough-lessons-for-the-film-industry/2008/04/15/1208025185684.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1>.
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.