Australia’s film industry reels

Jamie Waters

High quality global journalism requires investment. Two years ago, Robert Connolly, the Australian director and producer renowned for films such as 2009’s East Timor-set drama Balibo, was finding it “incredibly hard” to source backing for his newest, unlikeliest project: a children’s film about a boy who competes in the world paper-plane championships.

Then he received an email from the actor Sam Worthington, one of Australia’s biggest names in Hollywood. It said: “I hear you’re trying to make a film about a kid who makes paper planes. I love paper planes and we need to make more films for our kids; is there a role for a dad?” At first Connolly thought it was a prank, he recalls, chuckling, because the email was sent from an obscure address that Worthington used to protect his privacy.

High quality global journalism requires investment. But the message was genuine, and it was a turning point in the film’s development. Having a marquee name on board got the project “over the line”, Connolly says, and Roadshow Films, Australian producer and distributor of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) among others, threw its weight behind it.

Fast-forward to January of this year and the release of Paper Planes, Connolly’s heartwarming comedy-drama, which collected A$9.8m at the Australian box office. Critics generally praised it, with Luke Buckmaster of Guardian Australia commending it for “tapping into . . . collective nostalgia” with “sweet, greeting card-style messages”. The audience response was unequivocal: receipts marked it as the highest-grossing Australian children’s film in history. UK cinemagoers will be able to see what all the fuss is about this month.

Paper PlanesMad Max: Fury Road and The Water Diviner have been crucial to the A$64m haul (and 6.8 per cent share) from Australian films at the local box office this year: the highest-ever annual gross. It’s a sharp counterpoint to 2014’s commercial doldrums, when domestic receipts from Australian films totalled A$26.2m, or 2.4 per cent — the second-lowest percentage in four decades.

“The films that have driven this year’s box office have been really smart at knowing what their audience is, and making a film precisely for that audience,” says Michael Bodey, film editor at The Australian newspaper. Paper Planes, for example, is savvy, homing in on its audience with an accessible premise, an uncomplicated plot and fantastical flying scenes.

Its quintessentially Australian feel, heightened by a rural setting, is important. Many of Australia’s biggest films at the national box office — including Crocodile Dundee (1986) and Australia (2008), the two highest-grossing — portray a “romantic” picture of the country and its outback, says Bodey. “Australians have quite simple tastes . . . we don’t mind the sort of clichéd version of Australia.”

High quality global journalism requires investment. Equally crucial to Paper Planes’ success was its propulsion by what Connolly calls a “big, imaginative release” from Roadshow. Although the film itself was mid-budget, Roadshow put muscle into a 300-screen release in the prime school-holiday slot. Cannily, it didn’t pitch the film to parents but aimed it directly at kids, and set up paper plane-making stations in cinemas to enhance interactivity.

Just as Paper Planes set a precedent for the Australian cinema of 2015, the psychological-slash-supernatural horror The Babadook, written and directed by Jennifer Kent, was arguably the model for 2014. The story of a mother and son who are haunted by a children’s book character, it doesn’t have the overtly Australian feel of Paper Planesor 2005’s Wolf Creek, perhaps Australia’s hallmark horror flick, but it was one of the most striking films of the year (William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, declared he’d “never seen a more terrifying film”). In it, the red dirt and vast shrub land often used to evoke the country’s landscape are replaced with suburbia and interior spaces. “We wanted to create a time and . . . place that could have been set anywhere in any time,” explains co-producer Kristina Ceyton.

High quality global journalism requires investment.  Like several films from last year, though, The Babadook was a critically acclaimed genre work that failed to register with Australians, collecting a mere A$290,000 in 10 weeks. This muted showing was partly attributable to the timing of its release, and also to “cultural cringe”: the tendency for Australians to avoid local films unless they’ve been hailed as exceptional or approved overseas. This is more pronounced for non-mainstream pieces lacking an obvious Australian sentiment. “We won’t look at a genre film like [The Babadook] unless the rest of the world thinks it’s any good,” says Bodey. That film was released in Australia months before it was shown in the UK, where it took £347,500 (A$633,000) in just three days, well over double the total for its entire Australian run. But by the time UK and US critics and audiences had lauded the film, Australians could no longer see it in cinemas.

The Babadook’s box office takings must be considered in light of its varying degrees of exposure. In the UK it appeared on 147 screens; in Australia, only 13. Cinemas were reluctant to show a film straddling two sub-genres and lacking stars, so relatively few people even had the chance to see it. Thus the inevitably meagre takings “confirmed” the notion that Australians don’t want to watch Australian genre films. “Yep, that’s the catch-22,” agrees Ceyton, although she remains optimistic.

Paper Planes was likewise afflicted by perceived cultural cringe. Connolly had struggled pre-Worthington because of a perception that Australians wouldn’t watch a mid-budget Australian children’s film instead of, say, a Pixar production. Exacerbating this concern was the fact that, though historically responsible for films such as Babe (1995), Australia had “kind of lost its way in . . . making kids’ films,” says Connolly. Fortunately for him, having a star lead reduced the gamble for backers (ironically, given that critics agree Worthington’s presence in the film made no difference to cinema attendance) and he was given the chance to prove that Australian kids “want to see good stories, and they’re not going to be worried about whether they’re Australian”.

Thanks to Paper Planes, a swath of children’s films looks imminent. But how does The Babadook’s fate inform the future? For Ceyton, disappointing theatrical home showings are not disastrous, as films can still break out internationally. But more fundamental is the need to continue supporting quality and diversity. “For me, it’s always about finding the really interesting talent and voices in Australia . . . It’d be a shame if we made reruns of the same thing just because it ticks all the boxes.” Public bodies are key here: government-funded Screen Australia and other state agencies provided The Babadook’s core financing despite its obscure premise. “I don’t know if [it] would have been made in America,” says Ceyton.

Connolly also stresses the importance of variety. “Australian cinema isn’t a genre in itself,” he says. “[It’s] not about trying to make all blockbusters, it’s . . . about trying to make a really diverse range of films.”

‘Paper Planes’ is released in the UK on October 23

Comments are closed.