This past weekend saw the debut of two high-profile new Australian films, Matthew Saville’s crime drama Felony, starring Joel Edgerton and Jai Courtney, and the Michael and Peter Spierig-directed thriller Predestination.
If this is news to you, you’re not alone. IF report that, in spite of copious pre-release publicity, both films had only modest openings. Felony took in $196,000, including preview screenings, while Predestination did slightly better with $202,000.
These are just the latest entries in what has been a modest year for Aussie-made films. The apocalyptic drama These Final Hours, publicity for which was nigh-on inescapable before its July release, made just over $360,000 across its whole cinematic run.
Wolf Creek 2 is the only Australian film to make any kind of a serious impact at the local box office this year, taking in just over $4.1 million. By comparison, Adam Sandler’s Blended, generally agreed to be his most phoned-in effort for some time, made $4.4 million.
Those involved with this weekend’s films are already spinning their sluggish box office performance. “The word of mouth on Felony is hugely positive,” said Edgerton, who produced as well as starred.
“We have been inundated with messages via social media from the Australian public who enjoyed the film immensely. We now need the film to retain screens and sessions so that we can take advantage of that positive word of mouth.”
Australian cinema is not hurting for gritty drama and social commentary, but it seems these sorts of dark, edgy offerings rarely get audiences off their arses and into cinemas.
When it comes to the sorts of films that make real money at the local box office, we like to keep things light and breezy. According to figures collected by Screen Australia, these are the all-time Top 10 highest-grossing Aussie films within Australia itself:
1. Crocodile Dundee (1986) $47,707,045
2. Australia (2008) $37,555,757
3. Babe (1995) $36,776,544
4. Happy Feet (2006) $31,786,164
5. Moulin Rouge (2001) $27,734,406
6. The Great Gatsby (2013) $27,383,762
7. Crocodile Dundee II (1988) $24,916,805
8. Strictly Ballroom (1992) $21,760,400
9. Red Dog (2011) $21,467,993
10. The Dish (2000) $17,999,473
Their list is not adjusted for inflation – if it were, then older films like The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert and Muriel’s Wedding would likely crack the Top 10 – but even so, it paints a pretty clear picture of the kinds of local films we like.
First, and most obviously, most of the films in the Top 10 are major studio releases that feature overseas talent and financing. It seems that if we want to pull in really big bucks at home, we still need help from outside.
Thematically-speaking, Australian audiences love family-friendly entertainment, and connect very strongly with animals. Three of the films on the list feature them in leading roles – five, if you consider ’80s Paul Hogan to be an animal (which, honestly, we kinda do).
The Top 10 list is also notable for Baz Luhrmann domination. Four of the Top 10 films are his, and his kitschy, highly-stylised extravaganzas are basically a license to print money. Even Australia, which everyone sort-of agrees was a bit shit, made a truckload.
While only three of the films in the Top 10 could strictly be filed under comedy – The Dish and the two Crocodile Dundee movies – all have a certain sense of lightheartedness. Even the weepy Moulin Rouge made time for Kylie Minogue as a CGI fairy.
Speaking of CGI, all have very high production values. It goes without saying that Luhrmann’s films spooge lavish production design all over the screen, but others, like Babe and Happy Feet, also make prominent use of computer animation and special effects trickery.
We also love our underderdog stories. The Crocodile Dundee films were about Aussies showing Americans how it’s done. The Dish was about good old ‘strayan ingenuity, while Red Dog was about an actual, literal underdog.
What can aspiring filmmakers take away from all this?
Success, of course, is about more than money. Felony was critically acclaimed and loved by all who saw it, but if it featured an adorable canine sidekick or a game of knifey-spooney, it probably would have done much better with local crowds.
If you’re an Aussie filmmaker who wants to make it big at home and you’re not actually Baz Luhrmann, you’ve got a got a lot of work ahead of you.
You’ll need to keep it light, and flag any social commentary in the broadest possible terms, preferably with a recontextualised pop song or large song and dance sequence.
You’ll need to bring in a few overseas ringers, but also cater to the innate Aussie belief that we really are better and smarter than everyone else, and outsiders, especially those bloody Yanks, just don’t get it.
Most of all, you’ll want to consider drafting in a cute puppy or two – real or CGI, it really doesn’t matter, you’ll probably clean up either way.
Photo: Graham Denholm via Getty Images / Facebook