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Year Of Wonders

by Megan Simpson Huberman

A year of box office records and the introduction of dynamic online platforms triggers some reflection on the Australian film industry.

As 2016 hits its stride, it’s perhaps a good time to take stock of our Australian film industry, at a unique point in its history, and in the context of a very dynamic market. And it’s an attractive view - 2015 was the best year ever for Australian films at the local box office.

Grossing more than $88 million all together, and topping the decade even adjusted for inflation, it was a standout year for the breadth of strong films. Two films, The Dressmaker and Fury Road, grossed more than $20 million; another two, Oddball and The Water Diviner, raked in more than $10 million; Paper Planes nearly hit the $10 million mark, and Last Cab to Darwin exceeded $7 million. And That Sugar Film took over $1.7m to become the highest-grossing Australian documentary ever (excluding IMAX films).

All this in the same year that Netflix launched in Australia, along with Stan and Presto, and in an incredibly competitive market that saw new films from the Star Wars, Bond, Hobbit, Fast & Furious and Jurassic Park franchises. With the Australian film and television industry continuing to contribute nearly $6 billion a year to the local economy, and generating more than $2 billion annually in taxes, our screen industry is a proven and crucial national asset that sparks innovation and markets us as a modern digital economy to the world.

Yet this real and impressive success makes it even more critical for us to evaluate our opportunities and threats.

Closer analysis of the 2015 box office results provokes some intriguing observations. Local comedies Alex and Eve and Backyard Ashes grossed as much or more domestically as male-skewed actioners Son Of A Gun and The Rover and horror title I, Frankenstein, with a sliver of their budget and P&A and none of their star power. Few saw those results coming, and they speak perhaps to the Australian audience’s enduring fondness for comedy, especially when it is heartwarming.

In ANZ, The Dressmaker has taken almost as much as Mad Max: Fury Road, on a fraction of the budget – but the female-skewed comedy drama’s first major international territory release, in the UK, may not have been what was hoped for, while the latest installment in Miller’s action franchise has grossed more than $375 million worldwide. The Dressmaker is still early in its international roll out, and it is to be hoped that it will not face the same dilemma as The Water Diviner and Red Dog faced – that is, striking a profound chord with local audiences but not sounding as sweet to international markets.

It’s the opposite of the conundrum faced by acclaimed films such as The Babadook, Lore, and Sleeping Beauty, which made an impact in foreign territories but barely rippled the pond at the local box office. Developing projects that resonate with audiences both at home and abroad remains a challenge for local producers.

Some producers have succeeded in creating films that appeal worldwide, but aggressive piracy has robbed them of the box office revenue. Producer Jamie Hilton’s The Little Death was illegally downloaded more than 500,000 times in five days. Rosemary Blight and Kylie Du Fresne’s The Sapphires made the list of the world’s top 50 pirated movies in its year of release, being illegally downloaded more than 120,000 times a month at its peak.

Consider the long-term impact of this on businesses like Goalpost and See Pictures. In a time before online piracy, and with DVD revenues still strong, a film like Strictly Ballroom, produced by Tristram Miall, grossed more than $80 million dollars globally. Jan Chapman’s The Piano grossed $11 million in Australia and $140 million worldwide. As a result these films made significant returns to their producers. As well as providing their producers stability in their business and a decent retirement plan, they allowed Miall to support new directors and kickstart the career of Peter Duncan, and enabled Chapman to back, discover and launch two decades of talent, including Cate Shortland, Jennifer Kent, and Simon Stone. How will Blight, Du Fresne, and Hilton continue to support new talent long-term in a climate where the expectation of free content robs them of the rewards of their successes?

The Australian government made strong steps towards protecting screen creator’s copyright in 2015, with the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill, introduced into parliament by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull to curb online piracy of film and TV shows, and passed with the Coalition and Labor support. Yet there are a number of huge multinational online corporations who feel their interests are not served by protecting copyright, and who are continually pressuring government to water down legislative protections. The screen industry needs to be single-minded and outspoken in working with the government to defend creators’ rights to receive fair payment for their work. We also need to do our part in providing our audience with movies and TV shows in a smorgasbord of new ways, and in getting out there as we have always done, encouraging people to do the right thing and think before they click.

2015 also saw two major successes in a different genre for Australian films – the family film. With Paper Planes and Oddball together grossing a total of more than $20 million in Australia, they have put paid to the belief that it is too hard and too expensive for local features to compete against studio family fare - and kudos to the indie theatres around Australia who banded together to market and promote these films. This has triggered a new initiative from Screen Australia to encourage more films aimed at this market segment. The importance of this is threefold. It’s highly appealing for government to know that Australian families are hungry for local child-friendly content at the cinema. It’s encouraging to producers to know there is another Australian demographic besides mature women that can prove lucrative. And by making successful films for a young audience, the industry is developing the audience for Australian films in the future – and that is an investment that will pay dividends to everyone.

With the success of The Dressmaker sparking a new appreciation of the female audience and female talent pool in Australia, there is no reason why these strong box office results will not continue. Working in a mature market, the Australian screen community continues to innovate and score success. Our incredibly talented creatives, both in front of the camera and behind, shine at home and abroad. Hard to miss them when they line up at film awards around the world. And there’s more where that came from. Short film festivals and online initiatives reveal a deep seam of aptitude just waiting to take that first step on the film industry career ladder. Let’s make a commitment to be active in ensuring they’ll emerge in a sustainable industry that has the fundamentals right – a robust copyright framework, smart infrastructure, and strong and equitable developmental pathways that support diverse talent. Here’s to a great 2016.

Megan Simpson Huberman is a senior development, production, and creative executive in the Australian screen industry. She has written, directed, and developed TV drama, documentary and feature films, including Dating The Enemy starring Guy Pearce and Claudia Karvan, which was one of the top 20 rating programs of the year when it made its broadcast debut on the Seven Network. She has worked with hundreds of writers and producers across Australia. Her previous roles include Head of Production and Development at Screen NSW, and Development Executive at Screen Australia. She is currently working in development on drama projects with Essential Media, Jungle, ABC Fiction, and Werner Film Productions.

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