Arenamedia embraces cinema, both commercial and bold

Writer, director and producer Robert Connolly on the set of 'Blueback', with DOP Andy Commis. (Photo: David Dare Parker)

Robert Connolly believes he’s found the sweet spot at Arenamedia: a slate that balances large-scale, commercial films like The Dry and Blueback with features from exciting emerging voices.

The company currently has three films in the Toronto International Film Festival: the Connolly-directed Blueback, Frances O’Connor’s directorial feature debut, Emily, and Jub Clerc’s debut, Sweet As. It also produced two films that recently played the Melbourne International Film Festival, Alena Lodkina’s Petrol, which debuted at Locarno, and Sari Braithwaite’s documentary, Because We Have Each Other.

Connolly is delighted with the success off the back of a tough few years for the industry, with company having “doubled down” on its development of theatrical feature film.

Arenamedia’s larger scale work has been able to support its ambitions with new talent; emerging voices form part of the “spirit of the company”.

Whether big or small, Connolly believes its projects share a similar sensibility and humanist view. While it has taken a while to find the right model, he believes the structure of the slate matches the somewhat polarised theatrical landscape.

“Cinema is very big commercial films or very bold emerging talent. In the middle, I think television does a wonderful job… But I think to get people out to the cinema, you need to push at both extremes,” he tells IF.

“Films like The Dry and Blueback are shot on large format cameras, have bigger budgets than we’ve worked with before and are pushing to make a bigger, grander commercial scale of cinema.

“Then films like Because We Have Each Other and Petrol are in that new talent area that we’ve always loved as a company.”

Simply, the multihyphenate – who also runs distributor CinemaPlus and sales agent North South East West – is enthusiastic about the continued power of the big screen. He believes that while exhibition – and filmmakers – must evolve and be innovative, humans will continue to search for collective experiences. He points to The Dry, which grossed just under $21 million, making it the 15th highest grossing Australian film of all time.

Further, he believes cinema is still the best format for emerging filmmakers to “roll the dice” on their ideas and careers.

“Cinema is such a great creative form and has always been the engine room of incredible talent escalation, whether it be directors, actors, cinematographers or designers. You look at all the amazing Australian talent on the global stage and the way cinema has launched it. As a company we have remained very true to of our love of cinema, at a time when you get this recurring view that everyone is – and which I have as a director – pivoting to work for the streamers.”

In that sense, he gives kudos to the distributors like Roadshow for their ongoing support of Australian cinema, noting a film like The Dry is an “ultra-Australian film in many ways”. He was also thrilled to see the distributor endorse Clerc’s Sweet As, picking it up for ANZ off the back of its MIFF premiere.

“They’ve never had any sense that Australian cinema is anything other than a massive commercial proposition.

“These are distributors who acquire Australian films and give them big releases because they believe that when it’s the right film, Australians love them.”

Mia Wasikowska as Abby in ‘Blueback’. (Photo: David Dare Parker)

Roadshow will release Blueback January 1 next year, with Connolly describing the film as a “big, epic love letter to the ocean”. Shot in WA, it centres on Abby, a child who befriends a magnificent wild groper while diving, beginning a life-long journey to save the world’s coral reefs.

In making the Tim Winton-adaptation, which stars Mia Wasikowska, Radha Mitchell, Eric Bana and Ilsa Fogg, Connolly purposely worked at theatrical scale; shooting large format, underwater and with a score from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

“Everything about it has been done in a way to try and make it a big cinema experience that you that you have to go out and see,” he says.

As a writer-director, Connolly is also currently in post-production on Force of Nature, the sequel to The Dry. He teams again with Made Up Stories’ Bruna Papandrea, Jodi Matterson and Steve Hutensky, and Eric Bana, who reprises his role as federal agent Aaron Falk.

The cast also includes Anna Torv, Deborra-lee Furness, Jill Bailey, Robin McLeavy, Sisi Stringer, Lucy Ansell, Jacqueline McKenzie, Jeremy Lindsay-Taylor, Richard Roxburgh, Tony Briggs and Kenneth Radley.

After the success of The Dry, Connolly says it was almost inevitable the team would look to adapt Jane Harper’s next book in the Aaron Falk series. He found a way into it creatively, and it went from there.

“It’s incredible to be making the sequel to The Dry – the thought of doing as sequel to any film! Jane Harper’s third book with that character comes out later this year, and who knows,” he laughs.

A first look image of Eric Bana as Aaron Falk in ‘Force of Nature’. (Photo: Narelle Portanier)

As for the rest of the Arenamedia slate, it is currently in the later stages of financing of Oscar-winner Adam Elliot’s next stop-motion film, Memoir of a Snail, an animated bittersweet memoir of a melancholic woman named Grace Puddle, a hoarder of snails, romance novels, and guinea-pigs.

During COVID, the company also produced an adaptation of Alison Lester’s classic children’s book Magic Beach with 10 animators of diverse backgrounds, with Connolly noting it’s “almost like The Turning but with animation.” The animators include: Susan Danta, Pierce Davison, Jake Duczynski, Emma Kelly, Anthony Lucas, Simon Rippingale, Marieka Walsh, Eddie White, Lee Whitmore and Kathy Sarpi.

Also in development is a film about Mike “The Bike” Hailwood, scripted by Bana and intended for both he and Connolly to direct; Santilla Chingaipe’s debut feature, Moongirl, produced by Chloe Brugalé; Bonnie Moir’s feature Pain & Prejudice, written by Leah Filley and produced by Filley and Kate Laurie; Beck Cole’s Ruby Moonlight, to be produced with No Coincidence Media, and Brendan Fletcher’s Such Great Heights.

Arenamedia is also one of the partners in Originate, with SBS and VicScreen, an initiative that aims to support low budget fiction features from writers and directors of diverse background.

Connolly notes the initiative, launched in March last year, received “several hundred” applications, many from people with no prior relationship to the industry. Given the high quality of entries, more projects were put into development than were originally intended. Connolly and Liz Kearney will EP what proceeds to production.

Arenamedia remains a modestly-sized company, which Connolly believes serves it well; it’s nimble and able to respond to projects quickly. Underpinning its work is an ethos to never second guess the market.

It’s also driven by collaboration, with Connolly excited to see what Clerc and producer Kearney will do together next, and similarly other “extraordinary duos” such as Braithwaite and Brugalé, and Laurie and Lodkina.

“There’s the old adage in the film industry; everybody wants to be the first person to do something second. We’ve just never been that company. The films come out of the filmmakers really staking their claim to the ideas, arguing for why they should get made and having great passion about the creative ambition for the work,” Connolly says.

“It’s why the films might feel quite eclectic, if you look at the mix of them. There’s not a style guide to them, but I would say they’re all driven by very interesting creative voices. We really do value the creative producer and the director; we’re a producer-director driven company.”

As for what project’s it’s looking for, Connolly loves feeling “challenged, pushed and proved” by ideas and people who are passionate. He isn’t interested in “rarefied” works, but rather “bold works of cinema that have a keen eye on the audience”.

“There’s a certain amount of films that I want to make, and I know that I’m only the right director for a few of them, but I want to make a broader slate. I’ve always been attracted to the risk and adventure of new talent and… the fearlessness of where you are in your career before you feel there’s expectations.

“Risk is something we talk a lot about in the company; having a really good healthy, appetite for risk. And failure being part of the process; you can’t make really bold, interesting work unless you’re willing to to kind of embrace the idea that it could fail.”