‘Ride Like a Girl’.

Graeme Mason recognises the structural challenges facing independent films but does not subscribe to the view that this is a down year for Australian cinema.

While the Screen Australia CEO acknowledges 2019 has yet to produce a breakout hit like Peter Rabbit, Lion or Ladies in Black, he rates the year to date as very successful on a number of fronts, including:

  • Seven films have each grossed each more than $1 million.
  • Exhibitors have high hopes for Rachel Griffiths’ Ride Like a Girl, the Michelle Payne biopic staring Teresa Palmer, which Transmission Films launches on September 26; some pundits think it can make upwards of $10 million.
  • The consistent popularity of feature doc such as Damon Gameau’s 2040 and Richard Lowenstein’s Mystify: Michael Hutchence.
  • Australian films are making their marks at the Sundance, Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals.
  • Shannon Murphy won the gig of directing two episodes of the BBC America series Killing Eve on the back of her debut feature Babyteeth, which premieres in Venice.
  • Grant Sputore’s I Am Mother reached a vast audience – tens of millions, he estimates – worldwide on Netflix, emulating the success of Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling’s Cargo.

That said, Mason has long urged filmmakers to temper their expectations of how much films can gross in Australia as the available market for indie films continues to shrink.

The market share of independent distributors excluding Roadshow for the year to August 30 was 13.8 per cent, down from 14.9 per cent a year ago. By comparison, the US majors saw their market share jump from 75.9 per cent in 2018 to 83.3 per cent, due almost solely to Disney’s juggernaut Avengers: Endgame.

The Aussie films and feature docs released this year plus holdovers racked up $24.74 million through September 1, according to the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia and IF’s estimates.

That’s way below the $41.5 million generated in the same period last year, led by Peter Rabbit’s $26.6 million, Breath’s $4.4 million (finishing with $4.6 million) and Sweet Country’s $2 million.

So there is zero chance the industry can match the 2018 calendar year total of $57.4 million, which was third biggest year ever behind 2001’s $63.1 million and 2015’s record $88.1 million, the year of Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dressmaker and Oddball.

The top titles are Wayne Blair’s Top End Wedding ($5.2 million), Shawn Seet’s Storm Boy (nearly $5 million), Rachel Ward’s Palm Beach ($3.8 million), Anthony Maras’ Hotel Mumbai ($3.3 million), Kriv Stenders’ Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan ($2.5 million), 2040 ($1.4 million) and Mystify: Michael Hutchence ($1.14 million).

Eighteen months ago Mason warned producers to get used to the “new normal” of most Australian and other indie films earning half what they used to in cinemas. So titles which typically used to gross $3 million could expect to make $1.5 million.

That’s still his view, prompting him to advise producers to think more carefully about their target audience, how to reach them and to work on budgets that reflect the shrinking indie market.

He acknowledges most people in the feature film industry are struggling to make a living but says that’s mostly because that sector is so crowded, implying the industry cannot possibly sustain all those who want to work in it.

“Producers should remind themselves this is not 2008 when there was no Netflix [as a streaming service], no Stan, no Instagram and no Snapchat. The media and entertainment industry now is fundamentally different,” he says.

Surveying the year to date, he says: “To have seven films each make more than $1 million is a big success. There is clearly a core audience for feature docs. Plus we’ve seen a great range of films this year. We fund films for a variety of reasons, including cultural and creative.”

To view the scorecard go here.

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