‘Storm Boy’ (Photo: Matt Nettheim).
Given the record number of titles flooding into cinemas this year, Australian feature films and documentaries overall have performed respectably, most as limited releases with minimal marketing.
Some 59 Oz titles have launched this year and the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia (MPDAA) expects the final tally will be 61 – six more than in 2017.
The MPDAA estimates 722 films will have gone out theatrically by the end of the year – up from 697 last year. Collectively Oz films and feature docs including holdovers have racked up $55.2 million, beating last year’s $49.4 million, which was a market share of 4.1 per cent.
That was also ahead of the 2009 total of $54.8 million. The stand-out of the past 10 years was 2015’s $88.1 million, the year of Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dressmaker and Oddball.
The MPDAA’s stats do not include Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased, which has qualified for the AACTA Awards and has grossed $1.1 million for Universal Pictures.
Mirroring the market dominance of the highest-grossing films across the board, last year the top 10 Aussie titles accounted for a whopping 93 per cent of the total box-office for local product.
“This year has seen several significant commercial successes including Ladies in Black and Breath, while some quality films have not reached their full commercial potential,” says Wallis Cinemas programming manager Sasha Close.
“How to address this is a challenge for the Australian screen industry. I am excited by the conversations that are currently occurring across the screen sector regarding Australian features, addressing the need for a commercial focus and audience appeal whilst maintaining quality production values and ensuring unique Australian stories are portrayed.”
Close is among the members of a screen industry working party which Screen Producers Australia convened after the annual Prism forum. Representing producers, distributors, exhibitors and government agencies, its remit is to draw up a ‘white paper’ which will look at new business models for distributing Aussie films, content and how to reach audiences.
Claire Gandy, Event Cinemas general manager of content, says: “For the most part, the quality of the Aussie films this year was great; however they were not commercial enough to make an impact at the box office with a few exceptions.
“2019 looks like it will be a strong year for Australian films. I hope they get the exposure and support they need. At Event Cinemas we are committed to providing a platform for Australian filmmakers.”
The selection of a record six Australian films at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival – Sophie Hyde’s Animals, Mirrah Foulkes’ Judy and Punch, Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters, Wayne Blair’s Top End Wedding, Grant Sputore’s I Am Mother and Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale – will be a terrific boost for their international profiles and hopefully a harbinger of their success at home.
Village Cinemas chief operating officer Gino Munari is optimistic about the 2019 slate but rejects suggestions that Oz films have been overwhelmed by the volume of competition this year.
“The performance of Australian films was commensurate with the quality of those films and their ability to find an audience,” he says. “When it’s a good film, regardless of the origin, it will find an audience and gross what it needs to. We never take films off screens as long as they are popular. That said, we love Australian films: bring on the next Lion.”
Despite the unprecedented number of titles in the market this year, Munari figures the number of titles that get meaningful distribution is fairly constant at 180-200.
Exhibitors say the big jump in the number of releases in the past few years is due to several factors: Far more films from India and Hong Kong/China; an upsurge of alternate content titles; and digital projection, which means many films are going out far wider, at minimal extra cost to distributors, than in the 35mm print era.
Cinema Nova general manager Kristian Connelly sees the removal of the cost barrier to releasing films theatrically as a double-edged sword. “I would suggest that many are quickly discovering that, while the exhibition market has been democratized as never before, the skill required to successfully book, market and release a feature is considerable,” he says.
“So while the volume of theatrical releases has increased, the box office has not incrementally grown in relation to the number of titles entering the marketplace.
“Theatrical exhibition is still the audience’s preferred way to experience a feature film, and it also aids in establishing post-theatrical awareness and demand. Streaming is still in its infancy so we have a long way to go in terms of having a precise understanding of how audiences value it versus the theatrical experience.
“The past 12 months, which has been a mixed bag of success and failure, offers exhibitors and distributors pathways to a ‘new theatrical normal.’ Some locally produced and international films have offered revealing insights into the possibilities and limitations of genres, star-appeal and the 52-week-a-year nature of our industry.”
Gandy does not expect to see fewer releases, reasoning that films are a cyclical business. However she says: “As an industry we need to be smarter in not only how we approach releasing different local titles but also in what films are getting made, who the audience is and how we reach them.
“So many things affect the release of a film once it’s been made – cast, dating, marketing campaign and support, not just from distributors but also exhibitors. You can have an amazing film and no one comes out to see it, which unfortunately has happened a lot this year.”
Next year should have a rousing start with Shawn Seet’s Storm Boy opening on January 17, followed by The Nightingale and Anthony Maras’ Hotel Mumbai.
Rachel Ward’s Palm Beach, Kriv Stenders’ Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan, Owen Trevor’s Go Karts, Gregor Jordan’s Dirt Music, Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang, Jeremy Sims’ Rams and Tony Tilse’s Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears all have very commercial elements.
And there is plenty of potential among a raft of other titles including Stephen Johnson’s High Ground, Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner’s Nekrotronic, Unjoo Moon’s I Am Woman, Natalie Erika James’ Relic, Justin Dix’s Blood Vessel and Dean Murphy’s The Very Excellent Mr Dundee.
View the full scorecard here.