Australian films and feature documentaries have raked in combined theatrical revenues of $49 million through November 29, and with no new releases in December will likely finish the year with a tad more than $50 million.
That’s a marked improvement over the dismal 2016 total of $24.1 million, although Garth Davis’ Lion accounts for more than half the 2017 tally, amassing $29.5 million.
According to the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia (MPDAA) only six titles including Red Dog: True Blue, Jasper Jones, Dance Academy: The Movie, Mountain and Ali’s Wedding surpassed $1 million.
More than 30 failed to reach $100,000, most doomed to fail because they went out on a handful of screens with minimal marketing.
Even so, Kristian Connelly, general manager of Melbourne’s Nova Cinema, rates 2017 as a “very respectable year” for Australian cinema, thanks mostly to Lion.
He was also pleased with the performances of Jen Peedom’s Mountain, which made most of its $2 million from live performances by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and with Jeffrey Walker’s Ali’s Wedding.
The romantic comedy produced by Matchbox Pictures benefited from considerable word-of-mouth at Cinema Nova, generating about 10 per cent of the nationwide haul of $1.37 million.
“Ali’s was among the glut of titles that annually flood upscale venues post-MIFF and the SFF, which sees films needing to click in the opening week or face the chop,” he says.
The exhibitor has some interesting theories on why Rachel Perkins’ Jasper Jones did not perform more strongly – it made $2.7 million – observing it was released seven weeks after Lion, which was basking in the Oscars attention.
Although Craig Silvey’s novel was a bestseller, Connelly believes the film may have fallen into the middle ground between child and adult audiences. The book has dark themes but the young protagonists led by Red Dog: True Blue’s Levi Miller may have confused older audiences in terms of knowing who the film was aimed at. And the M rating may have deterred parents whose kids may have read the novel.
Ben Elton’s romantic comedy Three Summers has grossed $711,000, rated by Connelly as disappointing and perplexing given the positive responses from preview audiences and the Q&A screenings around the nation hosted by Elton.
Aside from Mountain, it has been a tough year commercially for feature documentaries including Karina Holden’s Blue, Kriv Stenders’ The Go Betweens: Right Here, Marcus Cobbledick and Dan Jones’ All for One and James Bogle’s Whiteley.
“Niche documentaries worked where there was a pre-existing or obvious audience. Without decent marketing support or a strong audience hook cinema exhibition support will be middling at best,” he says.
Connelly believes marine documentary Blue fell victim to the public’s feeling of impotence as federal and world leaders continue to query or ignore the climate warnings of scientists and environmentalists.
“Few audiences want to be told that the ocean is dying only to learn that the Adani coal mine is being put ahead of the protection of the Great Barrier Reef,” he says.
Two titles that did break out of the limited release “ghetto” were Ben Young’s Hounds of Love, which went out on seven screens and pocketed $209,000, and Rosie Jones’ feature doc The Family, which opened on six screens and earned $156,000.
Connelly says Hounds of Love demonstrated “powerhouse filmmaking on a small budget” while The Family was particularly popular in Melbourne, where the titular sect was based.
He concludes: “Diversity in the national slate is key but a strong, fully-developed script is essential as is a fully formed marketing campaign that considers how to connect with cinema audiences before transforming that awareness into a viable home entertainment afterlife.”
There is plenty of diversity in the 2018 line-up, which potentially looks more commercial than this year’s releases.
There may not be a Lion-type stand-out but Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene, Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country, Simon Baker’s Breath and Anthony Maras’ Hotel Mumbai could be solid successes, if not more.
Bruce Beresford’s Ladies in Black, Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters, Marion Pilowsky’s The Call Back, Ben Hackworth’s Celeste, Thomas M Wright’s Acute Misfortune, Ben Howling and Yolande Ramke’s Cargo, the Spierig brothers’ Winchester, Shawn Seet’s Storm Boy, Stephan Elliott’s Swinging Safari and Stephen Amis’ The BBQ all have appealing casts, which can be half the battle in winning audiences.
View the full scorecard here.