Australian films BO scorecard: On track for a record-breaking year

'Peter Rabbit 2'. (Photo: Mark Rogers)

We’re not even halfway through the year, but 2021 is shaping up to be a record-breaker for Australian films at the box office.

So far, the 25 local films and documentaries to screen theatrically have grossed $67.5 million, according to Numero.

That number means this is already the second highest year for Australian film on record, having overtaken 2001’s annual result of $63.1 million (not adjusting for inflation).

Our best year at the box office was 2015, when ticket sales tallied $88 million, spurred on Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dressmaker, OddballThe Water DivinerPaper Planes and Last Cab To Darwin.

With more than half the year to go, that record could be surpassed come December. By way of comparison, in the first six months of 2015, receipts stood at $34 million.

This is an incredible result at the best of times, but is made more so by the fact exhibition is still disrupted by the impact of COVID-19. Case in point: Cinemas in Melbourne are currently closed amid a lockdown in Victoria.

It also speaks to the breathing room Australian films have received during the first half of the year. A lack of new Hollywood releases allowed many films more screens and time to build word-of-mouth and momentum. All of the top 10 best performing titles opened on more than 100 screens, and top eight more than 200.

Distributors and exhibitors have also thrown their weight behind releases with regards to marketing and promotion.

Roadshow Films’ The Dry ($20.7 million) and Penguin Bloom ($7.5 million), make up a significant portion of the tally. Exhibitors have been effusive about the campaign run for each.

CEO Joel Pearlman tells IF that the results for both films, and others such as Madman’s High Ground ($3.04 million), were remarkable. He is excited to see Australian film have such a commercial year, and there is more to come: Roadshow will launch Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson October 14.

However, Pearlman doesn’t want to get too hung up on the metrics, noting a film like The Dry was intended to be a 2020 release. He has no doubt it would still have performed phenomenally if it was able to have been released then, and points out there were “swings and roundabouts” with regards to it and Penguin Bloom‘s release corridor.

“Both films experienced disruption. There was a lot of risk taken to get those movies out,” he says.

“It was clearly the right strategy because of how well the films performed and the life that they have had, but it certainly was still a challenging corridor to release movies into.”

Studiocanal has recently found great success with JJ Winlove’s June Again, still screening and sitting on $2.2 million.

ANZ CEO Elizabeth Trotman argues US studios pushing their releases to the back half of the year gave local distributors a clearer window for local content.

“The results for great films such as The Dry and Penguin Bloom were excellent and heartening for local production. Australians will support good quality local films and we have a duty to do our bit to continue to support the telling of local stories and local talent.”

‘The Dry’.

Of course, the space being given to local films will likely contract as the year continues. With cinemas in the US and UK starting to reopen, blockbusters are back – and there’s a backlog of them. The next few weeks, for instance, will see the release of F9 and Black Widow.

However, this is still a moment that speaks to the appetite of Australian audiences to see local cinema on the big screen. Arguably, it justifies the industry’s push to retain a 40 per cent Producer Offset for theatrical features – a win achieved in April.

Pearlman says the film offset is “absolutely critical”, and had the government decided to proceed with reducing it to 30 per cent, it would have been a “devastating blow.”

“It was unbelievably welcome news that that has been retained at 40 per cent and gives me a lot more confidence that our production community are going to be able to proceed with a level of confidence and ambition in terms of developing films for the theatrical space,” he says.

“There are so many ways now to consume content, and it’s wonderful that audiences have so many options. But I operate from the perspective that when an Australian film is a great theatrical experience, Australian audiences will support it.

“It’s up to us as an industry to create those experiences, but the opportunity is an enormous one, and I think that’s certainly a view that seems to be shared by our exhibition partners.”

With Studiocanal hoping to commence principal photography on its first local production this year, Trotman is similarly thrilled the offset will remains as is, giving kudos to those who lobbied the Federal Government.

“The COVID situation overseas has certainly created greater demand for Australia as a filming destination, so the future is looking bright.”

Looking broadly, Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason tells IF he is “blown away” by the box office result so far.

“After what was an incredibly challenging year for the entire sector in 2020, and as we continue to adapt to COVID-normal around the country, these results are heartening and speak to the power of and appetite for Australian stories,” he says.

“Congratulations goes to the filmmakers, distributors and local cinemas that continue to create and champion incredible local content for the big screen.”

The 2021 results are led by Sony’s Peter Rabbit 2, a UK-Australian co-production between Animal Logic Entertainment and Olive Bridge Entertainment. Still playing in cinemas, the Will Gluck-directed film has cracked $21 million.

Warner Bros.’ Mortal Kombat, which has grossed $9.3 million, is considered an Australian title given it was shot in Adelaide, and helmed by Aussies in director Simon McQuoid and producer James Wan. It claimed the Producer Offset.

In addition to June Again, Studiocanal found audiences for Long Story Short ($770,703) and Maya the Bee: The Golden Orb ($619,475). Monster Pictures indie sci-fi Occupation: Rainfall claimed $403,606.

Feature documentaries are also performing well, with Madman’s Girls Can’t Surf tallying $607,974, Demand Film’s Birth Time $392,374 Icon’s Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra $215,015 and ABCG Film’s My Name Is Gulpilil, released last week, $175,173.

Looking ahead, Madman will release Sally Aitken’s Sundance doco Valerie Taylor: Playing with Sharks June 17 and Joy Hopwood’s independently distributed Asian-Australian rom-com Rhapsody of Love will land June 24.

Of the October release of The Drover’s Wife, Pearlman says he is very confident, noting Purcell’s debut is strong and unique, and will be different to everything else in the marketplace at that time.

“Despite the huge volume of holdover titles that didn’t release last year, we still think it will be able to craft its own corridor,” he says.

Other Australian films that are yet to be dated but that may reach the big screen before year end include Justin Kurzel’s Cannes-selected Nitram (Madman); Ben Lewin’s Falling for Figaro (Umbrella); Armagan Ballantyne’s Nude Tuesday (Madman); Gracie Otto’s Seriously Red and Robert Connolly’s Blueback (both Roadshow) and Ivan Sen’s Loveland (Dark Matter Distribution).

As Mason says: “We hope audiences will continue to enjoy our standout Australian films at the local box office and make this a year for the record books.”

View the full scorecard below: