Australian films July scorecard: Unhealthy reliance on top titles

‘Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan.’

The box office results for the Australian films and feature docs released in cinemas this year underline yet again the deep polarisation in the indie film market between the higher earners and the also-rans.

The top five titles – Wayne Blair’s Top End Wedding, Shawn Seet’s Storm Boy, Anthony Marais’ Hotel Mumbai, Damon Gameau’s 2040 and Richard Lowenstein’s Mystify: Michael Hutchence – accounted for $15.8 million or 93 per cent of the Oz releases’ takings.

The Aussie films plus holdovers racked up nearly $17 million through the end of July, according to the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia.

That’s a long way below the $40.6 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.

Surveying the challenges facing the indie film business, Transmission Films’ Andrew Mackie tells IF: “We have to be more confident than ever of a film’s theatricality, particularly while the global streaming arms race plays out.”

Madman Entertainment CEO Paul Wiegard says “remarkable” indie films are still finding audiences: The key is landing on a release date that can be supported with targeted publicity and marketing and determining the appropriate screen strategy for each film.

“The current market does provide the opportunity to open on a far greater number of screens than 10 years ago, which is cause for some of the clutter – but also provides box office upside,” says Wiegard, whose firm has distributed four films which each made more than $1 million this year: 2040, Mystify: Michael Hutchence, Apollo 11 and Korean hit Parasite.

Business should pick up with the August 8 launches of Rachel Ward’s Palm Beach on 250-plus locations and Kriv Stenders’ Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan on 221, followed by Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale (August 29 on approximately 32 screens) and Rachel Griffiths’ Ride Like a Girl (September 26, 250+ screens).

Exhibitors say the head-to-head clash between Stenders’ Vietnam War movie (which booked the date months ago), and Ward’s dramedy (which was originally dated for July 25) is not ideal, but they are very different genres and will appeal to different audiences.

Majestic Cinemas CEO Kieren Dell tells IF: “Palm Beach is right in a core demographic for us in regional areas and I see it doing quite well, driven by two very popular stars in Bryan Brown and Sam Neill, who have been out marketing it hard.

Danger Close will have a similar older demographic but won’t overlap too much. We have advance screenings this weekend for which we are getting a lot of interest, and Returned Services groups are very keen. Hopefully some schools might be interested for older history students. We expect it to do quite well as it’s a very good, gripping film.”

‘Ride Like a Girl.’

Wallis Cinemas programming manager Sasha Close hails Griffiths’ biopic, which stars Teresa Palmer as Michelle Payne, the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup, as a “super-charming, against-all-the-odds” story which should play to a wide audience and earn good to excellent box office in the upcoming school holidays.

The upcoming slate includes The Australian Dream, Daniel Gordon’s feature doc on Adam Goodes scripted by Stan Grant, which opens on 100+ screens on August 22, Alan Lindsay’s The Naked Wanderer and Kim Farrant’s Angel of Mine (both September 5), Sophie Hyde’s Animals (September 12), Rodd Rathjen’s Buoyancy (September 26), Mirrah Foulkes’ Judy & Punch (undated) and Imogen Thomas’ Emu Runner and Tony D’Aquino’s The Furies (November 7).

So can the industry surpass or match the 2018 calendar year total of $57.4 million? That was third biggest year ever behind the 2001’s $63.1 million and the all-time record of 2015’s $88.1 million, the year of Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dressmaker and Oddball.

Probably not, if only because the line-up for the balance of the year doesn’t look particularly strong, given the sizable number of titles that won’t open until next year.

For example, Roadshow will launch Owen Trevor’s GO! in January. The 2020 debutantes include Gregor Jordan’s Dirt Music, Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang, Tony Tilse’s Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears, Unjoo Moon’s I Am Woman, Paul Ireland’s Measure for Measure, Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth, Seth Larney’s 2067 and John Sheedy’s H is for Happiness.

Also on the calendar are Maziar Lahooti’s Below, Natalie Erika James’ Relic, Stephen Johnson’s High Ground, Ben Lawrence’s Hearts and Bones, JJ Winlove’s June Again, Jeremy Sims’ Rams, Justin Dix’s Blood Vessel and Dean Murphy’s The Very Excellent Mr Dundee.

It might be wishful thinking from an eternal optimist, but next year could well prove to be more distinctive and commercially successful for Australian cinema than 2019.

View the scorecard here.