When two Australian films open on the same weekend after getting mostly positive reviews at MIFF and generate copious publicity for the stars and filmmakers, the industry might have expected both to post solid opening figures.
Yet there were modest debuts for the Spierig brothers’ Predestination and Matthew Saville’s Felony, reigniting the debate about how hard it can be for Australian films to cut through with mainstream audiences.
The Spierig’s time-travelling thriller featuring Ethan Hawke, Noah Taylor and a knock-out performance from Sarah Snook, rang up $202,000 on 49 screens plus about 4 grand in previews, released by Pinnacle Films.
Saville’s psychological thriller starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Wilkinson and Jai Courtney made $185,000 on 47 and $197,000 with sneaks, handled by Roadshow.
The per-screen averages for both are far better than The Rover (which debuted with $143,000 on 41 screens) and These Final Hours ($207,000 on 164).
Tim McGahan, who produced Predestination with Paddy McDonald and the Spierigs, put a positive spin on the opening. “We had an amazing run of press,” McGahan told IF. “We’re pretty happy with the opening which exceeded our realistic expectations. The buzz we are getting from the screenings is that those who saw the film loved it. We’ve made a film we’re very proud of and we expect it will have a long life.”
Edgerton, who wrote Felony, and his fellow producer Rosemary Bright, gave this statement to IF, “We think it’s very important to draw attention to the positive when discussing Australian films. We don’t believe talking down the results is either helpful or reflective of the true position, given that both films are in limited release.
“Last weekend two quality Australian films were released nationally in cinemas, something to celebrate. The word of mouth on Felony is hugely positive and many of the screens are working very well. We have been inundated with messages via social media from the Australian public who enjoyed the film immensely. We now need the film to retain screens and sessions so that we can take advantage of that positive word of mouth and give time for more audiences to find the film."
Both films have sold to most major markets internationally and are guaranteed a US theatrical release. Sony is the US distributor of Predestination and Gravitas Theatrical is launching Felony in mid-October.
Opinions on how the films were marketed and viewed in an informal IF poll varied widely. Filmmaker Mark Overett said, “Imagine if you didn't watch At the Movies or read reviews or hang out at MIFF. I'm sorry I have seen/heard bugger all publicity or hype for either film out in the real world.
“I think Australians DO want to see Australian films – they simply do not know they're on – and if they do, the films finish their cinema run before they get a chance to get to see them. I would love to have a situation here like in NZ where people go to the cinema to support their local industry and see their own stories. How about an ‘Australian-Made’ campaign promoting a bunch of Aussie films?”
Picture Palace director Michael Brindley ventured, “Here's my guess: a dark morality play and a low key sci-fi gender bender and they're both Australian and there's big budget escapism on offer. Word of mouth is all that matters to the majority of the audience.”
There is a lot of goodwill for both films, typified by producer Sue Maslin, who said, “I saw Predestination on the weekend at Hoyts Northland and LOVED it! Hoping that word of mouth will grow around Sarah Snook's stellar performance, which has 'must see' written all over it.”
Director Kriv Stenders enthused, “Go Matthew Saville, Go Spierigs. What a treat, two awesome Australian movies from three amazing directors in one week.”
However critic/writer Lynden Barber cited numerous factors which he believes are working against Australian cinema including the notion that audiences for local films tend to be oldies who have no interest in sci-fi or crime; young Aussies only shell out to see US corporate spectacle cinema while everything else can be watched at home thanks to torrent sites; and there is too much great TV which is either free or low cost, so who needs the movies which are comparatively expensive?
Producer Tom Broadhurst opined, “Felony struck me as the kind of film I would catch on TV some time. Predestination, I didn't even know it was opening and didn't see much in terms of publicity.”
Former Sydney Film Festival president Virginia Gordon expressed a similar view, musing, "I wonder whether the trailer for Felony made it look like something you'd wait to see on telly and whether we had seen that story one hundred times before." Gordon was unaware that Predestination had started.
Filmmaker Andrew Vial lauded Predestination as a very good Australian film that looked as if it's set and made somewhere else, and he noted there was good business for both films at the Cremorne Orpheum.
Publicist Di Rolle perhaps spoke for the silent majority when she said, “Despite the publicity neither appeals to me.”
Actor/director Adrian Chino Castro pointed to what he saw as a lack of exposure for both films, asking, “Where are all the TV commercials and the giant ads on billboards? You will be saturated by copious ads and posters all over the place for an American blockbuster like Transformers but you won't see the same for these films. We need the same amount of exposure to bring all kinds of audiences in, not just those over 60.”
Producer Adam Farrington-Williams concurred, observing, "It usually requires quite an expansive marketing campaign nowadays to attract an audience outside of the specialist theatrical market. The Americans do it well, but they have the budget. Everything is an 'event' (read 'blockbuster'). Unfortunately, that's the future of cinema. The studio films will be released with less frequency, but with higher marketing budgets and will attempt (if possible) to provide the audience with something they can't get on their TV via downloads or computer screens via VoD platforms.
"It augurs well that Graeme Mason's Screen Australia is looking to open doors to the US studio system. It's pretty clear that Screen Australia realise this is the best pathway to compete with the US. If you can't beat them, join them. International co-productions are almost the only way forward and Screen Australia has been encouraging this for years now."
Barrister Charles Waterstreet could not resist a legal fraternity joke: “Felony played like misdemeanour.”