Australian films seem to be inhabiting parallel universes. At home only three films have grossed more than $1 million this year while a broad slate of Oz titles has been sold to distributors around the world.
The dichotomy between local audiences’ evident lack of interest in Australian cinema and the healthy appetites of foreign buyers may never have been so pronounced.
“The perception of Aussie films overseas in the industry is really good and strong,” Odin’s Eye Entertainment’s Michael Favelle told IF. Favelle cites three factors to try to explain the local/international paradox:
-Because not every Australian film ends up in cinemas or being rammed down people’s throats.
-The cream always rises to the top.
-Compared to other countries we hit way above our weight both commercially and creatively.
Asked why the perception is far is worse in Australia, he said: “Due to the nature of the producer offset it is a fundamental requirement for films to be released theatrically. This results in more Australian films screening in cinemas that a) do not have an audience and/or b) end up being reviewed poorly and further tarnishing 'brand Australia.'”
Son of a Gun producer Timothy White believes international buyers are responding to Australian films for two reasons: “An appreciation of the craft, and the talent on screen.”
One factor driving sales to the US, he says, is the rapidly evolving business model of releasing films that don’t warrant a big P&A spend on VOD and in a limited number of cinemas. He predicts that strategy will become more common in Europe.
Altitude Film Sales sold Son of a Gun, the Julius Avery-directed thriller starring Ewan McGregor, Brenton Thwaites and Alicia Vikander, to nearly every major territory in Cannes. A24 will release the film in the US next year on the limited theatrical/VOD model. It opens here on October 24 via eOne.
Among the other titles that have racked up numerous sales this year are Rusell Crowe's The Water Diviner, David Michod's The Rover, Matt Saville's Felony, Josh Lawson's The Little Death, Kriv Stenders' Kill Me Three Times, Tim Winton's The Turning, Jocelyn Moorhouse's The Dressmaker, Rold de Heer's Charlie's Country and Sophie Hyde's 52 Tuesdays.
According to Screen Australia for 2013/14 the rights to 53 SA–funded feature films were sold to around 167 buyers in approximately 72 territories. Sales to North America included The Babadook, Mystery Road, Patrick, The Railway Man, These Final Hours, Tracks, The Turning and Wolf Creek 2.
Spme 26 titles sold to the major territories North America, the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Scandinavia and Japan and there were strong advance sales for Backtrack, The Dressmaker, Life, Lion (aka A Long Way Home), Paper Planes and Strangerland.
Maya the Bee Movie, which opens here on November 1, has been sold to more than 100 territories by Studio 100. The 3D animated movie directed by Alexs Stadermann is performing strongly in its first theatrical engagements overseas, grossing $US3.6 million in three weeks in Germany, $1.8 million in Korea, $1 million in Spain, $649,000 in Austria and $316,000 in its first week in Poland.
White contrasts Australian cinemagoers’ reluctance to embrace local films with New Zealand where, he says, audiences are proud of their nation’s cinema. He was an EP on James Napier Robertson’s The Dark Horse, which has grossed nearly $NZ2 million.
“As filmmakers we have a massive responsibility to make films for the multiplexes and that give people value for money,” he says. “We have made too many dark, introspective films that have not been rewarding. That said, there is a cynicism towards Australian film that has filtered into sections of the media, a negative attitude.”
International sales vet Richard Guardian believes buyers around the world don’t care where a film is produced. “I don’t think the distributor whose release slate over a year includes American, French, Thai, Indonesian, Danish, English, Spanish or Polish films is that focused on whether the film is from Australia or Austria,” he said. “He or she is more interested in the film itself, and whether or not it can work in their market.”
Guardian points to Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook as a great example of a small Aussie film that resonated with many distributors.
The Guardian Entertainment International founder has an interesting perspective on the Oz market. “The home release of an Australian movie is a no-win proposition, ” he says. “If the film works, the distributor tells sales agents, ‘Well, that’s to be expected…it’s the home country.’ If the film tanks, we get ‘It couldn’t even work in its home country.’
“There is considerable awareness of the fact that Australia may just be the worst commercial market for Australian films, which is why international distributors judge each Australian film on its own merits as a movie, not as an Australian movie.”
Favelle is one of many who advocates one partial solution: Make the film and TV producer offset the same and remove the requirement for theatrical release.
"The offset should be about job creation in the industry as a whole, whether that be television or film," he says. "Screen Australia with separate investments should be more about culture and the wider picture."