If 2009 was the year Australian cinema rose from a prolonged, self-induced coma, 2010 was the equivalent of the industry getting up and going for a jog. The year was defined by a rolling blessing of diverse, genre-driven films that also – in a bold violation of tradition – strived to please audiences.
There was: romantic comedy I Love You, Too (which took $2.5 million); war drama Beneath Hill 60 ($3 million); intense crime drama Animal Kingdom ($5 million); period drama Bright Star ($2.5 million); musical comedy Bran Nue Dae ($7.5 million); vampire flick Day Breakers ($2.5 million); wog comedy The Kings of Mykonos ($5 million); dad-alone drama The Boys Are Back ($2 million); and – towering above them all like a beacon leading us out of the darkness towards a future as bright as a multiplex foyer – the big-budget franchise adventure film Tomorrow, When the War Began ($13.5 million).
These films ticked all the right boxes. They knew their audience, were well-made, positively breathed Australiana and were designed for filmgoers, not for the filmmaker’s drinking pals.
Even the flat spots were noteworthy. Red Hill was a contemporary revenge western; The Loved Ones a horror comedy; Matching Jack a shameless tear jerker; Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole a shot at an effects-driven epic. None were hits – Matching Jack barely made a million – but they reflected the broad shift in vision.
And let’s pause a moment: when was the last time a local film was considered a wash-out because it only made $5 million? It’s a healthy sign. Three more years like this and comedians will have to stop using Australian films as punchlines.
But hang on. We’ve had false dawns before; a strong year of film would raise hopes, then a weak one or two (or three) would follow and have everyone spouting the excruciating cliche about how the industry “goes in cycles”, a belief that holds bad films as a mandatory and acceptable part of a nation’s film culture.
But this year is different – or so it seems. For the hopes roused by this cinematic slate are grounded in real change, not more empty rhetoric.
“Maybe we’re coming out of the teen years,” says James Hewison, manager of theatrical distribution at Madman, the outfit behind the acclaimed Oscar hopeful and AFI-awards favourite Animal Kingdom. “We’ve gone through pubescence where we couldn’t decide whether we wanted to kiss someone or hit them. Now we’re feeling a little bit more at ease with ourselves and are happy to strut around a bit.”
“Over the last four to five years there’s been a massive change,” says Greg McLean, producer of Red Hill and director of 2005’s Wolf Creek, the film that reignited local interest in genre films.
“To me it feels like it’s the end of one era and the beginning of a new period. People are looking at the business differently and seeing that there is a big difference between the old mentality of film being an arts grant as opposed to saying that we need to make films that are actually focussed on giving the audience an amazing experience.”
Indeed, the focus has shifted from the navel-gazing introspective personal film towards a renewed respect for films that are audience-geared and genre-based. Across the industry there is a palpable climate change as filmmakers “skill up” in the art and craft of turning their passion projects into crowd pleasers.
“We’re on the verge of an exciting decade,” says Martha Coleman, head of development at Screen Australia, the chief body that hands out public money to filmmakers.
And the hand-out mentality is over, Coleman insists. Small, heartfelt films will always have a place, she says, but now they’ll need to do more than merely please the filmmaker’s ego.
“It’s not enough to make a movie just so that it exercises some personal need within you. You also need to make a movie that you, as a punter, would be willing to pay $17 to go and see. We need a range of films to sustain (an industry) and to reach as many punters out there as we can.”
The broad-based attitude change is something that registers very personally with Coleman. As the producer of Praise (1998), Coleman admits she was too precious for her own good. When asked to cut a few frames of pubic hair from the film to secure a sale to Japan she was “incensed” and refused on the grounds of artistic principle.
Such a holier-than-thou mindset has no place today, Coleman says.
“As a (filmmaking) generation we weren’t interrogated and we weren’t challenged. The bar was set quite low, frankly. There was a lack of respect for the audience. We were self-indulgent, and there were a lot of people like us. In my decade we could make a movie and if it did OK at one or two festivals we could feel good about ourselves in Darlinghurst or St Kilda.
“In the two years that I’ve held this position there’s a lot less resistance to the notion that, as well as your personal vision you also need to educate yourself about the craft. To delve into those genre worlds you have got to know your stuff, you’ve got to know what audiences expectations are. Filmmakers need to have the desire to connect with as many people as they can while remaining true to the intentions of their film.”
Her team subjects filmmakers to the kind of grilling she wishes she had.
“Everyone who gets funded comes in for a script meeting and we ask those tough questions that I was never asked when I was developing Praise, tough questions like `what are you trying say? What genre is it?’ If you’re writing a romantic comedy know what a romantic comedy is. If you’re writing a thriller know what a thriller is. Respect those genres and the principles of those genres.”
A long-standing problem with way too many Australian films over the past 25 years has been the lack of a third act. Is that issue addressed? “Totally! Absolutely!” Coleman exclaims.
As with Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, the blockbuster success of Tomorrow, When the War Began has become emblematic of a new direction that, in Coleman’s words, reflects “the confidence the industry has that it didn’t have five years ago.”
Based on the hit book series by John Marsden, writer/director Stuart Beattie returned to Australia to make Tomorrow after having worked in Hollywood for almost 20 years, punching out screenplays for high-profile fare such as Pirates of the Caribbean, 30 Days of Night and Collateral. With his ear close to the ground about the ups and down of the local industry he was eager to bring his experience home.
“As an industry we were stuck in a rut for a while making the bleak urban drama,” Beattie says. “There has been a shift in the last few years to make more commercial films and I definitely see Tomorrow as a part of that.
“Tomorrow is, in many ways, modelled on what happens in Hollywood where you get the rights to a hot property – a book or what have you – and you (capitalise) on that high degree of pre-awareness. That’s something that hasn’t been done that much in Australia. It was something that I was anxious to change.”
Of all the industry people invigorated by the change of heart in Australian film there isn’t anyone more foam-at-the-mouth-enthusiastic than Ross Grayson Bell, the new head of screenwriting at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS).
Like Beattie, he is an Aussie-born Hollywood veteran – he produced Fight Club and Under Suspicion – eager to apply and adapt Hollywood principles to the Australian film scene.
And it’s working. Last year there weren’t enough applicants to run the screenwriting course in Melbourne, he says. This year there was a flood of high-quality people who think “concept”. And that’s not a buzzword, Bell insists. It’s a philosophy.
“They’re thinking bigger,” he says. “I’m not getting stories about my dying grandmother, or any of those kitchen-sink dramas. I say, do your kitchen-sink drama, but set it in space! I’m not saying don’t be true to your artistic integrity, just find a great way to say it. Concept knows no national boundaries. That’s the key. The flavour can still be totally Australian – as it was with Tomorrow and Daybreakers – but concept is universal.”
With regular visits from American filmmakers who host seminars on how to fashion films for big audiences, Bell is convinced the long-held anti-Hollywood sentiment once pervasive in Australian film culture has been pole-axed.
“There is some resistance from the old guard. `Why do we need Americans?’ Forget that! They’re experts! Why not listen to them? So rather than this cultural cringe of, `oh my god! They’ve been to Hollywood! Keep away!’ the attitude now is ‘come over. Let’s talk. Let’s make movies’. I think that’s exciting.”
And he’s got no time for time wasters.
“I’m not going to tolerate people who don’t have (ideas with a) big reach and that desire to return their investors’ money and make enough money on top of that so they can do it a second time. If they’re not thinking like that it’s too self-absorbed. Why am I going to give you $5 million if you haven’t even got an idea of how you’re going to reach your audience? I believe that we can make films from Australia that have a global reach, that are great concept-driven films.
“I believe there is a revolution happening – and even if that’s not true the more we speak it the more it will happen. Right?”
Well, let’s see – hopefully up on the screen.
– Jim Schembri