Stars In Their Eyes

The Good News First

Baz Luhrman’s Australia made it’s debut in the last 24 hrs and nobody has condemned it to death… yet. It’s good because so much is riding on the success of this film. Here’s the funny thing. If 20th Century Fox made a film set in England using English actors, nobody really bats an eye-lid. If they do so with Australian actors in a film about some portion of Australia’s landscape, it turns into a media circus.

The most expensive Australian film ever made is rousing and passionate. Despite some cringe-making Harlequin Romance moments between homegrown Hollywood stars Kidman and Jackman, the 1940s-set Australia defies all but the most cynical not to get carried away by the force of its grandiose imagery and storytelling.

The Reporter noted the film was much less earnest than the trailer suggested.

Even if it does run a butt-numbing two hours and 45 minutes, the film has broad appeal for international audiences with plenty of stirring action sequences to make the blokes more comfortable with a particularly blatant shot of bare-chested Jackman lathering up under the shower.

But other reviews have been considerably more measured. The Age in Melbourne damned the film with faint praise, saying: “In what has to be the most hyped and self-consciously local film since 1984’s The Man From Snowy River, the anxiously anticipated Australia is not a bad film. But it’s far from a great one, and certainly not one destined to be a classic.”

In a review tagged with 3½ stars out of five, The Sydney Morning Herald’s Sandra Hall described Australia as much too long at almost three hours, shamelessly overdone an outback adventure seen through the eyes of a filmmaker steeped in the theatrical rituals and hectic colours of old-fashioned showbiz.

In The Australian, David Stratton went for the same rating. He mixed enthusiasm for the film with disappointment. While he praised the sweep, scope and acting, he noted the cliches and familiar elements.

The obvious conclusion to draw from that is that Australia as a country is under-exposed to the world, and perhaps even to itself. At this point in history, the movie-watching audience of Australia (Let’s call them MWAA for short) are ready to consume anything if there are Australian stars in it, together in a film about Australia. Perhaps the scale of production that is ‘Australia’ *should* be the norm, but alas, it’s a once in a decade event.

It’s a little sad that after all the hoopla, the film ends up with a 3.5/5 star rating, but in many ways, that is exactly what all competent films earn these days. They’re the most boring kind of movie! In any case, the fact that the critics have not dumped all over it means that it probably won’t be orphaned straight to a DVD release or be available for $7.99 on supermarket shelves too soon. It may even make its money back worldwide – I certainly hope it does.

The Bad News

The bad news is that there’s really nothing from Australia to follow it up. If ‘Australia’ is successful, then you hope that there is a plethora of product so follow in its steps, but there won’t be. So for better or for worse, the success or possible lack thereof) will become the de facto litmus test on our ability to make films.

The really bad news is that Australian stars generally don’t want to come back and make movies here, so Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman deserve some praise for that fact alone. It kind of makes it even more stark that there are so few films made with our bankable international stars, back home in Australia.

Unfortunately, even after 2 Star Wars movies, 3 Matrix movies and a raft of other Hollywood fare was shot in Australia, none of those films catalysed an equivalent rise in Australian production. Instead, what we’ve seen is a steady flow of Australian acting talent moving abroad on the back of those films. Production back here by our producers ad writers and directors, has tanked completely. Even ‘Australia’ is actually an American film which just happens to use our talent.

What is doubly unfortunate for an Australian producer is that to get a film up with any scope of real international success, that is to say, the point is to make a film that will find an audience as readily as an American or English film, the producer needs to get commitments out of A-List actors. Even if they are Aussies, you have to know they are very ill-disposed towards coming back to do something here. Even getting a rejection from these people is very tricky, because usually they throw an agent in the way, who then asks for pre-sales on the project before even showing the project to his/her client.

Here’s the catch: Most Australian productions can’t get a pre-sale exactly because it doesn’t have an international star attached. And there’s the agent there saying, “if you don’t have some kind of pre-sale arrangement…”

So the International A-list actor gets to say ‘no, piss-off’ without actually saying no, or taking the negative hit for having said no. It’s kind of pathetic how for the sake of their PR, they would want to have ‘plausible deniability of their rejection’, but that is exactly where we stand with our own talent. I can write a long list of Australian actors who have use this ploy to stiff projects I’ve been on but I won’t; however, I will report that Hugh Jackman and his office is one of them who has played this game.

Thus many Australian projects die waiting to hear from their own stars ho have made it, as do the projects that get hobble, nobbled, crippled and fucked by the various funding bodies. That’s still the bad news.

Why don’t we make commercial films here? Because the stars of the private sector refuse to, which results in the public sector marketing a line of far, far inferior products. That’s it in a nutshell.

Looking At It From Their Point Of View

Imagine you’re one of these guys or gals. You grow up in Australia, and you decide to become an actor. You do some crappy films with Australian crews and miraculously something breaks internationally. So you hike it out to London or LA, and you beat out rest of the fame-hungry crowd and make it to the top eventually. You’re a bankable leading star, with a limited shelf-life.

You sure as hell don’t feel like coming back to where you started to make some crappy under-developed film with crews from Australia when you could be working with world-renown writers, producers, directors and sitting in comfortable, air-conditioned trailers filled with your whimiscal riders, in between changing set-ups as you have some gorgeous assistant satisfy your every sexual impulse and desire?

Why would you give that up?

Or, if you want the baseball-metaphor version, why the hell would a Major-Leaguer come back and play Rookie Ball?

What The Australian Government Must Do

Each time I write an entry about why and how the Australian Film Industry is… err, …for want of a better word, FUCKED, I am asked to write how it could be different. It could be different in several ways.

1) The Government should get out of development.

2) The Government should create a domestic market for domestic films instead.

3) The Government should facilitate producers, not vet or veto.

The logical extension of this is that they should shut down all government funding agencies.They should all shut up shop. It ain’t working, and it never will, and it’s high tide they stopped spending money on them.

Instead, the Government should come up with a fund to spend money strictly on advertising and marketing Australian films. They MUST get right out of production and development. It should come up with laws making it mandatory that a certain percentage of Australian screens have to screen works by Australian creatives. This will put an artificial demand on the likes of Greater Union to invest in product that they think will sell in those mandatory blocks, because writing off those empty cinemas will send them to the wall. Right now, it’s too easy for them to make a living off showing American films with impunity.

There should be an agency, preferably the Commonwealth Bank of Australia that looks after producers that acts as a ‘funding Kiosk’. The producer should turn up with a script and a budget. The Government lends a sum up to a certain dollar for that producer to take and get that film made. The Producer then takes that dollar sum, script, budget and perhaps whatever package, and then goes to an Australian distributor – who by law must get screen product to fit the screen quota – a deal. The Producer then takes that deal overseas and sews up the rest of the deals. When the deal is set up, the producer has to return the loan or have his production shut down. Pretty simple.

Needless to say there should be no assessment criteria for the CONTENT of the script. Just the budget and genre, in terms of feasibility. The CBA must determine if they think the film might be commercially viable.

If the Producer fails to get the picture up, they have to return the money at CPI interest rates.  That means a producer has to be pretty certain his or her movie is going to be internationally profitable before he develops it. In other words, let the market decide what a good Australian film might be – not some funding body run by film bureaucrats who miss far more than they hit, and seem totally unaccountable for their failures.

Will this ever happen? I doubt it. There’s just too much convention and tradition and bad habits and acceptance of these terrible choices, all wrapped up in the model of government funding that has existed in Australia for so long. However it needs to happen if politicians really think they want to stop hemorrhaging government money on Australian films that Australians don’t want to see.

UPDATE:
This came in from Pleiades who is a fully paid up member of the Australian Writers Guild. The text in full reads:

MEDIA RELEASE: FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

SCREEN AUSTRALIA ABANDONS AUSTRALIA’S SCREENWRITERS

OSCAR NOMINATED WRITERS SAYS PROPOSED GUIDELINES SPELL DISASTER FOR INDUSTRY

Wednesday 19 November: The Australian Writers’ Guild has expressed alarm at Screen Australia’s draft guidelines and the impact they will have on the future of Australia’s film industry.

One of Australia’s most successful screenwriters, Oscar nominated Jan Sardi (Shine, The Notebook, Mao’s Last Dancer) says “Far from taking the Australian film industry in a new direction, Screen Australia’s proposed guidelines spell disaster for an industry already on its knees.”

If the proposed draft guidelines of Screen Australia are put into practice, future funding eligibility requirements for screenwriters will be so high they will exclude all but a handful of professional writers and force others into potentially unproductive partnerships before the first draft is even written.

Funding for first-time and emerging screenwriters will also be completely abandoned and a total disregard is shown for the basic rights of writers through the proposed early transfer of copyright without any mandated protections.

In initial consultations Screen Australia acknowledged the importance of quality scripts in the creation of outstanding films and television programs, and expressed a commitment to supporting writers with the time and money necessary to write them. Their proposed guidelines however show an abject failure to fulfill these commitments.

“Abandoning emerging screenwriters and inflicting shotgun weddings on experienced writers, directors and producers reeks of a government bureaucracy all too eager to divest itself of responsibility and accountability for where Australian taxpayers money goes – it is not the way forward,” says Sardi.

Australian Writers’ Guild Executive Director, Jacqueline Woodman, says “In their eagerness to establish sustainable businesses and let the marketplace develop and promote projects, Screen Australia appears to have forgotten that before there can be a project to be developed, a script must first be written.”

The Australian Writers’ Guild demands that Screen Australia respond publicly to the proposals outlined in their recent submission and intends to actively campaign against the adoption of the federal agency’s proposed guidelines that attack the status and rights of Australian screenwriters.

The Australian Writers’ Guild full submission to Screen Australia is available from www.awg.com.au.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION OR TO REQUEST AN INTERVIEW, PLEASE CONTACT: DEBBIE McINNES, DEBBIE MCINNES PUBLIC RELATIONS Tel: 02 9550 9207 Mob: 0412 818 071 e: debbie@dmcpr.com.au

Take that, Dr. Ruth Harley, wherever you are! The bit in bold is pretty important – I did that.

This is the sort of government ham-fisted non-help that I’m talking about! Get out of development if you’re going to impose dumb rules on who gets to write!

If the Screen Australia policy is to only back experienced writers, then it is a sign that they are looking at the industry top-down. It’s understandable in that they think it would reduce their risks; however it flies in the face of the reality where films are developed bottom up by people who want to make something out of ideas, and develop them into stories and then scripts and finally films. That’s the bottom-up reality of film-making. If the Screen Australia policy is to exclude those people, then there is going to be no future as they will keep making fewer and fewer films as the pool of ‘experienced writers’ grows older, smaller, and die; and nobody new gets to replace them.

7 Comments

Filed under Cinema, Film, Movies

7 responses to “Stars In Their Eyes

  1. Some nice ideas, Art. Shame nobody in the Oz industry would buy into them. Why? Well because the ‘jobs for the boys brigade’ are the filmmakers / writers / producers, et al, who actually dine out on development and production money from the AFC and FFC etc. And why would they kill the goose that laid the golden egg for them?

    They wouldn’t. And without the backing of the ‘industry’ (ie. ‘they who are not we looking in’), the government won’t change a thing.

    Personally, I think there’s a happy medium. Government funding available – yes, even with all the strings attached (so that the more ‘artistic’ films still get a chance to be made) – but first and foremost let the Oz Government go the way of Fiji and offer investors a 150% tax rebate in one year. But, build in a fail safe to prevent all the ‘bottom of the harbour’ problems of the early form of 10BA (where many films were funded, but never released. Because if they were released and – God forbid! – made money, it complicates the investor’s tax write off). I’m thinking something like, to get the 150% tax benefit the film must get a cinematic release within 12 months of completion of principal photography (at a pre-set minimum amount of cinemas for a pre-set minimum run). Something like that.

    Do this (or similar) and Producers will only go to the government for film funding / development money, as a last resort (or for ‘arty’ films, that lack commercial promise). And private film funding will go through the roof.

    This way the Australian taxpayer wins (less government investment). Investors with tax problems, win (your tax problem’s over for another year, rich boy). The Australian film industry wins (more films being made). And all talent and crew working here wins (hey, I can pay my rent AND eat – who knew!)

    There, sorted!

    ThatActionGuy.com for PM, I say! GENIUS 🙂

  2. Well, the problem with 10BA was that the tax break kicked in at the completion o the film. So there was no accountability for the actual quality of the film. Any tax break should kick in on the box office take end of the film. i.e. You don’t get your tax break unless your film at least breaks even. There’s no point just funding production for the sake of it, if it never gets seen – which was what has been happening for 25-30 years. It’s idiotic in the extreme.

  3. The people who paid their rent and fed their kids working on crappy films under 10 BA would probably say that there was a LOT of point making the films they worked on…

    I would also add to my last comment on the subject that, separate to a minimum cinematic run (length, number of screens) – the production would also have to do a minimum P&A spend (an agreed % of the below the line budget of the film) in pre-determined channels (TV, print, etc).

  4. The problem isn’t the making of films. It’s making of the wrong films, over and over again, year after year. So 10BA failed to address that issue, as did the big FFC project. What assurances have we got that the new Screen Australia won’t fail either?

    The repeated failures come about because they never seem to take into account that the market is a lot more dynamic and motile than they allow for. The situation changes every 18months while these policies never seem to make accommodations for the realities of the market.
    Anyway, feeding the family of crews is neither here nor there. It’s the shape of the industry that should be up for discussion by all.

  5. In a pinch, make better films, yes. Failing that, just make films and keep the industry on life-support.

  6. Another…with a none too subtle parting shot at Nicole Kidman’s amazingly over-botoxed face…

    AustraliaC-

    By far the weakest film made by the otherwise visionary director Baz Luhrmann, “Australia” is a guilty pleasure par excellence, a schmaltzy (borderline embarrassing and risible), anachronistic, overlong saga, calculatingly made with an eye on the global box-office.

    Designed as a glamorous star vehicle for Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, “Australia” may be the most expensive Australian film ever produced, boasting a budget north of $150 million, a result of a luxurious paychecks and a lengthy, troubled production which took years to be made. Fox, which distributes the picture, stands a slight chance to redeem the costs domestically (the figure above doesn’t include P&A), but internationally, “Australia” may do better if audiences will be lured to attend the kind of Hollywood pictures that are simply not made anymore.

    The terms middlebrow is written large over the entire picture, whose writers (or rather cooks, because it’s such a mishmash of a movie) include such pros as Stuart Beattie (“Miami Vice”) and Ron Harwood (“The Pianist,” “Diving Bell”). Nonetheless, “Australia,” like all of Luhrmann’s features, is conceptual work that for better or worse (here the latter) bears the signature and aesthetics of its auteur-director. (All year, there have been rumors of studio interference during production and post-production).

    Problem is, Luhrmann wants to play it both ways, make an old-fashioned war romance a la “Gone With the Wind” (or “Indochine” with Catherine Deneuve), and also offer poignant commentary on racial Australian politics vis-�-vis the Aboriginal, and by implication, other half-castes and minorities.

    End result is truly a mishmash, a movie that uneasily blends in themes and imagery various genres: Westerns, war films, dramatic romances, prison melodramas, message and social problem pictures. Sadly, wearing its big heart and enlightened message on its sleeve, “Australia” confuses pictorial beauty with real art, schmaltz with genuine emotion, kitsch with cohesive aesthetics.

    While well-respected by critics, Luhrmann is not a particularly commercial director. “Strictly Ballroom” did O.K. but placed Luhrmann as the forefront of Australian directors. The deconstructive “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” impressed critics with its audacious, post-modernist sensibility but didn’t find large audiences. “Moulin Rouge” was a brilliant and innovative musical that, despite being Oscar-nominated and released at least two or three times, was a moderate success (slightly over $50 million in the U.S.)

    Thus, understandably Luhrmann, who lost a couple of year prepping “Alexander the Great” (a subject grabbed by Oliver Stone’s failed epic “Alexander”), and has not made a picture in seven years, felt pressure to demonstrate his commercial viability as a major director, opting for a retro family entertainment that would have been perfect had it been made in the 1940s or 1950s.

    I will no be surprised if “Australia” divides critics along national lines, and if Aussie reviewers would consider the movie to be an important or even significant work, due to its topic of the mistreatment of Aboriginals and alert social consciousness. A title card ate the end of the film signals the socio-legal status of this minority, past and present.

    In its current shape, and insistent eagerness to please viewers, “Australia” is banal, bombastic melodrama, marked with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and with a blatant distinction between heroes and villains. It’s the kind of fare that your grandparents would like because it would remind them of movies they used to see during the Golden Age of the Studio System.

    Narratively, “Australia” pays tribute to at least a dozen Hollywood movies that have entered our movie lore and pop culture consciousness for one reason or another. The most obvious and explicit homage is to “The Wizard of Oz,” segments of which are actually shown to the public in the story itself. Moreover, Judy Garland’s heartfelt song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” serves as a musical key and crucial thematic motif throughout the film.

    Other segments, images and characters borrow or pay homage to, chronologically, “Gone With the Wind,” “Casablanca,” “Red River,” “A Place in the Sun,” “The Searchers,” “Giant,” “The Bridge on the River Quai,” “Out of Africa,” “Dances With Wolves,” and so on. In a future essay, I’ll illustrate the influence of each of these cherished Hollywood classics on specific scenes and characters in “Australia.”

    The yarn is narrated by a charming boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), a bright and alert native, who in the course of the narrative finds himself torn between the whites (Mrs. Boss as he calls Sarah Ashley) and his own people; he is often reminded of his origins by the vision of his grandfather, who serves as an inspirational figure, and at the end, conducts one courageous act that determines the fate of the central characters.

    Before switching to a “serious” but schmaltzy melodrama, “Australia” begins as a broad satirical comedy, exploiting the notion of “the fish out of water.” In the first scene, an elegant, ditzy Englishwoman arrives at the remote Northern Territory ranch of Faraway Downs to look for her husband. “The strangest woman I’d ever seen,” Nullah observes, and he is right. As played by Kidman, Lady Sarah Ashley comes across as a prim, rigid, and uptight femme, the sort of women that Suzan Hayward or Yvonne De Carlo used to play opposite Gable or Cooper. Kidman is too old and too intelligent to play such a part, and her “shy” and “shocking” reaction to her lingerie being flown out of her white-blue suitcases, while a comedic brawl is taking place in a saloon, is one of the film’s most embarrassing scenes, in which you want to close your eyes.

    From that low-comedy point onward, the plot picks some dramatic momentum, when Sarah, upon realizing that her husband was murdered, takes over a shabby, rundown estate occupied by some macho Aussie cattlemen and a loyal clan of Aboriginals. Would Sarah make Faraway Downs a viable enterprise? (Did Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara save Tara from decline and demise?)

    One thing leads to another and Sarah realizes that she needs to drive her cattle to the Darwin port and convince the Australian military to buy it. But who will do the job? Enter Drover (Hugh Jackman), a rugged Aussie cowboy, who represents a variation of the kinds of roles Gable used to play (in “Gone With the Wind” and other MGM movies, such as John Ford’s “Mogambo”).

    While Drover’s liberal politics (pro-Aboriginals) is honorable, it also places him in direct conflict with the other racist bigots. There’s another problem: As his name indicates, Drover refuses to settle down or commit to one woman. He’s the epitome of the “Reluctant Lover.” Would Sarah melt Drover’s heart and succeed in domesticating him into being a more responsible man and surrogate father to Nullah?

    Sarah’s loyal staff consists of Drover, Nullah, Drover’s Aboriginal mate Magarri (David Ngoombujarra), the boozy bookkeeper Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), and the Asian cook Sing Song (Yuen Wah). Together, they form a new kind of multi-racial community, guided by principles of honor, dignity and respect, in defiance of the dominant Aussie culture, in defiance of dominant culture.

    The plot’s most simplistic element is the portraiture of the villains, King Carney (Bryan Brown) and particularly Neil Fletcher (the usually reliable David Wenham), who try to stop Sarah in every way they can.

    The cattle call and stampede owe a heavy debt to Howard Hawks’ “Red River” and other Westerns, such as Kevin Costner’s Oscar-wining “Dances With Wolves,” though considering the film’s large budget, the CGI images are not particularly compelling or impressive.

    The film’s second half is better and more engaging, though equally melodramatic. It deals with Nullah and his family, and their need to be protected from ruthless Aussie officials, who plan to quarantine him in Mission Island, where half-caste boys are detained. Would the kids be rescued and saved? In this segment, Luhrmann
    may be paying tribute to Mark Robson’s “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” (1958), with Ingrid Bergman as a British woman who, despite lack of credentials and experience, becomes a missionary in China and devotes her life to the local kids.

    Again switching narrative gears, the film’s last reel consists of a series of heartfelt separations, farewells, and reunions, all highly predictable and conducted by the rules of Classic Hollywood Cinema.

    Acting-wise, “Australia” belongs to the males, Hugh Jackman, who has never looked more physically handsome, vet David Gulpilil as King George, Nullah’s grandfather, and particularly Brandon Walters, as the narrator and central character, whose alert screen presence and intelligent conduct are the best thing about the whole movie.

    Though the film is overtly designed as a star vehicle for Kidman, she renders a lukewarm but undistinguished performance; recently, there’s been a level of sameness about her screen work, whether she plays historical or contemporary figures. Strangely, the mega close-ups that Luhrmann’s glowing and admiring camera allots her don’t do much for her acting because her beautiful face lacks emotive expressiveness.

  7. I think there was also a UK critic who flat out said Nicole can’t act.

    http://www.smh.com.au/news/entertainment/film/luhrmann-made-big-mistake-choosing-kidman-critic/2008/11/21/1226770679144.html

    Here’s the SMH digest version:

    Baz Luhrmann’s choice of Nicole Kidman to star in his latest epic movie Australia has been savaged by a British newspaper columnist.

    Melanie Reid, writing in Rupert Murdoch’s Times newspaper, describes as a “big, big mistake” Luhrmann’s decision to select Kidman for the role of Lady Sarah Ashley, who inherits a remote cattle station shortly before World War II.

    Reid says Kidman is an immediate turn-off for female cinemagoers who feel she is “one of the most overrated actors” in the world and who has “been the kiss of death in practically every movie she has starred in”.

    The newspaper critic also slams Kidman’s acting ability based on her previous starring roles in films including Cold Mountain and Eyes Wide Shut.

    “Kidman is exquisitely accomplished at being awful,” Reid writes.

    “She can’t act.

    “Instead she drifts around films like a lost porcelain doll, looking frozen, brittle and vapid, staring at the camera with her oh-golly-look-how-I’m-looking-interesting blue eyes.

    “Australia the country deserves redder blood than this.”

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