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.
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: email@example.com
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.