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The Wrong Perspective

It Ain’t The Money, It’s How It’s Spent

It’s one thing for me to write on and on about how fucked the Australian Film Industry is, because it so happens that I’ve toiled in it, and it’s my industry. It’s another thing when some random outsider drives by with a shot. While I hate aspects of the industry, I wouldn’t be in it if I didn’t believe in being in it at a deep level. Yes, it’s true, my grand cynicism is concealing a grand romantic when it comes to cinema. There, you can go write that down.

So it really gets my goat when somebody lines up to kick the industry without actually understanding what the problems are, just because it’s down. Chances are, if it wasn’t down, they’d want to be in it. This article takes the cake in those stakes.

While average Australians are being asked to tighten their belts so much they’re in danger of being cut in half, Bana, one of this country’s highest paid actors, reckons the Government could do more to help local writers.

“Not enough money is spent on resources for our writers and getting them better access to overseas talent and experience,” he said before taking his seat at the $US10,000-a-table knees-up called G’day USA in Los Angeles.

“It would be great if a lot more of them would be exposed to the rigours of the overseas market.”
No wonder they call it La La Land.

So just what part of the word “buggered” doesn’t Bana understand?

Buggered was the choice term used by Access Economics in its report to describe the state of Australia’s finances.

“Batten the hatches,” the report went on. “This is not just a recession. This is the sharpest deceleration Australia’s economy has ever seen.”

Something tells me this is not going to be a writer-led recovery.

Buggered is also the right word to describe the Australian film industry.

Yes, I know it’s an opinion piece on a tabloid paper’s website – one owned by Rupert Murdoch at that – and the one sentence paragraphs really betray a shallow mind preoccupied with insults rather than proper argument The utter lack of charity in understanding why Eric Bana is arguing for more development money for the writers is flabbergasting.

The only way in which the Australian Film Industry is going to win back its position is through better writing, better writers and more and more of them. There is no other way. It cannot invest in directors or actors or, any other crew area or infrastructure without putting a lot more money into the writing and development of the projects.That’s how it’s done. Eric Bana is not arguing for anything outlandish.

In fact, the people who are wrestling with this problem know this is true, and are trying to figure out how to get the most effective transmission of money to the writers. At least, that is the theory of the Screen Australia and ts spat with the Australian Writers Guild. It’s entirely reasonable for Eric Bana (bless his soul) to ask for more assistance in the writing end of the development.

This Naomi Toy woman is mistaking the results of previous neglect as a case for arguing that further investment is a case of throwing good money after bad. It’s simply wrong to argue the case, even if the current crop of Australian films are not something the wider Australian public would care to spend money upon.

Rumourmill Says…

Screen Australia has hired SB who used to be one if its assessors. SB has been known to be obstructive, obstinate, and downright mean and irrational in the way SB has treated projects under the FFC regime. Some have described SB as ‘EVIL’ without a hesitation in the sentence. It’s really hard to see how Screen Australia is going to forge ahead in a new direction when it hires back somebody who has essentially been a BIG PART of the PROBLEM.

The word on the street is that SB’s boss from the FFC era felt sorry for SB, because SB would be unlikely to score another job in the industry. It’s the worst reason to retain SB as a development officer, but that’s the word.

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What They’re Saying

Gimme A Break. No, Seriously A Real Break

I got a fax from Pleiades today with an article about Dr. Ruth Harley and her outlook on the Australian Film industry, which I would love to link to but can’t – it’s behind their registration wall. I will however quote some bits from it, that caught my eye:

“It’s not a basket case,” Harley says in her first expansive interview since commencing November 17.  “I think it’s enormously vibrant. People keep asking me will ‘Australia’ rescue the film industry. Well, it doesn’t need rescuing. The right question, is how can films get to Australian audiences much more effectively.”

Australian filmmakers are on notice. It is no longer OK to spend public funds obtained as either direct investment, tax breaks or state incentives on films that appeal only to immediate family and good friends.

“Connect with audiences” is the new catchphrase mouthed by Harley but originally mandated by arts minister Peter Garrett.

I got that far and went for my vomit bag. Seriously folks, I’ve been saying this for years, and it’s like the establishment that hands out money has never taken notice of its importance until their job securities were threatened. It was only then that they thought having an audience tat actually liked the films they kept dishing up was a good idea. It’s a nice thing that their jobs were threatened, and that motivated them to think straight for once, but this stuff is 20 years behind the curve.

I don’t know what’s more disappointing: that it has taken this long for these people to realise that it’s show business that they’re in and that they need to put on shows that the market likes; or the fact that they think the previous bunch of filmmakers who made these boring films that alienated the audiences are suddenly going to be capable of delivering these audience-friendly product.

Isn’t it more te case that having shunned the talent to make commercial films for oh, TWENTY FIVE YEARS or so, that they’re now wanting a commercial kind of talent to matter. Well the commercially talented have given up on the film bureaucrats years ago and only talk to them to see if they can sneak in something commercial under the guise of something that is inherently NOT. How perverse is that?

Still, brand Australia has some barriers to overcome. A survey by the FFC found most people consider Australian Films something they have to watch at School. The beginning og hte effort to overturn this prception is the release this week of Screen Australia’s investment guidelines, thefirst announcement overseen by Harley.

Of Screen Australia’s total appropriation of$ 103million it will spend 60 million funding films, television, children’s drama, and documentaries, and $10million will be allocated to project development, which has long been viewed as the weak spot of the film sector in particular.

Back in the day, I never thought it was bad to have to watch an Australian film at school. It was quite the treat. It was exciting and a world full of promise, whether it was ‘FJ Holden’, ‘Breaker Morant’, ‘Sunday Too Far Away’, “Gallipoli’, or ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’. The industry used to make relevant, interesting films. Somewhere along the way, successive generations of film bureaucrats strangled the industry to the point where we are starting all over again.

It happens, and I’m okay with it – provided they don’t keep making the same mistakes. The definition of stupidity is repeating the same procedures and expecting different results.

I’m just waiting to see a sign that “it ain’t so, Joe”.

UPDATE:

Of course the bit that I forgot to mention was this little bit:

Without the release of Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Australia’, total domestic box office share would be 0.9%. it’s lowest ebb since records began in 30 years ago.

Ouch. If the domestic market is willing to support you at less than 1%, then you have to say that there’s something wrong not only with the product but the marketing as well as brand recognition.

I’ve been pondering some of this for a day and I have to say it comes back down to 30years of mismanagement by the people who controlled the money flow into the business.

Now, I understand that ATO hated 10BA because it helped make shonky films that never saw the light of day – because they were always meant to be loss-leaders. And the Funding bodies never got asked to be accountable for Box Office returns for the better part of the same 30years.

That really doesn’t leave us with the picture of a thriving industry trying to make a buck – and heaven forbid that artist-types should want to succeed, or for that matter, make entertaing movies – because that would show up just how bad the government-sanctioned boring filmmakers really are.

It’s almost worth nuking and starting again.

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From The Mailbox

Top Ten Closing Film Lines

This link came in from the Micra Racer.

The list goes in ascending order:

  • Soylent Green
  • Back To The Future
  • Robocop
  • Withnail and I
  • Stand By Me
  • Sunset Boulevard
  • Blade Runner (Director’s Cut)
  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • E.T.
  • Casablanca

I think this list was compiled by a sentimental 80s kind of guy. It’s not a bad list, but Casablanca and Sunset Boulevard are representing everything before Soylent Green. BTF1, Robocop, Blade Runner, Stand By Me and E.T. all hail from the 1980s, and the Silence of the Lambs is barely 1990s. Still, it’s not a bad list of closing lines. Too bad it won’t last, but then again, what does?

Schadenfreude On Speed And Steroids

Pleiades sent this link in earlier today. It’s the New Yorker’s review of ‘Australia’

He has created an instant cliché: the rise to nowhere. In such moments, you can feel the director’s frustration; he’s like an infant wrestling with a king-size mattress. It’s a shame that Fox entrusted Luhrmann with this project, because audiences were probably ready for a big-boned realistic movie spectacle. We couldn’t rightly expect Lean’s stern pictorial glory, or the vital dramatic imagination of a Fred Zinnemann (“From Here to Eternity”). But, at this point, we would have gladly settled for the routine competence of a George Roy Hill, whose national epic “Hawaii” (1966), put up against “Australia,” is a model of narrative rectitude. Luhrmann is drawn to kitsch as inevitably as a bear to honey. The early scenes of this movie have a ludicrous opéra-bouffe boisterousness. Nicole Kidman is Sarah Ashley, a rich, highborn Englishwoman with clipped diction and jackets that fit as tightly as a toreador’s. It’s 1939, and she arrives in a huff from England to retrieve her husband, who she suspects has been dallying with Aboriginal women on the family-owned cattle station. In Darwin, she looks for her lift to the interior, in the person of a cattle driver known as the Drover (Hugh Jackman), and finds him engaged in a meaningless bar brawl. (As if Australia weren’t raw enough, Luhrmann is given to scenes of roistering and tumult.)

Pretty damning. As with all these things, the opinion is spreading that it’s open season on Baz Luhrmann and Nicole Kidman. This link is reporting another poisonous review sent in from Pleiades.

The LA Times’ Patrick Goldstein wrote the Hollywood studio behind the $US130 million ($A201.55 million) film, Twentieth Century Fox, had high hopes for Australia as a commercial and critical success, but it made just $US20 million ($A31.01 million) in its first five days in North American theatres.

“Without any bankable stars in the picture (Australia once again proving that Kidman is many things but not a movie star), Fox has been forced to sell it as a Baz Luhrmann film,” Goldstein wrote.

“And as all of us Baz fans know well, Luhrmann is many things, most notably a brilliant artist, but he is not a popcorn-chewing, crowd-pleasing filmmaker.”

Goldstein also predicted Australia’s hopes for a best picture Oscar may have sunk.

“As history shows, it’s almost impossible for a film with Australia’s mediocre critical response to land a best picture nomination, which robs Fox of an important marketing tool in keeping the film afloat in a crowded marketplace,” he wrote.

The Schadenfreude over Nicole Kidman and Baz Luhrmann is pretty poisonous. It’s as if the press gallery is out to bury them so they never work in LA again. Having not seen the film still, I can’t comment on how accurate these nasty reviews are, but it’s certainly killing box office interest.

When I went to the opening for the Japanese Film Festival in Sydney’s Greater Union cinemas on george Street, around 400 people turned up to watch a totally unknown  Japanese film. There were about 20 people coming out of a session for ‘Australia’. The contrast was hard to pick, and the competition wasn’t even a Hollywood blockbuster or James Bond.

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Japanese Film Festival Opens In Sydney

Just A Quick Note

The Japanese Film Festival kicked off last night, with the usual speeches at the Reception and a pretty cool film called ‘After School’. It’s one of those films where the narrative is broken up and tells you one story, only to reveal it is entirely another case. The first half leads you to believe it’s a story about a guy who runs out on his pregnant wife, leaving his best friend from his high school days to look after his wife. By the end of the film, you have a totally different take on the people.

It’s a straight forward style of directing without any tricky camera moves, very tastefully done. There are another 16 films assembled for the festival so I’ll be in there to see as many as I can.

The Festival Director Mr. Konomi is a very astute curator with an exceedingly good eye for cinema. He used to be an editor for a Manga publisher, so it shows. One imagines that culling 17 films out of 300 releases must be very difficult, but every year the Festival surprises with its content. Each year, the films collectively paint a very sophisticated picture of Japan and Japanese cinema.

This is another reason I keep saying we simply have to make more to understand who we are and what our cinema is about. If you tried to run the equivalent festival in Tokyo of Australian cinema, we’d be stuck at 15, because that is all we make. It wouldn’t be a selection at all, it would be a total showcase of everything we make each year, the good, the bad and ugly.

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Somewhere Over The Tasman…

Where Film Bureaucrats Bloom

I have met some fine film people over in New Zealand. They’re generous, warm, and far less cagey about discussing meat and potato money issues than their Australian counterparts. When I’ve been there, trying to get a Japanese production into NZ, they’ve been so helpful, it made the arduous considerably more bearable.

Yet, it seems their Film Commission struggles from the very same problems our funding bodies suffer from, as evinced by this article here.

(Dr. Ruth) Harley also gave a departing gift of about $40,000 to something called Project Ell, about which no one seems to know much.

Eight years ago, the Film Fund Production Trust was established. As John Barnett passionately argued in his On Film piece this month, those who run this fund, including Harley, have spent $20m without accounting for a cent.

If you look at just about every New Zealand movie which has proved to be a commercial success, the Film Commission has either snubbed it, or given token funding. On the other hand, its big budget films have invariably turned out to be productions few people want to watch.

But they’re so cute, these commission bureaucrats.

If a film’s a commercial failure, they quickly call it “art”, as if the two cancel each other out. Well I’ve got two words in response: Whale Rider.

Everywhere you look, a disgrace can be found. A little-known documentary, Trouble is my Business, was funded by the commission and made by a staff member.

If this were an iwi-based organisation, tossing out taxpayers’ money to whanau, heads would roll. Where’s investigative journalist Phil Kitchin when you need him most?

Before you accuse me of putting the boot into Harley now she’s gone, go back and find I’ve been criticising the commission’s behaviour for years.

For its secrecy, its unaccountability, for playing favourites. Those who sucked up to Harley were the chosen ones; there was a cosiness between Harley, Labour’s associate arts minister, Judith Tizard, and to a lesser extent, her boss Helen Clark.

On some level, there’s money that has to be spent on obscure productions in both countries. There’s a place in the world for these films that appeal to 16,000 people on th entire planet. The problem is that there’s a delusion in these development bodies that those ‘worthy films’ should comprise the corpus of the entire film industry. In the mean time, the films they snub are most likely the films with a wider audience.

It gives me no satisfaction or encouragement whatsoever to find Dr. Ruth Harley is going to be the new head of the Screen Australia organ. It’s a typical case where the credentials fit, but only because the credentials are so incongruous to the real task at hand. Dr Harley is not going to be able to help the Australian Film Industry revive itself. Then again, the structural and contextual problems the Australian Film Industry is up against, are not problems she or Screen Australia can solve.

A Depression By Any Other Name Is A Depression

This link came in from Pleiades, who has a sharp eye for these things.

Few prominent economists will say it, but to me it looks and feels like we are in another Great Depression or a reasonable facsimile.

The current meltdown is dubbed a “financial crisis.” But a rose by any other name would still inflict the same hardship and suffering on most people and businesses.

Clearly, the lessons have not been learned from the Herbert Hoover era. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, a columnist for The New York Times, says the current banking crisis is “functionally similar to that of the Great Depression.”

“Many of the symptoms” are the same, including the impotence of monetary policy — like cuts in interest rates — that has not halted the economic downturn.

Typically, the current Republican administration has acted first to bail out the collapsed financial industry, with few strings attached. Belatedly, the government now has come up with an $800 billion program for hard-pressed average Americans to make it easier to get loans for homes, cars and education or borrow through credit cards.

The moves evoke the old quip on Capitol Hill: “A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you are talking about real money.”

I’m not seeing the effects of this thing just yet. I can’t explain it, but the company for which I do a lot of stuff, is going gangbusters in this festive season. And to show it is not an isolated phenomenon, Macquarie Bank threw a $750k Christmas Party – and we weren’t invited, but who cares? There’s work out there. It just doesn’t feel like a depression yet.

Of course it could all go belly-up in the new year, in which case, we’ll all starve and be on the dole queue, but it really doesn’t feel like it here.

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Product Portfolio Management Of Australian Cinema

If PPM Was Applied To Australian Cinema…

Product Portfolio Management is a type of marketing tool that looks at where a product is in a 4 quadrant cycle. A product can be in any 4 situations at any given time. It’s really old hat in marketing, but it is an interesting tool with which to at least come to grips, in order to understand why Australian Cinema is in its current predicament.

One thing to understand about the PPM outlook is that it doesn’t really matter what your product is, it’s only looking at how it sits in relationship to two parameters: how much marketing budget is spent on it, and how much it returns. Under this system, there are 4 possibilities:

  1. High Investment, Low Return.
  2. High Investment, High Return.
  3. Low Investment, High Return.
  4. Low Investment, Low Return.

these 4 combinations provide the 4 quadrants a product might move through in its product life. As such, they each have a name, which brings into focus just what it is we’re talking about.

  1. Problem Child
  2. Star
  3. Cash Cow
  4. Loser

What’s interesting is that a product like Coca Cola, or a Porsche 911 equally has a product cycle, and can be judged by just how much marketing effort it takes to sell it, and what kind of returns it makes.

A Problem Child Product is something that is new to the market, or is a product that is getting re-launched under a new campaign. This could be a toothpaste or a new soap, or even a brand new movie release.

A Star Product is something like Coca Cola’s main product, going toe to toe with Pepsi Cola as both firms put in High Investment to yield high returns from the market. Or it could be the latest Hollywood blockbuster movie being released with a huge marketing budget. The risks are high, but if there’s one business that knows what to do with a Star Product, it’s the Hollywood movie business.

A Cash Cow is a product that keeps on selling in spite of minimal marketing. An example might be a Victorinox Swiss Army knife, where you never see an advertisement but every male seems to end up buying one at some point in their 20s, whether they needit or not. The Swiss Army Knife is a cash cow product for Victorinox.

A Loser is a product where there’s very little money spent on marketing, but at the same time it yields very little back from the market. Typically, a product at the end of its market life becomes a loser, as firms lose interest in further marketing it, and its sales go down as people move on to newer, fresher things.

A film of its own moves through these cycles as it gos from New Release at the Box Office to DVD rentals, to DVD sales and then eventually the sales bin where you can pick up an old movie for $7.99. What is great about the PPM analysis is that it is so abstract it can cut across the entire scale of products. You can do a PPM analysis of a specific DVD release, or you could look at an entire industry that sells stuff to the public in huge amounts. – Just by looking at the relative strengths of expenses and returns, you can place anything into these 4 quadrants.

So let’s just look at Australian cinema for a moment. Our films are small low budget affairs with minimal marketing that tanks at the box office one after the other… Hmmm… let’s see… How do we couch this?

Clearly, when you look at these four quadrants and think where the Australian Film Industry sits, you have to say it’s in the fourth, LOSER quadrant. The problem is that neither the government nor the various film bureaucrats looking at their overall branding of their product.The thing is, it’s stating the obvious, but it needs to be said out loud. Our industry is, no matter which scale you look at it, a LOSER.

If the powers that be want to have a thriving business, they need to think about PPM and see how they can turn the industry into a STAR, because that’s where any Film Industry should operate. And if they really want to get there, they need to start spending a lot more money than they ever have. If not, they need to find a way of getting money into the system pretty damn quick.

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Bill Bennett And His Auteurs-Are-Bad Theory

Describing Symptoms Does Not Make A Diagnosis

That’s the best bit of life-experience I got in my brief time as Medical student. It’s so true when you come up against a real suffering person, after spending time behind books and in the lecture theatre getting talked at by professors. If there ever was a chronically struggling patient, it’s the Australian Film Industry. Today, in the aftermath of the abysmal opening of ‘Australia’ in the US market, Bill Bennett has piped up with his own analysis of what is wrong with the Australian Film Industry and it is remarkably self-defeating:

The only way we’re going to have an Australian film industry is if we get rid of the auteurs. Baz Luhrmann is an auteur, George Miller is an auteur, Peter Weir is an auteur, Jane Campion is an auteur – by that, I mean that these film-makers speak with their own unique voice through cinema. And largely, they keep making the same films. But this does not an industry make.

We need a “modular” system, like Hollywood, if we’re ever to break out of the cottage industry mould that we’ve got ourselves into. By “modular”, I mean the antithesis of the auteur system which we largely have in place now – where a film is typically developed by a writer-director, or by a director working with a writer to put down his vision into script form. And then a producer comes on board and then the actors. In this system you cannot separate the script from the director, or sometimes the producer from the director. We have too much respect for the creative process. Big mistake.

Get that? Bill Bennett says what’s wrong with the business are the auteurs, and then he lines up Baz Luhrmann with George Miller, Peter Weir, Jane Campion and tries to run them all down. Let’s face it, these people are our success stories – they’re not part of the problem as I keep saying. If anything, it’s Bill Bennett and the system that keeps funding him over, say, me, that is the problem!

Let’s be clear about this. About a decade ago, Bill was boasting that he gave advice to funding bodies so that their criteria for selection would favor him the most. Subsequent to that boast he made ‘Spider and Rose’, which must be the quintessential Australian film people stayed away from in droves.

Let’s be even clearer about this. 20th Century Fox bankrolled ‘Australia’. It’s an American film. Its wins and losses are already part of the Hollywood system, and not really part of the Australian system. Even though it flopped and will shrivel away in the market place, it’s actually not our industry’s big loss. It’s Rupert and Fox’s problem, for having bet on Baz Luhrmann this time. It won’t be the last time.

So Bill’s got a gall trying to call out George Miller, Peter Weir and Jane Campion on the back of Baz’s one commercial failure.

Bill Bennett goes on to describe the Hollywood system as he sees it and then hits a point where he realises that he, as a director would not be served by it too well.

The Hollywood system has its own pitfalls and to an extent they treat a director as merely part of the manufacturing process – but hell, what’s wrong with that? That’s what we’re doing. We’re manufacturing entertainment and playing with budgets of millions of dollars. And even within this artless box-office driven factory, filmmakers can still keep their own voice. Look at how Peter Weir has continued to make his own unique films within the Hollywood studio system. Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show and Master And Commander could only have been made by Weir. And George Miller has continued to keep control of his movies while getting the Hollywood studios to pick up the tab. Happy Feet broke the Pixar mould and got an Oscar for best animated movie in the process. And then there’s Australia – which both supports and denies my “kill the auteurs” theory. Baz Luhrmann has taken too damn long to make that movie. He should be working more. We should be seeing more Baz Luhrmann movies. He has to stop being a writer/director and take on some Hollywood crap. Turn it into gold. Like the fabled directors of the 1940s and ’50s: William Wyler, George Stevens, even Alfred Hitchcock. As Picasso once said, if you go to work and you’re an artist, then what you’ll do is art. If you’re not, then at least you did a day’s work.

That’s really weak. He starts off arguing that it’s the auteur’s fault and then gets to the last bit and comes to the point that it’s the fact that there’s not enough stuff being made. Yeah, well, I’ve been saying that or about a decade, while you’ve been pulling down chump change from the funding bodies to make your cruddy films, Bill – I don’t have the box office returns of ‘Kiss or Kill’ and ‘A Savage Land’ and ‘The Nugget’ on my conscience.

Bottom line for me is that the Australian Film Industry lets Bill Bennett make loser films, while I would’ve made a bunch of genre movies in its place that might have had a real chance of making money; but the funding bodies backed him instead of me.

Auteur or not, the real problem with the industry is that it can’t make quantity for various reasons, and when it does, that small quantity it does make is largely crap in the eyes of the domestic market.

If Bill Bennett wants a clearer picture of what’s wrong, here are my 5 pointers:

1) Government should stop trying to make development decisions. They keep making movies that bomb in the market place. We know this. They should get out of that pretension and business altogether.

2) The ATO has got to play ball properly. The Tax office has to play by the rules the government has set with the tax break legislation. Without it, the investors won’t return.

3) There has to be a domestic market created through artificial means. Australian films should be cheaper at the box office, and exhibitors should be made to screen them. Distributors who handle Australian films have to be protected. This is a must.

4) Make lots of genre pictures. That is to say, more Australian Horror, more Australian Action, More Australian Crime, more Australian Science Fiction and so on. You know, the kinds of pictures people actually watch as their movie staple.

5) Make More. We just don’t make enough to know how good we really can be.

If these changes are made, it won’t matter if Baz Luhrmann is an auteur or not, or for that matter if, that one picture succeeds or fails.

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