Five Lessons We Can Learn From 2015: The Most Successful Year For Home-Made Films In Australia’s History

Earlier this month it was announced that Australian films had broken box office records this year, to make more money locally than ever before.

Earlier this month it was confirmed that the 2015 box office for Australian-produced films had reached an all-time high.

At $64 million and counting, this year’s figures have sailed past the record of $63.4 million set in 2001, and by tripling last year’s paltry figures have also single-handedly made all the doomsday critics of local cinema look like fools.

Of course, news like this should be taken with a tiny pinch of salt. For instance, that 2001 figure — which came predominantly thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! and Ray Lawrence’s Lantana — hasn’t been adjusted for inflation. Also, the percentage of the market captured by Australian films in both 2001 and 2015 is still only around 7%, which is a far cry from the 1986 record when Crocodile Dundee and Malcolm helped local films soak up a quarter of the entire tickets sold. But that’s to be expected given the rapidly expanding marketplace, in which American films hold a vice-like grip on the thousands of screens across the country.

Still, as a staunch defender of local films — and someone who from time to time earns money discussing the local industry — this is good news. What has been especially heartening is the diversity of the movies, the assortment of talent, and the positivity and hope the success of Australian films has spurred within the industry itself.

So what lessons can the pundits and industry folk learn from such a successful year? Let’s take a look.

#1: Ignore Young Audiences At Your Own Risk!

Many of Australia’s biggest cinematic successes have been those that target young audiences. Featuring animals tends to help too; Storm Boy (1976), Babe (1995), Happy Feet (2006), and Red Dog (2010) were all box office sensations which have stuck around as local classics.

Of the eight million-dollar grossers this year, three have been G-rated family films. Between Robert Connolly’s Paper Planes, Stuart McDonald’s debut Oddball, and Deane Taylor’s animated Blinky Bill: The Movie, families have been well-served across a wide age range; Blinky catered to the youngest of kiddly winks, while the others played the pre-teen and the tween markets perfectly (and were good enough to not send parents into fits of dumbed down, hyper-edited rage.)

It makes sense, too; despite the evolving nature of cultural cringe in this country, children haven’t yet learnt to have the same aversion to Australian films as many adults tend to. For them, local cinema isn’t yet framed around misshapen ideas that all our films are grungy, depressing, and violent (when they’re not being celebrations of comically absurd bogans). For kids, hearing Aussie accents on screen is neither unusual, nor uncool.

Coming Soon: On the back of their success, Screen Australia – the industry’s primary government funding body – has put the call out for more family film scripts, no doubt sensing that engaging with local fare early breeds loyalty. The trend continues on January 1 with Nowhere Boys: The Book of Shadows (based on the ABC3 kids series), and Kriv Stenders’ sequel to Red Dog — Red Dog: True Blue – which is planned for a lucrative Boxing Day release next year.

#2: Don’t Forget The Forgotten Demographic

For some audiences, veteran and well-known actors starring in grown-up stories is much more important at the ticket-counter than the explosions (or self-involved scenesters) of many modern filmmakers. The older generation is often the forgotten demographic, as they’re the ones who go to the movies when you’re at the office, rather than in the rush of opening weekend.

For instance, you might not have expected a film about euthanasia to be such a big success, but Jeremy Sims’ Last Cab to Darwin has proven that with the right amount of feel-good charm and star power, you can turn any story into a hit. Based on a true story, big names Michael Caton and Jacki Weaver helped make this cross-country road trip drama a box office smash that played for weeks on end while everyone else was streaming Netflix.

It was a similar case with Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner, which opened on Boxing Day of 2014 but made most of its cash in the new year. Spurred on by its WWI story and Crowe’s star power (plus intrigue in his debut as a director), it became the 15th most successful local film of all time. It aired on TV just a few months later during the country’s ANZAC Day celebrations, and was watched by nearly a million more people. 2013’s WWII POW drama The Railway Man, with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, found similar success with a winning combination of respectability and old fashioned star power.

Coming Soon: Lion, starring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, and Rooney Mara, comes from the team behind The King’s Speech and is sure to get older audiences interested — as is Simon Stone’s The Daughter, with Geoffrey Rush. But a new film by Cate Shortland is most exciting of all. Following on from the extraordinary Lore (2012), a WWII drama that was a modest hit at home but did well overseas, Shortland returns to Germany with the psychological thriller Berlin Syndrome.

#3: Go Big Or Go Home (But Most Importantly, Go ‘Strayan!)

“Make films people actually want to see.” That tends to be the take-away from yearly think pieces about the dwindling success of Australian films, suggesting that we should be aping the American industry, with their $100-million budgets, super-slick production values, and global megastars. It’s not a model that can be sustained in our country, of course, but evidence shows releasing at least one of these hits per year helps bolster the industry in ways that go far beyond simple box office measuring sticks — like providing jobs, skills, contacts and mentorships to local filmmakers and actors.

This year’s Mad Max: Fury Road was 2015’s proof of that — and while it’s nice to see an Australian-made action blockbuster blow everyone around the world away, what’s been most encouraging was how bizarre and strange and ‘Strayan it was allowed to be. Similarly to Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) and Australia (2006) before it, Fury Road had a uniquely local flare that helped it do better here than anywhere else in the world. (Conversely,  give us something as deflated and blandly homogenous as Stuart Beattie’s I, Frankenstein (2013), and no amount of “Filmed in Australia!” buzz can save it.)

Even if these large international productions aren’t about Australia, they can still feel Australian, which is something Australian audiences have routinely shown a fondness for when it comes to these big budget international co-productions.

Coming Soon: There could be a surprise in the big budget Australian-Chinese co-production Nest, set to star international superstar Fan Bingbing — but the big international productions of the moment are Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, which is being filmed here right now with a large Australian cast and crew, and Alex Proyas’ epic Gods of Egypt.

#4: Adaptations Still Have What It Takes

David Williamson once turned all of his plays into films, and the ‘70s new wave of Australian cinema was founded on literary classics. Yet despite many of Australia’s greatest films being adapted from other sources, recently writers have been preferring original works. In 2012 and 2014, our country’s biggest cinematic honours, the AACTA Awards, featured only two nominees in their adapted screenplay category. In 2007 they ditched it altogether, due to lack of contenders. So it’s nice to see popular stories being adapted for the big screen once more.

Jocelyn Moorhouse and PJ Hogan’s adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker will be out soon, and the aforementioned take on Reg Cribb’s play Last Cab to Darwin made a big splash — but one of the most pleasant surprises of the year has been the success of Neil Armfield and Tommy Murphy’s adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s iconic memoir Holding The Man. No doubt spurred on by having a built-in audience who had been waiting for the film, it was a bit of a surprise hit with paying audiences who tend to avoid serious local dramas, no matter how acclaimed by critics they are.

Of course, it doesn’t always work: despite positive reviews for his play, Brendan Cowell’s film version of Ruben Guthrie was widely considered not great — but there’s still a wealth of great works in our literary history that deserve to be brought to the big screen.

Coming Soon: Lion, opening in January next year, is bound to be as much a crowd-pleaser as the Saroo Brierley book it’s based on. Meanwhile, fresh off of adapting Shakespeare’s Macbeth (and, er, the computer game Assassin’s Creed), Aussie director Justin Kurzel will return to Australia to adapt Peter Carey’s acclaimed and award-winning True History of the Kelly Gang. It certainly can’t be any worse than the 2003 film, with Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom.

Meanwhile, after her stint in The Dressmaker, Kate Winslet will be back in Australia for an as-yet-untitled biopic about war correspondent and model Lee Miller, based on Antony Pentrose’s book The Lives of Lee Miller.

#5: Take Risks And Embrace The Unknown

Who would have predicted that a local documentary about sugar consumption would be one of the year’s biggest Aussie films?

Damon Gameau’s That Sugar Film took a subject popular with news and technology savvy audiences and ran with it, to become the most financially successful Australian documentary of all time. Obviously documentaries in general can’t hope for such success all the time (let alone local ones), but Gameau’s success reminds the genre that it has the potential to still hit hard when other great examples — like Women He’s Undressed, by Gillian Armstrong — don’t perform to expectations.

What was so interesting about That Sugar Film’s success is that it exploited new distribution methods, with the help of FanForce: an online service that allows potential ticket-buyers to request the film at risk-averse local cinemas, which would normally reserve the programming space to screen Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World six times a day. FanForce, alongside the similar Tugg, are powerful new tools for local filmmakers to get their films on the big screen – a goal which, despite this year’s success of local films, is only getting harder for smaller, independent titles. Zombie comedy Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, enviro-doc Frackman, and queer thriller All About E have all used the same distribution methods.

Coming Soon: One of the most acclaimed local films of the year, Martin Butler and Bentley Dean’s Tanna, is really going into the unknown by being the first ever Australian-Vanuatu co-production. Spoken in indigenous languages, it is yet another film to actually take advantage of our rich multicultural history. It won multiple awards at the Venice Film Festival, and will play select cinemas in November.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer from Melbourne. He also works as an editor and a film festival programmer while tweeting too much @glenndunks