The Australian Movie Mavericks Pushing Boundaries and Breaking the Box Office

From funding crises to theatrical red tape, these film folk are shaking off the cultural cringe.

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“You’ve got to lead from the front, as a director.” On the front line of Australian film, Robert Connolly is basking in the glow of a cracker year which saw his children’s film Paper Planes take in AU$9.65 million at local box offices.

“There aren’t many countries on the planet where you could say half of the films made are going to get close to making their money back, or will definitely make their money back. It’s unheard of,” adds Jeremy Sims, whose comedy-drama about a taxi driver dealing with terminal illness, Last Cab to Darwin, brought in a healthy AU$7.14 million.

“Australians are going to see Australian films in droves at the moment,” he says, which poses the question: could this be the end of this nation’s perceived ‘cultural cringe’ (aka the tendency for our cinema-goers to shun local features unless they’ve been applauded overseas)?

It’s a theory oft-bandied about when accounting for empty cinema seats – and one Jeremy is personally bored of hearing about.

“What people fail to point out when they talk about Australian films – and how bad they are, or the fact we don’t go to them – is that all films that are financed by Screen Australia must have a theatrical release in this country,” he says. “Now the chances of those being good films, all of them, are nil.”

In contrast, Australian audiences are only privy to the crème de la crème of offerings from the rest of the world. “I can assure you, the French, the Spanish, particularly the Americans, they make some absolute codswallop, but no one sees it. We see the good Australian films and we see the crap ones… [where] we all say, ‘Oh look, there goes another sh*thouse Australian film’. And it’s just not the case.”

In the dwindling days of 2014, Russell Crowe’s directorial debut The Water Diviner hit screens and smashed the AU$10 million mark at the Aussie box office, followed by three successful children’s films – Blinky Bill, Oddball (more than AU$10 million) and Paper Planes – and Jeremy’s Last Cab to Darwin.

Bolstered by George Miller’s Aussie-Hollywood hybrid, the Warner Bros-backed Mad Max: Fury Road (AU$21.7 million), Jocelyn Moorhouse’s tragicomedy The Dressmaker pulled in over AU$16.3 million, pushing the industry’s earnings for the year to a record-breaking AU$75 million (trouncing the former record of AU$63.4 million in 2001). This figure climbed to AU$85 million for 2015.

As for distribution, Last Cab to Darwin had a nationwide release across 200 screens, while Paper Planes enjoyed a 300-screen release in the prime school-holiday slot, marking a new era of exposure for homegrown films – no doubt spurred by successes such as Jennifer Kent’s first directorial outing, The Babadook.

This physiologically pungent horror film terrified the pants off a global audience (including scaremonger Stephen King, who took to Twitter to deem it “deeply disturbing”) and also bagged ‘Best First Feature’ at the 2014 New York Film Critics Circle Awards – yet only saw a theatrical release across 13 theatres in Australia.

The UK had it on 147 screens, more than doubling the film’s total Australian box office takings in its opening weekend. Meanwhile in the US, The Babadook was the toast of Sundance Film Festival, dubbed “the scariest movie of the year” by Rolling Stone.

“Releasing it [in Australia] was such a tough experience, because we knew that the film was good,” says Jennifer. “We knew that people would want to see it if they knew about it, but no one knew about it. When it exploded in America so many Australians were saying, ‘Why didn’t you release it here? We didn’t know about it.’

“I don’t think it’s entirely a distribution problem, I think it’s a cultural problem, in that Australians just don’t seem to like themselves very much creatively.”

Traditionally the Australian industry and cinema-goers have been coy with certain genres, which has subsequently prompted some directors to move on.

“I left because all the type of films I loved and wanted to make, nobody respected down here, nobody wanted to back,” says science fiction sovereign Shane Abbess, who departed for Los Angeles when his DIY directorial debut Gabriel (made on a shoestring AU$200,000) went gangbusters overseas.

“We didn’t have the producers in this country that could do it… they all just said the same thing, ‘We can’t do [science fiction] here, keep it small, like a drama or a surf community or a drug story…’” he says, adding that about 90 per cent of Australian agencies wouldn’t allow their actors to audition for Gabriel, which launched the late Welsh talent Andy Whitfield on to Spartacus fame. By comparison, Shane describes his US reception as something of a “Hollywood dream moment”.

Touching down in late 2007 amidst the writers strike, his first Gabriel screening was heaving with many idle, big-name producers, who all started to flee from the cinema half an hour in.

“I was just going to go to the bar across the road and drink until it was over,” says Shane, reliving his initial dismay at their apparent departure, “but when I walked out, [the cinema lobby] was akin to a stock exchange.”

Everyone was on their phones, trying to snaffle Andy for their next film, and they also sunk their claws into Shane – who walked into the first of numerous meetings at noon that very day.

“I had piles of scripts in my hotel room,” he says of the days following the screening, “And people were just like, ‘Pick one, pick one.’”

But then, seven years later, with his name attached to several high-profile projects, he returned to Australia to make his second feature, Infini.

“Every day it was like getting ready to play in the majors, and they’d go, ‘Tomorrow kid, you’re on, and you better be ready to hit a home run.’ And I was like, ‘I’m ready! I’m ready! Put me on to bat.’ And you’d get to the next day and they’d be like, ‘Okay listen, we’re not quite ready to play, the grass needs to get a little bit longer’… I realised I could literally have an entire career in Hollywood and always be a Hollywood director, but never make another film.”

The US also called Jennifer, who, hot on the success of The Babadook, “tried” relocating to New York and LA (“for about two weeks, and ran from the place”), but now remains based in Australia.

“It’s like landing on Mars for a couple of weeks or months every year and I love it,” she says of the US. “I think Australians are a novelty [there]. They don’t understand it when we say, ‘How you going?’, they’re like, ‘Going where? What’s happening?’”

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Shane Abbess, photo via Sean O’Reilly

Like Shane, Jennifer appreciates the “no-bullsh*t culture” of her homeland.

“We’re not going to go, ‘That’s great! That’s so wonderful,’ if we don’t feel that [way], so I think it’s refreshing, certainly in America, where there’s a lot of hype about everything on a daily basis. I think Australian directors are very hardworking. Australian crews, producers, DOPs [directors of photography], actors… we’re hardworking, we’re not divas, usually, and we get the job done.”

Work ethic might not be an issue for the Australian film industry, however funding often is.

“It’s a tough world to finance,” admits Jeremy, who’s heavily involved with the numbers through his company, Pork Chop Productions. “The model for filmmaking is not really financially viable. So most people are doing it either because they totally love it or they don’t know how to do anything else,” he grins.

Rob, who is at the helm of Melbourne-based production company Arenamedia, sings a similar tune. “Every time we get a film financed to make, I kind of have to pinch myself,” says the Balibo director, who struggled to get backing for Paper Planes (“Probably the toughest film I’ve ever been involved with [funding-wise]”) until an email from Aussie export Sam Worthington appeared in his inbox.

“‘Hey Rob, I hear you’re trying to make a kids’ film about paper planes. I love paper planes, what a great idea. We need to make more films for Aussie kids, can I help? If there’s a role for a dad, I’ll play it.’ I’m not kidding you, that’s pretty much how it read,” laughs Rob, before adding it came, “from some really obscure email address, so I thought it was a joke.”

Sam’s involvement piqued the interest of backers, and they benefited from the federal government’s Producer Offset – a refundable tax offset (or rebate) for producers of Australian feature films, television and other projects, which puts 40 per cent of expenditure back in the kitty.

“Like America has the studio system, we have the government,” says Shane. “I was always against the government funding bodies because we couldn’t get any support for a film like [Gabriel]… But as soon as the film had success, [they] were more than willing to help. You do have to prove you have some kind of nous to do it yourself. It’s not just a hand out. It’s a very mini, politically-charged studio system, which is what we need.”

“There’s very few places in the rest of the world that have the kind of support we have here,” adds Jeremy. “On a small film like ours, they invested about 25 per cent of the equity.”

When it comes to bringing in dollars after the curtains part, Aussie filmmakers have taken to rolling up their sleeves with innovative promotion. Jeremy, alongside Last Cab to Darwin lead Michael Caton, who won Best Lead Actor at last year’s 5th Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards for his role, took part in nearly 43 live Q&A screenings following the film’s Sydney Film Festival premiere. They also met with thousands of cinema-goers, before sending video messages to be screened at a further 40 cinemas.

Jennifer banded together with lead actress Essie Davis and producer Kristina Ceyton to publicise The Babadook, while Roadshow pulled off a “wonderful, imaginative and creative release” for Paper Planes with plane-making stations at cinemas and a partnership with the Sydney Sixers cricket team at the T20 Big Bash.

“They marketed it to kids,” says Rob, who made the film for his two young daughters. “I think that was the secret… It was a bloody great idea that worked really well for us.”

A French distributor has just picked it up. “I think we’ll see it keep coming out around the world over the next few years,” Rob says. “There was a real feeling that we couldn’t compete against the American kids’ films because Disney and Pixar and DreamWorks make these amazing films.

But I always, in my heart, felt that Australian kids love Australian stories.”

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Jeremy Sims, photo via Wendy McDougall

What’s also working for the industry is a redefining and diversification of the ‘Australian film’ itself.

“I watched the change happen over the years since I left,” says Shane. “Back here there’s more space to do a variety of films, because the community wants it all.”

Jennifer changed the game with The Babadook, the horror film that scored Best Director and shared Best Film (alongside The Water Diviner) at the 4th AACTA awards.

“It’s interesting, I think horror is like the slutty cousin you don’t want at your Christmas party – everyone’s turning away going, ‘Oh my god, there she is again,’ – the film equivalent of that,” she laughs. “But really, if you look at it, there are masterpieces of cinema that sit in that realm.”

She says people’s reactions were as varied as they were hysterical. “I got lots of, ‘Oh, you must be weird,’ comments. Especially as a woman. [But] I love it. I love to tell a story that’s going to move people in any direction… as long as it wakes them up in some way.”

Teen audiences are also in sight. “I think the holy grail now is to crack a teen film,” Rob says. “People will always say you can’t compete against The Hunger Games, but they said that before Paper Planes came out, so I think it’s wrong to think that we can’t make cinema that speaks to that audience.”

Diversity, adds Rob, was a huge contributor to last year’s string of smash hits. “They’re not [an overarching] genre,” he says. “And I’ve always felt that our industry falls in a hole when it just tries to emulate success.

“We make Animal Kingdom, so then we make a whole heap of crime films, or we make a comedy that works and then for the next two years it’s a saturation of comedy… Often the perception is that making things for audiences is looking at what’s been successful and copying it, which I don’t think is right. I think it’s actually being true to who you are as a filmmaker, knowing the audience for what you’re making and stunning that audience, as opposed to trying to make a facsimile of another film.”

And while Jeremy’s Pork Chop Productions focuses on Australia-centric stories, he points out there are universal themes to be explored here.

“I’m not sure that we have really got a strong sense of why or who we are in Australia yet. We’re a very young nation… [and] belonging is at the heart of most stories, really… you’ll find it’s at the core of nearly every Hollywood film made.”

The early 2000s saw Australia as a nation very much belonging to Hollywood’s agenda, with mega hits such as The Matrix trilogy, Mission Impossible II and Star Wars episodes II and III filmed across its sprawling mass – a trend Shane predicts is set to take off again.

“I think Australia’s going to go back into a boom now because of the [economy], plus we’ve maintained our 40 per cent rebate. The Rat Pack are coming down, Pirates [of the Caribbean] is coming back, we’ve got Thor, we’ve got [Kong:] Skull Island. The industry’s actually the strongest I’ve seen it since the ’90s.”

But will local directors also get to play in this big-budget blockbuster landscape?

“Australian filmmakers will not, to be honest, get the first pass of that,” Shane concedes. “They keep our crews and our skill levels up – which is fantastic. Our technicians are having to learn new skills by making pirate ships and all that kind of stuff, but I think it’s actually our filmmakers sticking to their guns and keeping their voices that’s going to bring it all back.

“Because I’ve managed, against the odds, to maintain my type of voice, I’m now in a much stronger position than I ever have been to do a much bigger film the way I want to do it.”

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Robert Connolly, photo via ABC TV

Shane is not what he calls a “career director,” by his own admission (“I’m not doing a film, to then get another film, to try and get me on to the next Marvel gig”) – a trait that saw his ties to two big titles severed. He’d wanted to take risks with 2011 sci-fi thriller Source Code. Lead actor Jake Gyllenhaal had not. And a gig directing The Dark Crystal 2, the sequel to the 1982 puppet movie co-directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, dissipated when Shane refused to stray from Jim’s handwritten notes and original vision.

“On Source Code, if I had toed the line and just done what I was told, I would have done that film. Same as The Dark Crystal 2. But the more it becomes something I don’t believe I was hired to do, or that the audience really wants, that’s when it starts to get tricky.”

Jennifer, too, has dug in her heels. “I have been offered a lot of costumed, men-running-around-in-tights kind of films. Warner Bros flew me out to talk about possible projects, and I’ve been offered a lot of projects I have turned down because I’m really particular about what

I make. I have to really love it,” she says.

Jennifer is currently in the throes of two features that, like her first, delve into deliciously gritty territory – “gothic, messy, bloody love story” Alice and Freda Forever with Sidney Kimmel Entertainment in the US (“My manager cracks up, he says, ‘The worst thing you can do in Hollywood is a dark period drama. Throw in lesbians and it’s like, forget it’”) and The Nightingale, an 1820s frontier film set in Tasmania.

“That’s my commitment,” she says, “to put complex, failed, wonderful, fully-rounded human beings on the screen. That’s my bit for the cause.”

Now deep in post-production on his third sci-fi offering, SFv1, Shane is considering a change of direction (“I think I might take a left turn after this and actually go a much more for-the-throat, dramatic-thriller kind of way”). Rob is busy with ABC TV drama Barracuda (the follow-up to Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap) and another film for his young Paper Planes audience, while Jeremy is working on a Wayne Gardner doco and a “big, beautiful period” feature set in 1860s central Australia.

“I’m really happy making films here,” he says, “It seems like I can do it and make a living, so I’m really lucky.”

Rob echoes Jeremy’s gratitude: “It’s like some miracle that people keep letting me direct films. I don’t take it for granted, that’s for sure.”

“I feel extremely fortunate,” says Jennifer. “You couldn’t, as a first-time filmmaker, ask for a better run really. It almost makes up for the years of poverty and torture preceding it… The wonderful thing about this kind of exposure and support is it enables me to keep going, to keep making films, and that’s ultimately my focus.

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