Kieran Darcy-Smith's Wish You Were Here is a terrific film, Hopscotch gave it a decent launch and the reviews generally were enthusiastic – yet the Australian thriller has grossed a modest $933,000 in three weeks.
Something is amiss, I suspect, when mainstream audiences aren't curious to see a superbly-crafted film featuring impressive performances from Joel Edgerton, Felicity Price, Teresa Palmer and Kiwi-born Antony Starr, even when word-of-mouth is positive.
Could it be that cinemagoers have become disillusioned with Australian cinema, with rare exceptions such as Red Dog and Animal Kingdom, after having their expectations lowered from years of movies that failed to entertain, amuse or rouse them?
And does the chronically low box-office share of Australian films, stuck at around 4 per cent, point to systemic problems with the government-subsidised film funding apparatus? For the answers, if not solutions, I consulted a range of filmmakers and executives.
Producer Sue Milliken rates Darcy-Smith's film (pictured) as a “quite original, well-made movie with a star, Joel Edgerton,” but observes, “It was a bit thin on plot, and maybe their lives were just too ordinary, as a lot of the film was about that. But certainly it deserved to do much better.”
Producer Tony Buckley is less charitable, describing the thriller as “OK, well directed but in the end, 'ordinary' and that's the one thing cinema audiences do not want.” Buckley also took issue with the “totally uninviting title,” opining, “The title is extremely important and filmmakers don't pay enough attention to them.”
Others trot out the old argument about local fare being swamped by Hollywood films which benefit from much bigger advertising campaigns. “With five-plus films being released almost every week, it's really tough for any small film to get noticed and attract audiences,” contends Lori Flekser, general manager of the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia.
“I don't think it's got to do with audiences not wanting to watch Australian films. I think it's tough for anyone, general public especially, to even know that a film has been released. And to understand how quickly it will pass in and out of the cinema as new films queue to get in.”
Producer David Elfick takes a similar tack, observing, “The quality of the film seems to have little to do with its success; like so much today, it's about getting noticed.”
Garry Charny, a producer who formerly ran April Films which produced Jindabyne, decries what he terms as a “total lack of advertising [for] the great [and not so great] movies we make.” He asks, “When was the last time you saw a co-ordinated, smart campaign that sold a movie? And don't blame the distributors – it's the producer's job. Sometimes audiences need to be told how good something is, and not just the week it's on."
True, but audiences had no trouble finding Red Dog, A Few Best Men, Animal Kingdom and other films which weren't launched with huge ad campaigns. And spending more money to promote a flop like Any Questions for Ben? would have been pointless.
Bruce Beresford has directed more 30 movies but admits he can never predict how audiences will respond. “I've no idea why people go to some films and not others. Not a clue,” he says. “Why did they avoid Peter Weir's The Way Back when it had huge publicity, generally great reviews, and a big name cast? My film Mister Johnson had Pierce Brosnan and is far and away the best reviewed film I've made but had an audience of absolutely no one.”
Taking a wider view of the industry, Milliken accuses the major film funding organisations of pursuing a long-standing policy of “relentlessly promoting low budget, first-time filmmakers with subjects that are downmarket and generally depressing without a creative edge [Animal Kingdom being a notable exception]” for turning off audiences. She says, “Either you make low budget, feel-good movie like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – which still needed a classic ensemble cast – or you make big budget, grand subjects. Both genres have been largely eschewed (by the agencies). And it shows.
“Australian feature films are in trouble and a major rethink of the philosophy behind agency development and funding is badly needed.”
Director Bill Bennett faults the system of primarily funding writer/director-driven films for hindering the development of talent, and he urges the adoption of a “modular” industry as in Hollywood and the UK. This, he explains, would mean each element in the development/financing stage is a separate module, i.e. writer, director, cast, and a producer combines those modules to finance and make a film.
“As an auteur myself, I would love to be treated like a 'module' and have producers come to me with a fully realised script,” he said from Cannes where he's working with sales agent the Little Film Company on his upcoming thriller Defiant, which stars Toni Collette and Dev Patel. ”But in Australia we embrace the writer/director concept largely, not always, and this is one of the hindrances to the progression of our industry.”