With a handful of exceptions, Australian films have struggled to make an impression with audiences, again.
21 Dec 2012 - 3:47 PM  UPDATED 21 Dec 2012 - 6:33 PM

So which Australian films did you enjoy watching in cinemas this year? If there were a straw poll, I think the responses would be fairly predictable, if rather depressing.

The vast majority would say they got a lot of pleasure from The Sapphires, Wayne Blair's feel-good, ably acted movie about the Aboriginal songbirds who toured Vietnam in the 1960s. It clearly struck a chord with audiences across the age spectrum, earning $14.3 million to rank as the top-grossing Australian film of 2012.

There would be mixed responses to Happy Feet Two, which opened in 2011, raked in $8.2 million this calendar year and ended up with $10.7 million – a dismal return on a production budget estimated at $180 million.

Some hardcore Kath & Kim fans may have found parts of Kath & Kimderella “beyoushiful,” as Trude might say, but clearly others did not, reflected in its underwhelming $6 million takings.

A Few Best Men had its admirers, judging by its $5.3 million haul, but I suspect others cringed, as did many a critic. If P.J. Hogan had been hoping for Muriel's Wedding-type acclaim and audience responses for Mental, he'd have been sorely disappointed with its $4.1 million tally.

By my count, more than 28 Australian films and documentaries were released theatrically in 2012. I doubt the combined box office total will exceed $50 million, which would give Oz films a B.O. share of about 5%, roughly level with recent years.

Film Alert blogger Geoff Gardner says The Sapphires is the only film whose B.O. exceeded its budget. Of course that excludes the revenues each title will generate from pay TV, DVD, VOD and free TV and overseas sales, but it's not a bad yardstick.

Says Gardner, “As another lamentable year for our cinema comes to an end we can reflect only on the fact that almost nothing of any lasting merit, at least among feature films designed to attract paying audiences, was made here. This is rather different from our TV where a host of Australian dramas hit the nail on the head. Who is responsible for yet another year of failure of our feature film production no doubt causes much debate.”

I think that's an unduly harsh judgement on some films, even those that did not sell many tickets. Kieran Darcy-Smith's Wish You Were Here, Amiel Courtin-Wilson's Hail and Peter Templeman's Not Suitable for Children are distinctive and original works from first-time filmmakers. Cate Shortland's German-language drama Lore is a dark, compelling story of lost innocence, suffering, guilt, courage and survival, with a brilliant performance from newcomer Saskia Rosendahl.

Genevieve Bailey's doco I Am Eleven is an illuminating, uplifting view of the world through the eyes of 11-year-old children in 15 countries, and it found an audience at a few cinemas such as Melbourne's Nova.

Writers-directors Alan Rosenthal and Helen Gaynor chronicled the life of Isaac 'Ikey' Solomon, the inspiration for the reviled villain Fagin in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, in the entertaining docudrama The First Fagin.

Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde's Life in Movement is an eloquent and moving tribute to the supremely talented dancer and choreographer Tanja Liedtke, who was struck and killed by a garbage truck near her home on Sydney's Lower North Shore, aged 29.

Julia Blake and Firass Dirani give impressive performances in David Pulbrook's Last Dance but I can understand why the saga of a Holocaust survivor and the radical Palestinian who takes her hostage may have sounded too grim for mainstream tastes. Plus, the ending is problematic.

I can offer no defence at all for The King Is Dead!, Any Questions for Ben?, Bait 3D (notwithstanding its unexpected $20 million-plus haul in China), Iron Sky, Muirhouse and Killer Elite (which reportedly cost at obscene $80 million, subsidised by the Australian taxpayer through the 40 per cent producer rebate).

I haven't seen Dead Europe, Careless Love, Storm Surfers 3D, Housos vs. Authority or Swerve; did I miss anything of value there?

As for who's to “blame,” well yes, let's please have a debate. Filmmaker Bill Bennett's views would be a good starting point. “Our industry can't keep making films which don't make money,” he says. “The problem with many films is the budgets were too high. It makes me seriously wonder what is a workable financing model for feature films in this current climate. It's certainly not the model that everyone has been working to of late. The industry, and the audience, has moved on...”