Two local distributors are investing considerable sums to restore scores of Australian films.
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7 Jan 2013 - 5:19 PM  UPDATED 7 Jan 2013 - 6:33 PM

When Umbrella Entertainment's Jeff Harrison decided he wanted to track down a print of Erskineville Kings, a grungy Australian drama that starred Hugh Jackman and Joel Edgerton, to remaster and release on High Definition on Blu-ray, he knew he had a problem.

Umbrella's founder/CEO was aware the 1999 film (pictured) was directed and produced by Alan White... but where was White? Harrison discovered White had moved to Los Angeles, where he directs commercials, arranged a meeting in LA and asked what he was doing with the film.

[The Movie Show review: Erskineville Kings]

“Nothing,” said White, who happily agreed to his proposal to restore the movie in HD in LA. Harrison plans to contact the reps of Jackman and Edgerton to see if they will take part in compiling extra footage for the new version.

Umbrella has restored more than 100 Australian films, about half in High Definition, at the rate of 6-10 per year, often in collaboration with the National Film & Sound Archive. Similarly, Madman Entertainment has unearthed numerous Australian classics for DVD and Blu-ray release.

It's a costly business: Harrison says the tab can run to $10,000 per title or more, depending on the complexity of the restoration. And while the returns are diminishing amid an industry-wide decline in DVD revenues, Umbrella is committed to preserving and releasing Australian movies and TV series.

“We have a soft spot for resurrecting Australian film and television,” he says. “With the advent of HD and the future (potential) of downloading we will have to restore a lot more films. It's just a commercial tick when it makes sense to do it. We're catering for the nostalgia market. A lot of the Australian content is about nostalgia and what you remember as a kid, or for boffins of Australian television.”

Among the restorations Umbrella has released are Picnic at Hanging Rock, Puberty Blues, Shame, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, The F.J. Holden, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Far East, Buddies, Dimboola, Celia and Mouth to Mouth.

On the slate this year are Igor Auzins' 1982 historical drama We of the Never Never, John Duigan's 1981 romantic drama Winter of our Dreams, Jonathan Dawson's 1982 comedy Ginger Meggs, Shirley Barrett's quirky 1996 comedy-drama Love Serenade and Maurice Murphy's 1980 comedy-fantasy Fatty Fin.

The DVD downturn inevitably has reduced the sales revenues of Australian movies in the past couple of years. “We hope for anything north of 1,000 to 2,000 pieces” per title, says Harrison.

“The DVD market has changed substantially from the days where you'd be getting a fairly serious dollar number. People now pay quite cheap prices for them in the big supermarkets.”
While many producers are happy to have Umbrella remaster their works some filmmakers say the returns are so meagre, a better option is to sell films via their own web sites or deal directly with a Video-On-Demand service.

“I understand where producers are coming from,” responds Harrison. “To them it's their livelihood, their history, but the restoration means they get a digital copy and it's worth something to them in the future. We take a very long-term view. The DVD market hasn't been kind to some of these old films but we're hoping the future will provide an income stream for them.”

This year Umbrella is releasing in HD Brian Trenchard-Smith's 1983 family film BMX Bandits, which starred a freckle-faced 15-year-old named Nicole Kidman. “Umbrella and Madman's commitment to release past Australian films on DVD is a significant step in preserving our movie heritage,” says the Los Angeles-based Trenchard-Smith. “Contemporary audiences can now be introduced to a broad spectrum of Oz Cinema from classics and crowd pleasers to noble failures and underrated obscurities.

“We can see the early and evolving work of great actors, writers, directors and technicians, who went on to play on a world stage. Each film is a time capsule of sights, sounds, social and cultural attitudes of its year, and thus of historical importance. Plaudits to both companies for making this happen.”

Veteran producer Antony Ginnane has licensed many films to Umbrella and chose it as the theatrical distributor of Mark Hartley's reboot of Patrick, the 1978 Australian psychological thriller directed by Richard Franklin. “Apart from the government- funded NFSA, Umbrella has done more than any other entity (no disrespect to Atlab) to restore and re-spotlight Australian cinema from the 1950s through to the 1990s,” says Ginnane.

Among Madman's most notable releases are two restorations by the National Film & Sound Archive, the 1906 classic The Story of the Kelly Gang and Raymond Longford's 1919 opus The Sentimental Bloke. Madman's extensive Aussie catalogue also includes Trenchard-Smith's Dead-End Drive-In, Death Cheaters and Stunt Rock, plus Backroads, Walkabout, Wake in Fright, My Brilliant Career and Summer City.