Into The Shadows goes behind the big screen to meet the filmmakers, distributors and exhibitors who bring Australian films to us, the audience. Away from the bright lights, the red carpets and the paparazzi, an awful truth is discovered. The cinema was once a place where Australian culture thrived: audiences were educated, entertained and inspired by Australian stories, characters and landscapes. But now, alarmingly, out of the $895.5 million spent at the Australian box-office in 2008, only $36.6 million (3.8%) was spent on Australian films. Australian films are clearly not connecting with the cinema-going audience.  Why?

The film begins by tracing the history of Australian cinema, from the production boom in 1910-12, declining steadily to the barren post-war years.  The film investigates the regeneration of the domestic production industry, championed by a dedicated few, in the late 1960s.  Bruce Beresford, Phillip Adams and Alan Finney recount what the atmosphere was like in the 1960s and 1970s while distributors and exhibitors, Andrew Pike (Electric Shadows), Chris Kiely (Valhalla), Natalie Miller (the Longford) and Antonio Zeccola (Palace) reveal how important the independent art-house cinemas were in contributing to the re-birth of the Australian film industry.

The closure of many of these independent art-house cinemas in recent years,  exacerbates the difficulties that producers have in reaching cinema screens on a fair and equitable basis.  Many exhibitors, past and surviving – question the efficacy of the industry’s Code of Conduct, and talk with remarkable candour about unfair trade practices. 

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A passionate call to arms for the arthouse distribution sector

A love letter to the bygone days of independent exhibition and a savaging of the big-business practices that bled the ma-and-pa cinema sector to near-death, Andrew Scarano’s Into The Shadows proudly wears its heart on its choctop-stained sleeve.
It is a heart that beats strongly within Scarano, who was inspired to make this film by his grandfather, Keith Mann. For 25 years, Mann had served as the chief projectionist at what was once the home of independent film culture in the nation’s capital – Canberra’s Electric Shadows cinema.

A significant portion of Into The Shadows is spent chronicling the dismantling of that cinema, and the impact of its loss upon Canberra’s more artistically-minded film community; the sequence is a symbolic overstatement of the film’s agenda. Scarano has gathered a vast array of industry heavyweights to plead the case for an independent, culturally-relevant exhibition circuit, many of whom quote the 'good old days’ of movie-going, when a visit to the Longford in Melbourne or the Valhalla in Sydney meant an evening of experiential film-viewing.

But there is a dichotomous imbalance at play with Scarano’s film that is troubling. Many of the industry elders that the filmmaker has rallied to recall the great days of indie cinema played significant roles in the demise of those same inner-city retro-themed fleapits. An example is Alan Finney, currently Managing Director of Walt Disney Studios’ local distribution arm and one of the leading figures in the energetic early-70s film scene. Finney bemoans the loss of Melbourne’s iconic arthouse venues but as a senior executive at Village Roadshow in the late '80s, he was one of the driving forces behind the era of multiplex expansion – the very impact of which killed the likes of Stanmore’s Globe cinema, North Sydney’s Walker Cinema and Melbourne’s Lumiere venue.
And it was Finney’s Walt Disney Studios who backed then bungled the release of two recent Australian offerings - Shawn Seet’s Two Fist One Heart (2008) and Cathy Randall’s Hey, Hey It’s Esther Blueberger (2008), which suggests that the spirit may be willing but the know-how may have waned. Paramount Pictures Oz-based head Mike Selwyn is also given ample opportunity to mull over the commercial responsibilities of the studio-based distributor in a local marketplace, yet Scarano fails to drill him over the botched release of the low-key football drama The Final Winter (2007), despite the film’s unanimous critical acclaim.

Further muddying the debate of culture-vs-profit as presented in Scarano’s film is the criss-cross nature with which he explores the issues. There is considerable time afforded the comparative success of producer John L. Simpson’s film The Jammed (2007) and director Clayton Jacobson’s commercial hit Kenny (2006) – two films that achieved recognition through unique marketing campaigns. Both are held up as examples of what Australian films are capable of when lovingly caressed into the public’s consciousness. Yet neither attained the levels enjoyed by the three past blockbusters that analysts drag out as comparison-pieces every time the issue of home-grown commerciality is raised – Crocodile Dundee (1986), Priscilla Queen Of The Desert (1994) or Muriel’s Wedding (1994). Such self-congratulation seems like a 'Near enough is good enough" stance, yet the film fails to drill down on why we don’t make international successes anymore.

The circular nature of the issues raised in Into The Shadows – the distributors blame producers for failing to make commercial films; the producers blame the exhibitors for not backing broader release plans for homegrown films; the exhibitors blame the distributors, for taking too great a slice of the box office pie and leaving them with crumbs – makes for a frustrating and depressing portrait of the state of show business Down Under.

A far more satisfying aspect of the film is the exposure it allows past and present contributors to the independent cinema landscape. Chris Kiely, chief programmer of the gone-but-not-forgotten Valhalla cinema in the Sydney suburb of Glebe; the iconic Natalie Miller, reigning matriarch of this nation’s arthouse distribution sector; the recently-deposed and outspoken programmer for the Dendy chain through the indie-film boom of the 1980s, Mark Sarfaty; key creatives from within the production sector, including Sue Maslin (Japanese Story, 2003), Glenys Rowe (Idiot Box, 1996) and the godfather of them all, Anthony Buckley; and the Electric Shadows’ own Andrew Pike, all contribute extensively via recollections of better times past and detailed opinions of how to improve the present. These sequences are ultimately the best parts of Scarano’s film.

The most pressing conundrum of all is not answered in the film, yet it can only be answered by the film. Will the Australian public want to see an Australian film about why the Australian public doesn’t want to see Australian films? Will the nation’s cinema-goers get to see a specialised film that looks at how hard it is get a specialised film seen?
As a snapshot of a once-proud industry sector in decline, Into The Shadows is a lovingly- and exhaustingly-produced achievement. But whether it plays to a general audience as anything more significant than pages in a stranger’s photo album is yet to be seen.


Details

M
1 hour 30 min
In Cinemas 29 October 2009,

Genres