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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday July 28, 2020 


You could go a whole year and see hundreds of movies – in cinemas - without seeing a single Hollywood movie, says Andrew L. Urban, and arthouse cinema in general is alive and well – but not everywhere.

If you live in or near one of Australia’s capital cities, you can see dozens, even hundreds of festival quality films each year - at a cinema - and still avoid seeing a single Hollywood movie. 

Of course, you would need to be able to read because most of these are in a foreign language and subtitled. (The latest arthouse hit is the French comedy-drama based on a true story, The Intouchables, playing on 88 screens around Australia – an exceptionally wide release for a subtitled film.)

But not all arthouse films need subtitling. Australian arthouse films (eg the recent Hail and Last Dance) and some fine indie American (eg The Words, Barrymore, Moonrise Kingdom, The Search for Sugarman) and UK films (eg Hysteria, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) are or were available in cinemas, and the Canadian film festival, which this year offered 14 in English, alongside its six French titles. Festival director Matt Ravier says 85% of the audience was Australian. “The program concentrates on additions to the cinema menu, not just premieres of films releasing here anyway,” he says and he is expanding the festival’s touring schedule next year.

"to include events that are fused to the program"

One of the big attractions of film festivals is the ability to include events that are fused to the program, ranging from Q&A sessions to parties and sidebars. “It’s not just a movie on the screen, and this pulls people out of their homes,” says Ravier.

Ravier also helped World Movies organise its second Secret Cinema event this year (in October) which invited patrons to buy tickets for an unnamed movie, which would be part of a totally themed event at a secret location. The setting turned out to be tough old Goat Island, the movie was Battle Royale (director’s cut), a brutal Japanese version of The Hunger Games (but made before that film). 

On the day, ticket-holders were sent an elusive final clue via SMS, which told them to meet at King St Wharf - and then boarded a boat to the island. Guests were given martial arts training, watched burlesque and contortionist performances, and a Japanese meal. They were given props and costumes to get into the spirit of their ultimate death scene. It was sold out and next year, World Movies plans to introduce the event in Melbourne and Brisbane.

"If you have an interest in cinema beyond Hollywood..."

The Canadian film festival – called Possible Worlds (in August) – is just one of 17 national film festivals (usually) touring Australia every year. The newest is Polish (in October). Like many of the national film festivals, it offers a snapshot of current filmmaking, as well as a program of classics from the country’s film archives. If you have an interest in cinema beyond Hollywood, you can access quite a swag of films.

The festival year starts in January with www.myFrenchfilmfestival.com, a global online festival (the third edition starts January 17, 2013). Over 1 million logged on last year. The Chinese, French and German festivals are (or start) in February, March and April respectively.

May is the only month there isn’t a specific foreign film festival scheduled, but there is the (internationally programmed) Human Rights Art & Film Festival and the Arab fest begins late in June. For Sydneysiders there is the major Sydney Film Festival earlier in June, with its vast program of arthouse films, followed by the all-Australian Dungog Film Festival in the Hunter.

The cool of July is warmed by the hearty Spanish film festival – and in Perth they have the Revelation film festival. 

The heavy festival season begins in August with the old lady of film festivals, Melbourne, plus the Canadian, Korean and Russian festivals seeking attention. October is full with the new Cockatoo Island Film Festival and the Canberra International Film Festival, plus Iranian, Polish, Greek and Mexican films, as is November with festivals in Brisbane and Tasmania, plus the Jewish, Serbian, Palestinian and Japanese festivals, the latter spilling into December.

Seven of the year’s national festivals are programmed by Palace Cinemas. “Most of these appeal to a broad audience,” says Kim Petalas, Programming Director for Palace Cinemas. “They are a very important part of the Palace culture and distributors often use festivals to launch certain films – for example, To Rome With Love closed the Italian festival and Dead Europe closed the Greek festival.” 

"too many films being released"

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Venice buzzer, The Master opened the inaugural Cockatoo Island event, two weeks before its commercial release. 

But outside the festivals, small arthouse films still struggle, as Natalie Miller, executive director of Melbourne based distributor Sharmill Films points out. “There are just too many films being released and there is no time for small films to find their audience.” But with the 15 screen Nova in Carlton, where Miller is Joint Managing Partner, there are a few exceptions, such as the notoriously, unforgivably bad film, The Room, which has been running in late night cult screenings for two years. On the brighter side of the cinematic ledger, the Australian documentary, I Am Eleven, has been running at the Nova since July 2012. 

Such long runs are rare these days, and Miller recalls with nostalgia the days of her beloved single screen Longford cinema where she ran Truly, Madly, Deeply for 11 months. “The irony is that now we have more screens but can’t hold small arthouse films for any length of time … although we try.”

The big arthouse story, says Sharmill, is alternative content, like the capture of live performance on film of productions by the UK’s National Theatre, the New York Met Opera – and special events like The Rolling Stones biopic, Crossfire Hurricane. Both the Nova and Sydney’s famous Art Deco 6-screen miniplex, the Cremorne Orpheum Picture Palace, use alternative content to shore up box office takings. 

“You’ve got to keep inventing things,” says Miller, whose Nova specialises in exclusive Melbourne engagements, like the long running season of the small but acclaimed drama, Margaret. Dravet agrees: “you have to be creative … find new things to do.”

While the Nova sticks strictly to arthouse films with very rare exceptions (eg The Dark Knight Rises) The Orpheum mixes its program with some mainstream fare. 

Where the Orpheum and Nova differ is in their audience demographics: the Nova has a young, university-centred market, whereas the Orpheum is in the conservative heartland of Sydney’s lower North Shore. The difference is that the Orpheum “couldn’t survive without mainstream commercial films,” says Dravet.

"can juggle mainstream and arthouse programs with considerable success"

But it can juggle mainstream and arthouse programs with considerable success. “The Met and the National Theatre screenings are a resounding success for us,” says Dravet, “attracting 500-600 patrons per session, as do the concerts and 80s revival screening events with fancy dress and all that…”

Outside the big cities, regional cinemas tend to concentrate on commercial mainstream films, although one notable exception is the Avoca Beach Picture Theatre, just north of Sydney, run by Norman and Beth Hunter. Built in 1951 by Norman’s father, it should probably be called the Avoca Beach Picturesque Theatre, charming and inviting, with a large outdoor area for tables and chairs overlooking the beach. The importance of socialising is further underlined by the many other activities they offer, from the popular film group screenings to the alternative content events of their big city cousins.

Winner of the Best Regional Independent Cinema in Australia Award (2008, 2010, 2011) as well as two tourism awards, the single screen cinema has a loyal patronage – thanks to its arthouse programming. And they hope to expand in 2013.

The reason Avoca Beach can avoid Hollywood movies and serve a special clientele is Erina, 10 minutes away, where the Hoyts multiplex programs mainstream films, so the demand is met and Avoca Beach competes for dollars on its own terms. 

The transition to digital projection has been rapid and at Dendy Newtown in Sydney, which has just added six new screens to its previous four, the projection booth is unrecognisable. There is a central computer console and 10 server docks, one for each cinema. It is largely unattended, the films programmed to play automatically off their dedicated hard drives. Much like the Orpheum, the Dendy Newtown programs a mix of arthouse and commercial films (eg Dredd 3D, The Intouchables, Lawless, To Rome With Love, Safety Not Guaranteed, On the Road) at the same time.

Without the need for expensive prints, smaller distributors have a better opportunity to maximise their arthouse films – another irony in an increasingly overcrowded marketplace. 

"Arthouse cinema is certainly not dead"

“Arthouse cinema is certainly not dead,” says Adrienne Pecotic, CEO of the Independent Cinemas Association. “It is an active and growing market within the independent cinema sector giving diversity and choice to the audience that is not finding it elsewhere.” It’s not dead – at least not everywhere. It lives and thrives in certain demographic pockets – or in festival programs. 

Arthouse cinema is a bit like a beloved weed, like the lovely clover perhaps, sometimes struggling for a foothold but always strong enough to survive and appeal to our sense of cinema. 

Hysteria, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Barrymore

Published November 15, 2012

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The Intouchables


The Words

The Master

Moonrise Kingdom

Searching for Sugarman

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