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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

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In a landmark result, the FFC funded research into attitudes to Australian films confirms in scientific terms what some in the film industry know instinctively: Australian films are not at a disadvantage in the marketplace, even though many people think so. In fact, all things being equal (like the film being ‘good’), most people would prefer to see an Australian film. Andrew L. Urban reports and explores some of the implications of the Bergent Research* findings.

As FFC Consultant Jonathan Chissick** points out, every culture prefers to see its own films, and Australia is no different. But until now, the general wisdom had it that audiences looked down on Australian films; they would avoid Australian films. They preferred the shine of Hollywood to Australian stories like Shine. Bergent Research has found this to be false. Bergent, which has specialised in entertainment research for over 20 years and uses the same methodology as used by major studios, drug companies and car makers, has found that the industry-held view that Australian films compete on a level playing field (with some notable exceptions in marketing) is true.

The research was conducted in the second half of 2007, in two stages. Stage 1 was a qualitative exercise with focus groups to record exactly what the sentiments were about Australian films in general. A random sample of 1000 people (selected according to internationally recognised guidelines and gender split equally) elicited responses that we have all heard: Australian films were seen as poorly funded, less hyped, too depressing and not escapist enough. People talked often about Australian films being too serious and too slow. Younger people tend to think they are made for older people; or for the bureaucrats, or for the film critics.

This research was conducted in cinemas and DVD stores, uncovering an enduring negative perception of Australian films. But these views are vague generalisations that are not reflected in actual decision making.

Bergent set out to test these generalisations through four basic hypotheses:
1 Australian movies are perceived to be all the same
Result summary: Respondents do not classify films by country of origin. The most recognised ‘Australian’ film, Rabbit Proof Fence, scored 12%. Recognition of country of origin was generally low, below 6%. Audiences do not lump all Australian films together.

2 Moviegoers prefer US movies to Australian movies
Result summary: Country of origin does not effect appeal. In a controlled exercise, respondents did not differentiate between an Australian and a US version of a fictional thriller.

3 Positioning Australian films as art house makes them less appealing to a broad audience
Result summary: When country of origin is considered, moviegoers are significantly less interested in seeing an Australian art house movie than the same movie positioned as mainstream.

4 Australian movies are seen as too serious and appeal mainly to old people
Result summary: in this complex area, Bergent concludes that “Given the bland perception of Australian movies, a move to a more entertaining position would most likely improve industry performance.” The ramifications of this are quite clear and discussed later in this article.

One of the frequent comments about Australian films was that they are shown at school, which automatically makes them uncool, even if they are good movies. This view was so marked in the research that we at Urban Cinefile suggest the elimination of all school screenings of Australian films.

Brian Rosen, CEO of the FFC, points out that most Australian films are by their nature specialty films, not blockbusters or mainstream fare. “Comparisons at the box office should therefore be like for like.” As examples, he cites cinema takings for The Black Balloon $2.3 m, Romulus My Father $2.6 m and Look Both Ways $2.8 m, and for other specialty films like There Will Be Blood $2.5, La Vie En Rose $2.7 m, and The Last King of Scotland $2 m. In these comparisons, Rosen maintains, Australian films are as popular as other ‘like’ films.

“But also remember,” he adds, “that the films we get from overseas are the crème de la crème … the ones that have worked well in their markets, and are usually the best of the English language or indeed foreign language films.”

Bergent’s findings have major implications for Australian filmmaking. First, the research (detailed, deep, scientific and complying with international academic standards) provides tangible reference points to what at best were notions or beliefs held - by some - in the industry.

For example, the main thrust of the research is that Australian films are not automatically disadvantaged by being Australian; but the way a film is presented has an impact on its appeal. Bergent found (using a fictional film poster campaign) that when presented as an art house film, Australian films have less appeal than if it is presented as a mainstream film. If presented as a mainstream film, the Australian is preferred to the American. (Exactly the same poster was shown to respondents, the only difference was the country or origin.)

The ramification of this and related findings is that most Australians would choose Australian films of equal entertainment value to other English language films. The figures quoted by Rosen (above) bear this out.

“Given the bland perception of Australian movies, a move to a more entertaining position would most likely improve industry performance.” Here is a challenge for the marketing department; but it’s also a challenge to the filmmakers, to tell stories that engage and entertain. Entertaining and meaningful are not mutually exclusive characteristics.

The research also shows that Australians (31% cite this as a negative) often feel that Australian films are not ‘promoted’ sufficiently. Their awareness is low. Chissick calls this general awareness the ‘voice’ of a film, and it has to be heard for the audience to respond to the call. The ramifications of this aspect of the Bergent report include the need to address marketing as part of the total support package for filmmakers. This, too, has been common knowledge within the industry for years, but now it is quantified. Bureaucrats can now base their decisions on firm figures.

The bottom line is that Australians will pay to see Australian mainstream films but shun art house offerings. This applies across the budget spectrum, as Happy Feet at the top end proved.

It has always been evident that clear objectives are lacking in the way we fund filmmaking. We talk about ‘telling Australian stories’ as the cultural remit for tax payer supported funding. But we simultaneously demand popularity at the box office as the measure of success, which implies profitability. Australian filmmaking is not and never has been an ‘industry’ if defined as self sustaining.

Bergent’s highly detailed, enormously valuable research provides tangible, scientifically valid information about how Australians perceive Australian films; this should enable filmmakers, distributors, marketing specialists and policy makers to refine the entire process, from creative beginnings to commercial exploitation. They must all read the report – and digest it.

Published June 12, 2008

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The Black Balloon

Research results

*Bergent Research, among other things, measures the appeal of major film releases in Australia on behalf of the major studios. The Melbourne based firm has been conducting Recruited Audience Screenings for over 20 years. They provide a thorough evaluation of audience reaction to double-head or finished films and TV shows.

**Jonathan Chissick was head of the film division of Hoyts Corp 1988 -1990 and from 1997 – 2004, President of International Theatrical Distribution and Marketing at Dreamworks, responsible for all theatrical activities outside the US. He is currently a consultant to the FFC and Animal Logic.

The Last King of Scotland

Romulus, My Father

La Vie En Rose

Look Both Ways

There Will Be Blood

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