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"I think the Australian film industry is a vital one, and always has been"  -Cate Blanchett
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With last week’s figures showing Australian films took just 1.3% of the total box office in 2004 still ringing in our ears, it’s time to stop being so simplistic, says Andrew L. Urban. We must look deeper to put the figures in context, and remember that the raison d’etre of taxpayer funding of films was never simply to count box office returns. 

It looks dreadful, doesn’t it; Australian films took just 1.3% of the total national box office last calendar year (2004). That’s down from 3.5% in 2003. But when you look deeper into the figures, it is both worse and better than it looks. It’s not really complicated, but the general public can’t be bothered with the fine detail. Yet it’s the fine detail that really gives us a more meaningful picture. 

"an average take of $743,000; the lowest in a decade or more"

The 16 feature length films that were released in 2004, took a total of $11.9 million. That’s an average take of $743,000; the lowest in a decade or more. In 2003, there were 23 feature length film released, taking $30.3 million – taking an average of $1.3 million each, almost double last year’s average.

Strange Bedfellows, starring Paul Hogan and Michael Caton, topped the list of Australian films in 2004, taking $4.8 million. Somersault, by first-time director Cate Shortland, took $2 million. These were followed by One Perfect Day ($1.2 m), the AC/DC-inspired comedy Thunderstruck ($0.9 m) and Love’s Brother ($0.9 m), the directorial debut by Shine writer Jan Sardi.

Speaking on the commercial success of Strange Bedfellows, producer David Redman said: “Despite a year perceived as being poor for the industry it is gratifying to know that so many Australians enjoyed our film. To give some perspective to this result, it is like an independent American film making almost US$50 million in the US, which would be seen as a huge success. In fact any local film that can make over A$1 million in a country our size should be seen as a commercial success – any independent US film that made over US$10 million in the US would be.”

Another meaningful way to look at these figures is how many people bought a ticket. Almost half a million Australians bought a ticket to Strange Bedfellows.

Translating the other figures into bums on seats, each Australian film in 2004 attracted an average of 76,670 paying customers (at avge ticket price of $9.7), while in 2003 – when total takings accounted for three times the percentage of the total – each Australian film attracted an average total audience of 136,658 (at avge ticket price of $9.64). 

Audiences for Australian films have dropped significantly over the past few years. In 2004, Australian films put some 1,226,804 bums on seats in our cinemas. In 2003, the figure was over 3 million; in 2002, it was 4.4 million; in 2001 a respectable 7.2 million, up from the 6.5 million in 2000.

The year 2000 was also the best of the past five years in terms of revenue per film: 22 films grossed $54.2 million, or $2.4 million each, selling 286,054 tickets each.

"rule of thumb for commercial success"

On David Redman’s rule of thumb for commercial success, Australian films have done better than the simple box office figures indicate: in the three years from 2000 – 2002, Australian films averaged cinema takings of $2.4 m, $2.3 m, and $1.9 m. In 2003, each Australian film took an average of $1.3 million. 

And what of the US behemoth? The 200 US films released in 2004 took 85.9% of the total box office revenue. Wow. But before you start spitting chips rafferty, that translates to an average gross of just $4.51 million per film. That’s the context. This is the reality of filmmaking. If we compare the budgets, the star power, the marketing clout and the enormity of the US industry with our own, we would expect a far greater distance between Australian and US film averages. And $4.51 million per film translates into just over 460,000 bums on seats. 

None of this is to suggest that all is champagne-swilling swell in Australian filmmaking from a commercial viewpoint – but it does suggest that we should seriously reconsider relying on simple, surface-level box office takings as a measure of success. By default, box office figures are inevitably compared to US film takings, which is absurd.

Let’s also remember that Government funding for film production has always been – has always PROUDLY been - motivated by the so called cultural argument : of giving filmmakers the opportunity to tell our own stories. If that’s the motivation, the box office take should be a secondary consideration. The trouble is, we don’t have a mechanism for testing how well ‘our stories’ are being told – except through their power to put bums on seats. Just like television ratings, the most telling statistic is the number of people listening to ‘our stories’.

"the creative and imaginative elements"

But if all the discussion about Australian filmmaking is reduced to box office, it should be at least better informed. Ideally, we would start paying more attention to the creative and imaginative elements of our films, because putting the emphasis on their commercial success seems to ignore the raison d’etre of funding them.

Published February 3, 2005

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Strange Bedfellows


One Perfect Day

Love's Brother

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