So Why Make Films In Australia?
Australian director James Harkness pulls no punches in recounting the tough slog of making films in Australia.
Australian director, James Harkness, actually swore of filmmaking after his rough and disappointing experience shooting and releasing 2006's gritty street drama, Shot Of Love. But the filmmaker returned last year with his second feature, the thoughtful drama, Birthday, and while he deems that achievement one of his proudest so far, it was certainly no easy feat to make or distribute - despite some rave reviews. In the opinion piece below, the director shares his thoughts on the tough and often discouraging process of making a film in Australia...
"Whenever I finish making a film, I'm struck by the same persistent question... Why did I make this film? Why make films at all in Australia? It was one of my proudest moments so far as a writer/director/producer of two features, reading a review from a Sydney-based critic who pronounced Birthday, "10/10 The best film of the year" and "one of the best Australian films ever made", and yet, it carried the obligatory disclaimer, "It's a well-known fact that Australian films do not have the best reputation." Doesn't that say all anyone needs to know about our industry?
It's hard not to notice that Australian audiences are disenchanted with Australian films. So too are Australian filmmakers. I didn't want to make another film; Birthday was so dear to my heart and encapsulated everything I'd ever wanted to say. I wouldn't have made it otherwise, because, my experience of making films in Australia has been, painful, hard work.
"Many have hypothesised about why Australian audiences are not exactly queuing at the cinemas for Australian films. The popular theories are usually that there is a ‘cultural cringe' or they've become too ‘serious' in tone, to evoke mass appeal. The latter theory has led to numerous excruciating attempts to imitate US genre films, which invariably seem like cheap knock-offs; we simply don't have the budgets afforded to Hollywood studio pictures. The popular theories may contain the barest grains of truth, but these theories neither belong to the audience nor the filmmakers. Instead, they emanate either from critics, many of whom don't even like films (I've attended critics' screenings where one couldn't even hear the soundtrack for the incessant pummeling of keypads) or those involved in film finance/marketing, whose true first love is currency, not art.
"There will, of course, always be commercial pressures and realities. Australia is an extremely small domestic market and, as such, cannot offer the same opportunities for filmmakers as the U.S or India for example. What's weird though, is that Australian audiences are not in fact disenchanted with the countless extraordinary Australian films they haven't seen; the films that exhibitors and distributors decided were too ‘tough' for screens. How can they be if they haven't seen them? Therefore to say that Australian films are missing out on commercial success and audience attendance based upon their alleged inferior quality, is a reductive, baseless argument. Critics may argue this, but critics are not representative of the larger population, and as a complete cinephile myself, I've lost count of the many films that initially received scathing reviews but are now regarded as ‘cinema classics'. Mad Max; Dogs In Space; or internationally, Scarface or Blue Velvet. Therefore, it must be assumed, that audiences are in fact disenchanted with the films they have seen; the ‘popular' ones they ‘must see', like it or not.
"What prevails? The gatekeepers arguably responsible for this disenchantment are continually rewarded for their failures, while the filmmakers bare the blame for mistakes never made. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to break this cycle when filmmakers are, however reluctantly, forced to sell projects at film finance stage, by comparing their work to already existing product, brazenly marketed as ‘like that other ‘successful' film everyone saw'. The filmmaker must forge a path through self-loathing to make something that inevitably will only ever be remembered as ‘like that other ‘successful' film everyone saw... only... not as good'.
"Since filmmakers become increasingly mute in order to survive, for the ever-present fear of never making another film (just think about how many talented Australian directors never made a second film), it is never acknowledged that, at the very best of times, the film industry is not a meritocracy. Box office figures do not define a good film or a valuable contribution to Australian culture. Nor is it ever discussed in popular media, the many variables that influence box office takings that are not related to a film's artistic value, nor its appeal. The advertising/marketing budgets for U.S films are several times greater than any afforded to even the highest profile Australian films and, even the entire production budgets of Australian films. In addition, the current economic climate is such that many U.S films are spending their entire production budget over on elaborate promotional campaign; in film language, P&A spend (Prints and Advertising). Therefore, if cinemas suspect in advance that a film will not have its own aggressive advertising clout, such as a U.S art-house or even British blue-rinse film might, it is too easy to simply say, "This film's too tough for us". For cinemagoers, this means it's big budget spectacles or studio pictures masquerading as independents.
"This leads to the perverse construct of distributors and film financiers having increasingly greater creative control over a production, for ever-smaller investment. For the punters, it's a two-headed coin. Whereas in other territories, a studio might only receive ‘final cut' rights over a film where they are the sole investor, here, distributors/executives expect ‘final cut' even when private investors may be footing the P&A bill and the ‘funding body' investment may be only a mere mysterious contact list with a few mobile numbers scrawled there upon. Whilst ever this remains unquestioned, there is no accountability. If the film is not to public taste, is poorly advertised, falls short of investor expectations, hell, if the film doesn't even get finished, there is no-one to blame, but plenty of fingers pointed in every which direction. It's not hard to see why Aussie movies do it so tough.
"What's being lost in this cycle of mediocrity? Australian culture is being lost with dwindling honest representations of the many diverse aspects of Australian life, especially when we seem ever prepared to make ourselves look stupid, conforming to racist, cultural stereotypes to yield greater international sales. What really breaks my heart is that, in addition to audiences and artists becoming increasingly impoverished, the relationship between the two is being lost. To quote the aforementioned review of Birthday that inspired me to write this, "... the magic in films is gone."
So why make films in Australia? Ironically, a later review of Birthday, answered my question "... when questioning the quality of Australian films and well, dramas in general, they have a sense of humour, something to say... they give you something in return. This is why we go to the movies." And this should be why we make films too.
We set out to break this cycle with Birthday. As a Producer, my philosophy was this: You can only try to manipulate $17.50 out of people for so long before they end up hating you for it; it's an altogether different scenario if you have something meaningful to share with them. And wherever the film was given a fair chance to be seen, audiences got that, they understood, and were moved.
"There is hope. It begins with a set of aesthetic and cultural values that privileges sincerity, the very keynote to high art, over contrivance and manipulation. There is hope that audiences and filmmakers reunite and demand more Australian films be made, not less... and especially... that more Australian films be seen."
Birthday is released on DVD June 21.