In the latest round of Screen Australia funding, an interesting variety of films that cover the field of diversity in a great way. There’s the new Jocelyn Moorhouse film, Agaat, about a young black girl adopted into a white apartheid family in South Africa. There’s Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife – a revenge western set in the Australian Snowy Mountains. And there’s Baby Cat, a film about a dance obsessed young woman with Down syndrome and her relationship with a Sudanese refugee. Diversity plus all round, and the effects of the Gender Matters program in full swing.
It’s great to see these diverse tales being explored in Australian cinema, and it’s great to see Screen Australia seeking out this talent and providing funding for them. But let’s get realistic for a moment…
…as great as diversity is, it doesn’t always bring in the box office dollars. It’s a cruel aspect of the Australian box office that often the most diverse films are the ones that fail to make money. Sure, Lion made more than a bunch at the box office – deservedly so – but I still stand by the fact that A) most Australian’s would be surprised that it’s an Australian film, and B) there feels like a bit of white saviour syndrome going on with the narrative. If you look at the top 20 Australian films at the box office, you’ll find three or four (depending on whether you count The Water Diviner or not) diverse films. Lion, Mao’s Last Dancer, and The Sapphires. All great films, and all worthy of box office success. The rest of the entries are a sea of white.
So, unfortunately, diversity isn’t something that’s going to light the box office up. It’s great that films are being pushed to be more diverse, but until audiences get on board with these stories, there’s got to be something else to help boost the Australian film box office total.
That’s where the question of why Australian filmmakers aren’t working to seek out the ‘grey dollar‘ – the ageing audiences who fill up the 10am sessions at the local independent cinema. The ageing audiences who turn films like Finding Your Feet into an 8 week run success, with a haul of $4,138,891, or help carry The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to a 14 week run with a massive take of $21,226,137. They may not be the most obvious box office contributors, but the ageing population is one that has spare time, like social outings, and will go and see stories that fit their bill.
(Other films buoyed by the presence of older audiences in Australia have been: The Hundred-Foot Journey ($9,949,121), The Water Diviner ($12,294,472), The Monuments Men ($8,075,296), The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ($12,427,022), The Dressmaker ($14,409,386), Victoria and Abdul ($6,712,773), Finding Your Feet ($4,138,891), Breath ($3,285,371), Last Cab to Darwin ($5,041,697).)
Most of the films that have long, successful runs thanks to older audiences, are those from the UK or America. There’s a smattering of European feel good films that carry on for a fair bit – The Intouchables for example -, but for the most part, it’s UK and American works. These films usually have recognisable faces in the cast – a Judi Dench, a Bill Nighy, a Donald Sutherland, a Diane Keaton – that breeds familiarity and comfort. Audiences know what they’re going to get – a film that won’t challenge or push too much, that will entertain, and that will – most importantly – speak to the audience it’s aimed at.
With 15% of the Australian population being made up of citizens over 65 years of age, and even with those percentages expected to grow over time, it’s understandable that this kind of statistic may not figure in to Screen Australia‘s decision as to what projects to fund. Societal pressure to encourage diversity will be a stronger pull than feeding a predominantly white, ageing group of people. But, these needs aside, should the field of films directed towards ageing cinemagoers be amplified?
Young audiences are not the market for a film like Finding Your Feet – an almost over manufactured film that amplifies the knowledge that it’s being created for an older audience to a deafening level. The repressed woman who is given the chance to rediscover what it is to be alive thanks to her hippy sister that she’d been estranged from for much too long. Dancing, love, death, and a smattering of ‘back of the house’ broad comedy, Finding Your Feet is a text book film aimed at the older audience.
This is not to say that quality is negligible for older audiences, it simply means that films that are aimed at older audiences are given a little bit more freedom with how they are able to present their tales. We live in a society which mostly has support and care for the ageing population, and with people living longer than ever, the market for ageing film watchers will need to be filled. These are, after all, an audience who will be going to their seniors screenings during the week and helping keep the lights on in your independent cinema during the day.
Heck, the older audience is so strong and vibrant, that there are even film festivals – Young At Heart Film Festival – that provide an array of films for older audiences to dig into. Alternatively, David Stratton’s British Film Festival‘s have allowed audiences to revisit classic cinema during the day – and having been to a fair few of those screenings, I can attest that the older audience members lapped up these classic films, being able to remember what it was like seeing them for the first time all those years ago, or having memories of homeland Britain wash over them.
There is no specific ‘genre’ that fits for an older audience – heck, I recall my Grandfather dragging my mother to go and see T2: Trainspotting simply because it was set in Edinburgh – but it does feel that there are films that have a certain vibe that will carry across to being successful with older audiences. It’s not possible to break down the exact box office demographic of these films, but it’s arguable that the films that look back to ‘better times’ or that cover stories of wartime, or that are set in the UK, or modern set stories about elderly people living life, were helped by the returning older audiences. Films explore issues that face an ageing population, but with an air of optimism. Period dramas usually carry through to great success – how else can you explain the box office take for Victoria and Abdul?
So, with the success of the UK and American films for the elderly audience in Australia, one has to ask… where are the Australian films aimed at the ageing Australian population?
To an extent, they do exist, with films like The Dressmaker, The Water Diviner and Last Cab to Darwin, all carrying on to huge success in Australia. War focused films, period dramedies, and films focused on elderly issues. It also helps that they’re great films. Sure, Last Cab to Darwin was pretty depressing at points, but it also spoke to issues that are facing older Australians. The Dressmaker had a vivacious Kate Winslet and a snappy Judy Davis bringing life to the outback with their beautiful dresses. Or, The Water Diviner, a film about family and war.
Yet, the future is seemingly devoid of films to fit this bill. Outside of Ladies in Black and Danger Close, there appears to be very few The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel-esque films on the horizon. It’s not as if there isn’t a wealth of Australian talent out there who could fill the cast of such a film. And no, I’m not saying stick Paul Hogan in the lead and let the rest filter in. I’m talking about the great wealth of Australian talent like:
Jack Thompson, Judy Davis, David Field, Jackie Weaver, Gary Sweet, John Noble, John Howard, Michael Caton, John Jarratt, Jacqueline Mackenzie, Georgie Parker, Catherine McClements, Rowena Wallace, Debra Byrne, Lisa McCune, Holly Valance, Sonia Todd, Doris Younane, Ray Meagher, Debra Lawrence, Lynn McGranger, Judy Nunn, Jeanie Drynan, Sibylla Budd, Gia Carides, Zoe Carides, Ningali Lawford, Bruce Spence, and many more.
Yes, there’s some younger names in there, and yes, the group is predominantly white, but this is just the start of the groups of actors that Australia has on offer that are familiar to Australian film and TV watchers. With stories about actors from the 70’s and 80’s struggling to stay alive financially, isn’t it time that there was a project that used their talents and helped provide fodder for an audience that will eat it up in Australia? Or have we apparently forgotten that old actors continue to exist after the passing of Bill Hunter and Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell?
Heck, if those names alone don’t get people in the audience, then why not do an old Australian film trick and bring in a notable name to star in an Australian film. After all, I, Frankenstein can’t be the only modern Australian film that Bill Nighy stars in!
Why can’t there be a story about a group of elderly folk heading to Broome or the Whitsundays to relax and rest under the sun? A double whammy of boosting Australian tourism, while also telling a harmless, fun story. I know that there will be groups of people who will react to the notion of creating content that isn’t diverse, and that glorifies the baby boomer generation and beyond, but shouldn’t cinema reflect the society we live in?
So, Australian film industry, let’s not forget that even though the hunt for the Netflix audience still exists in the world of cinemas, there is an audience of faithful cinemagoers who are diligent in seeking out new films aimed at them and who do their part at keeping cinemas alive outside of the world of Disney fare. Let’s start making some Australian content for them too.