The latest PwC Australian Entertainment & Media Outlook report paints a dire image for the next five years of cinematic entertainment in Australia. In the report, President and CEO of the HOYTS Group, Damian Keogh, calls cinemas “the cockroach of the entertainment industry – nothing can kill it off”, which paints a beautiful image of a place that many filmgoers consider to be a church (of sorts). But, unlike a cockroach, it’s questionable whether cinema will be able to survive an impending apocalypse. Sure, the humble dark room with pretty pictures has had more than a few bells and whistles attached to it, with everything from newfangled 4K screens and pumped up Dolby Atmos speakers, to, um, beds and increased instagrammability, all applied in the hope that people will move away from their small screens to look at a bigger screen for a few hours.
But, what concerns me the most is the fact that the cinema has become a venue where only the biggest of the big films are cause for attendance, with the occasional ‘special event’ screening getting the nostalgia addicts out and about. Sure, Avengers: Endgame is better on the big screen, and sure, it’s great to see Alien on the big screen with full surround sound, but is this all that cinema is going to be from now on? A venue for the biggest of the big, and for a select few socially deemed ‘Hollywood classics’ that get run out every so often? Apparently live sports streaming is another thing which has given cinema a boost, and sure, that’s something, but it’s not a film as such.
In turn, this isn’t an article about what defines what a ‘cinema’ is – traditionalists would say that it is a sacred house where the art form of film lives, but with the arrival special screenings of television episodes, and the aforementioned sports screenings, one has to submit to the notion that the cinema is now just a really big, fancy television. Given the concept of ‘movies’ and ‘television’ is blending into one – if Nicolas Winding Refn is to be wilfully misinterpreted, there is no film, there is no show, there is only streaming now -, it’s very likely that the sanctity of cinema is now less about what is being shown, and more about how it is being shown. A better comparison is to hold the cinematic experience up against the live music experience – nowadays, gigs have swaths of people holding discussions amongst themselves, taking selfies, instagramming the music live to their followers, with complete disregard to the actual human beings on stage banging out tunes for the audiences ‘entertainment’, and it appears that cinemas are no different.
Sidetrack aside, this evolution of cinema is hurting the Australian film industry the most. Yes, smaller, sub-$20 million films from all around the world struggle to get a footing in cinemas, with the first week that films are in cinemas being the most important time for traction and word of mouth. In a world where people flock to see the biggest films on the opening day for fear of spoilers, the same amount of people seemingly avoid going to see smaller films because of a wealth of reasons. Whether it’s because they’ll await the home release, or for the film to hit streaming, or simple lack of interest, these smaller budget films that have minimal advertising dollars to splash around go by relatively unnoticed. Yes, the world of streaming is changing things dramatically, and there has been more content than ever, but again – Australian film is being left in the wake of everything else out there.
The PwC report wraps up the outlook of Australian cinemas with a glimpse into the future of Australian filmed content. I’ll quote this part directly as it’s worth dissecting this in its entirety:
The growing availability of foreign content being introduced by video-on-demand platforms is placing the Australian content under pressure. The Make it Australian campaign was launched in September 2017 by a number of industry leaders, including high profile Australian actors. The campaign aims to promote and protect local Australian filmed content by lobbying to extend local filmed content requirements to include streaming services and other new forms of delivering media and to boost government funding. Graeme Mason, CEO of Screen Australia says, ‘we get more applications now per round than our legacy agencies used to get in a year’. The ability to grow Australian storytelling and compete on the international stage would be enhanced with Government investment in production and distribution.
The Make it Australian campaign is an interesting one, designed to encourage the screen industry and the government to embrace Australian content and support the screen industry as a whole. Launched in 2017, it’s mildly concerning to see that in that period of time (as per the website) there have only been 1,206 emails sent to local representatives to campaign for Australian film and to encourage the implementation of ‘Netflix’ quotas so more Australian stories are seen on Australian screens. With that said, if Australian content is on Netflix, then there will be an international audience for Australian content. One only needs to look at the massive success of Wentworth both domestically and internationally as one singular reason to support Australian content.
If we take a look at some of the films that have recently been produced in Western Australia – Breath, Jasper Jones, Dirt Music – one can’t help but scratch their head over whether these are actually the results of the WA tourism board and not Screenwest. Now, Breath and Jasper Jones are two of the better Australian films in recent years, but the cynicism side of me can’t shake the feeling that these films are being created to sell Australia, rather than to sell the Australian film industry as a whole. The same can be said of Top End Wedding – as great as that film is, it’s easy to imagine a cut of the film including Daryl Somers shouting at audiences ‘you’ll never never know if you never never go’, so strong is the ‘tourism’ angle of the film. To be clear, these two things can work in unison. There is no reason that a high quality film can’t also promote the region that it’s being filmed in. It’s just can’t feel like an advertisement.
From my perspective, I’ve long wondered what the future of Australian cinema is. With a singular government body doling out dollars to ensure Australian films are made, one can’t help but raise an eyebrow at some of the decisions made by the board. Given the uncertainty of how films are produced in Australia, it is refreshing to see that there is a huge wealth of independent films being produced despite the lack of government support. It’s concerning that there is little support for these independent filmmakers, even if the fact that they still make films on fumes alone is inspiring. But, what’s even more concerning is that even though these films are being produced, there’s a huge lack of optics for audiences to be aware that they exist. People are genuinely surprised that we have more than ten films released in a year, let alone over fifty films. They are there – but you have to work hard to find them.
While these genuine Australian stories are being told, there are also the Australian films by stealth – the Peter Rabbit’s, the Winchester’s, the Hacksaw Ridge’s of the world that are not Australian stories as such, but because they were made in Australia they are considered Australian. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, by that measure, then Aquaman and Thor: Ragnarok and Alien Covenant should all technically be Australian films. But, that’s not what this article is about.