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With letters to the editor complaining that the subject matter of some Australian films are depressing instead of entertaining, Andrew L. Urban asks whether we want to fund a viable, ‘entertainment’ driven, commercial film industry - or a national cinema which occasionally produces entertaining hits.

Joe Public has written to The Australian complaining that Australian films are too depressing. The first voice of Joe came from Alan Eason from Broadbeach, Queensland, who thought Little Fish would be worth checking out, “until I saw the reviews. It’s just what I wanted to see: yet another movie about drug addicts!”

That was published last week, on Friday, September 9, 2005. The next day, The Weekend Australian carried a letter from another Joe Public, this time known as Peter West, from The Vines in (where else?) Western Australia. He elaborated on Alan’s theme, saying, among other things: “The people responsible for the depressing diatribes that pass for feature films in this country are hard put to spell entertainment, let alone produce it.

“Did they really think anyone wants to see a movie on the adventures of people working in a canning factory? Or drivel about a guy with $3? Or a travelogue broken only by four minutes of Toni Collette trying to stuff a dead Japanese guy into a car?”

Firstly, we should note that Peter has obviously seen recent Australian films – or at least their trailers; his references to Peaches, Three Dollars and Japanese Story suggest so, anyway. But the alarm bell that both these voices of Joe Public should be ringing around the sets, locations and finance meetings is sounded by the ‘E’ word: ‘entertainment’.

While Alan and Peter may be just two Joes, we can fairly assume that they represent many more ticket buying film lovers in Australia. And what the E word does is open the Pandora’s box of Australian filmmaking. At the heart of the complaints from these two letter writers is the nub of the dilemma for Australian film: are we trying to fund a national cinema delivering ‘our stories’ to an attentive but select audience - or a commercially sound, increasingly self sustaining film industry that delivers entertainment to a broader audience?

Of course, some national cinema can be popular and commercially successful, but that’s not the same thing as setting out to build a commercially viable film industry, with primarily commercial objectives. It’s perfectly valid for Joe Public to want to see entertaining Australian films at the cinema, just as much as it is to want to see more serious, Australian arthouse films. Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla were all artistic as well commercial successes. They do tackle serious subjects, but in an entertaining way.

"Is our objective to create an economically driven industry or a culturally driven industry?"

Which is it, then, for Australia? Is our objective to create an economically driven industry or a culturally driven industry? Are we in two minds, financing production for cultural motives but assessing the finished films by (mostly unrealistic) commercial criteria?

For now, we (the taxpayers) don’t invest anywhere near enough, nor in the right sort of projects or structures, for our film community to become a real film industry. It is even doubtful that we could fund it into total self sufficiency. But if we want Australian films to appeal broadly to many more Australians, we have to rethink how we fund film production & its marketing – and we have to consider how funding support can extend to innovation in distribution.

Alan and Peter, speaking for Joe Public, raise the ‘E’ word at an opportune time, since Little Fish is just one of a new batch of Australian films. Oyster Farmer, an ‘entertaining’ film by the populist definition, is also true to Australian culture, but it also appeals to a reasonably broad audience. Look Both Ways likewise, both with healthy box office figures for films outside the Hollywood mainstream: Oyster Farmer has taken some $2.3 million in 10 weeks; Look Both Ways about $1.3 million in 4 weeks.

A Good Woman, an entertaining, well made adaptation of an Oscar Wilde play with quite biggish stars, has taken $2.5 million in 11 weeks, for example. For more English language arthouse/national cinema comparisons, look at Danny Boyle’s Millions, with $410,598 in 4 weeks, or British gangster drama, Layer Cake, with $668,786 in 6 weeks. These recent Australian films are far more popular, but they’re not recognized as such, because we are all fixated on box office takings by Hollywood productions.

Funding objectives need to be absolutely clear in all our minds: our policy makers and our filmmakers, as well as us, the taxpaying community. Funding objectives tend to drive the sort of films we make, and at the moment we (policy makers, filmmakers, and the taxpaying community) are not really 100% sure what those objectives are; sustain a national cinema or build a real, commercial film industry? They are quite different objectives, set up different expectations and need different strategies – in distribution as well as production - not to mention vastly different levels of support.

Published September 15, 2005

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Little Fish: - “ yet another movie about drug addicts!”

[Please state whether your letter is for publication or not].

Peaches - “the adventures of people working in a canning factory”

Three Dollars - “drivel about a guy with $3”

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