Thursday, July 01, 2010

Belshaw's World - Lou, a New England story

Earlier in June I did a column on the 4th Dungog Australian Film Festival (Armidale Express, 2 June). This followed an earlier column (19 May) on New England’s rich film history.

Let me follow those columns with a question. Is the Belgrave actually going to show Lou, the movie?

I only have the web site to go by, but so far the answer appears to be no. Why is this important?

Well, to begin with, it’s a pretty good film. Just to quote a few excerpts from the reviews.

  • “A small film with a lovely heart” – David Stratton, At The Movies
  • “A notable Australian film which deserves the right kind of gentle applause” – Jake Wilson, The Age
  • “Nothing short of magic” – Jo Chichester, Vogue
  • "Exquisite" - Chris Kennedy, Canberra Times
  • Her film moved and delighted me." - Evan Williiams, The Australian.

Then, too, it is a New England film set and made in Murwillumbah. This is country that most New England people, inland or coastal, will recognise.

Growing up, I loved Australian films. I even organised an Australian film festival in Queanbeyan. Then I turned off Australian films.

I am not absolutely sure why. Partly, I think, there were some very bad films. There were also too many films that, while good, dealt with topics that I really didn’t want to watch!

I was not the only person to turn off Australian films. Australian audiences in fact turned off the local film industry en-masse. Finally, it got to the stage that to promote a film as an Australian film meant box office death.

This did not mean that Australians were not interested in local product. While film was going down, many Australian TV series were very successful. Further, many went on to global sales.

Australian films have always had a battle getting distribution.

Most people don’t remember, it was a very long time ago, but NSW Country Party leader Mick Bruxner was the first person to introduce legislation that attempted to require cinema chains to include Australian content.

Bruxner did so for several reasons.

He was worried at the way that US films were leading to the substitution of US terms for Australian terms. He had also been lobbied hard by his cousin, Charles Chauvel, about the difficulties faced by Australian producers.

Chauvel, a film maker with strong New England connections, was actually pretty successful in attracting money and distribution. His 1949 film Sons of Mathew, another film with New England connections, was a very big budget film for its time. Still, Chauvel knew the realities of life.

The 1950s really were dog days for Australian films. The failure of Captain Thunderbolt to get proper distribution was a sign of the times. Then came what now seems like a golden age for Australian film when demand was such that Australian films were common in local cinemas.

Today we are back to the 1950s in distribution terms. This is what makes it so hard for even a good movie like Lou, good films but without the drawing power of something like Animal Kingdom. Mind you, even Animal Kingdom had its battles despite the current popularity of the topic.

This is why Australian films have come to rely on viral marketing, despite the difficulties involved. This is also why the Dungog Film Festival has become so important.

The aim of viral marketing using tools such as Facebook or You Tube is to attract the support necessary to get and hold distribution. For its part, Dungog provides a platform to gain initial recognition because so many reporters and critics attend.

None of this will work if you don’t have a good film. Even with a good film, it’s still a chancy business, compounded by the fact that so many film people do not appear to know how to use the new media.

I have puzzled over this one, for you would think that they would. Part of the problem, I think, is that movies as such have become a bit of a ghetto in which those involved speak just to those involved.

Back in the eighties, I put it in advice to then Commonwealth Industry Minister John Button in this way: Government policy has created a game park for cultural lions. I then gave some examples that may be unfair to repeat.

Finishing, if you do get a chance to see Lou, please do so.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 23 June 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010


Augustus Winston said...

Hi Jim Whenever you prop up an industry what you get is second rate. Bruxner's heart may have been in the right place but this is just a tariff by stealth. We saw this when Whitlam introduced tax breaks for the local movie industry back in the 70's and what did we get? Alvin Purple, Peterson, Stork and other totally sexist lewd soft porn that catered to the lowest common denominator. This garbage set back the Australian Film Industry 20 years. I agree with you a movie must stand on its own legs. And there have been several box office successes. But a lot more flops. Unfortunately the industry is now rife with a sort of politically correct thinking that does not make for good cinema. And the audience is savvy to the fact that it might be a good movie but probably won't be. Most have been caught out putting their faith in local content only to be disappointed. One such example is the dullest movie to come along for some time "Samson & Delilah". If you edited out the pauses where nothing is said and nothing happens there would be about 5 minutes of content. Movie goers are there to be entertained, not lectured or beaten over the head with ideologies. Similarly we are not so dumb to think that a couple of italians (wogboys or whatever they call themselves) travelling around the globe wisecracking makes for entertainment. This dumbing down of the local film industry is in my opinion brought about by bad scripts, incompetent screenwriters, and greedy backers who think they are going to make a fortune.
Why don't we make some movies based on some of the excellent Australian books that have been written? Strangely when an Australian book does come to the big screen its usually made offshore or by an American production eg Town Like Alice, On the Beach.
I'm all for supporting the local film industry the way local car manufacturers are supported - through their own inovation and ability to capture a share of the market.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Augustus. Isn't interesting how our perspectives differ? For example, I have a far higher opinion of 1970s movies than you do!

The central problem with movies, it holds true too with TV, lies in distribution. No matter how good the movie, if you can't get distribution then your film is dead.

I must go back and look at box office numbers again. I say this because the Oz films that have made real money all, I think, fall in certain groups.