The hit films Lion, Last Cab To Darwin and Oddball didn’t make it. Neither did Kath & Kimderella, Mystery Road, Paper Planes, Snowtown, Holding The Man or The Turning.
Screen Australia has revealed the top 10 financial performers since the federal government agency starting funding films in 2008. While it doesn’t invest in every Australian film – The Great Gatsby and Mad Max: Fury Road were backed by Hollywood studios using Australian filming incentives, for example – the list is surprisingly revealing.
On top is a film you may not even have heard of – the modern day western Red Hill, which had Ryan Kwanten as a young cop facing an escaped killer in a country town. It was the 2010 debut for commercials and shorts director Patrick Hughes, who has since made The Expendables 3 and the coming Ryan Reynolds action comedy The Hitman’s Bodyguard in Hollywood.
Next on the list are the horror film The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014), canine charmer Red Dog (Kriv Stenders, 2011), musical drama The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012) and sci-fi thriller Predestination (Peter and Michael Spierig, 2014).
Rounding out the top 10 are the post-apocalyptic thriller The Rover (David Michod, 2014), war survivor drama The Railway Man (Jonathan Teplitzky, 2013), comic drama The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse, 2015), crime thriller Animal Kingdom (David Michod, 2010) and outback drama Tracks (John Curran, 2013).
The report’s writers, Sandy George and Bernadette Rheinberger, note that none of the 94 films studied have become profitable yet. So don’t go into Australian film to get rich.
They also note the top 10 are very different films – different stories and styles of film, a wide range of budgets, with various forms of financing and ways of earning revenue – and that Lion, once the dollars flow back from its worldwide success, will be on the list soon.
When you look closely at what these films have in common, it tells us a lot about what works.
Most of these films take a fresh approach to a traditional film genre – the western, horror film or the crime thriller, for example.
They tell emotionally engaging stories with satisfying – largely upbeat – endings. And they were made by filmmakers telling a story that clearly meant something to them personally.
Some hadlow budgets, which helps when it comes to being profitable. But a good film can still be relatively profitable with a budget that’s big enough to attract international stars, including Kate Winslet for The Dressmaker and Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth for The Railway Man.
Most of these films were acclaimed at a major overseas festival so they had a profile when they opened here. But they still earned most of their revenue when they sold overseas.
Their scripts were largely developed over time – often based on a successful novel or play – so they were in good shape. And these films were made about as well as they could be.
But for every one of these characteristics, there is at least one exception, so there is no formula.
The one feature they have in common is also shared with the biggest Australian hits in local cinemas – a list headed by Crocodile Dundee, Australia, Babe and Happy Feet. It’s also true for such classic films as Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding and The Castle.
The top 10 largely centre on unassuming Australian heroes.
Hollywood movies regularly feature heroes facing villains who threaten cities, the entire world or even the galaxy.
They feature characters with grand ambitions: in La La Land, Ryan Gosling’s character wants to save jazz. Their achievements are grand: in Hidden Figures, the mathematicians don’t just succeed, they get the first American into space. In Loving, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga’s characters overturn decades of institutionalised racism.
Australian films are much more likely to have ordinary people taking on modest foes with their biggest enemy often their own internal demons.
Kwanten plays a young cop with a pregnant wife on his first day in an unfriendly new town in Red Hill. Essie Davis is a mother protecting her young son from a monster who might well be inside her head in The Babadook. Firth plays a former prisoner of war who wants revenge on his Japanese captor in The Railway Man.
Hollywood has focused on “the hero’s journey” for decades. Stories about reluctant heroes who go through stages the screenwriting books describe as the “Call to Adventure”, “Meeting With The Mentor” and the “Supreme Ordeal” right up to “Return With Elixar”.
These are common elements in everything from The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars to Deadpool and Doctor Strange.
But Australian heroes are often loners who face an opponent, do their best, survive and get on with life. No fist-pumping, no triumphalism, no moments that set up a sequel.
The best of Australia that comes out during bushfires, floods and other disasters has fed into many of our most successful films.