Australia 2015 in Review: 'Mad Max' Drives Local Charge, Johnny Depp Shoots, Netflix Shakes up TV

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Mel Gibson also returned to his homeland for a shoot, while Hollywood blockbusters continued to draw audiences, and TV networks shelled out big bucks for sports rights.

Box-office records tumbled, Netflix pushed SVOD to the fore and blockbusters were back in production. All that was 2015 in Australia.

In addition, TV networks paid record amounts for sports rights to stem viewer migration to other platforms in a disruptive year down under.

Here's a closer look at what made headlines in the Australian entertainment industry in 2015.

Local Films Strike Back

Australian films found new audiences in 2015, after several years of underperformance.

Revenue for Aussie films at the local box office passed $84 million (AUS$60.8 million) in early December and is on track to exceed a roughly 7.7 percent share of the local box office, a figure not seen since 2001 when the figure reached 7.8 percent.

The two top-grossing local films of the year marked significant returns to familiar territory by their filmmakers. George Miller’s road warrior Mad Max returned to screens after 30 years, with the fourth installment of the post-apocalyptic franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road, bringing in $15.7 million locally, $375 million globally, winning the AACTA award for best film and getting two Golden Globe nominations. 

Jocelyn Moorhouse, meanwhile, returned to the director’s chair after 17 years, helming outback revenge drama The Dressmaker, which has ponied up $12.7 million and counting. But it was a diverse slate that drove local-film revenue: Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner and family film Oddball exceeded $7.25 million each, while Rob Connolly’s Paper Planes and Jeremy Sim’s Last Cab to Darwin reached revenue in excess of $3.6 million each.

Hollywood Tentpoles Continue to Do Big Business

As local films performed well, three Hollywood tentpoles also pushed their way into the Australian record books in 2015.

As expected, Star Wars: The Force Awakens set new records for opening day and opening weekend ($19.7 million) figures down under, pushing other 2015 releases Jurassic World and The Avengers: Age of Ultron back down the record lists.

Meanwhile, Universal's Jurassic World became the fourth-highest earner at the Australian box office of all time with $38.3 million.

Overall, the Aussie box office is on track for another billion dollar-plus year in local currency and could even surpass the record AUS$1.128 billion achieved in 2010 when the Motion Picture Distributors Association reports final figures in mid-January.

Netflix Makes An Impact

2015 was the year of the disruptor for the television industry, with local SVOD services Stan and Presto launching down under in January, before global juggernaut Netflix launched in March.

Netflix’s brand awareness, and the already 150,000-plus subscribers it supposedly had to its U.S. service accessed in Oz via virtual private networks, ensured its launch was an instant success. By early November, market estimates had Netflix with over 2.5 million users.

Stan, managed by the Nine TV network and publisher Fairfax Media, reported in the same month that it had 500,000 subscribers and was well on track to meet its internal forecasts. Stan is setting itself apart from Netflix with local content. Greg McLean has co-produced a six-part TV adaptation of the Wolf Creek films, with John Jarratt reprising his role as the menacing killer Mick Taylor. Wolf Creek will premiere on the streamer in 2016, while half-hour comedy No Activity, which co-stars Tim Minchin and is directed by Trent O’Donnell (New Girl), has been ordered for a second season.

To stem the tide of viewers turning away from traditional television, Australian networks found themselves promising huge amounts — over $3.3 billion in total — for exclusive sports rights for the next five to six years. The Australian Football League (AFL) secured a record $1.8 billion (AUS$2.5 billion) for six years from the Seven Network and News Corp’s Fox Sports, while Nine and Fox Sports ponied up over $1.3 billion over five years for rival the National Rugby League (NRL).

Despite a strong showing by the national Rugby Union team, the Wallabies, losing to their New Zealand rivals the All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup, the Australian Rugby Union could only get $206 million from Fox Sports and Network Ten in its new rights deal reached late in the year.

Johnny Depp, Mel Gibson Mark the Return of Blockbuster Shoots

As local films made their mark in 2015, the Australian government and its agencies were successful in luring big-budget blockbusters back to film down under, aided in part by a strengthening U.S. dollar. 

Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt filmed in Sydney early in the year, followed by Pirates of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales on the Gold Coast and Mel Gibson’s homecoming to make war film Hacksaw Ridge in Sydney.

Pirates star Johnny Depp hasn’t been turned off by Australia despite being at the center of two tabloid-worthy incidents. Early in the Pirates shoot, the star suffered an off-set hand injury, which saw him absent from the set for three weeks, leading to a halt in production. Not long thereafter, Depp’s dogs Boo and Pistol were effectively deported, after it was discovered they had not gone through local quarantine laws. 

Depp’s woes aside, the shoot came in on time and on budget and off the back of that it was announced that the government had committed $47 million in one-off grants to lure Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok and Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel/Prometheus sequel Alien: Covenant to shoot down under. The government is now considering upping the country's location incentives to a 30 percent tax break to lure even more foreign films.  

But by December the government’s generosity to overseas productions was called into question by the local production sector, when it announced $7.2 million in cuts to national agency Screen Australia’s local budget — the third cut in 18 months.  

Screen Producers Australia CEO Matthew Deaner said: "This hacking at the base of Screen Australia through isolated cuts is damaging to the industry. We need to ensure that the engine room of local production is not disadvantaged. We need holistic policies that encourage more inward investment, more economic growth and more jobs through the ongoing production of projects of scale, be they under domestic or foreign control."