'Australia' saves Aussie boxoffice take

Without Baz Luhrmann's epic, local films' 2008 haul grim

SYDNEY -- Baz Luhrmann's "Australia" helped boost the boxoffice earnings for domestic films Down Under to AUS$35.5 million ($23.8 million) in 2008, according to Screen Australia's analysis of the Motion Picture Distribution Association of Australia's boxoffice results.

The 32 Australian films released in 2008 earned 3.8% of the record AUS$945 million ($633 million) reported by the MPDAA last week, down from the 4% Aussie films earned in 2007, and below the 10-year average of 4.4%.

Without Luhrmann's "Australia," which earned AUS$26.9million ($18 million) here through Dec. 31 -- making it the year's top-grossing local film -- the domestic films' boxoffice take was dismal.

"The Black Balloon," the debut feature from co-writer and director Elissa Down, was the second-highest-grossing Australian film, earning only $2.3 million.

What's more, the 31 locally made films apart from "Australia" earned no more than 2% of the total, according to other industry estimates.

Overall, Screen Australia's analysis showed that U.S. films took the largest share of the Australian boxoffice in 2008, accounting for 84.2% of receipts, up from their 2007 share of 77.7%.

British films ranked second in theatrical market share, taking 8% of the Australian boxoffice, down from 2007's 13.9%. Australian films ranked third with 3.8%.

It's a situation that's been hotly debated in the industry over the past few months after Antony Ginnane, president of the Screen Producers Association of Australia, issued what he said was a wake-up call to the industry at his organization's annual meeting in November.

"We have to recognize that the feature film side of our industry has for some years now almost completely failed to connect with and find an audience," Ginnane told delegates.

Aussie filmmakers "seem to have concentrated too much on the darker side of human behavior, whereas, in the main, people go to the cinema to be entertained, to come out with a smile on their face," he said.

Nevertheless, Ginnane said he believes that the new structure of the industry, underpinned by Screen Australia's 40% producers tax rebate, provides a "magnificent opportunity ... to move the power center in the industry from government bureaucracies to producers."

Screen Australia CEO Ruth Harley said she thinks the agency's new development guidelines will encourage more focus on audiences from the beginning of the development process.

In addition, the agency is reviewing its marketing support and cultural development programs with the aim of "ensuring that Australian projects have the best chance possible of reaching receptive audiences, both locally and internationally," Harley said.

Harley also believes that there is a good deal of optimism about the 2009 boxoffice prospects for local films.

The 35 scheduled local releases for 2009 will include Jane Campion's "Bright Star," Bruce Beresford's "Mao's Last Dancer," Scott Hicks' "The Boys Are Back" and Robert Connolly's political thriller "Balibo," starring Anthony LaPaglia.

Joining those are "Disgrace," starring John Malkovich, first-time feature director Glendyn Ivin's "Last Ride" and Oscar winner Adam Elliot's new animated feature, "Mary & Max," which has its world premiere as the opening-night film at the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday.

Producer Rosemary Blight, whose company Goalpost Pictures Australia has the Natalie Imbruglia starrer "Closed for Winter" set for release this year, said: "If you look at what's coming out it's an eclectic, diverse slate, but mature. It will be competitive and audiences will be spoilt for choice."