Australia sending 19 films to Toronto

Record haul praised, but domestic boxoffice take still slim

SYDNEY -- After several lean years, a record swag of 19 Aussie pics are being pitched to the North American market via the Toronto International Film Festival.

Unspooling at the fest are films from established directors including Bruce Beresford's "Mao's Last Dancer," Jane Campion's "Bright Star" and Scott Hicks' "The Boys Are Back in Town."

In addition, emerging helmers creating a buzz Down Under will have works unveiled -- Rachel Ward's "Beautiful Kate" and Warwick Thornton's "Samson & Delilah" as well as horror flick "Daybreakers" and toe-tapping musical "Bran Nue Dae."

The big question: Will this new crop help Oz regain international, and commercial, boxoffice clout?

" 'The state of Australian feature films this year is pretty terrific," said Ruth Harley, CEO of national film agency Screen Australia. She hailed the newfound "diversity and creativity" of the Australian industry.

How to explain the sudden cornucopia of riches?

Moves to wrest Oz producers away from a direct funding model to a more commercially sustainable industry funded by private investment and tax incentives are starting to bear fruit. Both micro-budgeted pics and large-scale co-productions are on the upswing and, if the Toronto lineup is any indication, the subject matter of Aussie films is becoming more diverse.

Marking Screen Australia's first full year of operations, Harley revealed last month that 16 features were made with the so-called producer offset in the last financial year. A total of 34 "offset" features have been made in the last two years, with AUS$60 million-$70 million ($50 million-$58 million) in production support provided. That's in addition to direct funding the agency has provided.

More Toronto coverage  

However, the agency's overall budget will fall by 13% over the next two years, and the amount available for direct financing will decrease to $46 million for features and TV dramas next year.

The maximum cap that Screen Australia will directly invest in a feature recently dropped from $4.2 million to $2.5 million.

The agency has though managed to up its allocation to development and marketing.

Still, the 21 features that have been released to date have put only a minor dent in the local wickets, with grosses of just over $9 million in nine months. The overall boxoffice Down Under is tipped to reach a record AUS$1 billion ($840 million) for the first time.

"Samson & Delilah" which has raked in $2.6 million in 18 weeks (as well as winning the Camera d'Or at May's Festival de Cannes), is the top-grossing local feature to date.

Adam Elliot's claymation feature "Mary & Max," Ward's "Beautiful Kate," John Malkovich starrer "Disgrace" and Sarah Watts' sophomore feature "My Year Without Sex" have all pulled in over AUS$1 million ($840,000) each, all on limited release.

Set for commercial release here before year's end are the offerings from Campion, Beresford and Hicks as well as more specialized fare: Ana Kokkinos' "Blessed," a tale of the interweaving lives of seven lost youths who wander the Melbourne streets at night; stop motion animation "$9.99"; and historical drama "Van Diemen's Land."

But the paltry boxoffice share to date of local fare has fueled criticism of Australian films' ability to engage audiences.

Championing the need for niche films, Rachel Ward wrote an editorial in a Sydney paper last month: "I have a film now braving the marketplace. It does not comply with the dictates of mass marketing. It cannot compete with the marketing budgets of US studio fare. But, I believe -- and my distributors and funding bodies believe -- that given a fair chance, there is a healthy audience for Australian films. Uneasy, complex, unsettling ones at that. Always has been," she argued.

Nevertheless there's also audience demand for lighter fare.

Road movie "Charlie and Boots," pairing comedians Paul Hogan and Shane Jacobsen, took $800,000 ($640,000) last weekend as the highest opening weekend for a local feature this year.

Said its director Dean Murphy: "There's often a bit of a disconnect between what critics want and what audiences want.

"Often, audiences just want to go see a feel-good movie. That's the audience we've been lucky enough to appeal to."