Australian cinema is in deep trouble, and not even Magda can save it

Australian cinema is in serious trouble, although you wouldn't necessarily know it from the most recent annual box-office round-up.

The figures released last week showed Australian box office totalled $1.2 billion in 2017, a drop of roughly 5 per cent from the previous year but still the third-highest result ever (after 2015 and 2016).

As late as November, some players were predicting a 10 to 12 per cent year-on-year drop, so the total - helped by the $50 million or so Star Wars: The Last Jedi added in just two weeks - was not too shabby after all. As Motion Picture Distributors' Association of Australia boss Lori Flekser says, "film is a cyclical business, and it would have been a miracle if it had gone up again in 2017".

Even Australian releases seemed to fare well, at first blush at least. Their $49.4 million was 4.1 per cent of the total. In 2016, they managed just $24.1 million, for a 1.9 per cent share.

Drill down into the figures, though, and you'll find the true state of affairs is cause for concern rather than congratulations.

While there are more screens (2210) than ever before, attendances are on the slide. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but it's likely there were around 85 million cinema visits last year - down from 91.3 million the year before (the figure is arrived at by dividing total box office by average ticket price, which is around $14.13). Frequency of visits, which peaked at 11.3 in 1996, now sit around 8.5 a year.

We are going to the movies less often despite the fact we now have, in theory at least, more choice than ever before.

According to the MPDAA, there were 697 new-release films on our cinema screens last year - and that doesn't include festival releases, re-releases and carry-over titles (typically those films released on Boxing Day of the year prior).

But in truth, our choices aren't as great as those figures would suggest. According to Screen Australia, blockbusters - defined as movies released on 400+ screens - accounted for 4.5 per cent of releases in 2017 but they took more than half (50.9 per cent) of the box office dollars. Wide-release movies (200-399 screens) accounted for a further 9.1 per cent of releases and 35.4 per cent of revenue.

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In other words, our screens are hogged by Hollywood action-adventure, superhero, fantasy (like Disney's chart-topping live-action Beauty and the Beast), and animated family films, with the result that the top one-seventh (14 per cent) of new releases took a whopping 86?? of every dollar at the Australian box office.

And that left the rest - about 600 movies in all - fighting over the scraps.

For anyone who still clings to the idea that our cinemas should find space for adult-oriented and/or home-grown fare, this is terrible news.

There is a clear (though not guaranteed) correlation between number of screens and box office success. Fifteen of the top 20 films last year were "blockbuster" releases; the other five were "wide". For smaller releases, it is now becoming so hard to find screens that many are doomed to underperform from the outset.

As a general rule of thumb, the narrower the release, the smaller the spend on advertising and marketing and the lower the likelihood of audiences even being aware of a film's presence, let alone of being persuaded to give it a shot.

This dynamic is especially acute for Australian movies, 55 of which (including feature documentaries and event screenings) made it to the cinema in 2017, according to the MPDAA. But only four of the new releases made it onto more than 100 screens. The vast majority were shown on fewer than 20.

Nicole Kidman and Sunny Pawar in Lion.

Nicole Kidman and Sunny Pawar in Lion. Photo: supplied

Lion, which had the widest release of any Australian film (more than 250 screens), was the biggest local film of the year, taking $29.5 million. Next was Red Dog: True Blue, which was released in December 2016 but took most of its $7.54 million in 2017. Three more titles passed $2 million (Jasper Jones, Dance Academy, the documentary Mountain) but only one more (Ali's Wedding) topped $1 million.

Take Lion out of the equation and it would have been a dismal year financially (though not artistically: Killing Ground, Berlin Syndrome, Hounds of Love, Whiteley, Hotel Coolgardie, The Go-Betweens: Right Here and many others had plenty to offer audiences, if only they could find them).

The release-return correlation isn't a guarantee, of course. Ben Elton's Three Summers went out on more than 100 screens but took just $792,000. At the other end of the spectrum, Hounds of Love was on just seven screens, but its $209,000 gave it a better per-screen average than many bigger films. Remarkably, Jennifer Peedom's documentary Mountain topped $2 million off just 36 screens nationally.

Not even Magda Szubanski could convince people to flock to Ben Elton's Three Summers.

Not even Magda Szubanski could convince people to flock to Ben Elton's Three Summers. Photo: David Dare Parker

What all this points to is a massive constriction of opportunity for smaller-release movies in our cinemas. And that's especially bad news for Australian filmmakers (and not much comfort for fans of indie fare from America, Britain and the rest of the world either).

For small-release movies, the competition has never been so great. Screen Australia's analysis suggests just under 83 per cent of all films released in 2017 - about 580 films - slugged it out for a combined 9 per cent of the box office. It's a miracle, perhaps, that Australian cinema registers at all.

What's more, that 9 per cent is increasingly fought over by films that are targeting audiences that a decade or two back didn't even exist: Chinese-language cinema accounted for around $14 million; movies from India for more than $24 million; special event screenings (live theatre, ballet, Doctor Who telemovies on the big screen) for almost $6.5 million.

In truth, many of the Australian movies getting a cinema run do so only because they are obliged to as a condition of receiving the producer offset. It's a requirement that has, in recent years, been forgivingly interpreted, and at least one of the content reviews underway in Canberra will surely recommend that it be significantly amended, if not dropped entirely. That would free the way for many titles to focus on digital release strategies, a cheaper and potentially more effective approach.

There are of course people who will claim that Australian movies struggle because they are no good, and it's true that not every Australian movie is worth seeing. But here's the counter-argument: Fast and Furious. Enough said.

Bryan Brown and Sam Neil ought to help give some broad appeal to Warwick Thornton's Sweet Country.

Bryan Brown and Sam Neil ought to help give some broad appeal to Warwick Thornton's Sweet Country.

Right now, you could go to the cinema to see Warwick Thornton's excellent outback Indigenous western Sweet Country, a film that speaks directly to the Australian experience and which has been racking up awards internationally. It's on 72 screens nationally, a decent, though far from massive, release.

Alternatively, you might prefer to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a movie that will surely go down as one of the more so-so entries in the ever-expanding franchise. It opened last December on 970 screens - almost half of the available space in the country - and has so far taken more than $56 million locally, and almost $US1.3 billion ($A1.6 billion) globally.

The choice is yours. But, one has to wonder, for how much longer?

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This story Australian cinema is in deep trouble, and not even Magda can save it first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.