A new day breaks for the Aussie film industry

Mark Ryan
February 03, 2010 11:00pm

THE Australian film industry is evolving. The days when government film agencies handed out millions of taxpayers' dollars for filmmakers to produce "Australian stories" with little regard to commercial returns are limited.

Arts Minister Peter Garrett and Ruth Harley, the chief executive of film development agency Screen Australia, are championing a new era for Australian film – an era in which Australian movies must attract audiences and be financially viable.

Daybreakers, the $US20 million ($23 million) futuristic vampire film shot in Queensland by local filmmakers Michael and Peter Spierig and opening around Australia today, could be the way of the future.

It is already in the black, earning almost $US30 million in the US.

Scheduled for global exhibition, its profit potential is significant, with perhaps 50 per cent of its earnings yet to come from the global DVD market.

Many Australian movies have, until recently, valued "quality" and "cultural content" over "entertainment" and "commercialism".

These include films such as Little Fish, about a recovering heroin junkie's family conflicts; Romulus, My Father, about the difficulties of migrant life in Australia during the 1960s; and Beautiful Kate, about family tragedy, secrets and incest.

Audiences for art-house films are limited. For Australian filmmakers to succeed at the local box office, they must produce mainstream movies – either blockbusters or genre movies such as sci-fi, fantasy or horror.

The most popular Australian films of the past decade have been big-budget "Aussiewood" movies produced by elite Australian filmmakers for Hollywood studios, such as George Miller's Happy Feet, which grossed more than $US380 million, and Baz Luhrmann's Australia, which earned $US211 million.

In contrast to these blockbusters, which are well beyond the reach of most Australian filmmakers, Daybreakers has a mid-range budget.

This is increasingly achievable for established Australian filmmakers.

The producer offset tax incentive, introduced in 2007, has created the possibility of more local films with budgets of $20 million to $30 million.

Although horror movies are not for everyone, Daybreakers embraces a popular genre with global, mainstream appeal, and can be strongly marketed by major distributors worldwide. It also builds on a proud tradition of Australian horror movies including Wolf Creek, Undead, Razorback and Patrick, which have achieved worldwide popularity.

Daybreakers is led by high-calibre international actors Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Kiwi/Australian Sam Neill, supported by national stars Claudia Karvan, Isabel Lucas and Vince Colosimo, giving it strong star-power. But it was written, directed and produced by Australians and partly financed by Australian money.

The movie is an inspirational model for young filmmakers. The Spierig brothers borrowed money from friends and family to create their low-budget Aussie zombie film Undead, released in 2002, without government support.

Seven years later, their second feature has propelled them on to the international stage, and has allowed them to set up their own company, Blacklab Entertainment.

If the Australian film industry is to reach mainstream audiences – and increase its relevance – then filmmakers need to take greater notice of genre movies and the possibilities they create within the financial restraints of the local industry.

Daybreakers is a prototype for how this can be achieved.

Dr Mark Ryan is a researcher and lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology and has completed a PhD thesis on Australian horror films

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