Film biz should give Down Under a leg up

SYDNEY — This ebullient, sports-crazy city is all but bursting with anticipation over the upcoming Olympics. The process of evicting the homeless from the streets, always the penultimate pre-Olympics ritual, even commenced last week.

Shift the dialogue from sports to film, however, and you tap into a different mood. Australian movies, which seemed to be constantly breaking new ground only a few years ago, have been hit by a double whammy.

On the one hand, they are getting a cold shoulder from distributors in the U.S. Further, their best and brightest filmmakers and actors have brain-drained themselves off to Hollywood.

Audiences have been looking to Oz for the next “Shine” or “Strictly Ballroom” or “Muriel’s Wedding,” but they have not been forthcoming — at least not thus far.

Australia is represented by no fewer than nine new films at this week’s Toronto Film Festival, so the drought’s not for lack of trying. The product is there; the impact isn’t.

Several theories have been advanced to explain this malaise — misdirected government subsidies, poor marketing, a creative letdown — but all agree the country deserves better.

THIS IS A LIVELY, AFFLUENT NATION — its wealthiest denizen, Kerry Packer, reportedly dropped $20 million last month in a three-day Vegas binge — that is rapidly overcoming its g’day stodginess as well as its monochromatic ethnic base. Suddenly, Asian faces are seen as frequently Down Under as those old-boy Aussies, even though the country’s population is still less than China’s annual population increase.

Though they are hardly cure-alls, Australia’s film industry clearly would be bolstered by the sort of initiatives Sony is applying to Germany and Miramax to Italy. These companies are quietly stoking indigenous furnaces, helping local filmmakers develop projects as well as supplying financing and marketing know-how.

These are not formal initiatives with bureaucratic names but rather ad-hoc entrepreneurial efforts aimed at encouraging viable local product — product that might even cross boundaries. The international filmmaking community would benefit greatly from an expansion of these programs –especially Australia’s faltering industry.

As capital from around the world pours into Hollywood — look at what the French and Germans alone are investing — it would be propitious for Hollywood to launch a sort of Marshall Plan to stimulate global cinema.

Such an initiative would be aimed not at increasing Hollywood’s already dominant marketshare, but rather stimulating the production of movies that would travel.

AS IN GERMANY AND ITALY, these funds would inevitably relieve the dependency on government subsidies, thus opening the door to more exotic mixes of creative elements. It would also require other adjustments — Australia’s distribution oligarchy would have to create a more equitable division of box office receipts, for example.

To be sure, this would inevitably permit some Hollywood input into the filmmaking process. Some Aussie director may receive an occasional e-mail arguing that a particular scene might be a turn-off to Americans.

The advice sometimes may even be worth taking. The upshot, it is hoped, would not be a Hollywoodization of indigenous product but rather the emergence of a truly international cinema. Given the fact that capital is flowing into Hollywood from around the world, it’s time for a little payback.

The French, having long complained of Hollywood’s cultural imperialism, are about to formally take over Universal, insisting that they are just redefining globalism. While everyone’s redefining things, perhaps it’s time to redefine the re-definitions.

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