High caliber projects face bad B.O. history

SYDNEY — The fortunes of the Australian domestic industry are looking up, as federal funds flow into the production of at least 22 pics skedded to be released in the next 12 months.

Among them is Fox’s “Australia”; Roadshow’s Bruce Beresford-helmed “Mao’s Last Dancer,” from the producer and writer of “Shine”; and “Mary and Max,” the feature debut of Oscar-winning clay animator Adam Elliot.

The creative team that made AFI-winning drama “Look Both Ways” has regrouped for “My Year Without Sex.” Jane Campion’s John Keats love story “Bright Star” is toplined by Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw, and Anthony LaPaglia has returned to Oz for Robert Connolly’s dramatization of the 1975 murder of five Australian journalists, “Balibo.”

The number and caliber of the titles is remarkable given the difficult financing climate and upheaval in the Oz biz, resulting from a series of reviews and structural changes to federal coin agencies.

But industryites are now nervous that the dismal track record of recent Oz biz will mean these new titles — big studio pics like “Australia” notwithstanding — won’t get the push they deserve.

Two more high-profile Oz pics fell foul of auds recently: Roadshow’s stunt-filled actioner “The Square,” toplined by Joel Edgerton and helmed by his brother Nash, grossed just A$149,000 ($120,000) in its opening weekend on 51 screens, then vanished. Mark Hartley’s well-reviewed retrospective of Australian schlock “Not Quite Hollywood” took just $80,000 from 47 screens last week before tumbling out of the top 20.

A showcase of Oz pics at last week’s Australian Intl. Movie Convention profiled 20 of the new movies.

Neither film distribs nor exhibs wanted to be quoted dissing the domestic biz, but some asked why Fox didn’t screen “Australia” at the Australia on Show event funded by fed coin agency Screen Australia.

Fox is pinning its worldwide box office ambitions for the last quarter of this calendar year on “Australia,” and the audacious optimism that accompanies any Baz Luhrmann project, observers say, could have buoyed the local industry had it been included.

Footage screened the following day by an enthusiastic Hugh Jackman energized exhibitors that had been nervous about “Australia’s” commercial prospects.

Likewise, many of the 800 conference delegates were impressed by early footage from the adaptation of Li Cunxin’s bestselling autobiography “Mao’s Last Dancer.”

That pic was partly funded by Oz taxpayers, shot mostly Down Under by Beresford, produced and written by the “Shine” team and features Australians in and behind the camera.

When Roadshow and Cunxin launched the movie within Roadshow’s convention presentation, the studio neglected to mention it was Australian.

Not by design, says Roadshow marketing manager Phil Oneile, “We’re not shying away from the fact the film is Australian.”

Like “Australia,” “Mao’s Last Dancer” wasn’t included in Australia on Show, but according to Oneile only because footage was not ready.

Fox marketing manager Mark Wooldridge said “Australia” was left out of proceedings after a discussion with organizers in which “we both agreed the forum was better suited to the smaller independent movies.”

Biz now awaits arrival in November of New Zealand Film Commission topper Ruth Harley, who’s been tapped to top Screen Australia.

Screen Australia is due to have an expanded marketing brief, which, coupled with Harley’s avowed passion for the nexus between pics and auds, cannot come too soon.

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