No upside Down Under

Biz mulls hands-on development as two more pix go pffft

SYDNEY — Many industry execs believe the traditional system of developing, funding and distributing Australian films is broke. Now they’re searching for innovative ways to fix it.

Production levels are plummeting, and Aussie films are struggling not only to rack up sales overseas, but to draw audiences at home. The industry’s sorry local run continued with soft openings Aug. 14 for “Take Away” and “The Night We Called It a Day.”

“There is a crisis looming as to how we make and finance films in Australia,” says Brian Rosen, chief exec of the Film Finance Corp., the primary funding agency that backs 11-12 pics annually.

“Night” had a high profile thanks to topliners Dennis Hopper (as Frank Sinatra), Melanie Griffith and Joel Edgerton, and a hefty campaign from distrib Icon, but didn’t connect with the multiplex market.

“We worked our butts off for three months, and it’s all come to nothing,” laments Icon CEO Mark Gooder. “Exhibitors supported and believed in the film. It really deserved better.”

“Take Away,” a comedy featuring Vince Colosimo and Stephen Curry, joins a list of underachieving laffers this year that includes “Danny Deckchair,” “Bad Eggs” and “Horse Play.”

Beyond Films, which has international sales rights to “Take Away,” launched the pic at this year’s American Film Market with little success.

“The lack of a really big Oz pic to emerge internationally has corresponded with a surfeit of local productions that have predominantly focused only on the domestic market and are therefore bereft of international potential,” says John Thornhill, who left Beyond Films last week after 11 years as marketing manager to seek greener pastures.

Thornhill adds that the slump has resulted in lower expectations for Australian films from foreign buyers.

At a film industry forum at the Australian Intl. Movie Convention Aug. 13, distribs and financiers agreed the chief culprits for the industry’s plight are lack of diversity in stories and insufficient script development.

The 22 Oz films released locally last year grossed A$42 million ($27.3 million), repping a 5% market share, and only half bowed on more than 30 screens.

Rosen regards the crucial weakness in the industry as a lack of accountability for everyone involved in the process of developing, financing, producing and releasing films.

“After 15 years, the FFC has to re-evaluate whether the old model (of equity funding, divorced from development) is working, and whether or not the FFC should become more hands-on,” he tells Variety.

The industry acknowledges new approaches are needed. Jennie Hughes, exec VP of Macquarie Filmed Investments, says producers should work more closely at an early stage with international sales agents on script and cast.

“Agents have a vast amount of market knowledge that could assist producers in making a film more accessible to the international market without compromising its ‘Australianness,’ ” adds Hughes, whose banner co-funded hit “Crackerjack,” as well as some of the poorly performing laffers.

Macquarie is spending more time helping its producers to polish scripts, and Hughes suggests filmmakers collaborate with local distribs to ensure marketing campaigns are more creative.

Thornhill urges principal investors and sales agents to take an option on a first-time director’s next project, noting, “Otherwise history will repeat itself and new, successful talent will be lost to the U.S.”